WASHINGTON – It is time for us as journalists to come clean and to recognize the great debt our profession owes Bernie Bernstein.
After years of toiling in obscurity, Bernie gained national attention Tuesday when an Alabama pastor shared with a local TV station a voice mail left by Bernie. “Hi, this is Bernie Bernstein. I’m a reporter for The Washington Post calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000,” it said. “We will not be fully investigating these claims. However, we will make a written report.”
This produced a rather harsh response from Marty Baron, The Post’s executive editor, about the person “falsely claiming to be from The Washington Post. The call’s description of our reporting methods bears no relationship to reality. We are shocked and appalled that anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism.” A Post article about the episode piled on, alleging that “there are no Washington Post reporters or editors named Bernie Bernstein,” and a Post spokeswoman dutifully explained that there is “an explicit policy that prohibits paying sources.”
I understand my colleagues’ reluctance to admit that The Post gathers its news by making robo-calls and paying people to say bad things that we do not confirm.
That is why, for decades, Bernie Bernstein and his colleague Woody Woodward have toiled in The Post’s basement, doing random-digit dialing, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Bernie and Woody broke scoop after scoop, yet they were always hidden from view while others got the credit.
Until now. Bernie is speaking up. When I found Bernie in his windowless office Wednesday, he was distraught. “I can’t believe Marty said I don’t exist! ‘No relationship to reality'? ‘No Washington Post reporters or editors named Bernie Bernstein'? I made this paper!”
Indeed, you can’t quarrel with success. Bernie and Woody broke the Watergate story, while upstairs their more telegenic colleagues Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (no relation) got the glory. Woody and Bernie robo-called everybody in Washington and offered $1,000 – it was cheaper back then – for anyone willing to make damaging remarks about Richard Nixon. They told Ben Bradlee that they would report the claims without fully investigating them, to which Bradlee replied, “I’m cool with that.” In the movie “All the President’s Men,” when Deep Throat says “follow the money,” he is in fact encouraging Bernie and Woody to offer more cash on their robo-calls.
Bernie says he was moved to become a robo-caller in his youth, when he heard inspiring stories about people being offered $20 a pop to make damaging remarks about President Franklin Roosevelt. (Most homes didn’t have telephones back then, so the work was supplemented with robo-telegrams.)
Bernie’s first major triumph was the leak of the Pentagon Papers (often falsely credited to The New York Times). On one of his routine days of random-digit dialing, he reached Daniel Ellsberg and offered him $2,000 to say damaging things about Lyndon Johnson. Bernie was on his way. Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, black-site prisons, the Walter Reed Scandal: Bernie’s robo-calls brought them all to light.
Bernie caused great controversy within The Post in 2016, when he obtained the Access Hollywood tape and exposed the many failures at Trump’s charities – work attributed to The Post’s David Fahrenthold. When Bernie in his robo-calls offered $4,000 to any person willing to make damaging remarks about Donald Trump, the response was so large that the payments threatened to bankrupt The Post and owner Jeff Bezos.
Bernie told me Wednesday that he was particularly offended by Baron’s denials because of their long history. In 2001 and 2002, Baron, then editor of The Boston Globe, contracted with Bernie to make calls offering $3,000 to anybody “willing to make damaging remarks about” a Catholic priest. Bernie’s contribution produced the extraordinary journalism featured in the movie “Spotlight” – but, as with “All the President’s Men,” Bernie’s role was edited out.
Even now, as Bernie pays Alabamians to say damaging things about Roy Moore, some colleagues want to keep him secret. It was long thought that the American public simply would not believe or accept that the great journalism of recent decades was accomplished by one unknown man in a basement, dialing random phone numbers and, in an exaggerated New York accent, offering cash for malice he promises not to corroborate.
But I think Bernie’s day has finally come – because people are ready and willing to believe just about anything. They certainly seem to be in Alabama.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.