‘The best obtainable version of the truth’: Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein discusses role of media

Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein speaks with Alison Lebovitz, host of a weekly PBS series, in front of a packed audience in Iles P.E. Center.
Thursday, December 1, 2022 (Photo by: Ron Cabacungan)
Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein speaks with Alison Lebovitz, host of a weekly PBS series, in front of a packed audience in Iles P.E. Center. Thursday, December 1, 2022 (Photo by: Ron Cabacungan)

Written by: Amanda Blake and Matthew Orquia

Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who helped uncover the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, visited Southern Adventist University’s campus on Thursday, drawing more than 1,500 people to Iles P.E. Center. 

Bernstein shared his views regarding “truth” and the role of journalism in society during a conversational-style presentation moderated by local television personality Alison Lebovitz, host of  “The A List with Alison Lebovitz,” a weekly WTCI/PBS interview series. The interview, taped before a live audience, will be broadcasted on WTCI/PBS sometime in the near future.

Bernstein, the 78-year-old legendary journalist, described how he worked for The Washington Evening Star as a teenager and covered the civil rights movement and former President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He provided insight into how he and Bob Woodward exposed Nixon’s crimes as young reporters in their late 20s working for The Washington Post. The majority of  the conversation, however, consisted of commentary on the role of journalists, public distrust of the media and advice for young reporters.

“What I learned from great reporters as a kid covering civil rights: The truth is not neutral,” Bernstein said. “And think about it, a lynching is not neutral. And so from that evolves the notion: the best obtainable version of the truth is not going to be neutral a good part of the time.”

Bernstein used the phrase “the best obtainable version of the truth” frequently throughout the presentation to reference what a good journalist or news organization should aim to report.

“What a reporter does is not just cover these elevated events, but you cover the surroundings and the context and the place in which it occurs,” he said. “And a part of the best obtainable version of the truth is context, not simply a set of facts about what a congressman says on the floor.”

Bernstein’s visit to campus inaugurated the School of Journalism and Communication’s  R. Lynn Sauls Lecture series, an annual event meant to “inspire a new generation of truth seekers, storytellers, and influencers” by annually inviting prominent journalists and communication professionals to campus. In addition to the hundreds who attended in person, the lecture also attracted more than 200 online viewers, according to the university.

As a college dropout himself, Bernstein said he believes more college dropouts and people who understand what is really going “in the streets” should become reporters. He addressed the belief among some Americans that  “elites” now occupy most news organizations, controlling the topics that are reported.

“What we are terrible about is covering the people of the country and what’s on their minds,” he said.

When asked about distrust in the media, Bernstein placed a large percentage of the blame on the general public’s low receptiveness to truth, adding that it has become a large contributing factor to polarization in the nation.

“That’s what so much reporting is about: Get your foot in the door. And then you have a chance at a real story.” Thursday, December 1, 2022 (Photo by: Ron Cabacungan)

“I would say an overwhelming [number] of people of all political beliefs are looking for information to reinforce what they already believe,” he said.

Bernstein added that all news organizations are not committed to the best obtainable version of the truth. He said Fox News, in particular, falls into that category, but  the majority of reporting in the country is not influenced by political bias.

“I think most news organizations are looking for balance in the sense of ‘What are the facts?’ [and] ‘What is the context?’” Bernstein said. “I don’t quite accept the premise that our news institutions and reporters, by and large, are swinging to one side.”

Bernstein made stronger political statements later in the lecture when Lebovitz began reading questions sent in by audience members, one of which read, “What role could the national press and national media take in helping to unify our country given the growing polarization?” 

Bernstein acknowledged the nation’s fractured state but reaffirmed a point he’d made earlier in the interview, which is that unifying the country is not the press’ responsibility. The press’ job, he said, is to report what is happening and why. He then referenced the reporting done on the presidency of Donald Trump.

“I think the reporting on the Trump presidency … has been the greatest reporting on a president of the United States in my lifetime. The idea that this has been fake news — the evidence is in the stories. … Donald Trump is the first seditious president in the United States,” he continued in  a statement that was immediately met by fervent applause.

 “That is a bold, bold statement. What he did on Jan. 6, what he did in terms of saying this is a fake election, that this election has been stolen. What he did in terms of not turning over documents to the national archives … look at the record. … He is a criminal president whose criminality goes beyond even that of Richard Nixon.” 

