Carl Bernstein speaks at Lehigh University

Legendary journalist Carl Bernstein delivered the 2019 Tresolini Lecture. 

Carl Bernstein: The Search for the 'Best Obtainable Version of the Truth'

Veteran journalist Carl Bernstein discussed the virtue—and necessity—of strong journalism in the 40th Annual Tresolini Lecture at Lehigh.

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

Photography by

Christa Neu

A talk by the legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein would have been timely under any circumstance, given the current roiling political landscape. But coming only a few hours after a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s activities with a Ukrainian leader was announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, even Bernstein—who knows a bit about extraordinary historic developments—had to admit it was appropriate to divert from his planned speech. 

“I’m going to change plans a little bit, given today’s news,” said Bernstein, to a burst of applause from an audience of roughly 700 in Baker Hall. “I was looking at my prepared remarks over the five-hour ride here, and started to rip them up based on what’s happening. I thought we could spend some more time with questions since today…today is a real turning point.” 

Before he fielded a long series of questions and comments by many in attendance, Bernstein delivered a talk on the role of journalism and the search for the “best obtainable version of the truth.” It was a theme he returned to several times over the course of his 45-minute talk, which traced his career from his early days as a 16-year-old copy boy at the now-defunct Washington Star, to his historic partnership with fellow Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward, and his post-Watergate years as a political commentator and best-selling author. 

Carl Bernstein meets with Lehigh students, faculty and staff

Bernstein met with a small group of faculty, staff and journalism students at a reception in the Lower Gallery of the Zoellner Arts Center prior to his talk.

One of his earliest assignments, he said, involved dictating a running text for then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy out on the campaign trail— “a man who spoke in full, elegant sentences with wit and spontaneity.” But there was no question, he said, that the press failed to use good investigative journalism to provide a fuller, more accurate view of the man who would eventually become the 35th president. “And it left us with a distressingly incomplete image of the man,” Bernstein said.

His experience at the Star helped Bernstein appreciate the virtues of the career he chose, as well as its essential role in a thriving democracy. “One of the notions is that the press exists for the public good, not just to make money for owners or stockholders or media organizations, not just to their ideological or partisan interests. Another notion is what we do as real journalists is to give our readers the best obtainable version of the truth. It’s a simple concept, but it’s very difficult to achieve in the face of Washington pushback and removal of ideological baggage—and it’s particularly elusive in the age of social media.” 

As a result of both social media and a highly partisan 24-hour news cycle that forces a focus on being first and not necessarily accurate, Bernstein said, he finds that “increasingly, there are huge masses of people who are looking for information that reinforces what they actually believe, right, left or center.” 

Carl Bernstein meets with Lehigh students

Excellent investigative journalism still exists, he said. “For those who doubt it, look no further than the Wall Street Journal whistleblower story,” he said, referring to the recent revelation that prompted the Trump impeachment inquiry. “It’s a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch—one of many of his news outlets—and yet the Wall Street Journal has been fabulously committed to obtaining the best obtainable version of the truth—as has the Washington Post, the New York Times, Reuters and many other news outlets. This era has seen a renaissance of great reporting.” 

Like Richard Nixon—the president who resigned in the face of the Watergate cover-up unearthed by Woodward and Bernstein in the early 1970s—Trump has a disdain for the press, Bernstein said. “And like Nixon,” Bernstein said, “Trump is trying to make the press the issue, not his conduct. He talks about ‘fake news’ and declares the press the enemy of the people, a phrase dripping with Stalinist imagery. But that is only because we are the one consistent check on his lies, his impulses and his lifelong contempt for the rule of law.” 

Trump didn’t always hate the press, and has long-benefited from fawning profiles of his business career and prolific romantic life in New York-based tabloids, Bernstein said. “He is, in fact, a creation of the press, which allowed him to essentially create this character he named John Baron to call reporters to plant flattering stories about him. The press is not the enemy of the people. Lying and untruth are the enemy of the people—especially when the lying is being done by the President of the United States.” 

This era has seen a renaissance of great reporting.

Carl Bernstein

‘A Cold Civil War’ 

While the comparisons between Nixon and Trump are striking, Bernstein said, a broader view of the divisive issues facing the country are needed at this particular moment. “We are in the midst of a cold civil war,” he said. “It began probably 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s been brought to ignition and turned into a cauldron during the Trump presidency.” Some of that blame lies with Trump, who, unlike any president in our history, never pretended to serve anyone but his base, he said, and some blame lies with the diminution of many institutional pillars of the country, including education, technology, entertainment, health care and others. “So Trump wasn’t altogether wrong in what he said to appeal to some voters. It’s just that it’s led to a level of authoritarianism and nativism such as we’ve never seen in the United States.” 

Bernstein suggested that aspiring journalists appreciate the value of context. “Facts strewn about are not truth, especially in isolation of the big picture.” Nor should journalists see their role to intentionally work toward a desired political outcome, such as the removal of a president, he said. “Their job is to report the truth. It’s the job of the people to make their decisions, hopefully based on good reporting.” 

Several years ago, Bernstein said, he and Woodward addressed the Washington Press Corps, and said that their best advice for journalists was to follow the money, follow the lies. “And it’s still the best advice,” he said. 

After his talk, Bernstein fielded a series of questions, including one that seemed to be repeated in different forms: How can Trump keep getting away with behavior that would have ended the careers of other politicians? 

“The system isn’t working,” Bernstein said. “In some measure, it’s because this ongoing cold civil war we’re in isn’t letting it. We are divided into two polarized cultures, and with that comes something way beyond sensible debate. There is an enormous amount of anger and hate involved. And let’s not kid ourselves about Donald Trump and his role in this: Hate is the piston of this presidency. This isn’t the Watergate era. This is a different era, in which our institutions don’t work. We have a terrible problem right now.” 

Bernstein was introduced by Brian Fife, professor and chair of the political science department, who said that through his extraordinary work unearthing the Watergate scandal, “Carl Bernstein set the standard for modern investigative reporting.” 

The Rocco J. Tresolini Lectureship in Law was established in 1978, in memory of one of Lehigh’s most distinguished teachers and scholars, Rocco Tresolini (1920-1967), who served as professor and chair of the department of government. Bernstein follows several impressive speakers selected to deliver the Tresolini Lecture. These include veteran journalist Bill Moyers, public intellectual Cornel West, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, former Vietnam War-era strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg, Presumed Innocent author Scott Turow, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Watergate-era White House Counsel John Dean, Bush v. Gore attorney David Boies and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck.

A packed house at Carl Bernstein lecture at Lehigh University

Bernstein spoke to a crowd of roughly 700 people in Baker Hall. 

Story by

Linda Harbrecht

Photography by

Christa Neu

Related Stories

Marty Baron speaks with editors from The Brown and White on stage in Baker Hall

Marty Baron Celebrates The Brown and White’s 125th Anniversary

The Washington Post’s executive editor returns to Lehigh to discuss his start in journalism and current challenges to the industry.

Marty Baron speaks with students on a previous visit to Lehigh University.

Marty Baron to Return to Celebrate The Brown and White’s 125th Anniversary

The executive editor at The Washington Post will participate in a conversation with editors from The Brown and White on Sept. 26 in Baker Hall.

Robot working on a laptop computer overlooking a city skyline

Rise of the Robots: Coming to a First-Year Intro to Journalism Class Near You

At the World Journalism Education Conference in Paris, Lehigh faculty will present on incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into an unlikely venue: the introductory, first-year mass communications class.