By Sadie Leite
Carl Bernstein’s newest memoir “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom” (2022) was released Jan. 11. Bernstein is known for his contributions to investigative journalism, specifically his part in revealing the scandal surrounding Watergate in the 1970s. He reported on this event with journalist Bob Woodward for the Washington Post. Later, the two released their findings in the acclaimed co-authored memoir “All the President’s Men” (1974).
Bernstein’s success is clear and laudable. Still, he started as any professional does: an inexperienced kid dreaming of the future. His new memoir explores this start. Bernstein tells the story of how he began his journalism career, outlining the key memories, mentors and historical news events that propelled him forward.
The memoir begins with Bernstein’s first adventure related to journalism. After turning 16, and becoming newly eligible for work, Bernstein decided he wanted to apply for a job at the Washington Evening Star in Washington, D.C. He needed a suit for the interview. He bought the suit, encountered a little trouble with his interview but was ultimately hired as a copy boy for the paper. And so, his journalism career began.
Bernstein’s careful attention to detail is revealed immediately with his excited description of the newsroom. For the first time, as a newly hired copy boy, it was truly a sight for his young eyes. Bernstein’s descriptors are perfect examples of the future experiences Bernstein would encounter. Not only is this scene an example of Bernstein’s straightforward and poignant prose but also the beginning of his journalistic advice which consistently appears throughout the memoir.
Bernstein highlights the skills he acquired along the way for his readers so they, too, can understand the qualities of an excellent journalist. Here, the skill is clear: Journalists notice detail, so their pieces are interesting and factually accurate. Also, journalists function with constant high energy — they must juggle the chaos clear in the newsroom to produce a final product.
As Bernstein falls deeper into his role as a copy boy, he learns from the Star’s head reporters. For example, Bernstein began to work closely with the night police reporter Walter Gold. Gold fervently chased the chaos of the night in his Pontiac and Bernstein often rode with him. Bernstein observed Gold’s ease with the policemen at the scenes of night fires. He was so comfortable with the subject (based on his careful study of “fire journalism”) that he could easily draw information from interviews. Bernstein was learning that other aspects of good journalism included commitment to your beat and comfort in interviews so needed facts are revealed to complete a compelling story.
Bernstein’s most impactful mentor, however, was Sid Epstein. Bernstein met him when he was city editor of the Star — he was a calm force that controlled the newsroom with stringent expectations. The two became so close that Epstein asked Bernstein to speak at his funeral. Clearly, the bond between writer and editor is important and lasting. Bernstein admired Epstein’s commitment to the Star’s five daily editions, each produced with skill and held to the highest standards in writing, editing, values and good storytelling.
Through the memoir Bernstein gained more responsibility. He was assigned to stories and he found his own to pitch to the Star. For instance, he covered a speech of President Kennedy during his campaign. Other historical events, which he didn’t cover, still shaped his career. For instance, Bernstein remembered the commotion that exploded at the paper when the Soviet Union first sent a living organism — a dog — into space. He also recalled the juxtaposition of that event with the silence in the newsroom after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Bernstein also witnessed the struggles of the American civil rights movement. He questioned the paper’s role in its presentation and was appalled by the lack of news covering the crimes against Black Americans.
Also, in between the chaos of history and producing a paper, like any young adult, Bernstein fell in love, went to parties and failed out of college.
Bernstein’s account of his early experience in the news world is accurate and indulging for those pursuing journalism. The profession is difficult and requires ambition and drive, but its rewards are great.
After the Star closed, Bernstein found his way to the Washington Post. Still, he started as a 16-year-old looking for a suit on the streets of Washington, D.C. He was unsure of his future and was only confident in his pursuit to be a real reporter one day.