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Ex-Watergate writer laments 'idiot culture'

Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein told about 200 people in Tampa that today's media is more gossip and trash than news.

Published March 19, 2004

TAMPA - Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein riffed Thursday night about President Bush, the Martha Stewart trial, the war in Iraq and his affection for Florida.

But mostly he talked about an epidemic that troubles him deeply these days. He calls it "the triumph of idiot culture."

Speaking to a crowd of about 200 at the Wyndham Westshore, he placed most of the blame on modern media outlets.

Bernstein, the former Washington Post journalist who, along with fellow reporter Bob Woodward, unearthed the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, said much of today's news has deteriorated into gossip, sensationalism and manufactured controversy.

That type of news panders to the public and insults their intelligence, ignoring the context of real life, he said. Good journalism, Bernstein said, "should challenge people, not just mindlessly amuse them."

He said the modern press lacks true leadership, citing such examples as AOL Time Warner and mogul Rupert Murdoch as media owners that have increasingly abandoned the principles of meaningful reporting.

"Their interest in truth is secondary to their interest in huge profits," Bernstein said.

Still, he said people can change that trend by exploring the Internet and piecing together from reputable sources their own news about important world matters.

He offered another solution to avoiding the trash that fills the airwaves: "Change the damn channel. Simple."

Bernstein also turned his attention Thursday to the coming election, calling President Bush "the most radical president of my lifetime and perhaps in the century."

Bernstein said Bush "is radical in every degree," from a favoritism of the wealthy to a pre-emptive foreign policy to a lack of concern for civil rights.

"He certainly seems more ideological than any of our presidents," Bernstein said.

Even so, Bernstein said he hopes a genuine debate can take place this year about the future of the country, rather than the petty quarrels and meaningless accusations that so often dominate campaign coverage.

"Let's move beyond the absurd name-calling and sound bite journalism," he said. "It is our job ... to force a real debate."

Try as he might, Bernstein could not escape the ghosts of Watergate, even for one night. A man stood during the post-speech question-and-answer session and asked if Deep Throat, the anonymous source used by Woodward and Bernstein, was a real person.

Bernstein smiled and broke into an impression of Nixon, grumbling to an assistant and wondering himself about Deep Throat's identity.

"It is one person," Bernstein said, finally. "We did not make it up."

And when Deep Throat dies, he said, "We will reveal him."

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