Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein on journalism, Trump and history: "The truth is not neutral"

Pulitzer-winning reporter spins marvelous tales of his early years — and their strange echoes in the Trump era

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 1, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

US journalist Carl Bernstein (Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
US journalist Carl Bernstein (Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Carl Bernstein's memoir of his apprenticeship in reporting, "Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom," is on the surface a story about journalism, and about America, in a historical period that to most of us now seems long in the past. Bernstein's first job in the business came in 1960, as a 16-year-old "copy boy" for the Evening Star, at the time the No. 2 daily in Washington, D.C. (The Star ceased publication in 1981, part of a wave of newspaper consolidation that prefigured the industry-wide collapse of the internet era.) This book begins there, allowing for a bit of back story, and concludes in 1966, after Bernstein had left the Star and spent a year at the Elizabeth Daily Journal in New Jersey (a paper that, almost unbelievably, had a circulation of 50,000). He was about to return to Washington and take a job with the Star's better-known competitor — but that story is not this one.

I was both relieved and delighted to discover that "Chasing History" is not an elder statesman's nostalgic account of the Good Old Days, nor a reverse-engineered personal history of how a Great Man rose from obscurity. It's both subtler and more interesting than that, as well as an immensely entertaining read — jam-packed with famous names and juicy anecdotes — for anyone who cares about the past and future of journalism, or the lessons to be drawn from that tumultuous period of American history.

Bernstein's future employer, the Washington Post, mostly plays a role in this story as the snooty, less enterprising competitor to the Star. His future reporting partner at the Post, Bob Woodward — alongside whom Bernstein became a household name and half of the most famous investigative team in our profession's history — only appears in the acknowledgments. Richard Nixon certainly comes up, first as a defeated presidential candidate in 1960 and then, two years later, as a defeated gubernatorial candidate clear across the country in California. (Bernstein acknowledges, in passing, that his destiny and Nixon's would cross paths in the future.)

What at first appears to be a story about the past turns out, as is so often true, to be a story about the present, or perhaps an illustration of Faulkner's famous pronouncement that the past isn't dead, and isn't even past. In our recent conversation for Salon Talks, Bernstein told me that he hadn't exactly been conscious, while writing "Chasing History," that so many of the themes of his youthful career would resonate in 2022 — he made the connections at an intuitive level, which is after all what writers do. He knew his book was partly about racism and race relations, a beat he frequently covered as a young reporter and one of the Star's strengths (despite its nearly all-white newsroom, which was certainly not unusual.) One of his mentors at the paper, Mary Lou Werner — herself one of the first prominent female news reporters — had won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the racist "massive resistance" against school desegregation in Virginia.

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But Bernstein could not have foreseen how many of the "local" issues he covered as a teenage cub reporter — battles over racial issues in education, over voter suppression and false claims of voter fraud (yes, really!) or over the threat of right-wing insurrectionist violence (again, really) — would resurface in our drastically different era, clad in new rhetorical garb but reflecting the same unanswered questions that have tormented America since the beginning. He had a lot to say in our conversation, about the state of journalism then and now, about the contradictions of truth-telling in the Trump era, about the imperiled state of our democracy. (When the video was off, we debated which of us has deeper parental roots in the American left: I think it's a tie.)

I didn't even ask him about being played by Dustin Hoffman in the most famous of all journalism movies, or about his period of full-on celebrity in the late '70s and '80s, when he reportedly dated Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Martha Stewart, among other famous women. What I loved about Carl Bernstein's book was the same thing I most enjoyed about talking to him personally: the endless curiosity and the sense of discovery. You can spend your life chasing history, as he has done with illustrious results. You never quite catch up to it.

Carl, maybe the most interesting thing about this book is what it's not about. It's not about your career at the Washington Post or your partnership with Bob Woodward or the reporting on Watergate that led to "All the President's Men," both the book and the movie. It's about how you broke into this business as a teenager at a daily paper that hasn't existed for more than 40 years now. So why tell that story now?

This book is, as you indicated, about the five-year period from age 16 to 21 that I worked in my apprenticeship at probably the greatest afternoon newspaper in America, the Washington Evening Star in my native city. I'm a second-generation Washingtonian. So the book is not written from the point of view of the old man looking back: Nothing in the action of the book, except for an epilogue, says anything about the future. It ends in 1965, and it covers this amazing five-year period of my life when I go to work as a copy boy at this amazing newspaper, and for the next five years, this kid — and it's written in the voice of the kid — gets to have the greatest seat in the country.

