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carl bernstein

Bernstein was one half of the reporting duo that uncovered the Watergate scandal in the pages of The Washington Post, and co-author, with Bob Woodward, of All The President's Men. Since leaving the Post in 1976, he has written several nonfiction books and articles for various publications, including Vanity Fair and Time. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 10, 2006.

How important was protecting sources for the Watergate story?

Absolutely essential. We did not name a single significant source in the first 150 stories that we did in the first year of Watergate. In fact, we never did. The only people who were identified by name more often than not were telling lies, because they were spokesmen for the Nixon White House. In terms of real sources of information, they were all confidential, every one. It would have been totally impossible to have done the Watergate reporting and identified our sources.

When we wrote All the President's Men, we went back to all of our sources, and we asked them, could we identify them? Some of them said yes. Hugh Sloan, the bookkeeper for the Committee [for the Re-election of] the President [CRP], said yes. The treasurer for the Nixon re-election committee, some others -- Mark Felt, the individual known as Deep Throat -- said no. We kept that secret for 33 years because we believe in the confidentiality of sources.

I know of very little important reporting of the last 30 to 40 years that has been done without use of confidential sources, particularly in the national security area. ... What we know about the last five, six, seven presidencies, we know through the use of confidential sources. If we had relied on the information from this president, from this secretary of state, from this secretary of defense, from this vice president, we would know almost nothing of the truth of [the Iraq war]. ...

But with the use of confidential sources, certain things are incumbent on the reporter: to represent a kind of responsibility and refuse to be whipped around by a source, to be led astray by a source. There's a responsibility, if possible, to identify the particular orientation of a source. For instance, if it's a story involving fund raising in the Republican National Committee, and the source is a Republican fund-raiser, it would be very significant to identify that person as a Republican fund-raiser. If it were a Democrat off on the sidelines, it would seem to me you would have to say that the source is a Democrat and then explain how he's come into information and why it's credible. So it's a tricky question how you present it.

Weren't you subpoenaed during Watergate for your sources?

Yes. ... There was a civil suit brought by the Nixon re-election committee against the Democratic National Committee for the purpose of trying to find out how they were getting their information to us, among other things. ...

[When we] knew that the subpoena had reached the building, I went to [then-executive editor of The Washington Post Ben] Bradlee, and I said, "Look, I just got a call from the guard downstairs that there's a subpoena with a piece of paper with my name on it." And he said, "Look, go see a movie while we figure out what to do."

So I went to see a movie; in fact, the movie I saw was Deep Throat. I came back to the office, and by then the strategy had been gone over with the lawyers. Our notes, my notes, were transferred to the custody of Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. Therefore, if anybody was going to go to jail, she was going to go also. As Bradlee said: "Wouldn't that be something? Every photographer in town would be down at the courthouse to look at our girl going off to the slam." And Mrs. Graham was ready to go to jail because she understood the principle. I accepted the subpoena, because by then, the custody of my notes had been transferred to Katharine Graham.

And so what happened? You didn't go to jail, did you?

They backed off. ... They didn't want to take on Katharine Graham. They took on Katharine Graham by trying to take the licenses of The Washington Post television stations away, which was the real money-making ability of The Washington Post Company at the time. ... It paid a lot of the bills. ...

“I know of very little important reporting of the last 30 to 40 years that has been done without use of confidential sources, particularly in the national security area.”

Today we see the further economic pressure through subpoenas because stockholders don't want to see their companies embroiled with the federal government in a big suit that might hurt the value of their stock. So that now has become a consideration, as it was I believe in the case of Time Inc. in the Valerie Plame case.

But unlike Katharine Graham, [then-Time editor] Norm Pearlstine gave up [reporter] Matt Cooper's notes.

He did. And I think it was a very difficult call. I think that it's still being sorted out, whether it was the right thing to do and whether they really gave up anything. ...

... Well, what Norm Pearlstine said is that Time Warner, a publicly traded company, had a responsibility to its shareholders and cannot be involved in civil disobedience.

Right. Again, I think these are very tricky questions. Maybe Time Inc. can't be, but it seems to me that a reporter's responsibility remains the same. He has got to uphold his contract with his source, and his responsibility is to that source even above that to the institution. ...

What has happened here is that the journalistic institutions are looking for a way to maintain the principle and at the same time stay in business. Enemies of a free press know that that tension is now in play, and they're using and pulling that trigger to invoke a conflict in which we have to make these choices. And it is a terrible conflict. ...

