Carl Bernstein's new memoir honors the 'glorious chaos' of the newsroom NPR's Scott Simon talks to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame about his memoir, "Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom."

Carl Bernstein's new memoir honors the 'glorious chaos' of the newsroom

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Carl Bernstein has written a colorful memoir, and it's not about Deep Throat, Richard Nixon, Watergate or Supreme Court justices, but the kinds of people who used to be called ink-stained wretches - newspaper people. From the time he was 16 and worked as a copy kid on the old Washington Star, where he fell in love - and I think that's exactly the word to use - with what he calls the glorious chaos and purposeful commotion of the newsroom. His memoir - "Chasing History: A Kid In The Newsroom." Carl Bernstein joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARL BERNSTEIN: Good to be with you.

SIMON: You were 16, a promising pool player and a borderline truant. What did you find in the newsroom?

BERNSTEIN: Well, as you've indicated, I had one foot in the classroom. I had one foot in the pool hall and one foot in the juvenile court. That's three feet. But nonetheless, my father, he had a notion because I could write a little bit that maybe he could get me an interview for a job at a newspaper, and in particular, The Evening Star, which, at the time, was probably the greatest afternoon paper in America.

I was told, pretty much, I was too short to be hired. I was too young. And I kind of persevered because at the end of this interview, this production editor opened a different door than I had come in by. And it opened into the newsroom. To this day, it's the most stunning moment of my life. Here was this amazing, purposeful commotion with about 50, 75 people at their typewriters and yelling copy. And you could feel the presses rumbling beneath. And it looked like everyone was in - on the most urgent errands in the nation. And I knew in that instance I wanted to be a newspaper man.

SIMON: Yeah. A couple of people on the paper taught you by example how to talk to people rather than interview them.

BERNSTEIN: The first day I was there, when I went down that middle aisle, I was taken to see the typewriters of three people who worked there who had Pulitzer Prizes. This gives you some idea of what this 16-year-old kid walked into. And these people became my mentors. And as they sent me out to cover stories, I would observe what these magnificent reporters and editors did.

So Walter Gold was a night police reporter. He drove this Pontiac that had been specially outfitted, and he had a fireman's coat that he would put on when he went to a fire, axes in the back trunk, all of his regalia for covering fires and all kinds of violence. And at the scene of a murder one night - and it was the first time I had ever seen a dead man, lying in the gutter - I then noticed how Walter approached the policeman there. He would give them coffee and doughnuts, and he would sit down with them and treat them with the greatest of respect because regular cops weren't supposed to talk to the press. But Walter and this other man who would work in tandem - their objective was to get as much information as they could from the cops. And they got it talking to them as real people and not running off with their notebooks after getting a good quote, and that's the end of the damn thing.

SIMON: I want to ask you about your first byline.

BERNSTEIN: Well, starting from when I was about 15 years old or 14 years old - and, in fact, there is an Instagram - thing on my Instagram account today that shows me dancing on a teenage dance show that was in Washington, kind of "American Bandstand." And after I would finish dancing, I would walk down to Pennsylvania Avenue to get the streetcar. I would pick up the last edition of The Evening Star. And The Star was sold by a vendor named Annie. And I would get to know her a bit from being there every week or two and buying a newspaper from her. And she would just call me young man. She would feed the pigeons on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Then one day, I was told by the assistant city editor, hey, Bernstein, take the obit on the phone. Find out what it is. It's a woman named Isabelle Crim (ph). And it turned out to be Annie. And so I went up to Pennsylvania Avenue, and her newsstand was shuttered. But a customer came by and said, what's going on here? And I said she died. And he started to tell me about her. And he said, you know who knows a lot about her is Draper (ph), the tobacconist up the street. So I went to see Draper.

I started to get a picture of this woman's remarkable life - back to human beings. And it had been a sad life in many regards. She had once been engaged, and her fiance had died. And I learned all about her life and how she related to young people and families from her little booth. And I said to the assistant city editor - I said, you know, this is a really interesting woman. Can I write it, let it go to whatever lengths it needs to be? He says, go ahead. And so my first byline was on Page 1, and it was about the death of Annie, the newspaper vendor.

SIMON: Yeah. I don't want to get nostalgic and say, oh, but in the old days. I do find myself worried that many people who come into the business today and report and reflect on the news and provide polemical analysis have never covered a murder scene or a zoning board hearing. Is the disappearance of local news diminishing the quality of our journalism, even the international journalism?

BERNSTEIN: This polarization, if you want to use that word, a lot of it comes from the straining of the social fabric in our towns and cities. And part of what held the social fabric and social compact together was a common body of information about each other, about us. And with the disappearance of local newspapers, that fabric has just been ripped. And incidentally, it didn't start with the internet. It started with chains like Gannett, Knight Ridder coming into the towns and cities, making it solely an advertising vehicle, closing down a second newspaper in that town. And the result was no news.

If you look at what this book is, it's not the old man looking back. It's written from the point of view of the kid and almost in the voice of the kid. It's about what are the tools of reporting? You get out of the office. You knock on doors. You persevere. You don't take no for an answer. You keep going from one source to another source to another source. And it's a book about falling in love with this process that gets you to the best obtainable version of the truth. The phrase we used in Watergate when people would ask us, well, what are you doing? - the best obtainable version of the truth. The Star, we used the term, the complexity of the truth, but it's the same thing.

SIMON: Carl Bernstein - his memoir, "Chasing History: A Kid In The Newsroom" - thank you so much for being with us.

BERNSTEIN: It's great to be with you.

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