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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The Sixties

You went on to do undergraduate work at Wisconsin?

I got a scholarship to go to the University of Wisconsin. I had met some people the summer before, in 1963 -- I graduated from high school in '63 -- and I got shipped off to Puerto Rico for an Alliance for Progress meeting of youth. I met a couple of guys from the U.S. who were there as well, and who were telling me Wisconsin was a great place. Because, really, I had never crossed the Hudson River, except for a couple of times to Philadelphia to a seder. So, I had no idea what, really, the rest of the world was like.

You got involved as a student in civil rights and anti-war activity.

Yeah, I got attracted to the anti-war movement, actually the Ban the Bomb movement in high school, because it just logically made sense to me. I grew up in the era when you would have air raid drills in elementary school, and you got under your desk. And somebody actually got me a copy of the original Port Huron statement from the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], which is a statement about contradictions. It made a big impression on me, because you could see that in everything from sex to politics, there were always contradictory things going on, and you were looking for a way to express it. I got involved in the "Turn Towards Peace" demonstration, I remember. They put me on a bus at Columbia University, and I was like the bus monitor; I was about seventeen, and we went up to, I think it was Sarah Lawrence College and picked up a busload of young women, all with funny names like Sunflower, and all of whom were quite attractive. And I said, "Well, this might be for me."

I see. High school kids today might not really have a sense of what the sixties and that experience meant for your generation. So, I'm curious, what, in retrospect, was distinctive and lasting for you about that experience of living through the sixties as a young person?

You mean the whole ...

Yeah, the whole megillah.

The whole megillah! Well, I think a combination of things. One was that it was to me, and always stayed the same, was an attempt to look for the truth that you knew and felt versus what you were told. So if the U.S. was the defender of democracy, how come there was Apartheid, basically, in the United States? If we were the peace-loving country, why were we, early in the sixties, bombing Laos or Vietnam, or then it was the Dominican Republic -- invading places and so on? And, it's those kinds of stark contrasts that people like me were working out during this period of time.

Also, coming from a sort of working-class background, or lower middle-class, if you will, I was always had -- and I still do have -- that Depression fear of never working again. If someone offered you a job, you took it. So, the whole idea of dropping out, of stopping doing what you were on a track to do, which I saw a lot of people do before I did it, in late '68, early '69, when I finally cut my institutional ties, was a major thing for me to do. [My background] gave me the strength to a certain extent to do that without destroying myself in the process. A lot of people dropped out, got hurt, or didn't follow through, but there seemed to be a way to balance what was going on.

And these contradictions hearken back to what you were saying about the Port Huron Statement, because it was a document that put down on paper these kinds of contradictions. So you were at Wisconsin, and then at U.C. San Diego, you were drawn to theory, to political philosophy. Why, do you think?

Well, first of all, I was an academic. I was at the University of Wisconsin. We did get heavily involved, for instance, in the South, in the preparations for what became Freedom Summer. I did a bunch of trips down -- was involved in the logistics to help set it up, and had been through that process. Just the contradictions in that were interesting to me.

Wisconsin in those days had a small magazine called Studies on the Left, and there was an unusual agglomeration of faculty. There was William Appleman Williams, who was in the History Department; there was George Mosse in History, whom I worked for, for a while; and Hans Gerth in Sociology; and a History professor named Harvey Goldberg, who did history of the French Revolution almost every other semester. I'm talking about classes with four- and five hundred people, and great lecturers. It was a sense of trying to learn about ideas, and [a sense] that ideas would help you understand what to do. And clearly, Marxist theory, as well as standard capitalist theory -- neither seem to be adequate, neither seem to be fruitful in terms of really understanding what you want the world to be or how you want it to live.

I learned a lot through Hans Gerth, who had translated all of Max Weber, and who introduced me to people like Lucas. In that spirit [of searching] he said, "Go study with Marcuse," whom I had never heard of.

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