There has been a series of ideological attacks on the press, particularly The New York Times, particularly The Washington Post, sometimes The Wall Street Journal, about reporting national security information that is truthful, that does not suit the ideological purpose of those in power and of a dominant ideology. We've seen it time and again, and they make the conduct of the press the issue and not the conduct of the president and his men. That's what happened in Watergate. They made our conduct -- [Bob] Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, Graham -- the issue in Watergate, not the conduct of Richard Nixon and the men around him. It's an old technique, and unfortunately it works very often, because it's easy to whip people up who agree with you and to lose the principle. ... But the point is, we don't serve ideologies. We try, these institutions, to serve the truth. ...

When you saw that [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller was going to jail, what was your reaction?

My initial impression was that she was doing the right thing. As it became more and more complicated, and perhaps apparent that she could have gotten a waiver, a true waiver, then I began to have doubts about whether it was necessary for her to go to jail.

It's obvious to me that The New York Times in the Judy Miller case became semidysfunctional and that there were great tensions between reporter and management. There were problems of differing views by different lawyers. It was a very complicated situation.

But the most important point of all to me is that [then-Chief of Staff for Vice President Cheney] Scooter Libby, the so-called bad guy in this, still deserved protection, even if it's Scooter Libby. ...

There is this value judgment that Libby wasn't worth protecting because he was just trying to spin public opinion, ... or that a source has to be somehow someone of pure motive. But Mark Felt['s] wasn't a pure motive.

To this day, I don't know all of Mark Felt's motives. There's no way to know the motives of another person totally, even a person that you know very well. Our responsibility is to the principle, and that principle is that if we want to know the facts and come up with a truthful picture of something, it will more often than not require that we are able to tell people with information that we will not identify them under any circumstances.

If it turns out that those people are certifiable bad guys, and yet they are telling us what we believe and what they believe to be truthful, ... we don't get to make the decision of whether to protect a source based on the ideology or party of a person. We make this decision based uniformly on our need for information so that we can put together a truthful picture. ...

So she did the right thing.

In terms of not giving up the source, absolutely. But if it turns out, as Libby says, that she never needed to maintain the confidentiality, that he had released her from it long before and offered to, then there are some other apparently personal and institutional factors that enter into this. ...

What is important here, though, was a failure of [special prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald to understand how reporters and officials in Washington deal with each other, which is to say, they have conversations, and it is understood that those conversations are on background, that there is a protective device in place -- sometimes it has to be specifically reiterated; sometimes it does not -- and that this is the way information is obtained in Washington. And not just in Washington, [but] in state legislatures, in city halls all over America, in baseball clubhouses.

You as a reporter can have whatever informal relationships you want -- trading information or learning things -- but when a federal grand jury sends you a subpoena, you don't have any right to withhold that information.

That is correct. The Supreme Court [in Branzburg v. Hayes] has said you do not have a right. It then becomes an act of civil disobedience.

What if in the Watergate story a federal grand jury had been convened to investigate leaks from the White House and elsewhere, and you received a subpoena? Would you have gone to jail?

Absolutely. I would do it today. It's happening today. You have no choice if you are going to maintain the principles of good reporting. But incumbent on you in these confidential relationships is not to abuse this principle, and I think there is considerable abuse of it. And that abuse comes often from reporters not trying to find information elsewhere, where they might be able to get it on the record. ...

When Norman Pearlstine was reminded about Katharine Graham's resistance to the subpoena, he said there's a very big difference between 1975 and 2005 in the way that judges and special prosecutors tend to listen to the press. Is he right?

Of course he's right that there is a difference, but is he right if he is implying that the responsibility on the reporter is different? No, he's not right.

The responsibility on the institution -- I'll leave that to Norman, because I think there are very complicated institutional questions. At the same time, I would hope that the head of the institution where I worked would maintain the principles Katharine Graham did even today.

Now, it could involve a financial sacrifice, but if we're talking about this in real time and not as an exercise in the hypothetical, we have to look at how the profession has changed. We have to look at what reporting represents today. We have to look at how few institutions there are that do good reporting, at how the standards of so much of the so-called media have little to do with the best obtainable version of the truth. ...

You go all over America and you see small papers that do really good jobs in their communities of reporting. The modern New York Times, the modern Washington Post, the modern Wall Street Journal are better papers than they were at the time of Watergate in most respects. But if you look at the rest of the field, ... real news based on the best obtainable version of the truth was becoming less and less a commodity, less and less a real part of our journalistic institutions.

But what seems to be breaking down?

Well, let's take a look at what we're talking about: misinformation, disinformation, celebrity stuff -- gossip, sensationalism and especially manufactured controversy. Take a look at the cable news channels, at these food fights that go on every day under the guise of news or information that's going to improve your knowledge. ...Why is that? It has to do with what the values of our institutions are.

