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.” …