By Don NelsonWhen we first meet Carl Bernstein (as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) in the opening minutes of “All the President’s Men,” he’s a shambles. Shaggy hair, tieless, frayed shirt collar, unbelted jeans, tennis shoes, constant cigarette, one of hundreds of bodies in the vast Washington Post newsroom of the early 1970s.
He’s only 28, but he’s been in the newspaper business since he was 16 — and seems to have stagnated. He’s covering boring stories that he doesn’t finish. He’s likely to be fired. Then comes the biggest opportunity of his life.
In the first fragmented hours of what would come to be known as Watergate, Bernstein senses something, and his street-honed instincts are unerring. Like a predator catching the faint whiff of big prey, he hangs around the edge of the story until he insinuates himself into the middle of it. Almost predictably, Bernstein soon finds himself at the epicenter of events.
None of this was accidental.
As we learn in Bernstein’s 2022 memoir “Chasing History, a Kid in the Newsroom,” recently released in paperback, his formative years as a working journalist who wasn’t old enough to drink or vote prepared him for the challenges of covering Watergate. In fact, he was perfectly suited for it.
“Chasing History” is, after you sort through the personal chatter that’s to be expected from a recounting of one’s teen years, a primer on how to be a reporter. Then and now. The basics haven’t changed, and no one practiced them more with more intent than the young Carl Bernstein, who finagled his way into the Washington Star newsroom the same way a lot of aspiring journalists did: as a copy boy.
From day one, he never accepted that was his destiny. Everything he did at the Star was aimed, even calculated, at becoming a reporter. He did it the old-fashioned way, by not only seizing opportunities when he saw them, but creating them. He assumed that every duty, however menial, was a learning moment; that every conversation inside or outside the newsroom could be used to expand his knowledge.
Imagine doing that, essentially full-time, while you’re still bumping your way through high school, as did Bernstein — who admits that his graduation was borderline miraculous. Bernstein also flunked out of college, but that didn’t matter.
He was a master student of the craft of journalism at a time when the technology of journalism was essentially the same as it had been for decades. No computers, no cell phones, no internet search engines. It was still the era of manual typewriters, carbon paper, hot lead and pockets full of change for pay phones.
Reporting wisdom that hasn’t changed
But the job itself was the same as it is now, and how Bernstein went about it is instructive more than 60 years later. Here are some lessons to be gleaned from “Chasing History:”
- “I’ll work the phones.” So says the film version of Bernstein to get himself attached to the Watergate story. It was something he was good at. As one of The Washington Post editors explains in justifying Bernstein’s potential value to the story: “He knows people.” Indeed, “Chasing History” is all about knowing people, building and maintaining relationships, cultivating connections and sources, and keeping them active in the prehistoric version of The Cloud that we knew back in the day as a Rolodex. Bernstein capitalized on dozens of acquaintances — some of them longstanding, others tenuous, all of them catalogued for future use.
- Behaving as if. From the first time he hung a Washington Star ID card around his neck, Bernstein acted like he was entitled to go wherever any other reporter could go and talk to anyone who could be a potential source. He slipped into a few places he probably shouldn’t have been allowed, but he didn’t force or fake his way in or pretend to be something he wasn’t.
- Getting it right. Bernstein had it pounded into him by hard-shelled editors who expected no less from him than from any other reporter. Check, double check, triple check, whether it’s three paragraphs or 30. He immersed himself in detail, making use of all his senses to record the experience.
- Absorbing wisdom. Bernstein figured out who he could learn from and latched on, asking questions, seeking guidance, offering assistance. He wasn’t a sycophant, but an eager and attentive student, tagging along with veterans and volunteering to help with just about anything. After a while, he didn’t have to volunteer: he got assigned.
- It’s all back story. Pre-Google, when newspaper archives were thousands of clippings filed in a news library (“the morgue”), Bernstein learned the system and worked it relentlessly. He pulled hundreds of stories, recent and ancient, to educate himself on what had been written, cross-referencing as he went. It was time-consuming, but it made him a better-prepared reporter.
- Everything is interesting. Bernstein’s curiosity was boundless. If something caught his attention, he would find out more, hit the news library, talk to people he knew. Go where others might not; seek out the stories that go under-noticed.
- Write it down. Not only was Bernstein a prodigious note-taker, he was also a hoarder. He kept boxes of notes and newspaper clippings and took them with him when he moved. There’s a telling scene in the “All The President’s Men” when Bernstein is interviewing a reluctant witness in her home and resorts to scribbling notes on napkins, matchbook covers and random scraps of paper while drinking enough coffee to float an aircraft carrier.
- Be ready. When the teen-age Bernstein was assigned to cover the historic Martin Luther King Jr. march in Washington, D.C., or John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, he planned well in advance, knew where he needed to be — and where the phone booths were so he could call in constant updates to the rewrite desk. He took every assignment he was handed or could cajole, worked long hours — which made him a poor student in high school and during his brief foray into college but piled up his frequent reporter miles.
- Use your skills. Bernstein was an extraordinarily fast and accurate typist, which served him well taking dictation from reporters in the field — and helped impress his bosses.
- Know what’s going on. Bernstein read all the daily newspapers that came into the Star office every day, to see how others were covering stories (especially the competition in the nation’s capital).
- Just one more. Bernstein asked the extra question, or asked the interviewee who else he should talk to. Extending an interview by even a minute can produce big dividends.
- Don’t accept dead ends. Young Bernstein encountered a few, and he and Bob Woodward hit a lot of them trying to get to the guts of Watergate. Their movie boss, Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, didn’t have a lot of sympathy. “You think bitching about it is going to get the story where we want it?” he snarled. They were out of his office in a heartbeat.
A reported memoir
“Chasing History” could just well be called “Colliding With History.” It’s not so much memoir as detailed chronology with intent, a straight-line story covering just a few years full of growth, learning, decisions and twists of fate that eventually put him in The Washington Post newsroom — where he ran smack into history again. For Bernstein, the early 1960s were the perfect nexus of nexus of personality, ambition and events.
A reader may wonder how Bernstein could recall so much detail so many years. He apparently kept a lot of those old notebooks. But it’s also clear from the “acknowledgements” chapter at the end of the volume that he thoroughly re-reported his own life by contacting as many of the original resources as he could and plumbing their recollections as well. “Chasing History” stands not only as a revealing story of the making of a journalist, but also as an example of all the attributes that made Bernstein the reporter he became.
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Don Nelson is editor of the weekly Methow Valley News in north-central Washington state. He has more than 40 years of experience in newspapers and magazines.