Carl Bernstein: Citizens are the scourge of the era

Carl Bernstein

Carl Bernstein

I just watched a rather remarkable Guardian video with Watergate superstar reporter Carl Bernstein in which he puts on his best Jimmy Carter mask and blames the people for the problems he helped create.

Here’s my transcription of the audio:

The question is how would that information (investigative reporting) be received today by citizens. The more time I spend thinking about this question, the more dangerous factor, I think, is a citizenry that has become inured to truth, that has become so politicized that it is unwilling, or unthinking in terms of desiring truth, but rather believes it already knows the truth.

The American system worked in the case of Nixon, because a consensus was formed around Richard Nixon, partly based on our reporting, that Nixon had to go, because he was a criminal President. In our history in this country, there usually has been a consensus about what basic facts are, from which we can have a public debate, going back to the debate over what the Constitution of the United States would be when we were a new nation.

There’s no longer a basic consensus about the facts. You can’t get a consensus about what the basic demographics of the country are even, because people are ill-informed and too many people don’t have a desire to be well-informed; they would rather have more ammunition for what they already believe. So I think that that is the scourge of our era, much more than what, I think, conventional wisdom has become, which is just the decline of investigative reporting, again in quotes, or of newspapers. I don’t think that. I think it’s the decline of a willing citizenry.

Upon completion of the above, the star-struck reporter arises, only to have Bernstein beam with pride and inject: “A little different answer than you usually get, I think.” That’s right, Carl. Most thinking people know better than to blame the audience for problems the press has created by itself and for itself.

So let’s see if I’ve got this right. There’s no consensus today, because we all think that spin is truth. We’re ill-informed, because we don’t have a desire to be informed, which certainly suggests to me that Bernstein thinks “citizens” are stupid, and worse, that it’s our own fault. I mean, it’s one thing to be called stupid, but quite another to suggest that it is so because we’re unwilling to be taught.

Or could it be that — among many other factors — the press has brought this spin-is-truth idea on itself through its insistence that there is no truth, only “sides” in a barrage of what Jay Rosen calls “he said/she said” reporting? I mean, how can there be consensus in a world where there’s only “sides?”

This whole business of the decline and reinvention of journalism is complex and multi-faceted. Journalism will survive, but such disdain for the people formerly known as the audience will not and cannot be a part of it. “Citizens” who are trying to figure things out for themselves are in such a position, precisely because the press doesn’t have the cojones to work on their behalf.

Talk about stupid!



  1. The more viciously partisan things appear to get, the less apparent it is that both parties – and the press – serve the same constituency – which is not the citizens formerly known as the middle class.


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