Carl Bernstein At Hay Festival In Budapest About Obama, Watergate & Journalism

  • 26 Jun 2013 9:00 AM
Carl Bernstein At Hay Festival In Budapest About Obama, Watergate & Journalism
On Tuesday, May 21 the Hay Festival of Literature in Budapest featured a discussion with iconic American investigative journalist, Carl Bernstein. The event was held on the last day of the Festival, a grand finale for a week which was kicked off with a discussion featuring world-renowned novelist Nicole Krauss. The event was held in the Petofi Museum of Literature and the moderator for the discussion was Edit Inotai, a journalist for the Hungarian Népszabadság. Held in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, the American Corner of Corvinus University, and Alexandra Kiado, the event was held in English with simultaneous translations into Hungarian.

The discussion began with Bernstein musing on his exposure of Watergate at the age of 28 and his prominence in uncovering the story even as a college drop-out himself. “The fact that were were young is the reason we were able to work on this story for two years”, Bernstein admitted. When Inotai asked Bernstein if Watergate could happen today, given the recent discoveries of political profiling by the IRS and the surveillance of Associated Press journalists by the administration, Bernstein stressed that “Watergate was about a criminal presidency”.

For Bernstein, what the current administration is doing, including surveilling reporters as part of an investigation into leaks, is legal under current laws and the administration has the “statutory authority to undertake such measures”. However, Bernstein spoke unequivocally and honestly in saying that it is “outrageous” that Obama has made it his policy to inhibit journalism in such a matter, as it was clearly his and his administration's intention to inhibit people from speaking to journalists.

Yet, Bernstein also made sure not to mince words and addressed the bipartisanship currently at play in the U.S. political arena and the current scandals; the Republicans who are now touting freedom of speech as the greatest of rights are the same ones who have previously said “let's put those leakers in prison”. However, Bernstein made sure not to dismiss the criticisms mounted by the Republicans as a mere witch hunt, but as concerns which have shown to have validity to them.

As per President Obama's governance, Bernstein concluded resolutely that he has had “real trouble governing effectively”. He has not been successful at addressing neither institutions nor bureaucracies, as witnessed by the Veterans' claims scandal and the lack of success in closing Guantanamo once and for all, as promised during the campaign and his second term in Office. There is also no question that the White House was not transparent in addressing Benghazi.

Why have recent revelations during Obama's presidency proven so disappointing? What has added the extra sting to the way Obama has carried out his time in office is his initial campaign promise to be a different kind of President. He promised a presidency without spin, but what we have seen instead are the same efforts to spin and to withhold information from its people as we have seen before from the White House.

Whether the White House under Obama or the State Department under Former Secretary Hilary Clinton, the hope felt in 2008 has by many instances waned. Thus, though Obama's time in office has been neither Nixonian nor criminal, it has been disappointing and that is a truth Bernstein has not been afraid to admit.

Looking into the eyes of his audience members and letting his hands speak for him, Bernstein spoke with authority on the state of the union. The executive branch has proven itself to be a disappointment and Congress, the third branch of government, has shown itself to be broken-spurned not the interests of its citizenry but by financial and parochial interests.

What is commonly referred to as the fourth branch of government, journalism, was also irresolute in the lead up to the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. Bernstein stated that Saddam Hussein had “nothing to do with 9/11” and what the United States should have done was waited for the facts, , instead all we were interested in was going to war.

For Bernstein, the tendency to divide into right and left has been a scourge in politics, in the United States, in Western Europe, and in Hungary. It has been an impediment to both governance and to journalism. Journalism still holds the same definition for Bernstein as when he learned it at 16; it is “the best attainable version of the truth”.

“We need to go back to what reporting is”, he stressed. What we need are traditional news institutions that are loyal to this definition of journalism-whether they are reporting on community events, sports events, or national news. These institutions must make the reporting of facts their priority, nor reporting on “how the facts might fit into an idealogical box”.

After all, journalism is not about political outcomes. When Bernstein was reporting on Watergate he did not agitate for a political outcome; he was uncovering truths. He realized Nixon would be impeached, but he did his journalistic duty and did not call for it. What we need now is to get to a point where we were were were Bernstein first uncovered Watergate, when people were able to say “we are Republicans and we are Democrats and we can agree that Nixon has to go”. We need to go back to seeing ourselves as an American people and not as either 'the right' or 'the left'.

When asked about Murdoch and the British press, Bernstein celebrated the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as one of the world's greatest inventions” and held it as an example for the U.K. He stressed that there will be “untruths” published and there will be violations of privacy and when an editor or a publisher violates the law, whether it be through phone tapping or hacking, they should go to prison. Instead the British response has been regulation of the press by the state and self-regulation by the press.

Doing away with the British Official Secrets Act, which prevents certain news from being printed, is “all the difference in the world” for Bernstein. For Bernstein, the threshold for libel is high in the United States and quite low in England and for the press to prosper, the threshold should be as high as possible. Bernstein in no way absolves the press of their responsibility, however, stressing the need to conduct respectful reporting.

During the Q&A portion of the event with the audience, the first question which was asked was regarding Wikileaks, to which Bernstein admitted that what struck him the most was how unsensational they were. Bernstein stated that Bradley Manning “violated the law” and people who risk doing so for a principle do it knowing the risks, but he also critiqued Assange for being very careless and stressed that it is essential in such circumstances that the upmost care is paid and that people not be put into danger.

The second question was asked by Hungarian researcher and Professor Peter Molnar regarding whether or not a public interest test should be used for leakers. Bernstein replied that he hopes in sentencing judges are lenient and take mitigating circumstances such as the public interest into account. However, he stressed over-classification of information as the main roadblock to the public's right information today.

The most poignant question was what advice Bernstein would give to a class of students studying to be journalists. Bernstein stressed three key aspects: “be a good listener. Let people tell you what they want to tell you”, “use common sense” for stringing facts together is not journalism, making sense of them is, and the most defiant piece of advice- “all great reporting is done in defiance of management”.

Asked if there is a future for investigative journalism, especially with newspapers closing all around and the internet age taking hold, Bernstein was quite optimistic in answering “yes, and a pretty bright one!” A big believer in the internet as a magnificent tool for journalism, with an unlimited interview, photo, and video content capacity, the problem for Bernstein is that there is yet to be an economic model for good internet reporting. In addition, broadcast networks which could use profits to fund their news divisions don't think of doing any such thing.

“Hopefully we will invent some kind of model that works” Bernstein stated, leaving the challenge to the audience. Commending Christiane Amanpour, celebrating the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and naming the modern New York Times as the best newspaper we had had in the world, Bernstein said today could be considered the golden age of journalism.

As for himself, having led a career whose focus has been the “use and abuse of power”, be it Watergate, Pope John Paul II, Rupert Murdoch, or Hillary Clinton, he feels this dominant thread is what made his career so satisfying.

Having grown up with strong beliefs in civil liberties and a firsthand knowledge that surveillance is not justified under any circumstances, when his family experienced surveillance by the FBI during the McCarthy era, Bernstein has thus made investigative journalism his cause célèbre.

“One's life is your story and I like my story” he confidently stated, smiling at his audience full of professionals, researchers, students, and to-be journalists.

Words by Mariya Yefremova for

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