Carl Bernstein: Still Searching For The 'Best Obtainable Version Of The Truth'
Few journalists have made a bigger imprint on American history than Carl Bernstein. Together with his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, Bernstein helped uncover the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Bernstein will visit Fresno on Wednesday April 16th to speak for the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall Lecture Series at the William Saroyan Theatre. He recently joined us on Valley Edition, where he talked about current events, America's media landscape and his career in journalism.
Here are some highlights from our interview:
Bernstein on how America's media, political and cultural landscapes have changed since Watergate:
We had a functional governmental system, and particularly a Congress, and also we also had a different culture, a political culture, a social culture in the country then. Often I see these days tremendous criticism of the press, some or much of it justified, about the way we do our job. Good reporting is really nothing more than the best obtainable version of the truth, which is a simple phrase but a difficult concept to accomplish. I think there's a tremendous amount of good reporting, but I think it's the way that reporting is received today.
Information is looked at too often through an ideological lens. So that many many people, many more than at the time of Watergate, have very little interest in the best obtainable version of the truth but rather are looking for information to reinforce their already held beliefs, prejudices, ideologies, religious notions, etcetera. They're not interested, many of them, in the best obtainable version of the truth. They're looking for ammunition to fight the cultural war. And we've had cultural war now for upwards of 30 years in this country, and it's been debilitating and it has undermined the effectiveness of our system, particularly in the Congress of the United States which is a totally dysfunctional institution. But also I think we have to look at our citizenry too, we can't just blame everything on the politicians and the media because the people have an awful lot to do with this equation by not being interested in the truth.
Bernstein on Hillary Clinton's potential 2016 presidential run, and how she's changed as a leader:
She's tremendously more comfortable in her own assertive way than she was when she was the first lady, even than when she was a senator. I think she was in many regards a terrific Secretary of State, a great ambassador around the world for this country. She was not on the inside among the president's chief policy makers in terms of decision making at the highest levels, she was much more an implementer as secretary of state. But I think she's learned a lot. Also I don't think it's certain yet that she's running. I think the odds are that she'll run but I think there are also some things that might keep her from running. We don't know, nor does she know for sure if she's going to run, though there are certainly appearances that would indicate that she is. She's older and wiser, as well as she's more enthusiastic and I think she connects with people better than she did, say 20 years ago.
Bernstein on his early career before Watergate, as a young reporter working for the Washington Star:
I went to work with a great newspaper in Washington for five years between the ages of 16 and 21, and by the time I was 19, I was a reporter for the Washington Star, a great newspaper, the afternoon newspaper. And the people that I learned from and became my teachers at that very young age, were absolutely fabulous. They were my teachers, my mentors. They recognized things in me that I probably hadn't recognized myself. It was a joyous experience. No 16-year-old kid ever had that kind of seat at the table that I can think of, from ages 16 to 21 at the capital of the United States during the Kennedy and Johnson years. I went to most of Kennedy's press conferences as a copy boy running simultaneous text back to the office.
But I come back to this idea of the best obtainable version of the truth. That's what these great reporters at the Star and editors taught me that journalism, reporting is really about. That means something about going to one source after another and continuing to be perseverant, and respecting the people you're covering. And not going into a meeting or a press conference and shouting a couple of questions and then running out of the place. It means trying to dig deep. So I learned that, and later I think it was one of the reasons that we were able, [sic] and Bob learned it too, also through some great mentors that he had. And we were lucky enough to have had that kind of mentoring and understanding of what reporters do that when this extraordinary story and opportunity was there and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, we knew to some extent what to do.
Bernstein his former editor at the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee:
Bradleee I think is the greatest editor of his time, because he had about 18 different ways of saying "go out there and get the damn story, that's your job!" And get it right, and get it in context, and keep working at it, and use common sense. Don't think you're better than anybody else, in terms of having some kind of license to be fast and footloose or untruthful in anyway. You've got to go through all the steps that are required to get the best obtainable version of the truth. He was a great motivator, with a great understanding of what the news is, almost a sixth sense about a great story and he knew how to push his reporters. Also the newsroom that he ran was hardly free tension or competition. He used to call it creative tension or creative competition, but you could see the results in the paper that he produced.
Bernstein the future of journalism:
There's no shortage of great reporting. It's about how news is received. If people are going to think that they're going to get the best obtainable version of the truth by switching between cable news channels, and particularly the committed ones - FOX News and MSNBC - they're fooling themselves. But I don't think they're fooling themselves, because I don't think those people who are glued to those channels as basic source of their news, have much interest in much beyond what they already believe, and how breaking news events fit into their ideological, political and religious beliefs to reinforce them.