Public must demand good reporting, Carl Bernstein tells W&L audience

By Barbara Bent

It is the job of the press to give the “best attainable version of the truth,” said Carl Bernstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who helped unearth the Watergate scandal.

Photo by Barbara Bent
Photo by Barbara Bent

Bernstein spoke Friday at Washington and Lee University Friday as part of the annual Institute for Honor Symposium.

The institute, established by a bequest from W&L’s class of 1960, is a popular alumni event that hosts a program each semester. This winter’s symposium, entitled “The Press and the Presidency: The Battle for Public Opinion in War, Peace, and the Digital Age,” included talks from Bernstein, Harold Holzer of Hunter College, and two W&L professors, Toni Locy and Lucas Morel. Friday and Saturday these speakers discussed issues surrounding the media and politics, closing with a panel that reflected upon the power of the press and its duty to uphold honorable reporting.

In his Lee Chapel speech, Bernstein addressed the students in particular, emphasizing how vital it is to dig deep and be persistent when reporting on a story.

Bernstein knows that truth is often complex. He and Bob Woodward brought the Watergate scandal to light through their reporting for The Washington Post. After discovering the existence of a secret fund, Bernstein and Woodward dug deeper to uncover the massive cover-up committed by then-President Richard Nixon.

“There was the light of truth at night,” said Bernstein about their efforts in the investigation. He and Woodward worked mostly at night, interviewing Nixon’s staff after hours in the privacy of their homes.

After the stories were published, Bernstein said that the validity of The Washington Post was brought into question, not the validity of the White House.

According to Bernstein, White House representatives said in response to the Watergate story that “the sources of The Washington Post are a fountain of misinformation.”

Bernstein and Woodward turned their experience with Watergate into a book, “All the President’s Men”, which became an acclaimed movie in 1976. Bernstein also wrote “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton”, which showcases his in-depth reporting skills in a full-length book. Bernstein commented in his address that investigative reporting today exists almost exclusively in books—it is hard to find good investigative reports by news institutions.

In this age, in-depth reporting is not in high demand, he said. The public is satisfied with a more disfigured type of journalism—one that is based on celebrities, sensationalism and “manufactured controversy,” as he put it. Bernstein warned the audience of the “easy answers to tough questions” that the candidates in the current election cycle provide over and over again.

Bernstein shared wisdom from his early days at The Washington Star, where he learned that the press exists for the public good, not for making money or entertainment. According to Bernstein, the notion of the public good has been undermined by bipartisan controversy and ideological warfare. He said the nation needed in-depth, investigative reporting on each presidential candidate from the start, but the press dropped the ball.

Morel introduced Bernstein by noting that public opinion is the engine that drives American politics. During his talk, Bernstein emphasized that the president cannot live above the law, and it is the duty of American citizens to hold the media accountable for the truth. According to Bernstein, the press is taking the easy way out if they reinforce what the public already knows about candidates, and the public must raise their expectations and demand truthful reporting on all topics.