Carl Bernstein at Moravian College
By Emily Sangirardi '20
Asking for a show of hands, legendary journalist, Carl Bernstein, revealed both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters in the crowd on the evening of Tuesday October 24 in Johnston Hall at Moravian College.
“Whether you like Trump’s policies or not, he's aberrant,” said Bernstein. “I don’t say that as an assertion of opinion. It’s based on reportorial fact.”
About 1,300 attendees, half over the age of 55, piled into Johnston Hall at 7 p.m. to listen to one of the two journalists who broke the Watergate scandal. Bernstein, the 2017 Cohen Arts & Lecture Speaker, came to Moravian to speak about past and present journalism, the politics of today’s world, and people’s obligation to their government.
Bernstein began his career at the age of 16 as a copyboy for The Washington Star. Later, he attended the University of Maryland only to drop out after a few years, leaving him ineligible to become a formal reporter for the Star due to his lack of a degree.
In August of 1972, working at a reporter for The Washington Post, Bernstein and his partner, Bob Woodward, published a story that investigated President Nixon’s role in the break-in at the Watergate complex, the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, which took place in June of 1972. Over the next two years leading up to Nixon’s resignation, Bernstein and Woodward wrote several articles about Nixon’s abuse of power and attempt to cover up the scandal. Their work holds a place in history as one of the greatest reporting efforts of all time.
Commenting on the work being done in journalism today, Bernstein remarked, “We now are seeing a renaissance of truly great reporting, investigative reporting on the presidency of the United States,” and went on to emphasize that the primary function of today’s reporters is to provide the “best attainable version of the truth.”
His statement drew many nods from the audience as the 73-year-old speaker continued, pointing out Trump’s attempts to cover up his questionable actions by calling reporter’s stories “fake news.”
Bernstein drew parallels between the events surrounding the Watergate scandal and what’s happening today, saying Trump’s actions seek to obstruct and undermine legitimate investigation by the press. He pointed out, though, a significant difference between Nixon and Trump’s behavior, explaining that Nixon’s lying was done specifically in an attempt to cover up a crime committed, whereas Trump lies about “matters big and small.” The latter, said Bernstein, is much more dangerous. Especially given that the public does not seek out facts, as was the case prior to the election, and because people today tend to follow only the news that fits their already formed beliefs.
Bernstein described Trump’s behavior as a malignancy, but emphasized that, “It’s not the job of the press to undo any candidate or president. It’s the job of the press to report on a real existing condition or culture, on a society, a government, a sports event, an election campaign, a candidate, not to bring about the desired result of the reporter or a newspaper editor or owner or a particular faction in politics.
“We’re not prosecutors,” Bernstein continued. “We’re not moralists. We’re out there to find out what's going on and to put it out there so the people can do what they want with that information.”
"A reporter's job is to provide the best attainable version of the truth."—Carl Bernstein
Following Bernstein’s presentation, the audience was invited to ask questions. A student reporter asked for advice on how to get a foot in the door in the journalism profession.
“I think the real question is rather than where would you get your foot in the door, what do you need to know before you put your foot in it?” answered Bernstein. He stressed the importance of being a good listener, referring to his reporting on Watergate. “We didn’t get our information on Watergate from Democrats. We got it from people who were loyal, for the most part, to Richard Nixon, who we were able to approach with respect… and we tried to get them to tell us, and we listened.”
After answering several other questions about leadership, politics, journalism, and the White House, Bernstein spoke about the value of national service, which was met with large bursts of applause from the audience.
“I’ve never been an activist, but I think I’m about to become one on behalf of one cause, and that is compulsory national service for young people,” said Bernstein. “Not compulsory military service but that when they reach 18 years old, they have to do a year or a year and a half…go into the teaching corps, forestry, working in a hospital...”
Referencing his own personal experience with the national draft in 1968, Bernstein described the time in basic training as “seminal” to his life experiences. He noted the significance of being unified with people from different backgrounds through serving under one common purpose.
“It’s the one thing that might enable us to see each other as human,” he said.
When asked how to fix the tendency of people today to seek out news confirming their own point of view, Bernstein stated simply, “good luck.”