Renowned journalist Carl Bernstein will come to the University Friday March 21 in Page Auditorium to discuss his journalism career and experiences breaking the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The Chronicle‘s Elizabeth Djinis spoke to Bernstein about the changing nature of journalism in the digital age and the ways our society consumes media.
The Chronicle: What made you decide to come to Duke to speak?
Carl Bernstein: Quite honestly, I’m represented by a speakers bureau and I love speaking, especially to students, and they said ‘Hey, there’s an event at Duke’ and I’d love to do it.
TC: Given your young start, what do you think originally pulled you to journalism?
CB: Well, I went to work when I was 16 years old as a copy boy at the Washington Star and I’m actually writing a memoir about my five years at the star from age 16 to 21. I was a 16 year old kid with the greatest seat in the country. At the time it was a better newspaper in most regards than the Washington Post, probably next to the New York Herald Tribune. I had fabulous reporters who taught me and nurtured me and there was an excitement about it the first time I walked into that newsroom for a job interview. The minute I walked into the newsroom I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
TC: President Stanley’s press release announcing your professorship at Stoneybrook University called you a “true American icon.” How do you think your reporting during Watergate fits into the larger American narrative?
CB: Obviously the Watergate reporting that Bob [Woodward] and I did was in a tradition of in a strain that runs through American reporting of trying to find out what’s really going on and we were able to find out what was really going on in a criminal presidency. In the piece that Bob and I wrote for the 40th anniversary of Watergate in the Washington Post, you’ll see how beyond what we even thought at the time Nixon’s was a criminal presidency way beyond just a break in at Watergate. And in terms of how it figures in the national narrative, a large part of our national narrative has to do with the presidency and this was an aberrant presidency. A lot of our national narrative has to do with what we call the ‘American system’ and what happens in Watergate that is so extraordinary. The whole American system worked magnificently—Woodward, myself, the Washington Post, the legislative branch magnificently did its job, the Senate Watergate committee, the House Judiciary itself did its job, the Chief Justice of the United States pulled together an unanimous decision that ordered Richard Nixon to give up his tapes, that said no one including the president of the united states cannot abide the law. Republicans by and large were the crucial factor—they gave legitimacy both to the vote for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee and Republicans, led by Barry Goldwater, told Richard Nixon that he was going to have to resign. The system worked and it might be the last time the American system worked so well.
TC: To clarify, how do you think Woodward and your experiences fit in the idea of the “American Dream”—the underdog taking down the “Man?”
BC: I don’t think this is about taking down anybody. I think Richard Nixon took himself down and again, institutionally, there was a response to his excess. We happened to be in the right place and the right time in the right institution to be able to. Our objective was to never “take him down” or anything of the kind and…the break-in at Watergate was just a small part of the huge criminal conspiracy to undermine the electoral system basis of American democracy to violate the constitution through numerous break downs. Listen to Richard Nixon on the tapes, read the section where Richard Nixon orders his assistants to fire bomb the Brookings Institution, to break into the safe, crack that safe, so this wasn’t about us bringing down the President. This was about us finding out what had happened and, again, if it figures in a national narrative or tradition or something that we were younger and that some of our more senior colleagues had been hoodwinked into believing our own nonsense how well-ordered the Nixon White House was, they could never be so incompetent or foolish or criminal as to do the things they did. But we had none of those preconceived notions as to what Nixon and his people might be willing to do.
TC: How do you think your reporting process and, in turn, writing process for Watergate would have been different in the digital age?
BC: I don’t think that if history works, I don’t think there’s any way of knowing. The only thing that I can say with any certainty is that I think the way information is received by too many people in our culture today is—instead of with an open mind and instead of looking for the best attainable version of the truth, to the extent that most people were perhaps in 1972—too many people today are looking for information to reinforce their already held ideologies, prejudices, orthodoxies, and that makes it very difficult for real reporting to be considered in a thoughtful way. I think that too much of our news today is not considered—too much of it is not generated in a thoughtful way because too much of it is aimed at satisfying people’s desires for more information about what they already believe. The problem is as great or greater at the receiving end. Our culture has the polarization that you see in Washington, it extends to our culture at large—it’s not just political, it’s social, we have a polarized country in many, many ways. Part of that polarization is a lack of willingness to…look at information in an open-minded way.
…Obviously we have a different configuration of media today because of cable news, because of all the rest, because I think the real differences lie in a reluctance of consumers information to seek out the best attainable version of the truth, [that] is really what good reporting is. The Internet has contributed to it, cable news has contributed to it, if there’s any institution that has contributed to it, I think that Fox News has disproportionately partly and talk radio. Especially. In the ’80s and the ’90s, moving into Fox News, the fact that there is so much on the Internet and on cable news that is presented from an ideological perspective is different than the configuration of information at the time of the ’70s. But, again, I think it’s a very complicated equation and you can’t just look at the media and you have to look at the people of the country who are a reflection of the media.
TC: Do you think the internet is the cause of this societal change or merely a factor that helps to encourage it?
BC: I think they fed each other but I think we are a culture that is less interested in the truth as we are, we look for easy answers that feed our prejudices and ideologies and religious beliefs and political beliefs. We are not as open-minded to the truth and not interested in seeking it out. That’s not to say a lot of people are interested in it but, in terms of a cultural norm, I would say it’s much diminished.
TC: Do you think the role of the editor has decreased in the digital age? Certainly more people consume media digitally than they used to, which perhaps takes away from the idea of an editor selecting the most important stories for a day’s paper.
BC: You have to differentiate the term “media.” It means all kinds of institutions and quasi-institutions. It means a website with four people. It means a hundred different things, whereas if you were talking about “news media” in the 1960s-’70s, you were really talking about newspapers and television broadcasts. So the definition has expanded exponentially but no, I think the role of the editor at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, is every bit as great as it was before. I think though that you also have “editors” at places like Fox or MSNBC whose job is not to produce information that meets a popular standard held by its audience rather than make decisions news values… I don’t think this is too complicated, it’s pretty easy to identify what publications and networks do serious news in the sense of the best attainable version of the truth. Now, granted, there also has been economic problems in the newspaper—and print business particularly—but I think the role of the editor is huge… I don’t see a diminish in there. And I think great editors have always been the exception, not the rule. So I don’t think we should also be nostalgic about those things.
TC: Finally, what advice do you have for any journalists starting out in the world of today’s media?
CB: I would hope that real journalists who are starting out now are young people who are interested in the best attainable version of the truth. Incidentally, I think it’s possible to even pursue the best attainable version of the truth and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t work for a magazine with a point of view that has a political outlook. But I think there’s a huge difference between being informed by a political philosophy and being bound by a political philosophy in such a way that it encourages you to obscure or ignore the truth… By and large uncommitted media—meaning institutions, newspapers, websites, broadcast and cable outlets—that are interested in the best attainable version of the truth without beginning from a particularly political or ideological point of view, I think that that’s a starting point and that the most important thing is really to understand how much work is required. If you look at All The President’s Men, the movie, it’s almost like a basic primer about what reporting is. [It is] about knocking on doors, using common sense—nothing very exotic…tough, hard slogging, and that too may have always been exceptional but it might be even more exceptional today. I think reporters also tend to be bad listeners—the most valuable thing that a reporter can do is be a good listener because I think if you allow people to talk and you get to people who you believe have information about a particular thing that you’re covering, they tell you what they believe is the truth… I think there’s a problem of reporters not being good listeners. I think again it’s about open-mindedness, hard work, common sense—those are the essential elements.
Updated: This article has been updated to include that Bernstein will be speaking in Page Auditorium.