“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 31, 2002, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is one of America’s best-known journalists and authors, Carl Bernstein. Great to have you here.
Carl Bernstein: Good to be here.
Paulson: You know, I’ve read quite a bit about you, and there’s been a great deal written. What I’ve enjoyed reading particularly is the descriptions of Woodward and Bernstein, who they are in the, in the history of journalism, and one of my favorites, especially considering some of your rock critic roots, is, the City Paper in Washington described you as “the Lennon and McCartney of journalism.” Would that make you Paul or John?
Bernstein: Interesting. I think John.
Paulson: That’s a good choice. Are you surprised that — I mean, it was an extraordinary story, tremendous impact, obviously, but 30 years on, it is absolutely what you are best known for and it’s what people want to talk to you about. Has it surprised you the staying power of that whole episode?
Bernstein: Not really. I think that its impact was so huge on the country that, understandably, people want to talk about it. It’s an experience that, that seared the national consciousness. And it continues to reverberate, because these tapes of Nixon’s keep coming out that show that it was even worse than we thought at the time. So that obviously people want to talk about it.
Paulson: You know, it’s kind of a mixed bag. You argue, and you’ve written forcefully about the need for journalism of substance. And, and yet, 30 years on, you get asked about Deep Throat on every one of these shows. If you were a young journalist today, is that a story you would chase? Do you think there’s any importance today in knowing who Deep Throat is?
Bernstein: Yeah, I think it’s a legitimate story. Because I think it’s of real historic importance in terms of understanding part of the story itself and in terms of understanding the journalism of it. So, I think it’s a legitimate story, and we are going to reveal his identity upon the death of the individual known as Deep Throat.
Paulson: Can you think of another story where the source has become as big as the story?
Bernstein: No, probably, probably not. But the whole Watergate experience — both journalistically and in terms of the country — is sui generis. And that’s one more example of it. I mean, one of the things about the journalism of Watergate is, is that it’s, it’s the only episode in our history nationally in terms, in terms of the White House where really what we know largely we know not from documents within the White House but we know from outside through, through journalism to a large extent.
Paulson: We compared notes a little earlier, and we are both of an era in which there were actually typewriters —
Paulson: — in newsrooms. And saw the rolling in of those cathode ray terminals that —
Bernstein: I actually did not. I was, I was — I had left the Washington Post by the time the first — they were still using typewriters when I left in ’77.
Paulson: I was tempted to leave when they rolled those computer terminals in. And you started at a remarkably young age: 16.
Bernstein: Sixteen, at the Washington Star.
Paulson: And, and you had to have a romantic sense of the business. Weren’t you just excited to be walking into a newsroom at age 16?
Bernstein: Oh, I mean, I think the most indelible day of my life is the day I first walked into the newsroom of the Washington Star, which was a huge bull pen with about, you know, 100-something reporters and their typewriters clacking and people yelling, “copy” and straight out of the front page. And I grew up in that newsroom. I worked there for four years, and it was like a family. And it was a great newspaper. It was a better newspaper than the Washington Post at the time. This was 1960 and the beginning of the Kennedy years.
Paulson: What did they see in a 16-year-old? I know there are always — there’s always room for copy boys and rewrite kids.
Bernstein: I could type. Actually, it’s really true. The smartest thing I ever did in my life is, I got sick of taking shop with the boys, so I took typing with the girls. And —
Paulson: That opened it up, huh?
Bernstein: That’s right. No, actually, I think they did see some, some talent that I had. And one of the great things about the Star was, they nurtured young, young people. And even though I was a few years younger than the next youngest, they let me cover things gradually, and I became a dictationist, meaning that I sat with a headset on and took the dictation of reporters calling in their stories, including David Broder’s story from Dallas.
Paulson: You have to talk about that.
Bernstein: I remember it indelibly. I mean, David dictated: “Two priests walked out of Dallas Memorial Parkland Hospital at 2:34 p.m. today and announced, comma quote, ‘The president is dead.’”
Paulson: You had to be trembling.
Bernstein: I was. And I misspelled hospital my hands were shaking so much.
Paulson: An entire generation —
Bernstein: And then I went up to Capitol Hill to try and find — they sent me up to Capitol Hill to try and find Speaker McCormick, who, of course, was the next in line. And he was down under some desk, hiding, you know? They didn’t know if it was a conspiracy. They didn’t know.
