In an exclusive sit-down interview with The Bottom Line, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein compared Trump and Nixon scandals, the changing relationship between politicians and members of the media, and getting back to a common set of facts.
Bernstein has had a half-century career as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. His career took off as a Washington Post investigative journalist during the Watergate scandal. Bernstein went on to write All the President’s Men and The Final Days after the scandal. His recent book, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton makes Bernstein a five time best-selling author.
When discussing the media and politicians interacting in a different landscape than it used to be, Bernstein mentioned changes like “a culture that increasingly devalues the truth so that we come to accept in our public life, obfuscation, lying in a way that its ‘business as usual’ that I think didn’t exist in our culture nearly so prevalently 40 years ago.”
“I think there’s a fear that if you say the wrong thing, consequences are going to come to you, whether it’s your job, whether its you’re not going to be elected, or its you’re going to be held in opprobrium. And the result is that when reporters whose real job is, if they’re doing it right, not to be hostile, it’s to be a good listener, to respect the people we’re covering, but it’s also to try and come up with the best obtainable version of the truth, which is usually both a complex process and the result is usually complex if you do it right. Because there’s grey area and sometimes were not too good with grey area,” Bernstein said.
Because of the constant rhetoric at the federal level about fake news and alternative facts, many Americans have a hard time knowing where they will get the correct information. When asked how the country gets back to talking from a single set of facts, Bernstein said he believes it is “damn near impossible to have a fact-based debate in our culture today, particularly our political culture. Instead, I think we’re in a state of a cold civil war in this country.”
“I think that more and more people are looking for information to reinforce what people already believe. And I think it’s on both sides of the equation- liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican- but I think though that perhaps that more of it has come, with some disproportion, from the right in the following way that presented with refutable existential fact,” Bernstein said. “I think we have one side that very often has exuded a kind of self-riotousness that pushes the other side away, coming from the left, coming from ‘liberal.’ And from the other side, a willingness to accept propositions that are really counterfactual, but counterfactual in a way in which context is all important. Very much conspiratorial at times.”
As for the comparisons between the Russia scandals under the President Donald Trump administration and the Watergate scandal under President Nixon as well as similarities between the two men and their approaches to the office, Bernstein said he feels “there’s an awful lot of lying by the president of the United States in both cases,” but he feels the situations are not quite as similar as some make them out to be.
“There are vast differences. One of the differences is that the Republicans now have the presidency and both houses of Congress. At the time of Watergate, you had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. But you also had a Republican Party, particularly the leadership, that was not willing to blindly defend the president of the United States. I think there has been too much blind defense of this president,” Bernstein said.
For more state government news go to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s The Bottom Line blog.