Bernstein on politics past, present
For many in the audience it was the proverbial “blast from the past,” the past being President Nixon, Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein. What brought it all back to the packed audience in the Moravian College gym on Oct. 24 was the presentation by this year’s Cohen Arts and Lecture speaker, Carl Bernstein. It was Bernstein and Bob Woodward, his colleague at the Washington Post, who broke the Watergate scandal that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation.
Prior to his employment at the Washington Post, Bernstein began his journalism career as a copy boy at the Washington Star. It was there that he learned the lesson “that has been the underpinning of my career. The press exists for the public good” and “the job of journalists is to give readers the best attainable version of the truth.” This, he said, is no longer a priority for many publications.
He bemoaned the fact that the press often deals in sensationalism, name calling, and easy answers to questions. As he put it, “facts strung together are not necessarily truth.” Bernstein blamed the current state of affairs, at least in part, on the fact that during the primary stage of the recent presidential election there was not a single biographical presentation about the candidates. The press failed to do the necessary digging on each candidate. Voters, he argued, also share responsibility for this state of affairs inasmuch as they they are looking for news and information “to buttress what they already believe instead of being open to factual information.“
Bernstein contrasted the current state of affairs with those that prevailed at the time of Watergate. Back in 1974 both parties agreed that Nixon needed to leave office. In fact, Senator Barry Goldwater, who, like Nixon, was a Republican and had been a supporter of the President, went to the White House to urge the president to resign. The next day President Nixon did so. Today, Bernstein declared, the system isn’t working; we are gridlocked. President Trump has repeatedly asserted that “the free press is the enemy of the people. Untruth by the President of the United States is the enemy of the people,” Bernstein asserted. He went on to say that during the presidential campaign Trump appealed to bigotry and ugly nativism.
On a positive note, Bernstein pointed to what he sees as a “renaissance in journalism.” We are seeing some reporting on the President by outstanding publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and several other newspapers. Contrary to the assertions of the President, Bernstein declared that the press is producing real news, not fake news. Consequently, President Trump has not succeeded in covering up the truth. The Washington Post he said, is trying to get at the truth. “Who is Donald Trump, what has he done, and what did he do during the campaign?”
During the question and answer session which followed his presentation, one audience member asked what advice Bernstein would have for someone aspiring to be an investigative reporter. Bernstein replied that “before you get your foot in the door, be a good listener.” Respect the person you are hearing from. Most stories are complex, he said, so give people a chance to speak. “Don’t ask questions that will bring a provocative response” and “hone your skills.”
When asked by another member of the audience what Bernstein thinks of the current Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, he said that “Pompeo has demonstrated in troubling ways his fealty to Donald Trump,” and some in the CIA worry about it.
Another attendee asked about the way forward to promote dialogue between the two sides of the political spectrum. Bernstein responded that a “cold” civil war in the nation has been thirty-five years in the making and includes racism and sexism. He declared that he is “not optimistic about where we’re going.” He expressed the belief that there should be compulsory national service for young people, but not necessarily military service. Work in a hospital or do some other kind of public service “that will expose you to people who are very different from you.”
Another audience member wanted to know what happened in the last election when there was an almost universal belief that Clinton would win. In response Bernstein commented that people often lie to pollsters. Moreover, he asserted that Clinton “couldn’t be persuasive” and that “she made many mistakes.”