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Carl Bernstein makes the case for ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’

Westminster Town Hall Forum
Gary Eichten interviewing Carl Bernstein at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Thursday night.

“The best obtainable version of the truth.”

The famous Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein is fairly obsessed with the phrase. I’m not saying this in a bad way.

On stage in Minneapolis Thursday night at the great Westminster Town Hall Forum, Bernstein introduced the phrase “the best obtainable version of the truth” (hereafter TBOVOTT) early in the talk and then circled back to it again and again as the summary of what journalism should but too often does not produce and what the public should but does not want.

“People are not looking for the best obtainable version of the truth,” he said, because much of the audience for news and information cares less about reading or hearing TBVOTT than on having its ideological biases confirmed. And “journalism is not committed to the presentation of the best obtainable version of the truth.”

As a result, “we can’t have a fact-based debate in this country,” he said. We have lost “the ability of each side to accept the sincerity and good will of the other. “ As a result, “Congress is totally dysfunctional” and there is “no good will” across partisan or ideological lines, and little ability to compromise for the greater good. Forty years of “scorched earth politics” and “culture war,” Bernstein said, “has depleted us.” As a result, he said, “I’m not optimistic about what is going on in the politics of this country.”

No kidding.

Bernstein never defined TBOVOTT precisely but I suppose it almost defines itself. I think it purports to be a simultaneously grand and humble definition of what journalists are supposed to put in the paper and on the air every day. The truth, that’s pretty grand. But if TBOVOTT is only a version of the truth, well, that seems to acknowledge that there’s no single and only truth. And if it’s just the best “version” of the truth that was “obtainable” within the confines of time and space and wisdom and within the talents of those assembling it on a given day… well, that’s why I call it humble as well as grand. And to that degree, I share his nostalgia for the (perhaps mythical) good old days.

Bernstein did single out Fox News as the leading factor that led the nation’s news consumers astray. He acknowledged that there are leftier versions of biased journalism, but Fox was the pioneer and Fox is “the most potent political force” to come onto the scene over the past 30 years even though, he added, Fox often reports information that is “demonstrably untrue.”

(By the way, I assumed TBOVOTT was a grand principle Bernstein had been taught as a young journalist, but when I Googled it up, there are lots of references but they were all attributed to Bernstein.)

On the Clintons

In 2008, on the occasion of her first campaign for president, Bernstein produced a book titled “A Woman in Charge: The life of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” which, of course, has new relevance on the occasion of her current second presidential candidacy and which he was available to sign last night.

Carl Bernstein
Westminster Town Hall Forum
Carl Bernstein

Observing the Clintons, he said, one is struck by the “sheer spectacle,” by which he meant the doings of Bill and Hillary Clinton contain “large parts soap opera.”  He added that the Republican Party is dedicated to “wiping out Clintonism,” which adds to the drama.

Bernstein mentioned just two ideas for making things better. He would favor a constitutional amendment that would overrule the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and impose limits on campaign spending, and he would favor the creation of a “compulsory program of national service for all young people.”

Bernstein’s talk, which was really a Q and A session with former MPR host/interviewer Gary Eichten, will be broadcast on MPR at noon Monday. MinnPost, by the way, was a co-sponsor of the event.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/17/2015 - 10:01 am.

    When politicians who have received advanced degrees from universities claim that they are not enough of a “scientist” to know if Moses rode a dinosaur (or similar) it is clear that they are pandering the lowest denominator of their base and participating in a direct attack on the basis of modern society where the scientific method should prevail and the understanding that knowledge always should expand, not decrease.

    No one has the final answer yet–that is why there is CERN, that is why on-going research occurs in every field.

    Of course, when it comes to disappointing your contributors, toss it all out the window and genuflect to the mighty, as has been done from the beginning of time.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/17/2015 - 11:24 am.

    Interesting until we get to his “Ideas”

    Seriously, the 70’s called and they want their moderate liberal idea’s back.

    How about this: we re-institute the “equal time” rules Reagan swiped away, and we publicly fund all elections requiring that media provide free time and space to qualified candidates.

    Meanwhile, the reason it’s impossible to have a fact based discussion is that we’ve descended into a miasma of consumerism and high school debate mentality while completely failing to cultivate critical thinking skills and intellectual integrity.