It's remarkable. Could it happen today? Probably not. But I was able to have this apprenticeship with the greatest reporters of their day, and greatest editors, during a period of civil rights, the Kennedy presidency and assassination, the beginning of the Great Society, the beginning of the war in Vietnam, and also this kid covering cops, con men, the streets and alleyways of the capital, which is a very different city than the marble-columned halls of government, the shrines and emblems of the nation. There is an integration in the book of our lives in Washington at the time, and particularly what I was doing as a young reporter and a copy boy with all these opportunities.

It's a mix of the high and the low. That's really what reporting is, as a matter of fact. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate and "All the President's Men," but the future is never mentioned.

I think you avoid the usual pitfalls of nostalgia really well. I mean, you talk about how the Star was a great newspaper but you never strike that elegiac tone of, like, "Everything was better then, everything is worse now." 

That's very true, because it's about, again, an experience that is absolutely formative in my life, and it's told as I experienced it. So what I hope comes through the pages is the kid being open to all of these different forces, including everything I know about how to be a reporter and these people who became my family. I was by far the youngest person in that newsroom. Even when I left as a reporter at age 21, the copy boys were still older than me, or a good number of them were.

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It's also the experience of this kid in the capital of the United States, watching history in front of him, but without a recognition that these were hinges of history. The last week or month that I was at the Star, I covered the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What are we talking about today? What's the news on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times? It's about the restoration or stripping of that Voting Rights Act that I covered in 1965. So you get a sense of the country, in my five years at the Star — which bracketed the years of the Civil War, 100 years later exactly.

I grew up in Jim Crow Washington. Washington was a segregated city. I went to legally segregated public schools in the capital of the United States. I'll bet you that one-fiftieth of the people watching us right now know that the capital of the United States had segregated public schools until Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, Brown did not apply to the District of Columbia, because it wasn't a state. There had to be a separate case, Bolling v. Sharpe, which was about the District of Columbia public schools that I was in. I was in the sixth grade when our schools were finally integrated. The restaurants downtown, when I grew up, Black people couldn't eat at them. They had to stand at the lunch counters.

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I talk about the first sit-ins with my parents, who were left-wing people and were very instrumental in desegregating downtown Washington. They took me with them when I was eight, nine years old, to these sit-ins at the lunch counters and at the tea room in Woodward & Lathrop department store. A lot of the book is about civil rights, which I got to cover. The first thing I did when they made me a reporter at 19, it was a horrible, terrible thing, I was sent to National Airport to spend the day with Rita Schwerner, who was — she didn't know she was a widow yet. Her husband was Mickey Schwerner of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. At that moment they were searching for the three men in Mississippi. They were found about 72 hours after I met with Rita Schwerner, under a levee in Mississippi, victims of the horror that was going on in the South at that time. So that experience was formative, and it's an experience that was formative for the country, as well as for journalism.

The Rita Schwerner chapter is extremely moving. I think every journalist should read that. You talk about what you realized when writing that story: There's a crucial difference between a story as an assembly of facts, which may be accurate in themselves, and presenting them in a context in which they make sense. That's a difficult thing to pin down, and I think you express it very well.

The line in the book — I remember reading it when I wrote it and saying, "Ah, I've been able to express this," is that the truth is not neutral. I learned that covering civil rights and I learned it particularly from Southern reporters who were covering civil rights. Among my mentors was Mary Lou Werner, the state editor of the Washington Star. She had won a Pulitzer for covering "massive resistance" to desegregation in Virginia. It's another amazing thing about the Star: When I went to work there, the head copy boy gave me a tour of the newsroom, which is described in the book, and he took me down the center aisle, on either side of which were the reporters' desks.

He told me about three of the great reporters in the newsroom, they were all women. Miss McGrory, as he put it, Miss Ottenberg and Miss Werner. All three were Pulitzer winners, two of them in the last two years. So that was what this paper was about. What I learned covering civil rights was that when you see and hear the widow of one of the three men shot to death and put under a levee in Mississippi, there aren't two sides to that story. In journalism I think we're burdened by the myth of objectivity. Being a reporter is the most subjective of acts. Why is that? Because you're choosing to define what is news, that's the primary thing.

