February 20, 2015

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Carl Bernstein – of The Washington Post and Watergate fame – speak at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond. I was blown away by his candor.

During his presentation, he spoke to three highly-influential segments of today’s society: politics, journalism and public opinion. In all three areas, he suggested there has been a significant shift away from both the facts and context – key components of candor. It’s no wonder candor seems so uncommon in today’s world.

Political Agendas

Bernstein spoke about Washington’s gridlock – on Capitol Hill, not the Beltway. He shared his perspective that, during Watergate, Republicans and Democrats came together to unearth the truth. He reminded us that even Barry Goldwater, a strong conservative Republican, went to President Nixon and said “you must resign or we will convict you.” The facts were obvious and politicians then did not skew or ignore facts to meet their ideology or the party line.

Today, Bernstein says, our congressional representatives – and really, most elected officials – are no longer focused on learning facts to shape their opinions; rather, they are looking for facts “to buttress what they already believe.”  Bernstein believes that the “common good” is now the last consideration in political decisions and that our elected officials are no longer focused on solving the country’s problems in lieu of other self-serving motives (i.e. Party nominations, re-election and fear of losing prestige).  “Washington,” Bernstein says, has become “indifferent to the truth.”

Not-So-News Media

In speaking of journalism, Bernstein said he was taught to find the “best obtainable version of the truth.” However, he believes this is no longer happening and that many journalists are deciding the truth from their pre-existing “ideological and partisan cocoons.” This is unsettling when you consider how reliant the public is on the news media for their information. Add to this social media, which has given everyone a platform from which to share their version of the news, and we now have a disconcerting mix of informing the public based largely on opinion, not facts.

Scandalous Behavior

We are now a culture that “manufactures controversy,” Bernstein says. The news and entertainment industries and we, as a scandal-addicted public, show a lack of respect for finding out the truth before we run with a story, form an opinion or make a judgment. It seems many are most interested in the latest hot gossip rather than the truth and the major networks and social media are just as eager to feed the addiction.

When Bernstein addressed our group, the news of Brian Williams had just broken and there was a lot of dialogue about his mistake (both on the airwaves and among my colleagues.) Yet, at the time, very little was known about the full story. Someone in the audience asked Bernstein how he felt about the Williams mess, and Bernstein responded simply that he didn’t know enough about it to have an opinion yet. How refreshing!

A return to candor can be required from our elected officials and from our news sources if we consistently demand “the facts first”.