In an exclusive interview with the Star-Telegram, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame spoke from his London hotel Sunday about transparency in government, racial issues and the state of journalism. He is coming to Fort Worth on Tuesday to give a private talk at The Stayton at Museum Way about his past experiences and future projects as part of a speaker series at the upscale retirement home.
What are you focusing on right now?
I’m writing a memoir about growing up from 16 through 21 at a great newspaper in Washington from 1960-65. A kid going to work for The Washington Star but still in high school. It was a better paper than the [Washington] Post in those days. So, the memoir is about journalism and the country from the time of John Kennedy’s campaign through civil rights, race. I had written a memoir about my childhood (Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir), and this kind of picks up in some ways where that left off.
What’s your take on the state of journalism today?
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I think there is a lot of great reporting going on today. If you look at some of the reporting, particularly of the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, some online news organizations like Pro Publica, what The Boston Globe did with the pedophile priest scandal a few years back — there is no shortage of good journalism, but a bigger problem: When there is good reporting, often it is being ignored. Too many people are more interested in seeking out information that will confirm in their own minds their already-held ideologies.
Do you think people don’t care so much about the news anymore?
I think that younger people, especially those under 25 and in their teens, are utterly alienated from the political process because they rightly perceive that it’s broken. Irredeemably broken. The common good is ignored, and having a fact-based argument is damn near impossible. You can’t get agreement on what the facts are that ought to be debated.
How do you think today’s media would handle a scandal on the level of Watergate?
I think that all stories, all events take place in their own time, but I think — and one of the things you have to think about — is the Nixon presidency was a criminal presidency from the beginning to the end. The criminality of Nixon and his presidency was even greater than we [he and Bob Woodward] thought when reporting the story. If the same facts were reported today, I don’t know how they would be perceived in this super-charged, ideological cauldron that is our culture today.
Since the Ferguson police shooting, we’re seeing distrust between police and the public. Locally, a Grapevine police officer recently shot and killed a Mexican national. Do you think police need to be more transparent using today’s technology?
The question of policing and particularly policing black people has always been incendiary in some regards, and we all need to be more sensitive to the excesses and want more transparency, as well as look at the failing of the legal system that accompanies situations we have seen in the last couple years. Particularly the shooting of young black men.
But it’s the fact that these particular incidents reflect something much deeper. Just like the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson indicated, it’s about a culture. A police culture, in too many of our communities, that is still rooted in prejudices of the past.
In your view, is government more or less transparent today?
I think there is more secrecy in government, particularly in Washington, than five years ago, and five years ago I think there was more secrecy than before that. There have been attempts by successive presidents to have policies that make transparency more difficult from the point of view of the people of the country. I don’t think it’s been nefarious by successive presidents, but I think it has been hurtful.
Do you still enjoy being a reporter?
It’s about as good as a thing as you get to do. Every day is different, and you get a chance to look at things and try to figure out what is going on.
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792