What is news? What are you looking at? What's important? Then, going about the reporting, the perseverance, the refusing to use just one source, but going to one source after another, all the things that the movie of "All the President's Men" shows so well. You can see a straight line from this book and knocking on doors to "All the President's Men." It's about the methodology. One of the problems today in news is that the methodology, which should be preeminent and prominent and we should be using these amazing tools that we have to work more rapidly and give more depth to our stories — but the reporting, the basic reporting, has to be done the old way.

What's going on in our newsrooms today? People aren't going outside the newsroom, they're using Google, they're occasionally using the cellphone, but by and large — there are thousands of people doing what's called news in this country, and this is not about nostalgia — they don't go out of the office, they don't knock on doors, they don't develop sources. The biggest problem in journalism today: We're lazy.

I agree with you 100%. I think it's a chronic problem that is larger than journalism, right? It's a social problem, a cultural problem.

Let me stop you right there, because you just used the term "cultural problem." The other element, and this is different from the time I was at the Star, is that the big story in this country today is the culture of America. It's not what's going on in the capital, it's what's going on with people in this country, including state legislatures, including politicians, including the Capitol building in Washington, but also the people and what is on their minds and what is in their hearts and what is in their prejudices and what is in their hatreds. We are in the midst of what I would call a cold civil war, for most of the Trump years and before that. It goes back 20 or 30 years.

Trump ignited it, it's no longer cold, it's reached a point of ignition. That's where we are. We look at journalism and politics as separate entities, no. It's about the culture of this country. This book is hardly just about race, it's about covering a plane crash, it's about going to after-hours clubs in the middle of the night, it's about interviewing Barry Goldwater by ham radio, as I did the day that he was nominated to be president of the United States.

That's an unbelievable story. Share that one.

It's a funny story. I had heard that Goldwater was a ham radio operator and that he had taken his equipment out to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco with him so he could play at being a ham radio operator while he was getting nominated to be president. It was stupefying, and I said, "Maybe I could interview him by ham radio." So I got in touch with his press secretary, who thought it was a great idea. I found this ham radio operator in Arlington, Virginia, and we got on the ham radio and Goldwater says, "I'm Zero Kilowatts, this, that and the other thing."

We radioed back, "We're Wonder John Roger whatever." We proceeded to have this interview hours away from when he was nominated, it was hilarious, got on the front page. But here's the kicker to the story, and it's not in the book. Here's where you go from here to Watergate to today. Woodward and I, when we wrote "The Final Days," about the end of Richard Nixon's presidency, we went to see Barry Goldwater, who remembered this interview that I had done with him by ham radio. Goldwater was drinking a Scotch and he went and got his diary, and he told us how he and the leaders of the Republican Party, after Nixon's tapes had come out — the Judiciary Committee in the House had voted impeachment articles — now it was going to be certain impeachment and trial in the Senate. Nixon thought he could beat it, like Trump. He thought he'd be acquitted by the Senate.

Goldwater, the former presidential nominee, a conservative in his party, organized the Republican leadership to go to the White House. They sat across from Richard Nixon, and Nixon asked Goldwater, "Barry, how many votes do I have in the Senate?" Goldwater looked at him and said, "I'm not sure, Mr. President, maybe four right now. But you certainly don't have mine." At that moment, Nixon knew he was through and he resigned two days later. But the Republican Party was not ready to put up with this criminal presidential conduct. Look at the Republican Party today. Why do we have a seditious president that has been able to have a seditious movement following him? Because the Republican Party has been craven. It has been taken over by these seditious forces who are willing to do anything that Trump says should be done.

We had a coup, a conspiracy by the president of the United States to undermine the free electoral process in this country, followed and enabled by the Republican Party. You have to go back to the Civil War to have this kind of sedition, but never have we had a seditious president or a totally seditious political party. Look at what's going on now, about Jan. 6 and the investigation. A year ago, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said exactly what was true: The president was responsible for this. Now he's trying to conspire to shut down a legitimate investigation of this sabotage of democracy, of this sedition.

Recently we saw two members on the House floor, two Republicans who were wiling to go onto the floor during the talk about the Jan. 6 insurrection. Who were they? Liz Cheney and her father, the former vice president, exercising his privileges as a former member of Congress. Astonishing. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate. I just never make the connection out loud.

