“Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom” doesn’t mention Watergate. The occasional references to Richard Nixon have nothing to do with the scandal that Bernstein would help uncover about the nation’s 37th president. And the newspaper that the work of Bernstein and Bob Woodward vaulted into the journalistic pantheon rates only relatively glancing mentions.
Inveterate newshound that he is, Bernstein has no interest in retelling an already well-known tale. Instead of the staccato just-the-facts brag you might expect from an investigative reporter whose work brought down a president, “Chasing History” is a lovingly detailed memoir composed in a humble register. A recounting of Bernstein’s first five years in the journalism business, it opens in 1960 at the Washington Star with a vivid description of Bernstein’s first job interview at the paper he once delivered to Silver Spring, Md., homes from a red wagon. Bernstein was 16 years old, self-conscious about his freckles and trying to hide his status as a high school junior behind a spiffy suit from the same discount haberdasher who outfitted then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Overcoming the initial skepticism of the Star’s editors required a combination of precocious pertinacity (“I telephoned every two or three days,” Bernstein recalls) and a lightning-fast typing speed (nearly 90 words per minute). It was an early sign of Bernstein’s rebel streak paying off. He decided to become the only boy to study typing, “part of the Home Economics curriculum at Montgomery Blair High School,” he notes, because “I’d come to hate shop classes by then.”
Bernstein’s coming-of-age in the newsroom coincided with a tumultuous time in American history. His preference for the newsroom over the classroom (he barely finished high school and never graduated from the University of Maryland) put him in position to help cover the space race, the Cold War and the Supreme Court decision to end prayer in public schools. At one point, Bernstein was so angry about being denied a plum assignment to cover civil rights leaders’ response to the beatings of protesters (including future congressman John Lewis) in Selma, Ala., that he took vacation time to flack for them. While it’s hard to imagine a more laudable cause to support than civil rights, Bernstein’s brief experience as a public relations agent only cemented his desire to become a full-fledged reporter. He was eager to have his hand in shaping the daily news report. As a lowly courier for the Star’s busy police reporters, he learned enough about D.C. law enforcement officials’ efforts to hunt down homosexuals — including a top aide to then-President Johnson — to wonder whether an abuse of police power wasn’t the real story. And, as a draft-eligible young man, he spent a good deal of energy trying to avoid a government-paid trip to Vietnam.
So, “Chasing History” can be read as an origin story of many of the debates we’re still having today — about race, about culture, and about the appropriate role and reach of American power across the globe. But it can also be read as a call for a debate that we should be having but aren’t — about how to support the kind of public-service-minded, labor-intensive journalism that inspired Bernstein to get into the business.
As much as it is about Bernstein, this book is about the vibrant life and inexorable death of the Star and, by extension, all too many other major metropolitan dailies. It is, however, hardly sentimental. Take, for instance, Bernstein’s descriptions of the Star’s police reporters: One “looked like a warthog and he sounded like a warthog too,” he writes, describing the “snuffling, rooting noise” that accompanied “almost every clause he uttered.” Yet for all the quirky and at times downright repellent characters at newspapers like the Star, these institutions managed to incubate talent and serve their communities in ways that we are sorely missing today.
Particularly in rural America, the loss of local papers, combined with a lack of adequate broadband, has left people relying on what they can get on their cellphones for news. That would be social media, such as Facebook. And you wonder why lies about the 2020 election and coronavirus vaccinations took hold?
This news desertification has been minutely chronicled by Penny Abernathy, a reporter turned scholar, and recently lamented by The Washington Post Magazine. And lest anyone think I’m wallowing in ink-stained nostalgia by focusing on news outlets best known for the products they produce on paper, read the statistics from the Pew Research Center and weep: Your phone and computer may make you think you can’t get away from the news, but the number of people who actually report and cover it dropped by more than 25 percent between 2008 and 2020. And, as Poynter has documented, the pandemic has only made things worse, hollowing out local newsrooms at a time when people need trusted news sources more than ever.
As disheartening as they are, these figures don’t even begin to accurately measure the extent of the damage, since by 2008, newspaper employment already was down dramatically from the 1970s, when daily circulation peaked.
More than any numbers could, Bernstein’s book gives a vivid sense of what has been lost.
In most towns these days, it’s impossible to imagine a scene like the one that so entranced Bernstein the first time he walked into the newsroom of his hometown paper. The “glorious chaos” and “purposeful commotion,” he writes, were generated by a room full of reporters, dictationists, editors, photographers and copy boys (gender-specific terms used advisedly, as that’s the way it was back in the day). In an era when data is transmitted wirelessly, the work that kept Bernstein so busy is obsolete: Copy boys crisscrossed the newsroom ferrying first drafts of the day’s news from the typewriters of reporters still writing it to the desks of editors waiting to ready it for publication. A floor or two below, another room full of linotypists and pressmen was preparing to create the rumble of the presses that Bernstein would feel under his feet.
