Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein has a message for reporters: “It’s not rocket science.”
Bernstein is referring to the basics of newsgathering — the tools and skills reporters use to assemble facts, tell stories.
“Today, we see how much reporting — if it’s called that — is done from people looking up things on Google and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s how I’m going to get the story,'” Bernstein told Anderson Cooper.
“You need to be listening to people, and you need to be learning their stories. You need to go to their relatives. You need to go to their bosses, and you just keep persevering.”
He should know: Bernstein’s dogged reporting for the Washington Post along with Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate political scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Bernstein, a political analyst for CNN, spoke this week on “Anderson Cooper Full Circle” about his newly released memoir, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.” In his book, Bernstein reflects on his first job in journalism as a copyboy at the Washington Star in 1960.
“I was 16 years old and, as I was looking at this scene of commotion around me and it looked like these reporters and editors were on the most urgent errands in the nation, I realized right then I wanted to be a newspaper reporter,” he said.
At The Washington Star, Bernstein honed his reporting skills, which included being both observant and a good listener. He said those “common sense” skills are the keys for journalists to get to the best obtainable version of the truth.
Finding that truth also means following a story wherever it leads, according to Bernstein. “Rarely did a story follow the path of first assumptions,” he writes in the book.
“Sure, you have a preconceived notion of what the story might be, but then you get out of the office and you meet real people and you get sources and you keep knocking on doors and you learn these amazing things,” Bernstein said on CNN International’s “Amanpour.”
Why knocking on doors? People are more relaxed outside of a formal work setting, Bernstein says. They don’t feel the pressure or watchful eyes of the workplace and they are unguarded.
Bernstein’s five-year apprenticeship at the Star gave him a front row seat to some of the most important news events in the country’s history. From John F. Kennedy’s run for president, the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s assassination to the 1963 March on Washington, Bernstein was schooled by some of the best reporters of the time.
He also learned to work local beats and the value of community reporting. So much has changed since his time at the Star, including the demise of local news publications and the consolidation of small market media.
“Local newspapers are gone … and local news sites and local reporting have largely disappeared,” he told CNN. “If you look at local news on television, it’s pretty much in disgrace all over America.”
One of the problems, he explained, is creating controversy as a form of journalism.
“We have a thing in television, especially. Shove a microphone in somebody’s face, get a good quote that seems to be controversial, run back, put it on the air.
“That’s not the best obtainable version of the truth. It’s trying to manufacture controversy. That’s not what our job ought to be.”
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