The Star was known as a writer’s paper, often more creative and entertaining than the stodgier Post. It was the early proving ground for some of the best journalists of our time, including the national political reporter David Broder, who eventually migrated to The Post, the investigative star Jane Mayer of The New Yorker and The New York Times’s columnist Maureen Dowd. It was where Mary McGrory, another must-read political columnist for The Post, sharpened her pen.
Having made a living chronicling the lives of others, many journalists understandably feel compelled to write memoirs, even though these books often wind up on the $2 shelves at used-book sales. (I have a small library of them, including the memoir of a Los Angeles Examiner reporter, Will Fowler, who in 1947 found the severed body of a woman who became known as the Black Dahlia. The most grandiose title in my collection is “From Kristallnacht to Watergate: Memoirs of a Newspaperman,” by the former Post editor Harry Rosenfeld.) McGrory, whom Bernstein absolutely worshiped, resisted memoir-mania and snapped at me when I once asked her if she intended to write one, saying, “I’m much too busy writing my column,” which she produced three times a week.
McGrory always said she would have happily worked forever at The Star. For his part, Bernstein wanted nothing more than to become its city editor. The well-tailored man who actually held the job, Sidney Epstein, was his role model and is, besides the author, the most intriguing character in the book. Epstein mentored his young cub during the hours they spent making up the weekly schedule for all the employees in the city room. Bernstein’s excitement is palpable when, early on, he watched the city editor marshal his troops to cover the tragedy of two boys electrocuted at a local pool. He also vividly recaptures the paper’s herculean efforts to cover the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Sadly, Epstein could not save his protégé from the Star’s rule requiring a college diploma, so at age 21 Bernstein quit and, after an interim job at a paper in New Jersey, was snapped up by The Post. As we know, there was plenty of history left for Carl Bernstein to chase. But that’s a story he has already told.
In 2008, as the digital revolution was destroying newspaper advertising and circulation, Clay Shirky, an influential media analyst at New York University, warned in a widely read article called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” against spilling tears for the past. He argued that the survival of journalism was crucial, but that print newspapers could — and would — fade away. “They’ll miss us when we’re gone” was not, he chided, a sustainable business model.
Maybe not. But people still do value the connection between a newspaper and its readers and want journalists to be knowledgeable about the communities they cover. Carl Bernstein’s book, which is ultimately a eulogy for print newspapers, is a passionate reminder of exactly what is being lost.