I definitely agree that the kind of training and rigor you write about in this book is more difficult to find these days. I tell younger reporters that there's a big difference between your personal opinion, which should not play a role in reporting, and the historical and social context that's necessary to understand an issue, to telling the truth. The term I use is "rational inference," meaning things that we can reasonably conclude based on the evidence. A lot of people don't understand how to walk that line.

Well, here's the other difference between the period when I worked at the Star and even at the Washington Post and today. I don't know the exact percentage, but certainly huge numbers of people, maybe most people in this country, are looking for news and information to reinforce what they already believe.

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So the same bifurcation that we have in the country, the same polarization, exists in terms of consumption of news. It's a horrible thing. At the time I'm describing in this book, at the time of Watergate, most people were open to the best attainable version of the truth, the complexity of the truth. That's not the case today. Going back to the point about how this is cultural, not political, we have a culture where a huge percentage of our people is not interested in truth. This is a sea change.

Were you conscious when you were writing the book that it wasn't just about the '60s, that it was also about today? I mean, a lot of it is about race relations, about voting rights. You even write about the emergence of right-wing violence, such as around civil rights. That feeling kind of snuck up on me: In a lot of ways, this book is not about the past.

Not while I was typing, but after. One of the things that happens, if you're a writer, not just a reporter — one of the great things I got to do at the Star was study some of the greatest writers for newspapers in America. Mary McGrory comes to mind, but there were many others. There was a rewrite man, who as I describe him, could make the words jump like trout. I studied these people and how they wrote and how they reported. There was a guy named John Sherwood who would ply the Chesapeake Bay in his sloop and find these islands where the oystermen still spoke almost in Elizabethan dialect, and write these rhapsodic pictures. Every year at the beginning of oyster season, he would use the same lede: "Behold the succulent bivalve."

I actually shared that with Salon's staff this morning. Completely irresistible.

So when you write, and this is true sometimes even when you're just writing on deadline, but it's really true when you're writing a book, you don't know. You're in a different place when you're writing, and then you look at the paragraph or the sentence and you say, "Oh, my God." There are times when I was doing that in this book and I would say, "That's Donald Trump." You see these resonances, and that is also what reporting is about. So the book does this jumping trick, maybe. Did I set out to do the jumping trick? No, it happens with the writing.

Before we end, let me briefly tell you a Washington Star story, although it's before your time. On the wall behind me I have a picture of my mother that was published in the Star, I believe in 1946. She was leading a march to the White House against the Ku Klux Klan. She's got heels and a summer dress on and she's wearing a placard that says, "Outlaw the Ku Klux Klan." If you're wondering whether she was connected to an infamous left-wing movement, as I know your family was, the answer is absolutely yes.

Wow. Well, you know, my father was a union organizer, my parents were members of the Communist Party in the '40s, the book mentions that. Obviously there is a commonality in your mother's story.

It seems very likely they knew each other. My mother was a union organizer at the time too, and her husband was a reporter for the Daily Worker.

Really? You might even have more serious left-wing credentials than I do, from childhood. There's a key paragraph in this book when I describe what I do as learning about the best obtainable words, and the truth in this paragraph comes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the realization that the Star and reporting were a refuge for me from the discomfort I felt in ideology. My parents, even though they were left-wing people, my father actually detested ideology. He would call people in the party, for instance, "trolley car guys," because they followed a line.

Remember, the Star was the conservative paper in Washington. The Post was the liberal paper. My father got me an interview at the Star because his union was the United Public Workers of America, the government workers' union, and the Star had covered a strike by his union with great fairness. The Post had a government columnist who was a red-baiter, and covered the strike looking for subversion, rather than covering the fact that government workers at government cafeterias and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing couldn't get a dollar an hour.

So my father got me an interview at the conservative Washington Star, which — in those days, the joy we took in beating the Washington Post and being a better newspaper was part of the esprit of the newsroom. We were a better paper than the Post partly because the line between church and state, between opinion and reporting, was absolute at the Star. It was not at the Washington Post, until Ben Bradlee got there and said, "Enough of this. We're here to report the news." Does that part stay in the interview, I hope?

Of course it does. That's a great story.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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