Write on his side

Thirty years after exposing Watergate, the veteran journalist Carl Bernstein tells Geoffrey Macnab why he still believes in the power of the press
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The Independent US

It's a sweltering Sunday afternoon in the gardens of the Reba Hotel in Locarno, Switzerland. Carl Bernstein is sitting in the shade. It is exactly 30 years since President Nixon resigned as a result of the reports Bernstein and Bob Woodward wrote for The Washington Post, and Bernstein is reliving the Watergate years all over again. He is in town for a special screening of Alan J Pakula's All The President's Men, the Oscar-winning film version of Woodward and Bernstein's book on Watergate. It is being screened as part of a retrospective about the relationship between the movies and the press.

It's a sweltering Sunday afternoon in the gardens of the Reba Hotel in Locarno, Switzerland. Carl Bernstein is sitting in the shade. It is exactly 30 years since President Nixon resigned as a result of the reports Bernstein and Bob Woodward wrote for The Washington Post, and Bernstein is reliving the Watergate years all over again. He is in town for a special screening of Alan J Pakula's All The President's Men, the Oscar-winning film version of Woodward and Bernstein's book on Watergate. It is being screened as part of a retrospective about the relationship between the movies and the press.

"I've only seen it once in the intervening years," Bernstein says. "That was about two years ago. I was really pleased with how it endured. What makes it endure is that it's not about the characters of Bob and myself, but about the process of good reporting."

Bernstein embodies the myth of the crusading journalist, despite the fact that Hollywood generally takes the cynical view of the newspaper industry. (Watch Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas tries to revive a faltering career at the expense of a man trapped under the ground and slowly dying.)

For Bernstein, the job has always been about "hard slogging... stamina and dedication and common sense"; in other words, the grunt work in pursuit of "the best obtainable version of the truth". In All The President's Men, Pakula captures brilliantly the sheer grind of Woodward and Bernstein's investigations. We see them knocking on doors, poring over documents and making endless phone calls.

Though the reporters are played by two of the biggest stars of the era (Robert Redford, who optioned the book and also produced, and Dustin Hoffman), the storytelling is deliberately downbeat and anti-glamorous. Warner Bros went to exhaustive lengths to ensure that the film had the stamp of reality. The studio rebuilt the Washington Post offices on a backlot in Hollywood and, according to a Time magazine report at the time, their attention to detail was such that "they even had real Washington Post trash shipped west to fill those baskets".

The film was almost as painful to make as Watergate was to report on. Relations between the Washington Post staff and the Hollywood filmmakers soon began to fray. "Redford, Bob and myself were convinced that the first version of William Goldman's screenplay had huge problems of authenticity and moved much too far away from the factual basis of what happened," Bernstein recalls.

He and his wife at the time, Nora Ephron, attempted a rewrite, but Redford didn't care for their version either. ("Carl, Errol Flynn is dead," Redford told him.) Script doctors were brought in. Pakula and Redford continued to tinker with the screenplay. There was rewrite after rewrite. "Even then, there was no real finished shooting script," Bernstein remembers. "Each day, Hoffman would call me up and Redford would call Woodward and say, 'OK, here's the scene we're going to do today. How would you guys do it? What would you say to each other?'"

"If the story is so goddamned important, who the hell are Woodward and Bernstein?" someone exclaims early in All The President's Men. By the time the film was released in 1976, the answer to that was simple: they were the most famous journalists in the world.

But the fame has come at a price. Watergate cleaves to Bernstein wherever he goes. He started in the newspaper business as a 16-year-old copy boy at the Washington Star. He reported on the Gulf War of 1990-91. He has written about the CIA's manipulation of the press, about the links between Pope John Paul II and Solidarity in Poland, and about his parents' nightmarish experiences during the McCarthy era. He's now finishing his biography of Hillary Clinton.

He has had a colourful career exploring (as he puts it) "the uses and abuses of power", but in the public mind, he will always be that tenacious young chain-smoking journalist on Nixon's tail. The day after I met him, he was due to travel to Milan to record a special edition of Larry King's CNN show, in which he and Woodward would revisit the events of 30 years ago.

To his credit, he takes the inevitable questions about the identity of their secret source, nicknamed Deep Throat, in good grace. "Do I know where he is? Well, I don't keep track every day." Nor is he irritated when reminded about Heartburn, Nora Ephron's novel loosely based on the break-up of his marriage to the screenwriter. In the book, Ephron famously described the philandering protagonist as "a man capable of having sex with a Venetian blind".

Bernstein deplores what he calls the triumph of the "idiot culture". "Television has come to dominate the news that most Americans and Europeans get... it's more and more to do with shouting matches and talking heads. They do very little reporting, almost none. Those 24-hour news channels are not reportorial media. They're informed by entertainment values, manufactured controversy."

Earlier in the day, he had sat alongside Robert Fisk, The Independent's Middle East correspondent, and al-Jazeera's Hassan Ibrahim on a festival panel discussing "Truth and Falsification in the Media". He told a sceptical audience that "the American press in print, by and large, is the best press in the world".

When I ask what damage the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals caused the US press, Bernstein frowns. "Always, in every business, there are going to be charlatans and careerists who take short cuts... but I venture to say that it happens less in the news business than most other enterprises, so I am not too concerned by it." He saves his most withering criticism for the UK press, talking darkly about "a really horrible situation, where the quality of print journalism has deteriorated horribly in the last 30 years, owing largely to the influence of Rupert Murdoch".

Though he helped to fell a President, Bernstein insists that it has never been a journalist's job "to bring about a particularly desired moral or political result". Though he admired Fahrenheit 9/11 ("a very skilled piece of work"), Michael Moore's approach is the antithesis of his own. "It is reporting from a point of view... it starts with a point of view and seeks to reinforce that point of view. In making his argument, he comes much closer to the truth than the White House version of events... but the idea that the Americans are just a bunch of monkeys, running around without thinking about things, is just not right. Michael Moore perhaps has too much of that attitude."

Surprisingly, and rather poignantly, Bernstein nowadays expresses a measure of sympathy for Richard Nixon. "We realise now how unsuited for the presidency he was... but I have human feelings for him too. There is quite a human story in there. But that doesn't make it any less criminal."

In 1971, Bernstein had planned to leave The Washington Post. "Ben Bradlee (the executive editor) didn't want to send me to Vietnam." He'd been promised the job as the paper's rock critic, but when that fell through, he considered defecting to Rolling Stone. "I knew Hunter S Thompson was leaving Rolling Stone... I thought, well, I'd like to work there." But he stayed - and cracked one of the biggest stories in newspaper history.

Thirty years on, he believes the press can't be held to account for the excesses of politicians. "We're entirely blamed too much for the shortcomings of the body politic. The facts were largely out there about this war [in Iraq]. They have been out there about our President. Too often, we blame the press rather the electorate... many of our newspapers are better today than they have ever been. The news is there - but it is very hard to get to."

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