By Katie Zeck
By the age of 28, Carl Bernstein had worked as a copyboy, dropped out of college, married and divorced and — alongside fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward — broken the story of the Watergate scandal, possibly making the two men the ones most responsible for the downfall of Nixon’s presidency.
Bernstein will be giving the keynote address at Rider’s 9/11 commemorations on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater. His speech will center around how 9/11 transformed the media and how counter-terrorism policies have affected journalists’ abilities to be objective.
Throughout the summer of 1972, Bernstein and Woodward worked tirelessly conducting interviews, waiting days for phone calls, searching through bank statements and meeting secretly with Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI, at night in a parking garage in order to write almost daily stories that would inform the public of Nixon’s involvement in the scandals and cover-ups known as Watergate.
Bernstein and Woodward’s coverage of the Watergate scandal earned them a 1973 Pulitzer Prize. The two wrote a book about the story of their investigative journalism titled, “All the President’s Men,” which was then made into a movie by the same name starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.
It all started when a call came into the Post newsroom about a burglary in the Democratic National Headquarters located in the Watergate hotel and office complex.
The only two reporters who were in the office that day were Bernstein and Woodward.
“I was in the office writing a profile and I said, ‘This is a better story than the one I’m working on, I think I’d like to work on this.’” Bernstein said in the 2013 Discovery Channel documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited.
When the two found out that James McCord — a member of the CIA and the head of security of Nixon’s campaign — was one of the lead burglars, their ears perked up.
“It was apparent that something here was really rotten,” Bernstein said in the documentary.
From here, Woodward and Bernstein followed a money trail revealing that funds from the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP) were being used to commit petty political crimes that would ensure Nixon’s re-election. Today, the Watergate scandal as a whole is associated with the abuse of presidential power.
Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting and writing led to an investigation of the incident, which revealed secret tapings of Oval Office conversations that Nixon had in his possession. These recordings, once handed over to the Supreme Court, brought about the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, many of whom were a part of Nixon’s administration.
“What [Bernstein and Woodward] did was they kept Watergate alive,” John Dean, a member of Nixon’s White House Counsel, said in the documentary. “They kept it of interest and importance. Members of Congress are reading about it, the judges are reading about it, the prosecutors are reading about it, the Department of Justice is reading about it. Had they not done that, maybe there wouldn’t have been the same investigation; maybe it would have turned out differently.”
Dr. David Dewberry, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism who studies political scandals, notes that the role the duo and the media as a whole played during this time is up for debate.
“Some see the two as instrumental in keeping the scandal going in the early days when Nixon was extremely popular,” he said. “Others believe that Woodward and Bernstein were nothing without their secret FBI source. The true answer is probably in the middle.”
Aside from contributing to this historical moment, Bernstein and Woodward also influenced the future of journalism.
“Their work inspired a professionalism and detachment from sources,” Mary Matalin, a political commentator, said in the documentary. “It inspired a kind of resilience and perseverance. And what Woodward did to dig through as many months as he did to get to the meat of the matter, the source of the story, it was something novel.”
In regard to Bernstein’s topic at Rider, Dewberry briefly explained the changes that have been made to the media’s role since 9/11.
“9/11 changed the way people consumed media,” he said. “It was scary not knowing what was going on or why it was going on so close to home. The previous major news items were Y2K and an impeachment. Both of these were important but neither matched the seriousness and gravity of an attack on the nation. We needed the media not only for information but also for a sense of safety.”
Bernstein is a native of Washington, D.C. Prior to working at the Post he was a reporter at The Washington Star and The Elizabeth Daily Journal. He began working at the Post in 1966 and left in 1977 to pursue independent writing projects, including a piece on the secret relationship between the CIA and the American media during the Cold War. From 1976-80, Bernstein was married to well-known writer Nora Ephron. He worked as the D.C. bureau chief for ABC News in the 1980s, and currently he is an editor for Vanity Fair.