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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I'm curious: when you look in the mirror, do you see Al Pacino?

No. Luckily, for me, or unluckily for me, I just see somebody over 55 who's getting older.

I see.

I mean, I suppose if I were a lot younger, I could make believe ... you know, it would have screwed me up in some ego way. But I think the bottom line is, Al Pacino -- brilliant actor -- it's a wonderful thing to have him chosen to play me, but he's older than I am, he's Italian, and he's a little shorter.

But you think he did a good job?

I think he's a great actor. I mean, for me to assess it, frankly, is very difficult, because I'm so close to it. I think what Russell Crowe did, playing Wigand, was really the payoff for me. And Christopher Plummer's mannerisms as Mike Wallace were dynamite. I got a good chuckle out of that.

A final question. What lessons might students draw from this journey that we just described, from a passionate graduate student to CBS producer? Any special insights you would like to leave us with?

Well, the most important thing that I learned in this process, I think, in terms of dealing with people -- and you said it earlier about the narcs in the documentary on the drug wars, that you didn't expect them to be smart -- is that everyone has their set of reasons. There are smart narcs, for example. There are brilliant drug dealers. Everyone's a human being.

I'll just leave you this thought: I was giving my deposition once in a lawsuit involving the owners of a company that sued me and my colleague for $630 million bucks because we said that they were connected to organized crime. And one of their lawyers said, "Well, he's never killed anybody." And I said, "Well, not that we can prove." "And did he ever threaten you?" I said, "No, he's a really nice guy."

So, everybody can be super-nice, great human beings, within their context of the world that they live in. And it's important to step back and objectively look at where other people are coming from and where they fit into the world in general before you make great judgments.

And from what you said before, it's understanding that institutional background and setting, the constraints, the incentives, the motives that drive people. But also, an element of human empathy on your side, in a way, to identify with the individuals who are living these lives.

Yeah, in some ways, it's some of the rules of acting, you know. I mean, in terms of internalizing a character, but just doing it in reverse. And, you know, whether it's Armenian arms dealers, or washed-up Mafioso, or television executives, or former radicals or whoever, everybody has their place and perspective in the world. And that's been very useful in getting people to talk and share information. It also means, if you're in the media business -- unfortunately, this isn't taught that much -- it also means a certain personal responsibility.

Well, on that note, Lowell, I thank you very much for taking this time for being with us.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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