January 17, 2020

Carl Bernstein on Trump and the Current State of Journalism

Carl Bernstein at L.A. City College Photo by Ryan Torok

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein discussed President Donald Trump and the current state of journalism, among other topics, when he appeared at L.A. City College on Oct. 27.

Bernstein, who together with Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate scandal as reporters for The Washington Post, drew parallels between the current impeachment inquiry into Trump and the resignation of former President Richard Nixon in 1974. He said, “Trump’s response to a free press has been more insidious than Nixon’s. …The president himself is a danger to the security of the United States.” 

Bernstein also criticized the media landscape that has enabled Trump’s ascent. He called Fox News the “most important political force in the last 30 years,” adding that it was not a real news source. And regarding the late Roger Ailes, the former chairman and CEO of Fox News and Fox Television Stations, Bernstein said he was an “evil genius.”

The 75-year-old Bernstein, who began his journalism career at the age of 16 as a copyboy for The Washington Star, currently appears as an analyst on CNN. He has described journalism as “the best obtainable version of the truth.” Speaking at the City College event to attendees who included journalism students from the school, Bernstein said achieving that journalistic standard was “elusive in the age of social media.”

Asked by one of the students what advice he had for the next generation of reporters, Bernstein said the key to being a good reporter is listening, adding, “My experience has been people usually want to tell reporters the truth if you give them the chance.” 

He also spoke at length about reporting on the Watergate story, describing a moment in the break room at the Post with Woodward when they realized that Nixon was going to be impeached, which ultimately led to his resignation. Bernstein said their goal was to not betray any biases one way or the other but to keep their focus on reporting the facts.

“My experience has been people usually want to tell reporters the truth if you give them the chance.”
— Carl Bernstein 

He added that he and Woodward, under the guidance of editor Ben Bradlee, benefited from working at a time when editors allowed reporters to spend weeks on a single story. Nowadays, he said, too few news organizations let reporters to do that, instead concerned with feeding the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.

Following the event, Bernstein told the Journal about the role Judaism has played in his life, saying he was raised in a secular household by atheist parents who were involved with groups including the Workmen’s Circle, an organization founded in the early 20th century to support Eastern European Jewish immigrants facing a challenging labor environment upon arriving in the United States.

Declining to delve too deeply into his spiritual life, Bernstein said while growing up he was the head of his B’nai B’rith youth chapter. 

Asked by another reporter about his “rock star” status in the journalism world, Bernstein, the father of two, said it was his son Max, a guitarist for pop star Taylor Swift, who was the rock star. His eldest son Jacob is a reporter for The New York Times.

As to what keeps him going as a journalist, Bernstein said, “I like to know what’s going on. I’m curious.”