The legendary journalist Carl Bernstein paid a visit to Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem on Feb. 24, speaking on the role of the press, the state of national politics and the Trump presidency. The bestselling author and CNN commentator is known for his reporting on the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration alongside then-colleague Bob Woodward.
While he lauded the press’ coverage of Trump’s administration as some of the best investigative reporting on a president in his lifetime, he lamented that it follows “egregious journalistic failure during the [presidential] primaries.”
“We provided free air time to a candidate such as had never been done before because it was great theatrics, because it was pushing the ratings through the roof, because it was ‘good television,’” Bernstein said. “There we were at every rally with the cameras waiting as, down from the sky, comes Trump Air Force One — it’s not reporting… no candidate should be covered in that way.”
He cited the lack of editorial framing as one of the media’s most detrimental failures. This, alongside ongoing attempts to adhere to a perceived centrism and neutrality that is a mythical impossibility, the pursuit of which is antithetical to the public good in failing to provide Americans with meaningful context and analysis. All the while, he said, Trump vehemently reframes the conduct of the press as the issue, deflecting from his own. Bernstein noted that President Nixon applied the same strategy as Watergate unfolded, “the last time we saw the American system work in all its grandeur,” according to Bernstein.
“We have a president of the United States that has called the press ‘the enemy of the people,’ a phrase steeped in totalitarianism, in murderous acts,” Bernstein said. “Really, lying and untruth is the enemy of the people, especially when the lying is done by the president. The only comparable leader that I can think of that has posed the kinds of questions about authoritarianism, fundamental dishonesty is Joe McCarthy.”
The key difference, he says, is hyperpartisanship and a disregard for truth endemic in today’s Republican party, whereas many of the Republicans of Nixon’s era played key roles in bringing to light the conspiratorial criminality of their sitting president. Bernstein dubbed this ideological entrenchment a ‘Cold Civil War’ that is daily eroding our democracy.
“[Trump] is somewhat evolutionary, maybe even inevitable given the nature of this Cold Civil War in which we cannot have a fact-based debate, in which the best attainable version of the truth is not valued,” Bernstein said.
Time will tell whether Americans will increasingly trust the press and whether congressional Republicans will (at least) cooperate in good faith with the Mueller investigation. But it’s not looking good.