Bernstein continued his discussion on polarization and politics by explaining the heroic role played by Republicans to pass three articles of impeachment against Nixon on the House Judiciary Committee. Although the Democrats lacked a supermajority in the Senate, conviction was still a distinct possibility. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater even told Nixon face-to-face that the president did not have his vote, said Bernstein, recounting a story Goldwater told he and Woodward years after Nixon’s resignation. 

“The key votes were by courageous Republicans,” Bernstein said. 

Advice for Future Journalists

When Lebovitz asked Bernstein to offer advice to journalism and communication students, he quickly said, “Get hired,” which sparked resounding laughter. Continuing along the same line, he  encouraged aspiring journalists to get their foot in the door, referencing a popular scene in the 1970s film, “All the President’s Men,” in which Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) sticks his foot in a door in an effort to interview a bookkeeper who had vital information about Nixon’s reelection campaign crimes. 

“That’s what so much reporting is about: Get your foot in the door,” he said. “And then you have a chance at a real story.”

In addition, he said, young reporters should listen well, avoid “manufactured controversy,” and not take themselves too seriously.

He recounted advice from  Katherine Graham, the Washington Post publisher during Watergate, who wrote him and his partner Bob Woodward a note after Nixon resigned. The note read: “Beware the demon pomposity.”

Bernstein Unmiked

In addition to speaking at the event, Bernstein interacted with students, Southern employees and individuals from the community at a VIP meet-and-greet,book signing and small media gathering.  

At the press meeting that followed the interview, Bernstein answered questions from student media and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. During that time, he insisted on giving each individual a chance to ask a question and responded to questions concerning his statements on Fox News.

When asked if he viewed bias as part of the reason why some media outlets do not seek the best obtainable version of the truth, Bernstein said it is difficult to generalize about bias and media because the terms are so broad. He was then asked by Southern Accent Editor-in-Chief Alana Crosby if he believed media outlets like CNN or MSNBC are biased in their reporting.

“What we are terrible about is covering the people of this country and what’s on their minds.”

Again, he mentioned his reluctance to generalize or pigeonhole media outlets.

“I think we need to look at what the purpose is and values are of these news organizations individually,” he said. “Fox News is committed to what it does, and it does it really well. At the same time, its model has very little interest in the best obtainable version of the truth. … I just want to avoid generalizations. I think that’s a problem in itself in journalistic culture.” 

When asked about face-to-face journalism in the internet age, Bernstein said that in-person meetings remain important, although new technology can facilitate reporting.

“But the basic reporting is the old-fashioned kind of “shoe leather” reporting that needs to be done,” Bernstein said. “ … I was known as somebody who was great at working the telephones, starting when I was at the Star. There are certainly times when you want to be talking on the telephone, or maybe texting back and forth, but, by and large, the real reporting has to be done face-to-face.” 

Audience Reactions

After the program, the Accent and SAU News interviewed some attendees.

Cindy Nash, a community member who is married to a former SJC professor, said the event gave her a new perspective on truth in the media.

“I think it helped open my eyes to realize that maybe not everything I’m hearing in the media is always truthful,” Nash said. “But it also makes me really appreciate truthful reporting and [the] desire to really listen for truthful reporting.”

Landon Asscherick, a sophomore business administration major, said he felt somewhat disappointed by the program.

“I was very intrigued by the title, which I thought was slightly misleading,” Asscherick said. “ … To be honest, I don’t think he had a strong thesis supporting that. I don’t think that was particularly addressed.”

Asscherick said although he was not an avid supporter of Trump or Fox News, he disagreed with Bernstein’s comparison between Trump and Richard Nixon and felt that Bernstein’s calling out of Fox News was unfair.

“If you’re gonna mention Fox, then mention CNN,” he said. 

Shelby Romashko, a Southern sophomore marketing major, purchased Bernstein’s latest book “Chasing History” at a booth outside the event. She said she was inspired by Bernstein’s young start in journalism and hoped to gain further inspiration from the book. She also appreciated Bernstein’s insight on the field.

“I think fake news has become so popular, and it’s hard to know what to trust,”  Romashko said. “So, I think it is important to treat it with discretion. But I think [Bernstein] shed a lot of insight from a journalist’s perspective.”

Faulkner Hemming, a community member who also purchased Bernstein’s book, said he wanted to learn more about Bernstein’s story. Hemming added that the program didn’t change his thoughts on truth in the media but rather affirmed the values he already held. 

“I think the media plays an important role in the country, and I think many times it’s underestimated,” Hemming said. “It’s also been maligned in the last few years, and so it feels like journalism isn’t as important as it used to be. But I think it is, and [Bernstein’s] presentation just really affirmed that.”

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