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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Investigative Reporting

What does a reporter like you do in his work? I know you're fascinated by piercing the veil of power that's unaccounted for. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah, that's a traditional role or definition, let's say, from muckraking on, in the last hundred years of reporting.

One of your rules of thumb, I gather, is to "follow the money," as you do these projects?

That's the line that was made up in All the President's Men.

Ah-ha.

But, ah ... it's actually a fictional line.

Okay. But it can still guide action, I guess.

Yeah. Well, "follow the money" is an obvious thing to do, if you're talking about certain kinds of activity. But I'd look at it in a different way. If you're looking at why people do things, particularly on our institutional level, then understanding how the finances work, and who's making money off of it, for instance, who's profiting from it, can be critical.

I'm going to quote you from your syllabus, the course you're now teaching at Berkeley. You say, "The course will be about how to find and develop stories that challenge institutions and individuals who wield unaccountable power. It is the kind of reporting that has consequences. While it can bring about change through exposure, it can also lead to trouble." What did you mean by that?

Exactly what it says. And you better expect there's going to be some trouble, too.

So, okay, you have the theoretical background, which seems to help you see both how to operate in the organizations that you work in -- you're describing the bureaucracy at ABC -- but on the other hand, points of interest in the stories that you might do.

Well, points where you can put your energy and try to find out things -- and sometimes you're not successful -- that will help tell a story that, hopefully, you'll be happy with and you won't find it embarrassing. So, for example, it would be unlikely that I would do a story about a person who's a welfare cheat, unless this involves a large amount of money and there's a tremendous amount of profit involved.

Right. Psychologically, what does it take to do the kind of work that you do, the kind of work that is chronicled in the movie, The Insider, where Al Pacino plays you? A lot of risk. You must have courage to do this kind of work.

Well, I don't know. It depends on the subject. I mean, generally speaking, you learn after a while what the limits are and when it's worth taking the risk. For example, I don't do stories about cult groups. All those cult groups out there who might see that, you know, it won't be me. And that's because I've decided that the motivation for people involved is closer to blind religion, that it is not something that I'm ever going to have any influence over, or that I could tell what they're reaction may be. The risk, really, is in the reaction. You want to be able to assess the subject of the story; would they find what you're doing uncomfortable or threatening; what they might do in return.

The other funny part, which I had a hard time convincing the director and the screenwriter of the movie, because they kept asking me, "What's the secret of getting people to talk?" You know, "What are your tricks?" And they would give me an example from the Woodward and Bernstein movie All the President's Men or something like that. I said, "The trick, for me" -- and actually other reporters have come up to me and said they were relieved to see it in a movie -- "is to tell the truth." The way to reduce risk is for people to know exactly what you're up to and not be surprised by what you're trying to do. So, whether it's the Hezbollah ... I mean, you have to do a lot of planning, and you have to do a lot of, let's say, secondary backup preparation to get it out fast or something like that. But the basic trick is not to deceive people.

Let's talk a little about this. When you come to an interview, you have to come with some sort of a map of where this person fits into the story that you want to tell. How do you come by that? Through research? Through what you've already studied? Through other contacts?

It all depends. I mean, if it's somebody who is going to talk to you, but if it's extremely risky or it's illegal for them to talk to you, then, it's a question of usually a bona fides, that is, getting other people to call in advance and say, "You can trust this person." And/or, I tell students, "Learn as much about the subject before you get there, regardless of whether you play dumb because you want them to explain it to you, or whether you just want them to know that you're not going to waste their time." There's nothing like preparation in any of these situations. But it would all depend upon what function you see the person playing in the story. Is it a print story? Is it a television story? Is it a documentary? Is it a magazine show? You know, when you get into the area of the magazine show like 60 Minutes or something like that, then we're talking about a defined form. For instance, if I had not studied what I had studied, I would not have been able to understand what I did at the networks in the sense of the forms that are created. It's an area where the form defines a lot of the content. So, it's not a situation where they tell you, "You can't do this story." That's happened a couple of times, but it's rare. The form itself makes it difficult to tell the story, or they just say, "Well, it doesn't fit into the form."

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