Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame was a guest on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday to talk about the terrible week for journalism — Brian Williams suspended, Jon Stewart retiring, Bob Simon killed in a car accident, and David Carr dead from lung cancer — “it was a shock to the system.” Brian Stelter discussed it with the legendary journalist and author Carl Bernstein, then followed up on recent scrutiny of Brian Williams’ claims about SEAL Team Six with a former member of the team, Don Mann (video link).
Someone forgot to tell Carl this was supposed to be a wake. Carl did not hold back in his criticism of the “news” media. Transcript (February 15, 2015):
BRIAN STELTER, HOST: Carl, and I wanted you to join us on set today because we’ve been talking about all of these stories and how they’re all interconnected.
And they’re all very different. We’re talking about deaths, suspensions, retirement. But it seems it me what connects all these stories is the word “trust.”
CARL BERNSTEIN, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Trust is a big part of it. Also the concept of the best obtainable version of the truth, which really is what good reporting, good journalism is about.
If all of these people we’re talking about understood, including Brian Williams, the ideal of the best obtainable version of the truth, I think this week gives us a chance in all the horror, an opportunity to look again at who we are, what it is we do, and also maybe to throw away some of the sanctimony that we’ve kind of had washing over us this week.
There’s been too much sanctimony, too much holiness about what it is we do. We should talk about that a bit, too.
STELTER: Tell me what you mean by that?
BERNSTEIN: I mean the best attainable version of the truth is an ideal. We don’t meet it as often as we should. There have been failures by NBC News. Not just Brian Williams.
STELTER: Right, right.
BERNSTEIN: Here, we have in Jon Stewart, somebody who really understood the best obtainable version of the truth.
STELTER: You think so? Even though people call him a fake news anchor.
BERNSTEIN: Much better than the evening news on all three networks does. Maybe we’ll take a look at that. What he was able to do was pick out what was really important, what was core, put it up there with videotape and say, look at this America, look at this evening news, you just went right by this, and this is what counts.
And we often do not understand what counts. We kowtow to the demographic. Look at the evening news. Let’s talk about that. We’ve got a lot of time. The evening news is not really — on any of the networks — is not really about the news, as it should be.
STELTER: What’s it about then?
BERNSTEIN: It’s about satisfying a demographic. Look, also, we are all in the entertainment business. That’s what I meant about sanctimony. We’re all performing up here to an extent. The question is can we do the performing and look at the newspapers and entertainment. It has comics. It has great feature writing. It has sports, nothing wrong —
STELTER: David Carr was very funny. Yes.
BERNSTEIN: Nothing wrong with entertainment. Our core purpose, best obtainable version of the truth, can we stay fixed on that, have fun, be entertaining, not be sanctimonious about ourselves? We’re not judges. We’re not meant to be judiciary and pass judgment on everybody. I think it’s time to lower the temperature about ourselves, look at ourselves with some real introspection. This is a great occasion to do it, particularly because in David Carr, in Bob Simon, in “The Daily Show”, we have some real examples of people who understood news and what is good news let’s talk about that?
STELTER: Also describing sort of the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment because “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart always would say, he’s just a comedian, just performing satire. But so many people proceeded to be more than that. And so many people in my generation learned real news from it, took away real news from it.
At the same time, Brian Williams is being criticized, and he’s befallen partly by going on late night talk shows and entertaining people and seeming sillier than his “Nightly News” job.
BERNSTEIN: We’ve all — not all, but many of us have been on late night talk shows and let’s not forget that. The question is, what is the core thing Brian Williams was expected to do? It was to be truthful.
And so, the trust you’re speaking of that has been lost is because he undermined his reputation for being truthful. That’s where we’ve got to keep looking at. What is it that we’re about?
And incidentally, truthfulness is not just about delivering a set of facts. It’s about context. That again goes to Jon Stewart, goes to Bob Simon’s reports on “60 Minutes.” Goes to what David Carr understood so well about the what the elements of good journalism are. What’s the most important thing we do perhaps.
And again, let’s look at Stewart and let’s look at the evening news. We decide what is news. I would say that Stewart’s agenda is a far superior one in terms of what is news than the evening news shows today.
STELTER: “60 Minutes,” “New York Times,” “The Daily Show”, they all have agenda setting functions. We’re going to explore that as the hour goes on.
I want to dig a little deeper on the Brian Williams part because think about this for a second. This is really an extraordinary situation, the nation’s top TV news anchor sidelined and now, some of his past claims are getting a lot of scrutiny, including one about his time with SEAL Team Six.
* * *
BERNSTEIN: I want to try one suggestion here, and that is that NBC has a real obligation to publish the results of its investigation of all of these claims, counterclaims, to publish in full much like “The Washington Post” did after it had to return a Pulitzer Prize because it involved an invented story by a journalist who was a fabulist, who made up the whole story. It’s incumbent on NBC we learned what the facts are.
What we do understand, I think, at this point is Brian Williams clearly was inventing some things. Not necessarily on his air with regularity but in some other public appearances.
And NBC also apparently was aware. People in the newsroom we think we’re aware of this. NBC needs to address its own procedures and what it knew and when it knew about these tendencies if they existed.
STELTER: And their comment for now is no comment. They say they want to get to all of it, fact check it, but in the meantime there’s this vacuum.
Carl Bernstein had much more criticism of the media in the rest of the hour.
Just think about what television “news” has devolved into: the weather in the tri-state area around New York City; a health segment with a TV doctor; a personal interest or happy news segment; and a promo for the network’s programs.
The average half hour broadcast is really only 17-18 minutes after commercials. Out of that time, maybe 6 minutes at best is actual “news.” The rest is all “infotainment.”
World news reporting, if any, has mostly been outsourced to European reporters under contract to the network, and is limited to the latest hot topic. The networks long ago gave up their foreign bureaus. If you want to know what’s going on in the world you have to watch World news on PBS, or go to the BBC or Al jazeera.
There is no economics reporting to speak of, like back in the day of Irving R. Levine. Just 10 seconds for how the stock market closed today. That’s not economics reporting.
And don’t even get me started on the local yokels in local tee-vee news! I can’t watch any longer.