Paulson: And there are truly moments in a newsroom where you feel like you are the center of the universe or whatever’s happening in it. And it’s a very special feeling. The — there’s a generation that I — exposed to “All the President’s Men” — and decided that this was a pretty glamorous profession. But in 1960, there were other journalists depicted in other ways. I mean, Humphrey Bogart in “Deadline USA.” Did you have a role model? Did you see something that inspired you to be a reporter?
Bernstein: Um, Maybe Izzy Stone, I.F. Stone from “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.” But mainly the people at the Star. There were great reporters at the Star. This was a great newspaper. At the time, the Washington Post had, deservedly so, a reputation to some extent for slanting stories, and it did, particularly in its local coverage. And, and the Star really had the best of old-fashioned journalistic, play-it-straight values. And it had some great reporters as well as some real characters straight out of the front page.
Paulson: They’ve outlawed characters now in newsrooms.
Bernstein: Yes, there are no longer characters allowed in newsrooms.
Paulson: They’re not permitted.
Bernstein: They have rogues in newsrooms right now.
Paulson: There’s no smoking, no drinking, and no cussing. So from those — that beginning — what an extraordinary beginning. ‘Cause you saw America’s newsrooms as they — at their most vibrant, really. And, and —
Bernstein: When I went to work at the Washington Post, I thought I was going to work for an insurance company. I really did.
Paulson: And, and your career moved pretty quickly. I mean, you had a head start like very few people have had. Did the Post recruit you?
Bernstein: No, no, not at all. Because I have no college degree. And so I was the only reporter, I think, at the Post with no college degree. Or maybe there was one other who was about 65 years old or something. And, no, between the Post and the Star, I went to work in New Jersey for a small paper, the Elizabeth Journal, in a terrible town. But it was great experience. I was there for a little over a year. And I was able to do everything that you can do in a newspaper. And on the strength of that and the fact that the Post knew me from the Star, they hired me despite the absence of a college degree.
Paulson: This show is about the First Amendment, and I’m really pleased to be able to talk to you about the state of a free press. But I have to tell you, I really enjoyed another publication about the First Amendment, your book, Loyalties, about your parents’ experience during the McCarthy era. Your mother ended up having to take the Fifth Amendment. She was a civil rights activist, fought for integration of lunch counters, I guess, in Washington, DC, and your father was a union organizer —
Paulson: — active in the labor movement. Did that kind of environment – a very idealistic environment – drive your impulse to be a journalist at all?
Bernstein: I don’t know if it — no, I don’t think it drove my, my impulse to be a journalist. I think it has informed my beliefs about what is important in terms of the country and in terms of, particularly, the First Amendment. But what my father did — I think the most significant thing in his working life that he did is, he defended people who had been accused of disloyalty to the government before these draconian loyalty review boards that had been established during the Truman Administration, which really was the first overt act of McCarthyism in our history. And, I mean, it goes right to the question of the First Amendment and that of, you know, free speech and of free association. And he won most of those cases, though the lives of most of those people were already ruined by having been accused of disloyalty. And, obviously, you know, it’s a term that reverberates today.
Paulson: Every young man or woman at times, you know, questions what their parents do for a living. Did you ever just go, “Mom, dad, can’t you just do something that doesn’t lead the FBI.”
Bernstein: Sure. Oh, no, absolutely. No, I rebelled against it. I mean, I did not like the fact that my parents were of the left. There was a period there that I didn’t like it at all. And I was pretty rebellious about it.
Paulson: Did they — how could they explain to you as a young man what they were going through?
Bernstein: I don’t think they did too much except the one thing that I think was really inculcated was the notion of racial struggle, that whatever their politics were — and I incidentally do not subscribe to a lot of their politics or certainly their ideology. But I think there was a commitment to racial justice that they and other people of the left had, particularly in Washington, which was a segregated town. I went to segregated public schools in the capital of the United States until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown versus the Board of Education. And the companion case was the District of Columbia public school’s case. So I went with my mother, and I was on a lot of those picket lines as a kid and with black kids. I knew black kids as a child. And so I think that they explained a lot of it in terms of racial justice, and I think there, there was a lot about people on the left in the United States generally in that era, including members of the Communist Party, who, whatever their misguided beliefs about the nature of the Soviet Union and their belief that the Soviet Union was going to be some kind of miraculous place of economic parity, they certainly believed in a kind of racial equality in this country that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party did not believe in at the time. Remember the Democratic Party at the time was largely controlled by, by southern congressmen.