    I’m tired of hearing consumer mentalities described as confirmation bias, as if that lends some scientific credibility to consumer behavior. We’ve cultivated a population of consumers instead of citizens. Consumers don’t want to be challenged beyond their own self determined parameters, their only responsibility is to seek and obtain gratification (i.e., news they enjoy rather than news they need), and consumers attend to marketing rather than critical analysis. Marketing appeals to egocentric passions and desires, and our news is becoming an extension of marketing. So a tidal wave in India has no meaning unless there’s a “local” connection… and so it goes. Whatever, as Lou Reed said: “stick a fork in them, their done.”

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/17/2015 - 12:57 pm.

    A pair of good ideas

    I like both of Bernstein’s suggestions, but doubt that I’ll live long enough to see them implemented, if they ever are.

    In the meantime, I share his (and Eric’s) sadness at the disappearance of TBOVOTT. Only rarely is there likely to be a *single* truth that is incontrovertible, but the task of journalists – and of citizens engaged in their civic duty – ought to be to arrive at TBOVOTT without undue histrionics, gnashing of teeth, etc. There *are* occasions when “the facts” justify at least a debate that grants some credibility to conservative positions. Unfortunately, recent decades have seen the rise of what I’ll charitably describe as “fact-free” journalism, wherein ideology and opinion, intertwined, are presented as a substitute for TBOVOTT. Occasionally, that substitution comes from the left, but more often, at least in recent years, and especially since the advent of “Faux-News,” the dissembling and propaganda, at least on a national scale, come from the right.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/17/2015 - 02:02 pm.

    Media regulation

    If “TBOVOTT” has not always been a central pillar of journalistic ethics, if not the First Amendment, it should be soon. Journalists provide a valuable service to the public in organizing and presenting information necessary for the citizenry to participate in this republic/democracy. At least in theory. It’s my impression that journalism has declined in influence because of the Fox News phenomena that seems to be based on the individual viewer (not reader because most viewers of TV public affairs don’t read newspapers) deciding what to watch and what to believe (“we report, you decide”). Paradoxically, this slogan which sounds like free competition is just the opposite.

    It surprised me to read that the Fox News Network has only been with us since 1996.

    Fox News would not have been possible with the Fairness Doctrine (which is different from the Equal Time Rule) because it would have had to allow persons its attacked or maligned air time to defend themselves – a sort of anti-defamation remedy, but also a protection against attacks by those exercising monopolistic control over the media. If Fox News was “fair and balanced”, it would allow individuals or entities defamed by its talking heads to respond. (Maybe Fox News remains credible among so many people because they think if what’s reported by these “trusted” talking heads was not true, they would have a chance to come on the air and present their side; their absence implies to these uninformed people that if it’s spoken by someone on the air, it must be true. Absurd logic, I know, but many people think this way, especially when they can feast on “information candy” to their hearts content delivered by Fox.)

    On the other hand, the Fairness Doctrine never applied to cable and to the extent Fox News is a cable channel, it would never have prevented it from coming into existence and growing. Cable was neither fish nor fowl under the Communications Act so it was never subject to the Fairness Doctrine and other regulations which the FCC could impose on broadcasters. The Internet is a similar creature and one reason we have no set of rational regulation of communication technologies that can be exploited to dazzle and befuddle the mass audience with propaganda. It’s also central to this Net Neutrality debate where some of the big players are regulated common carriers, others are more like broadcasters and others are neither, like content providers.

    Overruling of Citizen’s United would be a good start to a rational regulation of the information marketplace but there needs to be thoroughgoing overhaul of the regulation of communications technologies. Fox News eroded and circumvented public regulation of monopolistic communication technologies and created a “race to the bottom” by the already monopolistic communications industry. This is an industry which panders to what people want to believe rather than what they need to know to make them better as citizens. Most of us are no better at deciding what we need to know than we are at deciding what we should eat to maintain our health. If you build a network on the principle of telling people what they want to believe rather than what they need to know (or a close equivalent-“TBOVOTT”) you get a Fox News. Or more accurately, the information business as it exists today. It takes a lot more work and time to stay well informed.

