Amid cries of “fake news” and increased skepticism in media, legendary Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein in January told a crowd in Sarasota that, in fact, investigative journalism may be more impressive that it’s ever been. “In the first year of Trump, we have seen the greatest reporting on a presidency of my lifetime,” he said during a speech at a “Nosh and Knowledge” event hosted by the Jewish Housing Council Foundation. That sort of praise rings loudly not just for the superlatives, but because of the source. While a 29-year-old beat reporter for the Washington Post, Bernstein and reporting partner Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story in a series of articles that won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and ultimately contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon the following year.

So what makes reporting in Washington today more impressive than that decades-old media moment? In part, the speed. Now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, Bernstein still closely follows the chatter in the halls of Washington, and he says the reporting from the White House has given a greater understanding of the culture within the current administration much faster than journalists in the 1970s could accomplish the feat. The result has been insight into a presidency that he unapologetically described as “unbalanced.” “Unlike with Watergate, it didn’t take four years to get a picture,” he said. “It has been a kind of reporting on a scale about this presidency with acuteness and accuracy and fairness and context such as I have never witnessed.” Of course, that viewpoint has its dissenters. Joe Gruters, the Florida co-chair for Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, maintains that the media has contributed to a frenzied atmosphere around the fledging administration. And while Bernstein praised the professionalism of a special counsel investigation of the Trump campaign, House Republicans have criticized a perceived vindictiveness in the proceedings, especially when compared to an investigation in 2016 into Hillary
Clinton’s use of private email servers.

Regardless, Bernstein drew applause as he labeled Trump a demagogue. But he also stressed that reporters should not be seeking the end of a Trump administration, nor any outcome they may desire on any matter on which they report. While journalists serve a public good exposing problems within society, it’s ultimately up to the public and its institutions to decide upon and bring about change. Much of the evening’s discussions came back to a shift in media over the past half century in the way individuals consume news. More often than not today, those reading articles or watching broadcasts seek information to reinforce existing beliefs, rather than to understand the world better. But then, even at the peak of Watergate, Bernstein’s credibility was frequently questioned by White House officials and Nixon allies in Congress. How did the reporters make Americans take their word over that of elected leaders?

He’s not sure that ever happened, Bernstein says. Rather, the reporting convinced a judge presiding over the Watergate burglary case, who forced evidence to be revealed showing the possibility of a cover-up. That in turn sparked a Senate investigation into White House involvement, and then leaders of both political parties began to uncover the truth about Nixon’s involvement in a hotel break-in. “There’s a series of civic action that is required of all the institutions in our country,” he told SRQ. The role of journalists simply set the chain of events off.

Would the same happen in today’s hyper-partisan political world? He’s not certain, but he also said it’s foolhardy to expect events in Washington to fix the true issues with today’s political discourse. The greater problems, he told the Sarasota crowd, run deep in the culture. He spotlighted recent financial scandals within Wells Fargo that he doubt would have been brushed aside in the ‘70s; that story, he believes, has been under-covered by investigative journalists. And the legitimate election of a polarizing figure like Trump to office, he says, wasn’t some isolated event but the result of a “cold civil war” between sides of a political divide now so sharp those of either end view one another with contempt.

He sees hope in a rising generation of those interested in avoiding social mistakes of past generations, but also said the nation will need a few genuinely inspiring leaders to make the population see value in coming together in union once more. Until then, reporters can only write what they see and uncover what they can. “The press exists for public good, not just to make money, entertain or cause controversy,” he says. “The primary function as editors, reporters and publishers is to give our readers and viewers the best obtainable version of the truth.”