Paulson: You know, you’re — at the time, you were doing publicity for the book Loyalties, and you were asked then whether McCarthyism could rear its head again. And you said, “No, not in the same way.” Ten years later, a little over ten years later, we’re in a period known as the “war on terrorism.” Do you still feel like McCarthyism is not likely to rear its head, isn’t rearing its head again?
Bernstein: I don’t think McCarthyism is rearing its head. I think, though, that there is a, a complacency about the incursion of civil liberties and civil rights that is very disturbing that, as can easily happen in a period of either national emergency or perceived national emergency, there, there is an appeal to the patriotic nature of our people in which, if you have a leader or leaders, who do not care or who are not cognizant of the great danger of incur — you know, of incursion of civil liberties, that then you run some real problems.
Paulson: Well, you are a little bit more free to speak out now that you write books for a living and aren’t working on a daily newspaper.
Paulson: You have written and spoken about the Watergate era and, and particularly, its impact on the news media, and you’ve said that in the wake of Watergate, there was a frenzy of self-congratulation and also defensiveness. And there are a lot of factors involved in that, and one of the turning points was the Nixon White House and the way it responded to the press. Spiro Agnew was on the attack. They made the press the issue successfully.
Bernstein: Right. The conduct of the press became the issue rather than the conduct of the president of the United States.
Paulson: Why was that such an effective strategy?
Bernstein: Because it works and because it appeal — again, that — unless the, you know, until things become really, ah, hairy in this country, people identify with criticism of the press and usually for some pretty good reasons. You know, we don’t do our — you know, we’re like doctors, you know? You go to the doctor’s office, and 10% of the doctors in this country are great, and they, you know, save your life. Another 20% of them, you might be a little better off by the time you leave the office. Another 20%, you’re about the same, 30% a little worse, 20% of them, you’ll be in pretty rough shape. Ten percent of them will kill you. I’m not at all sure that we’re different.
Paulson: No, people want their children to marry doctors.
Bernstein: Well, that’s because they make more money.
Paulson: That’s it?
Bernstein: It has nothing to do with saving lives. But my point is that, that, that when the chips are down and when things are rough, people look to the press. And they believe in the press. And whatever those numbers are that, you know, that the press is held in more disregard than carnival operators or whatever it is at a given moment, I don’t worry too much about that because people — and also if you then ask the next question, which these pollsters never ask, which is, “Well, how do you know about the things you care about?” The answer, of course, is the press. So I, I don’t worry too much about that.
Paulson: Wasn’t there a point, though, in 1960, when you walked in, and you were going to be a reporter, that a journalist — a newsman at the time — was kind of a heroic figure. I mean, you look at movies and television of the ’50s, when Superman went into civilian garb, he was a newspaperman.
Bernstein: Well, but we never knew a thing about what he did as a reporter. What we knew was he had to put on another suit to do something.
Paulson: That’s right, but since then, I mean, I think in the wake of Lou Grant, how many heroic figures are there? I mean, there does seem to be some tarnishing of the image of a journalist as somebody who can be heroic and make a difference.
Bernstein: Well, I, I think that’s true. Look, that after Watergate, there was this huge identification with Bob and myself, with the idea of these heroic reporters. Exactly in some ways — if anything should have been taken away from the example of “All the President’s Men” — both the book and especially the movie — it’s the non-heroic aspects of it, because it’s just all about knocking on doors and a lot of shoe leather, you know? I mean, it’s not about anything exotic. And it’s not about rocket science either.
Paulson: We had Robert Redford on the show not long ago, and he talked about making the movie “All the President’s Men” and said one of the, one of the things that made him want to do it was, it says something very positive about freedom of the press but that he now has misgivings about freedom of the press. And I suppose this ties in to what you’ve called the “idiot culture,” the sensationalism. Why are we here? Why, why has the press moved in that direction?
Bernstein: One, I have no misgivings about freedom of the press. Let me, let me say that.
Paulson: I was counting on that.
Bernstein: Are there excesses? Absolutely. But is it — look, there’s one thing that makes us different than everybody else in this country. And the whole ball game is the First Amendment.
Paulson: To be fair to Redford, he wasn’t asking for the repeal or rewrite to the First Amendment.
Bernstein: But I mean — but that’s it. I mean, it really is. It’s obviously the first ten amendments to the Constitution, but really it’s the first one, and that is the basis of why we have this amazing instrument in this country.
Paulson: Do you think Americans understand the importance of a free press?
Bernstein: Yeah, I do.
Paulson: Even when they are assaulted?
Bernstein: I do.
