Carl Bernstein’s Temptation

‘I Told Ben!’ Carl Bernstein is having a field day denouncing Rupert Murdoch for the phone hacking done by his news organizations. Here’s Mediaite’s report on Bernstein’s appearance on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show:

 “This is a massive abuse of power, much like Nixon abused his power… journalism is not a license to abuse a free press.” He went on to say the “Murdoch enterprise has acted like thugs, not like reporters, somewhat like a mafia outfit.” 

But Bernstein is an awkward choice for critic of phone hacking, because of the memorable moment in the Watergate investigation when, stymied in his investigation of the suspicious burglary, he turns to a source at the phone company to obtain what were supposed to be private telephone records.  Here is the relevant passage from pages 35 and 36 of All the President’s Men:

Bernstein had several sources in the Bell system. He was always reluctant to use them to get information about calls because of the ethical questions involved in breaching the confidentiality of a person’s telephone records. It was a problem he had never resolved in his mind. Why, as a reporter, was he entitled to have access to personal and financial records when such disclosure would outrage him if he were subjected to a similar inquiry by investigators?

Without dwelling on his problem, Bernstein called a telephone company source and asked for a list of Barker’s calls. That afternoon, his contact called back and confirmed that the calls listed in the Times had been made.  But, he added, he could not get a fuller listing because Barker’s phone records had been subpoenaed by the Miami district attorney.

Clearly for Bernstein the issue of privacy vs. the public’s interest in truth isn’t quite as clear-cut as some Murdoch critics might like.  In the crunch, when Bernstein was tempted, he agonized — but not for very long.

Aware of this potential hypocrisy problem, Bernstein buries a defensive paragraph in his Newsweek anti-Murdoch piece:

When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full. Publisher Katharine Graham was informed. Likewise, Bradlee was aware when I obtained private telephone and credit-card records of one of the Watergate figures.

Aha! So it’s OK to breach privacy if Ben Bradlee says it’s OK, but not if Andy Coulson says it’s OK. Got it. … It’s also pretty clear from the above passage, and the passage in All the President’s Men, that company lawyers were not consulted before Bernstein “obtained private telephone and credit-card records.” It’s not even clear if Bradlee was informed before the fact. …

If 1970s technology were more advanced, and Bernard Barker had had a cell phone, and Bernstein knew how to hack it, how long do you think he would have stayed “reluctant”?  The alternative was going back to the Virginia bureau, remember. …

P.S.: Earlier in his Newsweek piece, Bernstein makes a point of noting “the systemic lawbreaking at News of the World.” Is he trying to suggest that lawbreaking is OK if it’s not “systemic” (or “massive”)? Maybe if it’s practiced by one or two lone journalists of good will who are stuck on an important story? Again, not a very bright line. No wonder Bernstein focuses most of his criticism, not on the hacking that’s at the center of the scandal, but on Murdoch’s general role in creating “our tabloid culture.” …

  • Dredmalice

    Any 14 year old knows that sytemic corruption is worse than a few isolated incidents. I can only believe you are pretending not to understand the difference. Only magnified by the hackery of giving the false choice that if Bernstein says systemic lawbreaking is bad, then he thinks non-systemic must be good. You know better, and anyone with half a brain (sorry, Daily Caller readers) knows that you know better. [But does he know they know? – ed] Shut up, ed.

    • Pascal

      A 14 year old could also read the rest of the article and acknowledge Bernstein’s obvious hypocrisy. I can criticize phone tapping. He can’t.

  • esby

    So how is investigating Nixon’s involvement in a crime the same as hacking into a thirteen year old dead girl’s cellphone? It’s such a stretch of logic (including your glossing over of Bradlee’s conferring with attorneys to make him more culpable) that it’s pretty embarrassing.

    Mickey, when Hume fully retires, you should apply for his job. No one comes close to the same amount of bitter curmudgeonliness.

    • Pascal

      So it’s okay to bug Adults? Or is it Presidents? Or boys? Or not dead people? Are you referring to a particular legal precedent?

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  • stephenkaus

    The problem is that the boomers never realized the fundamental lesson of Watergate: never, ever, under any circumstances vote for a Republican. Otherwise, I will proudly stand with the boomers.

    • motionview

      What a generation. Did you know they discovered sex? And then later child-rearing? And making money? And now retirement? Soon Alzheimer’s. Goodbye and good riddance, I just hope we survive you.

  • torispelling

    There were as outraged as when Bill Clinton started his warrantless wiretapping program on US citizens!

  • The Drill SGT

    Aha! So it’s OK to breach privacy if Ben Bradlee says it’s OK, but not if Andy Coulson says it’s OK. Got it.

    Of course that stuff is after the fact CYA. But the other point of his “Publisher Katharine Graham was informed” statement is to implicate Murdoch by inference. If Graham was told, Murdoch must have known.

  • Quayle

    In the history of mankind, was there ever a bigger talking, bigger sell-out fizzle generation than the baby boomers?

    They used to sing ballads to themselves about how amazing they were:

    “In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fred hide and deal
    We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young
    But we should be together….”

    And what did these lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young boomers do once they ascended to the leadership of our democracy? What was their pinnacle achievement – these anarchistic, rebellious, free-spirits?




    The big risk-taking, culture smashing, happily reckless destroyers of the pillars of society, when given the reigns of power themselves, actually wanted the most boring form of security known to man. They wanted insurance – their great achievement!

    The irony is too great to put into words. The sell-out too astounding.

    • whatthedickens

      It’s not such a sell-out, is it, when you’re entitled to it? And if there’s ever been a generation who felt entitled, it has been the Baby Boomers, the generation whose wisdom was innate and who emerged fully formed from their adolescence. Besides, they are doing quite well destroying the society: What could be more destructive of society than the elimination of individual responsibility? And what better way to do that than by making everyone dependent on the government’s bureaucrats? I’m sure they are very proud of themselves.

      In the wake of Watergate, Bernstein and Woodward became heroes to the Baby Boomers and inspired the current crop of journalists, who find themselves enthralled by President Obama, the President who emerged fully formed from the Baby Boomer’s adolescence. They are very proud of themselves.

  • mesquito

    Remember when some Democrats interecepted and recorded a private Newt Gingrich cell phone call? Remember how outraged everyone was? Especially the New York Times?