Lowell Bergman Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The 'Long March through the Institution' of Television Journalism: Conversation with Lowell Bergman, Reporter/Producer and Professor at the UCB Graduate School of Journalism; 1/31/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Lowell, good to have you for our program.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City, and didn't leave the city limits, basically, until I was seventeen.

How did your parents shape your character, do you think, in retrospect?

How did my parents shape my character? Well, that's ... we could be here all day! My family is Eastern European on my mother's side, Jewish immigrants who came over at the turn of the century. My father, who passed away a year and a half ago, came from Hungary in 1938, first to Cuba and then into the United States. And so I grew up in that post - World War II era, when they were both members of families that never made it out of Europe. Plus, on my mother's side, a Left political perspective. I can still remember the FBI coming to the house in 1951 to ask my mother about having been in the Young Communist League, and then coming back to interview my father, who was then in the fur business, about his partnerships with people in the Mafia.

A colorful background. And your grandmother was a founder of the Women's Garment Union?

No, my grandmother and grandfather were founders of the local ILGW in New York -- that was embroidery workers. She was the first secretary-treasurer. There's a family picture of her with eighteen men, my grandfather being one of them, and she's the only female. It was mostly women workers, but the leadership was always men, except for her.

I presume in this background that politics was talked a lot about at the dinner table?

Well, growing up with my ... My father was gone by the time I was seven. He came back off and on. He went back to Europe in the late fifties, permanently. There was political conversation primarily with my grandparents, who might have up on their wall pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lenin, and a wide variety of other characters. Emma Goldman was somebody everyone talked about because they remembered her from Union Square in New York; she was a little woman who had a voice you could hear without an amplifier.

Were there "war stories," so to speak, that you heard from your grandmother from the labor union organizing days?

There were stories from the labor union organizing days, but the thing that made an impression on me was the struggle to come over from Europe -- poverty, particularly; the role of women, the plight of women like my grandmother, [who] was the middle daughter in a family that couldn't afford the ten children they had. So she was basically a serf to an older uncle who was ill, whom she had to take care of.

In Europe?

In Europe, before she came over.

And she came over when?

She came over about 1906. And my grandfather on my mother's side came over about 1904. They both worked from the time they arrived. My grandfather's great influence was that despite the fact that he was stuck in this position, he was really an artist, and was the guy who designed the embroidery. You could find him doing paper cutouts or whatever. So for a kid growing up, he was a good example that you didn't have to work hard all the time. And it really was a matriarchy. The women were the tough guys. My mother's a force to be reckoned with, at 82.

Do you remember any books that you read when you were a young person that influenced you, or did that have to wait until you were an undergraduate and graduate student?

For purposes of getting through public school, I really liked the classic illustrated comics. It saved me a lot of time.

Yeah, that's right. And it got you interested in those visual images, right?

Yeah, right. Actually, I'm still talking to people about the next great project for me -- I would like to do an animated documentary.

Well, you might get a bigger audience that way.

You don't have to deal with talent that way.

That's right. And you were on the school newspaper in high school? You were a typographer?

No. I had various jobs growing up, and after working on a boatyard near the Whitestone Bridge, my mother had remarried and my stepfather had an uncle who owned a typography shop on 45th Street, right across from the old Daily Mirror. It was on the ninth floor and was considered, maybe, a ticket to a better life, because typographers were seen as, in a sense, the intellectuals of the labor movement. It was a good paying job. So I was an apprentice. These were the days before the shops were air-conditioned. I spent the mornings cleaning the floor, cleaning the linotype machines, straining the lead, doing a lot of stuff with zinc and lead which today would probably be illegal.

Yeah.

And slowly learning the trade. They told me if I became a journeyman, they cover everything, including your funeral.

That was Utopia.

Yeah.

Next page: The Sixties

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