By Katie Zeck
Journalist and author Carl Bernstein wove together the themes of 9/11 remembrance, observance of Constitution Day and the shortage of news organizations committed to a national public interest during his visit to Rider last Wednesday, Sept. 11.
Bernstein used analogies from his own personal experiences as a newsman who helped reveal the truth behind the Watergate scandal to highlight these notions.
“I grew up and was educated in the newsroom at the [Washington] Star, where I worked from ages 16 to 21, by a wonderful group of people, all of them older than I was,” he said. “They understood that the press, the calling, and the reporting and journalism is also a relationship to the Constitution of the United States.”
He went on to say that despite the threat to national security by outside terrorists, an even greater threat exists in “not remembering what the Constitution is, what it grants us, the responsibilities that go with us and how it affects us in our lives today.”
This, according to Bernstein, can be seen in the ideological warfare in both politics and the media.
“I’d like to suggest that the rights that we are guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States to address our grievances have become, in our era, bent or even perverted by unequal access to those to whom we seek to address our grievances,” he said.
“Perverted by privilege, by wealth, by stealthy access, by the simple fact that the common good and the national interest are often the last considerations of our legislators.”
Bernstein expressed the opinion that the partisanship in politics has infiltrated the media, affecting the true purpose of journalists — to exist for the public good and provide readers and viewers the correct information they need to know.
“We’ve been subjected, in Congress especially, to the politics of ideology over problem solving; fiction and myth over facts,” he said. “And it now extends to the way we process and receive information too often in journalism.
“At the Star, we learned an approach to reporting that was simple, and also, at the Washington Post, it guided us in our reporting on Watergate as well,” he said. “It was to pursue what we came to call the best obtainable version of the truth. Understanding that if you did that with fairness and persistence and you weren’t lazy, people would read and process that information and use it to make intelligent decisions about their values, their community, their capital, and their country. Today, I would say that the opposite is too often the case.”
During the summer of 1972, Bernstein worked alongside Bob Woodward at the Washington Post to uncover President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the cover-ups and controversy known as the Watergate scandal. The two earned a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for their investigative work and went on to write a book about their experience titled, All the President’s Men, which was then made into a movie of the same name starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.
The belief that the press exists for the public good and not just to make money or create controversy is currently being disregarded, according to Bernstein, by some of the largest and most well-known news corporations.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about how there’s not as much good reporting,” he said. “If you’re looking for where most of the decline would be, I’d take a look at network news on television and I would say, ‘How is it that the institutions in this country with the most money do not do real reporting anymore?’ It’s because they insist — unlike the model that existed in the 1960s and even the 1950s — that the profits of the news divisions of their media companies need to be on par with the rest of the entertainment business.”
Because of this, Bernstein said, there is no commitment whatsoever to the best obtainable version of the truth on the scale with which these organizations have the ability to do because of their desire to be profitable.
“And not just in profit, but really propitious profit if you consider what we could have as citizens if a small percentage of that profit were redirected to real reporting,” he said.
In an exclusive interview with The Rider News and the Rider University Network, Bernstein re-addressed this issue and called to action any journalist who feels strongly about the lack of true journalism from these large corporations.
“I think this thing with the networks is a real disgrace, and nobody ever talks about it in our business,” he said. “I think all of us ought to be talking about it. It ought to be the largest cry from working journalists today: ‘What is wrong with the networks?’ There’s tens of thousands of journalists in this country who shouldn’t have an issue with getting up and making it an issue. I think it’s pretty easy.”
In his address, Bernstein also emphasized the public’s lack of interest in the best obtainable version of the truth.
“It’s not just a problem of the information we are providing. We have a problem with our consumers and with citizens as well, because too many are looking for ideological and partisan ammunition to reinforce what they already believe they think they know. Real existing facts become unimportant and partisan or ideological cocoons are the unit through which information is evaluated.”
Senior public relations major Holly Jennings appreciated Bernstein’s honesty about the state of journalism and the media today.
“Carl Bernstein delivered what I felt to be the most important journalism speech of all time at Rider,” she said. “His traditional viewpoints regarding journalism really resonated with me. In a world so heavily permeated with social media and half-truths, Bernstein sticks to the roots of what quality journalism should be — a continuous, unrelenting search for the best obtainable version of the truth. This was a truly remarkable speech that should be heard by all students and journalism professionals around the globe.”
Bernstein also cited different Watergate examples, that highlighted instances where partisanship and a lack of commitment to the truth were not as present in politics or the media.
When it was revealed that Nixon refused to give up the tapings of Oval Office conversations, a special prosecutor insisted on subpoenaing those tapes.
“Nixon fired the special prosecutor, but his own attorney general and deputy attorney general refused to fire the special prosecutor during what was called the ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ because they believed in the rule of law, because they believed in the Constitution of the United States,” Bernstein said.
And when Nixon needed a two-thirds vote from the Senate in the trial to be impeached, Barry Goldwater, a Republican and founder of the political conservative movement, sat down with the president, who was also a Republican. When Nixon asked him how many votes he had against impeachment in the Senate, Goldwater replied, “Maybe four, Mr. President, and you don’t have mine.”
“Those leaders believed in the Constitution of the United States, and that is why and how the system worked in Watergate without ideological or partisan excess. Compare that to what we have today,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein concluded his address with a connection back to the remembrance of 9/11.
“The great danger to free societies is darkness — that is to say governments, presidents and prime ministers who operate in excessive secrecy; who don’t want their deliberations and actions known or subjected to scrutiny,” he said. “That would be where, on this Constitution Day, on this observance of 9/11, I would hope our thoughts would go. The people who died on 9/11, if there is to be a legacy of their lives, it should be about who we are as a people — not about terrorists, not about terrorism, but about the Constitution of the United States.”