  5. Submitted by Robert Franklin on 04/17/2015 - 04:03 pm.


    Sadly, many semi-pro or amateur media outlets have reverted to the early days of the Republic to be essentially organs of a political party or ideology. Or to lazily amalgamate the work of others.
    But, after a half century of reporting and editing and 24 years of parttime journalism teaching, I can say that the overwhelming majority of reporters and editor I know (mainly mainstream) are dedicated to TBOVOTT and willing to fight for the time, space and resources to tell the truth as best they can. A couple of reasons:
    You want to get it right because getting it wrong will get you in trouble. On occasion, big time, as we have seen recently.
    More than that, the loyalty of these folks is overwhelmingly not to a party or ideology (or even the whim of an employer) but to The Story and thus ultimately to informing the reader and viewer as best we can. If there is a cardinal rule of professional journalism, it is that you do not put out unchallenged something you know is wrong or should have reason to believe is wrong.
    I have found journalists to be an amazingly introspective lot. We challenge deadlines to get that one additional source. We sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. to think once again whether we got the story right. Most of us, I think, are mindful of our own imperfections as well as the imperfections of the people we cover.
    Having said that, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the state of TBOVOTT in the midst of the Internet cacophony and the gullibility of many consumers these days.

  6. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 04/17/2015 - 05:29 pm.

    We’re forgetting about

    those who don’t read or watch anything. The young lady who cut my hair yesterday had not heard about the airplane crash in Europe last month or anything about what had happened.

    I, after being a long-term avid newspaper reader for years, canceled my subscription to the print version of the Star Tribune and now only occasionally access the website. I just couldn’t take it anymore. The Opinion section of the paper used to be my favorite section years ago but the quality of the opinions has steadily deteriorated and the letters to the editor increasingly only reflect what angry people believe about what they hear on FoxNews.

    Yes, we need to acknowledge that Congress is dysfunctional because we as a society are dysfunctional. Congress is a reflection of us. We essentially now fall into three general groups: 1)Tuned out/disengaged/disempowered 2)Tuned in but still disempowered and 3) Tuned in, angry and empowered–by what they hear on FoxNews, what they hear from conservative lawmakers that simply fuels more anger. It is only the last group that votes regularly and thus the last group that is steering our political ship.

    I’m not so sure that Citizens United was the chicken or the egg, but I’m pretty sure that the garbage that some people allow to come into their homes everyday from the television is acting as a poison–it is disempowering and disheartening for some of us to realize that others are capable of believing everything they hear while at the same time it is inciting some to levels of anger and resentment toward their fellow human beings that are completely unjustified, unsubstantiated, unexplainable.

    Thank you, Eric, for providing what I know is an excellent representation of the event. I have attended other events that you in turn write about and have found your representation to be spot on.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/17/2015 - 10:32 pm.

    Examples, please

    I think this article will be interesting for all

    I also wonder why such animosity towards FOX… For example, I watch MSNBC for laugh… My guess is that many liberals would be happy if the government closed FOX… which should not be a liberal position at all… I would also like examples when FOX said something that is “demonstrably untrue” and when they defamed people. I believe O’Reilly constantly invites people to come to his show and they decline.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/18/2015 - 09:54 am.

      Confirmation bias

      seems to have become the pop psych flavor of the month.
      It is a real psychological concept, but it has been stretched way past its usefulness.

      I don’t know of any liberals (starting with myself) who would want Fox off the air; certainly not ‘closed’ by the government (which would be a clear violation of the First Amendment). They have the right to speak, and I have the right to ignore.

      A question for you:
      How many -reporters- does Fox employ (any?).
      -News- sources like the NYT and the WaPo have large staffs of reporters all over the world.
      Neither MSNBC nor Fox is a news source, which is why I seldom watch either.

  8. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 04/18/2015 - 10:11 am.

    Re Fox falsities

    Mr. Gutman:
    See link below for a rundown of the veracity of various Fox claims. Not that other cable channels are paragons of virtue, but Fox is the worst.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/19/2015 - 08:44 am.


      Except for Bret Baier, all of the people listed there are commentators who appear on opinion shows. People who watch Fox News watch it for straight news on Mr. Baier’s show, and they watch it to listen to the lively debates on the opinion shows. If you can’t tell the difference then perhaps a viewer should stick to the Comedy Channel or wherever it is they receive their hard news.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/20/2015 - 09:44 am.

        “People who watch Fox News . . .”

