Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom
“In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles, blogs, and websites, Bernstein’s memoir of his early days in the newspaper business is as much an archaeological excavation as it is a personal story.”
Ever since the inception of the Trump administration and the media frenzy it generated, investigative journalist Carl Bernstein has been ubiquitous in both print and broadcast journalism. Makes sense, though, right? After all, he investigated the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. Along with Bob Woodward, he made up one half of The Washington Post journalistic team that helped bring down an American president and made the duo household names.
One might wonder how Bernstein came to be . . . well, Carl Bernstein. Wonder no more. In Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, Bernstein not only chases history but dishes on his own personal history. A history that ultimately led him to share a Pulitzer Prize with Woodward for All the President’s Men and his current standing as one of a handful of genuine experts on covering presidential misconduct.
In the summer of 1960, at the ripe old age of 16, Bernstein snagged his first job in the newspaper business, copyboy for the now defunct Washington Star, conservative counterpoint to the more liberal Washington Post. It was an entry level position, but one that put him in position to learn pretty much all there was to learn about the business of actually producing a newspaper. Sorta like a job in the mailroom at the old William Morris Agency for someone trying to break into the agenting business in Hollywood.
As Bernstein succinctly describes it: “The copyboy’s job was to mediate between the thinking part of the operation and the mechanical part, between making the words and getting the paper out. The people who produced the words could think and type and do all kinds of magic with sentences, aided by their mighty powers of observation and inquiry. But they had almost no interest in the production side of the enterprise. . . .”
Bernstein draws the reader into the composing room and offices of the Star as he earns his education from colorful characters who populate the paper, whom he recalls with equal parts reverence and awe. Over the next five years, he moves up the ladder from job to job, dictationist to obituary writer and ultimately to full-blown reporter, always learning as he advances up each rung.
Sometimes the learning is elementary, like making sure when covering an event that you stake out a convenient payphone and had sufficient change in your pockets to call in your story to a dictationist. Other lessons are a bit more complex and some involved learning the importance of book and reading research. There are lessons on developing sources and story ideas.
And sometimes it is simply learning when to shut up and listen. “Spontaneous information was often more reliable and nuanced than what you might get by tightly focused interrogation.”
Ironically, Bernstein’s burning desire to learn about the newspaper game didn’t match his lackadaisical approach to book learning in school. In fact, although he graduated from high school by the skin of his teeth, his enrollment at the University of Maryland was motivated more by his desire to avoid the military draft, with Vietnam lurking across the Pacific, than it was to actually gain knowledge. Though he managed to stay in school for a while, he ultimately flunked out, was reinstated, then was out again, landing him in the Army reserves.
To hear Bernstein tell it, the first half of the 1960s was a most fascinating time for the news game, and no one can argue with that. Stories ranged from Russian cosmonaut Uri Gagarin traveling in outer space to the Bay of Pigs, from the escalation of the Vietnam War to the Kennedy assassination, and from school prayer being struck down by the Supreme Court to the march on Washington as part of the Civil Rights Movement.
Along the way, Bernstein picks up social skills, or at least he learns how to be a more interesting person, particularly to the opposite sex. Professional knowledge is one thing; personal knowledge is another. “One thing was for sure: it was possible to be a much more interesting person to almost anyone if you could converse on the basis of what you’d learned being a copyboy and a dictationist and hung out at Harrigan’s and went to the president’s press conferences.”
The book reads like a first sequel to his prior Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir, the story of his family surviving the McCarthy era and his family’s persecution for its political beliefs. With this book, Bernstein follows that up with an introduction to a part of the newspaper world that he inhabited for the first five years of his career before moving on to later successes as a reporter. Those later successes are, perhaps, for a sequel.
Chasing History is at once a story of breaking into the newspaper game as well as a how-to on putting together a newspaper, at least as it once existed in an era seemingly long ago. In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles, blogs, and websites, Bernstein’s memoir of his early days in the newspaper business is as much an archaeological excavation as it is a personal story.
But we can all learn much from history and the trailblazers who led the way.