Carl Bernstein: Chasing History

Carl Bernstein is a throwback to newspaper men and woman of a different and lost time in America. If you’ve ever seen The Front Page, Lou Grant or Teacher’s Pet; this was a time of hard-boiled newsroom editors who drank, smoked cigars and were married to chasing stories, or at least that’s the romanticized image. This was back in the day of smoky newsrooms, carbon paper, competing newspapers and multiple daily editions. Newspapers were a big deal then and working for one, even at the bottom runge of the food chain, was exciting stuff.

“The formative part of my being a reporter occurred from ages 16 to 21 at a great old-fashioned newspaper, The Washington Star – not the Post,” Bernstein told CBS’s David Martin.

The “kid” and his grown-up self.

Chasing History:A Kid in the Newsroom, is not just Bernstein’s history, it is a stunning period of time when newspapers were the news source. Long before cable news, talk radio, blogs, social media and news blended into entertainment, young kids like Bernstein worked their way from errand boy to the chance to write a story. Bernstein entered the profession having written for his high school paper; he cut his teeth on the job and learned from the pros around him. This was his classroom and the editors and veteran reporters were his professors.

The book focuses on those five years at the Star. The end came when management moved him back to the dictation bank and “special writer”, a step down from reporter. Without a college degree he could not be a reporter at the Star, so he went elsewhere.

Bernstein had been hired at age 16 as a copy boy, still in high school, but earning $29 a week to learn what would be his life’s work.

“Experience is no substitute for the training program,” he was told. Bernstein had toiled at the Star doing whatever was needed, functioning as a reporter with bylines on the front page, but in the end, that proved to be a career defining moment.

I am reminded of a fun, but endearing (at least to me) film from 1958, Teacher’s Pet, starring Clark Gable and Doris Day about the newspaper biz. Gable is the stereotypical grizzled city editor, who posed as a night school student in professor Doris Day’s introductory news writing course. Gable’s character has little formal education and has a dislike for college-educated journalists, he learned the traditional and painful way, by working his way up at the hands of critical and grumpy old men. The film raises several points about what is news and what is entertainment and social commentary, all printed on the same paper with the same ink. A bit of what we struggle with today in digital or high definition formats.

In the film, there is a young man, played by Nick Adams, who wants to forgo college (much to the disappointment of his mother) to join the newspaper and work his way up. Over the course of the film, Gannon (Gable), changes his view on “education” and sides with the mother on the kid going to college.

City editor Gannon listens to a mother pleas for his son to go to college, Teacher’s Pet.

Bernstein could almost be the Adams character, the kid with a thirst to be a newsman, who is so determined that he will start at the bottom and absorb the skills and savvy needed, where the carbon paper and newspaper print stain your hands.

Reading this book you can almost feel the energy of the newspaper operation, the typesetters, the dictation of stories over the phone, the machines spitting out news from around the country and internationally, the editing pencils at work and the stale coffee. Bernstein captures the news-gathering world as it opened up to him, the old characters who worked the beats, set the type or kept the editions moving. No wonder, Bernstein who tried attending college at the same time, was more interested in avoiding the draft than sitting in class.

Bernstein started by working the local news: fires, crime, planning board meetings and community events. All news is local. Washington was his city. When JFK was inaugurated, Bernstein worked the local angle, getting the man on the street with comments about the parade.

“From the time I’d arrived at the paper there was no question that civil rights was all I wanted to cover,” Bernstein recounts. The civil rights struggle was about to explode, and Washington was would be a big stage. Besides the nation’s capital, it was a city with poverty, slums and municipal corruption.

“For me, listening to Dr. King’s speech, with its emotive power, and witnessing the sheer numbers of Black and white people marching together, I was certain I had experienced the most powerful moment of my lifetime-
the “someday from “We Shall Overcome’ was drawing nearer,” Bernstein reflecting on King’s speech at the March on Washington, 1963.

In November of 1963, the unthinkable happened, the President of the United States was assassinated. Bernstein, was by then in charge of the dictation group, who typed stories via telephone from reporters in the field. He dictated the story from the Star’s reporter in Dallas, then was dispatched to the Capitol to see what he could find out about House Speaker John McCormack’s whereabouts since he was third in line of succession. After finding the Secret Service preventing any information about the Speaker, Bernstein went outside to get a sense of how the public was dealing with the news. A pretty heady day for a 19 year old reporter.

It would be a long time till the Watergate burglary. Bernstein’s book is not about that or his Washington Post years. What we get is the formative years of a young reporter, one with a social conscience. Watergate would propel Bernstein into the big time, and make him a star. Everyone would know the names Woodward and Bernstein. He would go on to high profile jobs and a marriage that would provide unwanted notoriety. He would be portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson in the movies. What a life.

Bernstein quotes Dwight Eisenhower from his final news conference as president. “Well, when you get down to it, I don’t see what a reporter could do much to a president, do you?”

If you like newspapers, memoirs, social history or curious about Bernstein’s early career, this is a good read. It bogs down occasionally, but Bernstein provides a compelling story: his.

3 thoughts on “Carl Bernstein: Chasing History

  1. I’ll check this book out. Thanks, Mike. Sadly, there are no more Bernstein and Woodwards in today’s world. I pull my Underwood portable down once in a while and beat away. Funny, how when writing on that typewriter, everything comes out retro.


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