Carl Bernstein Addresses Democracy, Journalism, and Trump at Granfalloon Festival

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – JUNE 6: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Bernstein speaks at the Buskirk Chumley Theater during the Granfalloon Festival on June 6, 2024, in Bloomington, Indiana. The Granfalloon Festival honors late Indiana writer Kurt Vonnegut. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

Staff report

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — June 6, 2024

Carl Bernstein, the esteemed journalist renowned for his role in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy, spoke to a nearly full house at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater during the Granfalloon Festival. The festival honors Kurt Vonnegut, the late novelist and Indiana native.

Bernstein, alongside Bob Woodward, investigated the Watergate crimes for The Washington Post, leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. He discussed “All the President’s Men,” the book and film detailing their investigative journey. Bernstein described the film as a textbook for reporters, and essential for understanding the role of the press in a working democracy.

Reflecting on his early career, Bernstein, who started in a newsroom at 16, emphasized the value of his “apprenticeship” in journalism. He had 12 years of experience by the time he worked on Watergate.

Bernstein shared a memorable post-Watergate conversation with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who said they did their job, but warned him to “beware the demon of pomposity.”

Turning to contemporary issues, Bernstein criticized former President Donald Trump, labeling him a “criminal” and the “first seditious president” of the United States. He contrasted Trump with Nixon, noting that Trump represents a new threat due to his authoritarian tendencies. Bernstein described the GOP as an “anti-democratic party with a huge following,” attributing Trump’s appeal to his manipulation of societal grievances.

Bernstein warned about the dangers of social media, claiming algorithms have replaced traditional media’s curatorial role. He recommended Steven Brill’s book, “The Death of Truth,” which critiques social media’s impact on journalism and democracy. Bernstein lamented that people now seek reinforcement of their beliefs rather than truth, a trend exacerbated by social media algorithms.

Despite the challenges, Bernstein praised the ongoing efforts of journalists, urging them to provide the “best obtainable version of the truth.” He stressed the importance of direct reporting, remarking that scoops come from “knocking on doors,” not from Google searches.

Addressing the potential impact of artificial intelligence, Bernstein acknowledged its dual nature, noting its usefulness and destructive power. He advised caution, as its full implications remain unknown.

Bernstein also touched on Trump’s warnings of “death and destruction” if convicted, dismissing them as fear tactics. He urged the public not to exaggerate the threat, noting the absence of massive protests post-conviction.

In closing, Bernstein reflected on the broader threats facing democracy, including environmental issues and societal values. He reminded the audience that labeling the press as the enemy is not new, citing Nixon’s similar tactics during Watergate. Bernstein recounted a tense exchange with Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, highlighting the adversarial relationship between the press and the Nixon administration.

When Bernstein’s notes were subpoenaed Graham protected her reporters and said they were her notes, and they’d have to take her to jail.

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