Berstein: The best obtainable version of the truth

Listen to Carl Bernstein talk about journalism and you’re going to hear the phrase, “The best obtainable version of the truth.” I walked into the Teatro Pavonne in Perugia, Italy this morning on the penultimate day of the International Journalism Festival after Antonio di Bella had begun a conversational interview with Bernstein. As I sat down in a second-tier box in a beautiful, gilded theatre, Bernstein was extrapolation a theory of journalistic responsibility based on “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Carl Bernstein at the Perugia Journalism Festival

This is more complex than “just the facts, ma’am” – Berstein lauds sports reporters, who he believes do some of the best journalistic writing, because they’ve got to do more than just give a headline. “People have already listened to the radio – they know who won the game. Sports journalists need to create what really happened, beyond the headline.” And while he’s worried about the pressures of 24-hour journalism, Bernstein firmly believes that journalist – at the best US papers – is as good as it’s ever been, at least in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. (This contrasts, somewhat, to a phrase he repeats a couple of times, crediting to Bob Woodward: “Great journalism is done in contravention to management.”)

He has very little sympathy for those who blame the failings of the Bush administration on the press. “Almost everything we know about this war, the real plans of the Bush presidency, the advocacy of torture, going all the way to the presidency of the United States,” is information we got from the media, not from the government. We know these things not because President Bush has been forthcoming or because Congress has taken on its investigative function. “Our country is broken. It’s been broken for twenty, twenty-five years due to money in politics… if it had worked, we wouldn’t be in this war, with an unaccountable President, an unaccountable vice President, an unaccountable Secretary of State…”

If the press should accept blame, he believes its for the failure to see Bush’s desire to invade Iraq for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorist attacks. He reminds us that he’d travelled to Iraq and had been thrown out of the country by the Hussein regime for reporting widespread dissatisfaction with Hussein’s leadership. “I knew Iraq wasn’t a terrorist state – it was a Stalinist state, a secular state,” which Bin Laden hated and wanted to see destroyed. But “there’s almost no way we could have known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction,” he argues. Everyone thought that Hussein had WMD, based on his past behavior.

Using the long format of the interview, Berstein talked at some length about the books he’s written. His most recent book, “A Woman in Charge“, focuses on Hillary Clinton. He reminds us that “a good biography is not about predicting the results,” and that he’s reluctant to speculate about what will happen in the 2008 US election. He theorizes that the reason the book is viewed as being sympathetic to Clinton is that Clinton is a mystery, because people “have known her through misinformation and disinformation put forward both by her opponents and by her acolytes and true believers.” Her own writings, he speculates, complicate the matter: “Her autobiography is full of obfuscations and omissions,” a political document, not a biographic one.

Bernstein believes that Clinton’s campaign is in such trouble because “since she followed Bill CLinton to Arkansas, Clinton has had a difficult relationship with the truth.” This isn’t neccesarily a problem with lying, so much as that
“she apprehends truths of her life that others who were around at the same time didn’t see that way.” He traces some of these tendencies back to her childhood, her dominating and verbally abusive father, and motivations of shame, humiliation and fear.

He discusses a much earlier book as well, “Loyalties” a memoir he wrote about his parents, who were active members of the American Communist Party. He spent his childhood watching his parents going through surveillance in the McCarthy era, with his home phone tapped. The experience helped shape his distrust of government and interest in the abuse and misuse of power. But he has some regrets of how sympathetic the book is, and speculates that if he wrote it today, he’d be more aggressive in questioning the relationship between American Communists and their sympathy for the Soviet Union.

It’s fascinating to see Berstein’s reception in Italy – as one questioner begins his query, “Sir, you are a legend.” Everyone here is familiar with intricate details of the Watergate story, and everyone wants Berstein’s insights on the upcoming elections. But I sense that there’s a downside to this sort of celebrity. I’ve heard Berstein speak three times in the past three months (purely by happy accident, I assure you) and there’s a lot of repetition to his speech. Those phrases he repeats, though – “The best obtainable version of the truth” – are useful ones in framing his version of journalistic responsibility.

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