Carl Bernstein: From D.C. Juvie to Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist

Carl Bernstein — The Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who with Bob Woodward exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1973 — grew up in Tenleytown and Silver Spring. When he was 16 in 1960, Bernstein was fast becoming a drag-racing, pool-playing, regularly-truant juvenile delinquent… until he got a job as a copyboy at D.C.’s top newspaper, the Washington Evening Star. That changed his life. 

During his preliminary interview, Bernstein was taken into the Evening Star’s newsroom  —  “into another universe. People were shouting. Typewriters clattered and chinged. Beneath my feet I could feel the rumble of the presses. In my whole life I had never heard such glorious chaos or seen such purposeful commotion as I now beheld in that newsroom. By the time I had walked from one end to the other, I knew that I wanted to be a newspaperman.” 

Bernstein’s new can’t-put-it-down book “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom” romps the reader through 350 pages of fast-moving, often touching, personal and surprisingly relevant stories of the kid Bernstein’s first ten years in the trenches of news journalism in Washington D.C. As Bernstein goes from being a copy boy, legman, transcriber and dictation taker, and beginning reporter covering the police beat and neighborhood citizen association meetings (White) and community civic association meetings (Black) in northwest D.C., he reveals how he evolved as a journalist. While each job level is defined, Bernstein describes how the entire “almost miraculous” production of the multipage (often multi-edition) newspaper, is due to the demanding teamwork of the men and women star journalists, editors, beat reporters, dozens of stringers and legmen (who often dictated breaking news stories on line-telephones, while feeding them with rolls of nickels and dimes) and legions of unionized press men (many of them deaf, who communicated by signing).

Even the most known dramatic events of the 60s – the election and inauguration of JFK, race and the sometimes violent struggles of the civil rights movement, city and national crises, the assassination of JFK and his burial at Arlington — Bernstein tells through the eyes of the working journalists and production staff who have no anticipation of what the next minute of the day will bring. Five to ten continuous bells on the teletype machines next to the editors would cause the newsroom and press room “to erupt,” Bernstein recalls. With a flick of his finger, the editor would dispatch reporters running to the news site, to relevant officials, to the streets and neighborhoods and the library to cover all aspects of the breaking news.

For anyone who lives in Washington  —  lifelong or new  — Bernstein reveals the deep inside story of the District that was evolving from a local southern town and U.S. capital district to a diverse, international metropolis with home rule. It is a relevant history for everyone, and Bernstein reports it as part of the breaking news stories and evolving civil rights he covers.

For anyone who was a print journalist in the last century, the book also arouses almost painful nostalgia  — for the noise, teamwork, profound (economic, education and heritage) diversity of a newsroom so closely aligned with the printers that the rumble of the presses starting the newest issue’s run brought on a physical response (a far cry from the soft-carpeted quiet of computer newsrooms with reporters on headphones, text messaging their sources and editors to today’s remote work in bedrooms and dining rooms in digital connection with remote graphic designers).

The book ends with Bernstein leaving the diminishing Star (the paper folded on Aug 7, 1981, surpassed in the morning by the Washington Post and in the afternoon largely by TV evening news). Bernstein went on to “found” the concept of long-form investigative journalism (long time to produce, lengthy magazine-like stories).

He writes admirably of the hard lessons about journalism principles he learned at the Star:

“I knew how important it was to keep reportorial distance from the story,” he writes. “But I felt let down when I realized that JFK had lied at press conferences.”

“It was impossible to miss the single-minded fierceness of the Star’s Master City Editor Sid Epstein to be the first to get the story, to get it right and to write it tight.”

“It was also conspicuous that Epstein encouraged in his troops a camaraderie that he however did not join in.”

Will a Bernstein sequel attest that those basic journalistic principles survived? Does he himself still follow them?




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