By Prudence Brighton, Correspondent
SHIRLEY — The last question asked of Carl Bernstein on Sunday afternoon caused a collective intake of breath among his large audience at the Bull Run Restaurant.
Bernstein himself seemed to heave a heavy sigh when Adam Reilly, WGBH senior political reporter, asked “What are the prospects for a peaceful transfer of power (if President Donald J. Trump is defeated next year or ends a second term in office in 2024)?”
The response to the question was not reassuring.
“We’re in a very dangerous situation and a potentially explosive environment,” Bernstein warned.
Bernstein, one of the most prominent names in American journalism, was speaking to an audience of 300, which included Fitchburg State University journalism, English and history students as well as local residents. His topic for the afternoon was fake news.
Currently a political analyst for CNN and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Bernstein gained fame as one half of the Washington Post reporting team whose work contributed significantly to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. The other half of the team was Bob Woodward.
Bernstein came to the podium and began by saying dryly, “Well, your timing is good.”Shortly afterwards, almost on cue, his cell phone rang.
“CNN. Must be news,” he said. He turned the phone off, remarking that it was CNN’s booker and that CNN would just have to wait.
Following the advertised format for the event, Bernstein spoke for about 25 minutes, took questions from Reilly, then questions from the audience and then that one final question from Reilly.
On the topic of fake news, he spoke of an “inability to reflect, appreciate and factor in the complexity of our culture.” The outcome has been to put politics and journalism “in a box” separate from the wider culture.
“We have two notions,” he said. “The first is that the press exists for the public good. The second is that we give our readers and viewers the best obtainable version of the truth. This is difficult to achieve and particularly elusive in the age of social media.”
Defining some of the differences between the Watergate scandal and today’s scandal, Bernstein said that when he and Woodward began reporting they were alone in their pursuit of the story. Several months later the New York Times started reporting on the burglary that cost Nixon his job. “Today, we have 12 to 15 news organizations breaking great stories every day.” He listed the Washington Post, New York Times, Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN and even the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation also the owner of Fox News.
As the Trump White House becomes more embroiled in a rapidly developing scandal, “There’s no big crack in the Republican wall in Congress,” he said. He added that in a recent conversation with Woodward–the two talk frequently–his former partner said, “Some Republicans are choking.”
They’re not choking soon enough to satisfy Bernstein, who charges GOP officials with “a craven irresponsibility “ in the face of what is emerging as “a real conspiracy” led by the President of the United States.
“We are in a very, very scary moment,” he said, forecasting his answer to Reilly’s final question.Bernstein is a fair and even-handed journalist, however, and has opinions that show his balanced approach. Hillary Clinton, for example, bears some of the responsibility for “who the current president is.” Also, “Hunter Biden is as legitimate a story as are the conflicts of interest that Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump have.”
He advised that people need to be open to the truth, but often rely on stories that confirm their biases. “How many people in this room voted for Trump? Raise your hand.” In a room of 300 people, no one did. “I rest my case,” he said.
He repeated the need for “openness to truth” when a 5th grade teacher asked him what she should be teaching her students.