        People who watch Fox News watch it because it confirms their biases. “Lively debates” my eye–the watch it to hear how bad Obama is, and how evil Hilary Clinton is. The straight news reporting (which actually is good, until it starts to tell you why it’s all Obama’s fault) is the lesser attraction.

        “Spirited debate!” Where do you come up with stuff like that?

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/18/2015 - 10:06 pm.

    Mr. Brandon, here is a link and I doubt they are lying here … but I would believe you that everyone you know do not want FOX off air and that is great… But even in this thread, FNC was the only one bashed…

    It is very hard now to draw a line between the news and opinion because almost everyone reporting the news expresses some opinion. Personally, I check the news on because it gives me a variety of sources. But FNC does have reporters – in the White House and in Jerusalem, for example. They also often use reports from affiliates…

    Ms. Spencer, I checked the link you provided and I question its fairness. For example, Fox statements were checked 136 times, NBC + MSNBC were checked 126 times and all the rest were checked significantly less which shows that FOX is singled out. On the other hand, I checked a few evaluations and I have my doubts about them. And finally they evaluate guests and pundits who may come from the other side of the aisle… Also, I did not see any defamation examples…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/19/2015 - 10:02 am.


      There IS a liberal lunatic fringe.
      But it IS a fringe.

      And maybe I should reconsider my conclusions on confirmation bias.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/19/2015 - 10:07 am.

      Ann Coulter

      Is the lead columnist on The Daily Caller.
      Their self-description:
      “Founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, a 20-year veteran journalist, and Neil Patel, former chief policy advisor to Vice President Cheney….”

  10. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/18/2015 - 10:35 pm.

    Shutting down Fox News

    I don’t know of anyone, especially a “liberal” , would ever suggest “closing down” a network at least for reasons which essentially boiled down to disagreement with their opinions. Which is not to say that there are never any reasons to revoke a license if the rules as they may be have been violated.

    The Fairness Doctrine allowed people who were personally attacked on a radio or TV station time to appear on that station for a response. Of course that meant the FCC was a referee to decide if a person was personally attacked. The paradigm case is where someone goers on the air to “smear” another as being a Communist.

    Today, Fox News and other news outlets have other ways of “smearing” people. A policy like the “Fairness Doctrine” would at least keep a Fox News somewhat more honest if they were forced to give time to those who were personally attacked time to rebut the charges. This is not some set-up like O’Reilly offering time to appear with him on his show. It means time to rebut or respond to personal attacks.It works both ways too. Conservatives who feel personally attacked when they are compared to Hitler could demand equal time for rebut such attacks.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/19/2015 - 11:47 am.


      Mr. Kingstad, I would say that a fairness doctrine, if applied, would be more detrimental to outlets other than FOX. Imagine that they all would have had to allow Mr. Zimmerman, Officer Wilson, entire Duke lacrosse team, etc. to appear every time they were accused of racism… And since the racism accusations are the most common in the media except FOX, that would be a nice exercise… But of course, as you said, the major problem is who will be the judge…

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/19/2015 - 02:44 pm.

    Missed point

    Seems: The key point (Principle) was TBOVOTT. Supported by, “Search for the truth” (the Socratic method) not; search for a link of an opinion to support your opinion. 2 Completely different animals. Ironically, based on the commentary dialogue that followed, “proves Bernstein’s point”

    Agreed: Dump citizens united, and institute mandatory conscription,both based on principle or historical proven logic, not opinions.

  12. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 04/20/2015 - 06:51 am.

    Narrative Journalism

    This reads like a caution against overuse of ‘narrative journalism’, in which the news story carefully leads the reader to the preferred story. I’m all for this. At the very least, the hard news should dominate the beginning of the story while the (often leading) explainers from experts should be at the bottom.
    A textbook example of the wrong way to do this surfaced just this weekend from Newsweek.
    It opens:
    “Enemies of Hillary Clinton waiting to discredit her bid for the White House are likely to seize on news that one of the biggest benefactors to the Clinton Foundation has been trading with Iran and may be in breach of US sanctions imposed on the country.”

    The story is the action of the Clintons but the writer wants to make sure that any possible harm is wiped out by the reminder that the real villains are those awful ‘Enemies of Hillary Clinton’. I’d like to think that Bernstein thinks this type of reporting from Newsweek is a problem too.

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