How to Be a Great Journalist

Question: If you were coming up today as a journalist, what medium do you think you'd be drawn to?

Carl Bernstein: I’d try to go to work for The New York Times, or The Washington Post because I still think... first of all, I mean the website of The New York Times particularly, is one of the most amazing sources of news and information I’ve ever seen.  It’s better than the paper, you can drill deeper.  I still love reading the paper, I read The Washington Post, I read The New York Times in their paper form a couple days a week, but I really look at it on the Web.  And you know, those institutions still do old fashioned reporting, and do it well.  So that would still be my first, my first choice.  

I think the main thing is to find something that gives you joy doing it.  You know?  The most fun years of my life perhaps in many regards were age 16 to 20 at The Washington Star.  Learning and becoming a reporter very young and learning this craft and being with these wonderful people. Now, whether that exists anymore, I kind... I don’t think it does.  I don’t think there’s the kind of camaraderie that there once was, but look, I think you can do great work for Vanity Fair; you can do great work for New York Magazine.  There are plenty of places to do it and it can be exciting.  I think it’s very difficult for a young person to get the kind of notice because there’s so many people involved in what’s called journalism today and as there are fewer and fewer major sources of information that draw disproportionate attention there’s a dilution and it’s harder to get noticed because readers go to more places and it was easier I think for individual journalists to get noticed 30-40 years ago.

Question: What does it take to be a great journalist?

Carl Bernstein:  Well I think one thing is, I would say, be a good listener.  I think that most journalists tend to be very bad listeners, particularly as television superseded so much in importance of what newspapers once had in terms of prominence in community which occurred in the '70s and the '80s and '90s.  A lot of reporters ran in with microphones and stuck them in people’s faces with the object of sound bytes really for the purpose of manufacturing controversy.  The real purpose of reporting, of journalism is to illuminate what is real, you know, real existential truth.  What’s going on around us?  That’s not sensationalism, that’s not manufactured controversy, that’s not—it’s about context and listening.  

You know, almost all the good stories that I have ever done, I’ve had a preconceived notion of what the story might be, and my preconceived notion has always turned out to be wrong; from Watergate to anything else that I’ve done.  It’s fine to have that preconceived notion to maybe ask some questions, but then give people to chance to answer those questions.  Don’t hammer them with your preconceived notion.  And I think that’s so much of our journalism is about that and reporters have become lousy listeners.  To me, you sit there and you wait long enough, people want to tell the truth, actually, if you give them a chance.  And to give you so much of that grey matter.  Things are not always black and white.  So I think being a good listener is something that—and I learned that very young, I’m happy to say, because I loved to find out what people want to tell me.  Let them dictate the conversation, not me.  Then if I want to say at some point, “Look why’d you put your hand in the cookie jar?”  If that’s what the relevant question is, get it in at some point.  But let’s, you know, maybe the hand was in the cookie jar, you know, for reasons I never dreamed of.  I’d like to know those reasons before I started acting... you know, we’re not prosecutors.  

And that’s the other thing in Watergate, you know, we were not prosecutorial.  We went where the information took us.  Prosecutors had a different function.  It looked like all our reporting was going to go for naught in terms of having a, you know... Nixon was reelected by a huge margin after the major stories we had written.  So if the object was at that point, if our object had been to be prosecutorial, we had failed.  But that wasn’t our object.  Our object was the best obtainable version of the truth.  I think that simple concept is – the more you ponder, “The best obtainable version of the truth,” the more you become imaginative about what that means and how to go about it and how to be fair and how to be judicious and not judicial.  And another thing is to have fun at this.  You know?  I think an awful lot of that aspect has been lost.  The fun.  This ought to be fun because you’re examining the human condition.  That’s fun.  

The other about the best obtainable version of the truth is that it doesn’t exaggerate one aspect of our culture.  For instance, the sensational, fame, you know, most people aren’t famous, yet there’s this great desire in our culture for fame, which is an important thing to write about.  And to look at, but at the same time, we need to look at how most people live.  We need to look at what’s really going on among human beings and the institutions that they interact with.

Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Be a good listener, says the legendary Watergate reporter. "The real purpose of reporting, of journalism is to illuminate what is real, you know, real existential truth." And that's about context and listening.

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