I started in 1960 at a great newspaper, The Washington Star, no longer in existence. ... It was drummed into my head as a copyboy that the bottom line in what we do is to try and find out truth, not the bottom line in terms of profit. Today that is no longer the case. The conflict between the bottom line of truth and profit ... has become a terrible conflict, and the bottom line is winning except at institutions that can still afford to have these principles, like the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal -- small family-owned newspapers in America.

… Why did you write your affidavit in the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids] case? What do you think is going on there?

I think that what's going on there is that two reporters did their job -- that is, that they did a hell of a job reporting -- and that [San Francisco Giants'] Barry Bonds, who did not like their reporting, has tried to seek some retribution. The result is that now there is a subpoena out for these two reporters. That's what I think. ...

The reason I signed that affidavit is that ... this is how we come by important information that makes all of us better off by knowing the truth -- that's all I said -- and that this principle of confidentiality is one that we must maintain and that in light of Branzburg, and the fact that we have no absolute right under the Supreme Court decision to claim a privilege, then it is incumbent on prosecutors to make this a matter of last resort. ...

Look, what's happened here is that an ideological struggle has complicated some basic legal issues that are worth debating, and that you cannot look at the whole equation outside of ideology of the right and the left. If you look at The Huffington Post Web site on the left, you will see this flagellation of The New York Times, of The Washington Post, for the way it performed in the Plame story. And these people believe -- just as the Bush White House believes -- that the reporters ought to have to give up their sources.

Well, I've got to tell you, we're not going to know the truths [from] both sides, right and left, if we are in a position where we have to give up our sources. We have to remain in a more elevated place. We cannot be part of this ideological struggle. We have to be true to our own principles, which have to do with a very difficult job. ...

Is part of the problem here the positive spin that the media got out of the triumph of Watergate? You didn't wind up in jail. You wound up with a Pulitzer Prize and a movie, right? And this time around, the public perception of the media is not so positive, and therefore, it doesn't have that kind of support when it faces the government.

Again, I think there is very much an ideological element in this. Also there is the fact that we haven't done our job well enough in so many of our broadcast media and some newspapers and magazines. Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous.

So it's undermined the confidence of the public.

So that, too, has undermined, along with ideological factors, confidence in the press. But I would say that right now the assault on the press is primarily ideological -- from the right primarily, but also sometimes from the left -- and that the basic problem we had in Watergate was, instead of the conduct of the president, the vice president, secretary of defense being the issue in the Bush administration, they're trying to make the conduct of the press the issue. ...

Finally, I just want to get your reflections on the [famously contentious] relationship of Richard Nixon and the press. ... How does that compare to George W. Bush and the press?

First, Nixon's relationship to the press was consistent with his relationship to many institutions and people. He saw himself as a victim. We now understand the psyche of Richard Nixon, that his was a self-destructive act and presidency.

I think what we're talking about with the Bush administration is a far different matter in which disinformation, misinformation and unwillingness to tell the truth -- a willingness to lie both in the Oval Office, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in the office of the vice president, the vice president himself -- is something that I have never witnessed before on this scale.

The lying in the Nixon White House had most often to do with covering up Watergate, with the Nixon administration's illegal activities. Here, in this presidency, there is an unwillingness to be truthful, both contextually and in terms of basic facts that ought to be of great concern to people of all ideologies. ...

This president has a record of dishonesty and obfuscation that is Nixonian in character in its willingness to manipulate the press, to manipulate the truth. We have gone to war on the basis of misinformation, disinformation and knowing lies from top to bottom. That is an astonishing fact. That's what this story is about: the willingness of the president and the vice president and the people around them to try to undermine people who have effectively opposed them by telling the truth. It happened with [Sen.] John McCain in South Carolina. It happened with [Sen.] John Kerry. It's happened with [Sen.] Max Cleland in Georgia. It's happened with many other people. That's the real story, and that's the story that [the press] should have been writing. ...

It's very difficult, as a reporter, to get across that when you say, "This is a presidency of great dishonesty," that this is not a matter of opinion. This is demonstrable fact. If you go back and look at the president's statements, you look at the statements of the vice president, you look at the statements of Condoleezza Rice, you go through the record, you look at what [counterterrorism expert] Richard Clarke has written, you look at what we know -- it's demonstrable. It's fact. Now, how do you quantify it? That's a different question.

But to me, if there is a great failure by the so-called mainstream press in this presidency, it's the unwillingness to look at the lies and disinformation and misinformation and add them up and say clearly, "Here's what they said; here's what the known facts were," because when that is done, you then see this isn't a partisan matter. This is a matter of the truth, particularly about this war. This is a presidency that is not willing to tell the truth very often if it is contrary to its interests. It's not about ideology from whence I say this. It's about being a reporter and saying: "That's what the story is. Let's see what they said; let's see what the facts are." ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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