Paulson: The sensationalism is driven by a lot of things. Ratings, money, and corporations. Can you talk a little bit about what has happened in this nation in terms of the melding of media.
Bernstein: Well, first I think you have to, to look at things historically. And that is that you’ve always had yellow journalism in this country. And it’s always been a rather important seam in, in our journalism. But you also have had a mainstream journalism in which the bottom line has been what I call the “best obtainable version of the truth.” That is no longer the bottom line. The bottom line is now the bottom line. And economics have impinged on what our purpose is so that even though it is not unreasonable to expect that a newspaper or a television station or anything else should make money, it, it has now become not about staying in business. It has become about how big those profits are gonna be and that profit margin and the expectation of that profit margin now drives most of our journalistic institutions. The great exceptions and, incidentally, the great exceptions also make pretty good money, which is to say the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, et cetera. They make pretty good money for a lot of different complicated reasons. But they’re also, you know, they are our great journalistic resources. You get — and they are, for the most part, better than they’ve ever been. And, but then you get to the rest of the — of what’s out there, and a lot of it is pretty awful. And at the same time, you also have some very good small newspapers.
Paulson: I think you make a pretty good case for community newspapers across the country. You know, you said, 1960, the Post was biased in its local coverage. The Chicago Tribune at one point described itself pretty freely as a, as a republican newspaper. And you don’t see political affiliation. You see, I think, probably more balanced community newspapers than maybe historically they’ve been.
Bernstein: Well, I’ve never thought that the, the a big problem of bias. I believe that there is bias in the news media. And I think it’s a terrible problem. I don’t think that it has to do with liberalism, as the critics say. I think it’s geographical.
Bernstein: I think there’s a huge problem that our publications and our media generally reflects an outlook from the east coast, particularly, outward and a little bit from the west coast and almost nothing in between. And, and having spent a lot of time between the two coasts, I know that the reality of this country is very different than that reflected in our media. And it’s a terrible problem. We have to do something about it because it is a form of bias. And it distorts. It creates a context that’s not real. It’s Washington-centric. It’s New York-centric. And, you know, that’s not what’s on people’s minds so much. And we need to find a way to start reflecting the reality of the country, so — but back to your question about political bias, I don’t think that’s ever been a huge problem in the press. You know, newspapers, historically, have been owned by Republican families, but the coverage has never reflected it.
Paulson: You know, we’ve got more channels, more television channels, more media than ever before. And certainly the Internet has opened up all kinds of new opportunities. And yet, on the other hand, the “idiot culture” you’ve written about, the sensationalism, gives us a different — a new level of shallowness, I suppose, in some ways. Are Americans better informed today than they were, let’s say, during the height of Watergate?
Bernstein: No, but by choice. The, the ability to be better informed is there. Anybody in this country, because of the Web, can be informed in a way they never could have been at the time of Watergate. If you want to find out — today there’s a horrible bombing in Israel. You want to find out about, about what’s going on in Israel, go to the Ha’aretz site, the English-language Ha’aretz site, and find out about that. You want to find out about what’s going on in Miami, if there’s a hurricane, go to the Miami Herald site. You want to find out great political reporting, go to the Washington Post and the New York Times site. So, you know, the Web has made it possible to create your own information network from the best sources in the world. So, there’s no excuse for anyone saying that they can’t, they can’t be well-informed. The problem is, people choose not to be, and they continue to get most of their information from particularly television news, which has gotten much worse. You know, their 22 1/2 minutes of the network news every evening, 11 of which is about diets and prescription drugs, as far as I can tell and you know, et cetera, et cetera, is — you know, it’s a shame what’s happened to the network news.
Paulson: We’ll leave the easy question for last. You’ve worked in journalism for more than 40 years. You had the joy of actually working in a place where the presses rolled and your work comes out on still probably wet sheets of paper. Will there be newspapers 50 years down the road?
Bernstein: Yeah, I see newspapers. I see that people are gonna still want to carry around something the same way they’re going to carry around books. They’re not going to read electronic books. There’s something about, you know, we like tactile things. Will they be different? Yes, they’ll be very different. One, because advertising is going to move away from newspapers I think. It’s not a very logical advertising medium anymore in a lot of respects. They’ll change; they’ll evolve. Yeah, we’ll still have newspapers.
Paulson: It’s been great to have you here.
Bernstein: Thanks, good to be here.
Paulson: Our guest has been journalist and author Carl Bernstein. Thank you for joining us today on “Speaking Freely.”
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