Bernstein describes it as a kind of word factory. In fact, he uses the word “factory” repeatedly in referring to the Star, and it is telling. Newspapers of the era — especially afternoon papers, where presses rolled during the day while reporters and writers were at work upstairs — were intriguing cultural crossroads. Writerly intellectuals, recruited straight out of the Ivy League — such as Lance Morrow, later a celebrated essayist for Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and Warren Hoge, later the foreign editor of the New York Times — regularly crossed paths with less lofty-minded members of the trade (the aforementioned cop shop reporters) as well as members of blue-collar craft unions who worked with ink and hot lead.
A “media elite” it was not. Oh, it’s true that the Star was an incubator of many journalists who would become leading figures in the profession, including three trailblazing women: the celebrated columnist Mary McGrory, author Myra MacPherson and investigative reporter Miriam Ottenberg. Bernstein drops their boldfaced names liberally throughout his text and pays them generous credit for mentoring him. But he reserves his best writing for the characters to whom he seems to owe a bigger debt, characters like Eddie, the legless pencil vendor who steered him to where he could get his first grown-up suit at a discount, and Annie the newspaper vendor, who sold him papers when he was a kid.
This “little guy” mentality was part of the DNA of many community newspapers, which gave their audiences a window onto the wider world while also drawing them in with stories about themselves. Annie’s obit was lovingly reported and written by Bernstein and edited by Haynes Johnson, who already was gaining a reputation for his meticulously reported, near-book-length studies of American social and political challenges such as civil rights and McCarthyism. Her obit ran on Page 1 of the Star, meaning that a humble newsstand operator was laid to rest by two future Pulitzer Prize winners. How many local news organizations have the time and the talent to do the same today?
Based on Bernstein’s description of the schedules he had to juggle once he was promoted to city desk clerk, which put him in charge of scheduling all the reporters and support staff, there may have been more copy boys (and, eventually, girls) in the Star newsroom than there are reporters at some major metropolitan dailies now. It’s also impossible to imagine many local news organizations today being able to deploy the kind of resources that Bernstein recounts the Star mobilizing to cover the 1963 March on Washington: dedicated phone lines placed at strategic locations around the Mall so that reporters, in those pre-cellphone days, could quickly phone their reports to a waiting rewrite desk; a fleet of cars and drivers equipped with two-way radios, food and, in case of violence, helmets for reporters; motorcycle couriers to rush photographers’ film to a temporary helipad on the Mall so the undeveloped rolls could be choppered to the Star’s roof.
Bernstein began thinking deeply about racial inequity after being assigned to cover neighborhood association meetings and noticing they were segregated. He had his consciousness raised about the lack of Black reporters in the Star newsroom after a difficult conversation with Stokely Carmichael at one of those meetings. His reflections on the impact that covering raw injustice had on reporters echo in the current debates over how to cover Black Lives Matter or Donald Trump.
“The old fifty-fifty, down-the-middle, half-on-one-side-half-on-the-other approach was giving way to real reporting that was closer to the truth,” Bernstein writes about the coverage of the murders of civil rights advocates in the Deep South. “Because, for all the right reasons, the truth is not neutral.”
There’s plenty in this book for history buffs: Bernstein was on the parade route for John Kennedy’s inauguration, and — while still a high school student — at the news conference where Kennedy answered questions about the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a young legman, whose job was to file notes to senior reporters, Bernstein was at the White House when Kennedy’s coffin was returned in the early-morning hours after his assassination.
“At about four thirty in the morning the gray ambulance-hearse, followed by several black limousines, arrived outside the Northwest Gate,” he writes. “An honor guard lifted the casket and carried it inside. Behind it, the president’s widow and his brother, who had been in the hearse, followed. I got back to the newsroom about an hour later, drained.”
The book also is a lyrical reminiscence of the Washington that nurtured Bernstein, “a city,” he writes, “that was both a great world capital and a smallish town that was home.” At one point, Bernstein told a girlfriend about his ambition to write “a wholly different kind of volume about the capital of the United States,” modeled after Jan Morris’s “Venice.” In many ways, he’s realized that ambition. That afternoon, on his date, Bernstein noticed the National Gallery turning “a shade of pink, which is what always happened to the marble when it rained.” This is a book that acknowledges the power and beauty of Washington while giving plenty of love and even respect to the Damon Runyonesque characters who inhabited it back in the day.
But I think “Chasing History” is more interesting for the questions it raises about the history we have yet to write. Even though he never mentions Watergate, Bernstein’s memoir has to leave you wondering: Who is going to expose the next one? Who is covering the neighborhood association meetings today? Who is interviewing the next Stokely Carmichael? Who is mentoring the next Carl Bernstein?
Who is paying for all that? And without it, where are we headed?
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills chair in free press studies at the Missouri School of Journalism.
A Kid in the Newsroom
By Carl Bernstein
Holt. 370 pp. $29.99