David Von Drehle: Who Was Carl Bernstein Before Watergate? A Natural News Hound Learning the Trade

From a Washington Post column by David Von Drehle headlined “Who was Carl Bernstein before Watergate? A natural news hound, learning the trade.”:

By the time he was 43, newspaperman Carl Bernstein had been portrayed on the Hollywood big screen by two of the greatest actors of his generation, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. (One version was mostly factual, the other somewhat fictionalized.) It’s doubtful anyone in the history of ink-stained wretches can match that record.

And yet, as Bernstein’s wonderful new memoir of his early days makes clear, this remarkable figure ran into a major roadblock as he hustled and legged his way into the trade. The young Bernstein was a natural newshound, but he was allergic to classrooms. And he ran up against a managing editor who wouldn’t hire a reporter without a college degree.

He would have no better luck today. Over more than four decades in this business, I’ve rarely seen a journalist hired without a diploma. There have been lots of colleagues with master’s degrees and even a few with doctorates.

Yet, as “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom” makes clear, good journalism is not an academic exercise. It’s more a trade than a science, more like plumbing than physics. Faulty stories, like unsound pipes, are prone to burst under pressure. To say this is not demeaning — as any adult likely knows, people are far more likely to need a plumber in an emergency than a physicist.

While still a high school student in Silver Spring, Md., Bernstein talked his way into a part-time job at his favorite hometown newspaper, the Washington Evening Star. From there, he learned by watching, by imitating, by asking questions, by trial and — inevitably — by error. Bernstein’s book shows, as well as any I’ve read, what a journalist’s education should look like: an apprenticeship, not a seminar. There is scant theory in good journalism, just a lot of practice.

We see Bernstein sharpening his tools one by one. He learns to conduct interviews by listening to good questioners. He learns to take notes and cultivate sources by diving in. He studies the work of the writers he admires and tries to imitate their moves. Along the way, he learns to trust his inner sense of a good story and develops his nose for baloney.

Bernstein’s story of his coming-of-age at the Star ends about seven years before the Watergate break-in, the dazzling vindication of his talents and the star-making machinery that soon overtook him. He became half of “Woodward and Bernstein,” the most famous reporting partnership in journalism history. Wealthy and celebrated, he dated models and married the writer Nora Ephron, whose thinly veiled account of their doomed marriage became the book — and later the movie — “Heartburn.” His biographies include treatments of Pope John Paul II and would-be president Hillary Clinton.

This book foreshadows none of that. It’s a self-contained, beautifully written, powerfully remembered, charmingly honest account of the lower rungs of an already-changing business.

Some fine college journalism programs strive to replicate this apprenticeship in a campus setting, and I’m in favor of college for everyone who wants to attend. With the death of local newspaper cultures such as the one Bernstein lovingly paints, such schools may be the best alternative for teaching most young reporters. Why, I liked college so much that I have two degrees — though I learned my trade the same way Bernstein did, by working nights and weekends at my hometown paper.

Yet it’s one thing to say that journalists may choose college and quite another to say that they must. In 1960, the year Bernstein started as a copyboy, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans over 25 had a college degree. Today, it’s roughly 1 in 3 — still very much a minority. Newsrooms exclusively staffed by members of the college-credentialed minority will inevitably misperceive, misunderstand and misconstrue the world as it is experienced by the non-college-educated majority.

Selfishly, I am indebted to Bernstein for evoking so vividly my memories of pre-computer newsrooms: the noise, the smoke, the pots of paste and heaps of paper, the office romances, the martini lunches, the ergonomically incorrect furniture and politically incorrect characters, the soft fat pencils, the mad approach of deadline, the electric shock of a big story and the unbridled joy of having any piece of it, no matter how minor. I, too, was hazed by gruff pressmen and mentored by menschen; got a little dizzy looking at my first front-page byline; and did my teenage drinking in the company of wise old news hands in their mid-20s — and even more ancient than that.

Though the atmospherics are gone, the enterprise remains, more vital than ever. It’s the work of finding truths about a place and the people who live there — a neighborhood, a city, a nation, a planet — and sharing those discoveries with transparency and accountability. Simple as that.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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