A legendary reporter looks back.
Lowell Bergman never really set out to be a journalist, yet San Diego in the late-60s led him down that path. As a graduate doctoral fellow studying under Professor Herbert Marcuse, Bergman and Marcuse’s graduate students soon found themselves de facto bodyguards for the philosopher, who was targeted for dismissal by state officials and violence by vigilantes. Those students would ultimately create the San Diego Free Press, an alternative newspaper where Bergman applied his research skills to public records investigation and deep-dives into all manner of malfeasance. He’s been an investigative reporter ever since, working with news outlets like ABC, CBS News, 60 Minutes, the New York Times and Frontline.
While he’s tangled with government and corporate interests, organized crime, arms and drug traffickers as well as foreign regimes, he’s also taught the next generation of reporters at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, where he founded its acclaimed Investigative Reporting Program and is now a professor emeritus. After his most recent project, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror on Netflix, we asked him for highlights from a long career spent looking deeper:
Taxi Cab Controversy
One of his first forays into investigative journalism, Bergman and the San Diego Free Press revealed the financial origins of the area’s most powerful people and uncovered evidence of taxi cab cash buying favors from local officials and city departments. “Just by publishing public record information—no great new ‘scoop’ in itself,” Bergman says, “we started to shake things up.”
“With all that was going on in San Diego, if I hadn’t gotten into journalism and discovered that those skills could bring about change, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Up In Smoke
“I wasn’t looking for a story that would take me to the outer limits of what you could get on 60 Minutes,” says Bergman. But leaked documents from the tobacco industry led to an exposé that created upheaval at 60 Minutes and led Bergman to leave the program after 14 years. The full saga of the story was the basis for the 1999 film The Insider, with Al Pacino portraying Bergman.
“The Secret History of the Credit Card”
“Another story hiding in plain sight,” says Bergman. For this look into the cryptic and largely unknown practices of the credit card industry and its growth in power and political influence, Bergman included his UC students in the journalistic process via extensive multimedia accompaniments. “It’s the background of how the credit card industry is possible in the United States. I think that had a direct effect on a lot of consumer-related matters.”
“A Dangerous Business”
A partnership with the New York Times, Frontline and Canada’s Fifth Estate produced this story exposing criminal neglect of employee safety and systemic environmental violations at the McWane, Inc. iron foundries throughout North America. The effort won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and nearly every major award for documentary films. “Two graduate students from my seminar did critical work on the series,” says Bergman. “That became the inspiration for the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.”