Jill Abramson on Carl Bernstein’s Eulogy for the Newspaper Business

From a New York Times book review by Jill Abramson headlined “Carl Bernstein’s Eulogy for the Newspaper Business”:

Nearly 25 percent of the 9,000 U.S. newspapers that were published 15 years ago are gone, leaving behind a vast news desert and signs of a weakened democracy. So it’s bittersweet to read Carl Bernstein’s “Chasing History,” a rollicking memoir about the golden age of newspapers. Bernstein ignores the bad karma engulfing the newspaper industry to recreate his rookie days at The Washington Evening Star, a robust afternoon paper that ceased publication in 1981. Bernstein’s nostalgia for those times is so deep that after the first 30 pages I could hear ghostly voices shouting, “Honey, get me rewrite.”

If you count the books Bernstein co-authored with Bob Woodward about their legendary coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post (“All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days”) and “Loyalties,” the book he published in 1989 about his parents’ struggles during McCarthyism, this is Bernstein’s fourth time writing about his life and work. Even for one of the country’s most famous reporters, that’s a lot of Bernstein.

But he’s as well placed as anyone to tell the story of what gets lost when the presses stop. Counting his current work as a CNN political analyst, Bernstein, 77, has been a journalist for more than half a century. His career spans the profession’s best of times and the worst, though the story he tells in “Chasing History” evokes only the happy days.

The Carl Bernstein who stars here isn’t the trench-coated investigative reporter from “All the President’s Men.” He’s a teenage version of Hildy Johnson, the wisecracking ace reporter in the 1928 stage classic “The Front Page.” After buying a cheap, cream-colored suit from the cousin of a street vendor, young Carl managed to fast-talk his way into getting hired as a copy boy at The Evening Star, then the chief rival of The Washington Post. He was 16 and still in high school.

Unsurprisingly, it was love at first sight once he entered the newsroom. “People were shouting. Typewriters clattered and chinged. Beneath my feet I could feel the rumble of the presses,” he recalls. “In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I now beheld in that newsroom. By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.”

Bernstein quickly graduated from copyboy to the dictation desk, the now-extinct place where reporters once phoned in their stories and where Bernstein’s typing skills won accolades from top editors. It didn’t take long for the talented kid to find himself at a local hangout, swilling after-deadline martinis with The Star’s stars.

All of this is good fun, though the book is clotted with a dizzying number of names, people, streets and stores. And there’s an ever-present cloud called school. Bernstein almost flunked out of high school and then got kicked out of the University of Maryland. School assignments were no competition for the bylines he coveted and proudly pasted into his Washington Star scrapbook.

Although his nose for news was unquestioned, Bernstein could not be promoted to full reporter without a college diploma. His early career coincided with journalism’s transition away from a trade for poker-playing, working-class tough guys to a more genteel profession recruiting from the Ivy League. A few women have cameos in “Chasing History,” including frustrated reporters confined to the women’s department. Bernstein almost married one of them when he was 19.

“Chasing History” vividly captures the bonds between a local newspaper and the community it covers. Reporters truly knew the people and territory they wrote about. Bernstein grew up in suburban Washington, where one of his neighbors was a United States senator. A great-aunt from Silver Spring, Md., who spoke Yiddish with a twang, offered him an education about the area’s grandees. She called them “the Wesorts,” as in “We sorts of people are different than you sorts of people.” Papers like The Evening Star were trusted because they published accurately reported stories that actually impacted the lives of their readers.

The Star was known as a writer’s paper, often more creative and entertaining than the stodgier Post. It was the early proving ground for some of the best journalists of our time, including the national political reporter David Broder, who eventually migrated to The Post, the investigative star Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and The New York Times’s columnist Maureen Dowd. It was where Mary McGrory, another must-read political columnist for The Post, sharpened her pen.

Having made a living chronicling the lives of others, many journalists understandably feel compelled to write memoirs, even though these books often wind up on the $2 shelves at used-book sales. (I have a small library of them, including the memoir of a Los Angeles Examiner reporter, Will Fowler, who in 1947 found the severed body of a woman who became known as the Black Dahlia. The most grandiose title in my collection is “From Kristallnacht to Watergate: Memoirs of a Newspaperman,” by the former Post editor Harry Rosenfeld.) McGrory, whom Bernstein worshiped, resisted memoir-mania and snapped at me when I once asked her if she intended to write one, saying, “I’m much too busy writing my column,” which she produced three times a week.

McGrory always said she would have happily worked forever at The Star. For his part, Bernstein wanted nothing more than to become its city editor. The well-tailored man who actually held the job, Sidney Epstein, was his role model and is, besides the author, the most intriguing character in the book. Epstein mentored his young cub during the hours they spent making up the weekly schedule for all the employees in the city room. Bernstein’s excitement is palpable when, early on, he watched the city editor marshal his troops to cover the tragedy of two boys electrocuted at a local pool. He also vividly recaptures the paper’s herculean efforts to cover the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Sadly, Epstein could not save his protégé from the Star’s rule requiring a college diploma, so at age 21 Bernstein quit and, after an interim job at a paper in New Jersey, was snapped up by The Washington Post. As we know, there was plenty of history left for Carl Bernstein to chase. But that’s a story he has already told.

In 2008, as the digital revolution was destroying newspaper advertising and circulation, Clay Shirky, an influential media analyst, warned in an article called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” against spilling tears for the past. He argued that the survival of journalism was crucial, but that print newspapers could — and would — fade away. “They’ll miss us when we’re gone” was not, he chided, a sustainable business model.

Maybe not. But people still do value the connection between a newspaper and its readers and want journalists to be knowledgeable about the communities they cover. Carl Bernstein’s book, which is ultimately a eulogy for print newspapers, is a passionate reminder of what is being lost.

Jill Abramson is a former executive editor of The New York Times.

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