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Columnists

The Devil is Always in the Details – Or So They Say

June 9, 2022

Far be it for me to question a media icon like Carl Bernstein. How many other mortals can correctly include on their resume that they helped topple a sitting president of the United States as an investigative reporter during the Watergate caper? Who can boast that Dustin Hoffman played us in the movie that recounted the event?

When I heard that Bernstein was out with his latest book, Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, a memoir of his rise through the ranks of print journalism, I was pumped. Not only did I look forward to following his dazzling career arc, I felt a (sort of) kinship with the guy. Although Bernstein was almost a decade my senior, that hardly mattered. What was important was we were both DC-born and raised – a rarity. In fact, our childhood homes were a scant two miles from each other in close-in Silver Spring, MD. That was enough inspiration to find my reading glasses and tag along through the backstreets and back alleys.

Plus, I could relate to his academic struggles at the University of Maryland. In the book, he even included an ancient photo of his final grades, which, alas, mirrored my own.

Immediately, I found myself knee-deep, soaking up accounts of Bernstein’s youthful escapades, all the while alert for key references – the magical glue knitting us together. He was a product of one of the best-known schools in the area, Montgomery Blair High. It also graduated future stars like CBS News reporter Connie Chung, Goldie Hawn, and Bernstein’s pal, Nixon speechwriter-turned-actor Ben Stein, who played the dull teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Like me, he lived on the edge of Sligo Creek Park and drag raced down Colesville Road. We both listened to WDON, a local AM station that played rock and roll. And like me, he roamed the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD.

So this commonality, if nothing else, infused me with a comfortable level of trust, a sense that I could always look to homegrown pro like Bernstein to get the story right. He was the guy in the cockpit, skillfully taking passengers through calm, crystalline skies.

But wait. Around the midway point in our shared journey, we hit turbulence. Maybe he didn’t feel it, but I definitely did. The bumps showed up with factual errors sprinkled here and there. An careless and inexcusable display of geographic mistakes crept in, darkening the factual integrity.

For starters, he misidentified a nearby county. When talking about the three Southern Maryland counties, he lumped in Westmoreland County. Problem is, Westmoreland is across the Potomac in the state of Virginia.

Then there was his description of how F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda were refused burial in a local Catholic cemetery, instead having to settle for a plot at an Anglican church. That was true. But the story didn’t end there. Eventually, the couple’s family received permission to relocate the graves to the Catholic cemetery. But Bernstein didn’t bother rounding out the edges. So much for a guy who wore his DC roots on his sleeves.

I created some space to process this letdown. First off, I read that he was close to 80. He’s got nothing more to prove, unlike Tom Brady, who retired from football only to unretire 42 days later.

I was curious about what’s involved in writing a non-fiction book. My research uncovered how a short list of heavy-hitting scribes have had problems with factual errors. One publisher put the responsibility on writers for fact-checking – something that surprised me. One writer hired two fact-checkers, forking over $100,000 from his advance on a book about Roger Ailes and Fox News. In the same article, the publisher admitted that maybe it’s time for the publishing house to take a more active role in making sure facts are correct.

As for my `relationship’ with Bernstein, I’m confident I’ll get past my initial disappointment. Who knows? Maybe he believed the devil in the details approach to all good non-fiction writing was in the careful hands of a team of seasoned fact-checkers.

You’re still okay with me, Carl. Remember, we went to different schools together.

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