Investigative reporting professor Lowell Bergman to retire

January 14, 2019

A man with gray hair and a friendly expression is sitting at a desk. He is wearing a blue shirt and a brown leather jacket. Behind him are bookshelves, framed photos, and artwork, hinting at his Berkeley Journalism roots. The room appears to be an office or study with a computer on the desk.

Photo: Lisa Hornak (’19)

He’s been threatening for years. But this time it’s real.

Lowell Bergman is retiring. Briefly.

In June, Bergman will step aside as the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Professor in Investigative Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. A month later, he’ll be back as an emeritus chair who will continue developing projects in association with the Investigative Reporting Program, the professional newsroom and teaching institute he founded in 2006, as well as its production arm, Investigative Studios.

“I’ll still be able to hang around and talk to students and do projects, and I won’t have the stress of raising the money and being involved in all the meetings,” Bergman says of the change in roles. “Getting out of the way and allowing the recruitment of a younger, accomplished person as a full professor will be a critical catalytic moment for the IRP and the J-school.”

A nationwide search to fill the Logan professorship will start soon, said Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman.

“We’re looking for someone of comparable stature and accomplishment who wants to continue conducting high-level investigative reporting in a unique university setting and who loves the challenge of working with students,” Wasserman says.

“It’s also an opportunity for us to look at ways to integrate the investigative reporting tradition into all of our instructional offerings,” Wasserman says. “We believe the Investigative Reporting Program has been the jewel in the School’s crown, and we’d like that luster to spread to our other work, since it exemplifies the work our School strives for.”

In the interim, the School’s Investigative Reporting Program will continue to be guided by its director, John Temple, as will the Logan Symposium, an inspirational annual gathering—now in its 13th year— where some of best investigative reporters in the world discuss critical issues facing the profession.

Bergman’s retirement caps a 50-year career of muckraking journalism.

Reached at home on a recent afternoon, Bergman leafed through the galleys of a soon to be published graphic biography about his intellectual mentor, the late Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as he reflected on his path.

Bergman got his start in journalism in 1968 while a graduate fellow under Marcuse at UC San Diego. It was the attempt by the local Copley newspapers and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to get Marcuse fired, coupled with violent vigilante attacks on his home, that led Bergman and other graduate students to launch an alternative newspaper, the San Diego Free Press and Street Journal. By 1970 one of their stories landed on the cover of the radical magazine Ramparts. And the work of the newspaper was heralded in the pages of Time Magazine. Lowell’s career was launched.  

Amid stints at The San Francisco Examiner and Rolling Stone, Bergman helped found the Center for Investigative Reporting (1977) and was part of the reporting team that investigated the killing of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, who was assassinated while investigating organized crime. That reporting project put a then-fledgling nonprofit news group, Investigative Reporters and Editors, on the map.

From 1978 until 1983, Bergman was a producer and executive in charge of investigative reporting at ABC News, where he was one of the original producers of “20/20.” In 1983, Bergman joined CBS News as a producer for “60 Minutes,” leaving the network in 1998 as its senior investigative producer. A year later, his dispute with CBS executives over his investigation of Big Tobacco was brought to the screen in Michael Mann’s movie “The Insider,” in which Bergman was portrayed by Al Pacino.

Bergman began teaching the investigative reporting seminar in 1991 while working at “60 Minutes.”

“I did it for my mental health,” he recalls. “Talking with other people helped me put in context the work I was doing and reflect on the irrational aspects of the institutions I worked for.”

When Bergman taught his first class in 1991, no one was teaching investigative reporting at the School. Its efforts were focused on producing journalists equipped for daily newspapers and regular TV news broadcasts, with a smattering of feature writing, he says.

While at the School, Bergman thought about doing stories simultaneously on multiple platforms, while integrating graduate students into the process. In 1998 he forged an alliance between The New York Times and PBS “Frontline,” involving dozens of graduate students in dozens of projects on everything from international bribery and California’s energy crisis to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In 2003, one of those investigations became “A Dangerous Business,” a joint New York Times – Frontline investigation of worker death and dismemberment at the McWane iron pipe company that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and virtually every major award in broadcast news.

In 2005, the university created Bergman’s professorship, thanks to the support of Chicago philanthropists Reva and David Logan. It was the beginning of a strong relationship between Bergman and David Logan that would grow over the years, as the family’s foundation became the IRP’s largest benefactor, principal supporter of Berkeley Journalism’s photojournalism program, and an important funder of the independent Center for Investigative Reporting— which Bergman co-founded. The two remained close until David Logan’s death in 2011, and his sons Daniel, Jonathan and Richard Logan have remained loyal supporters of the IRP.

The creation of the chair soon led to creation of the Investigative Reporting Program, with reporting classes, the annual symposium and a fellowship program for working journalists.

Most recently, Bergman has continued to innovate in a changing media business with the creation of Investigative Studios Inc., a non-profit production company affiliated with the university that has partnered with Amazon and others. The studio’s documentary about a trouble-plagued Navy and Marine Corps helicopter, titled “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?”, is currently touring film festivals.

“A lot of the things I set out to do thanks to David Logan’s and others’  largesse was to reflect on what I could have used when I was 24 or 25 years old and mostly freelancing,” Bergman says. Given the right opportunities and resources, “a young person is capable of publishing work that’s unique, in depth and in the public interest.”

Along the way, Bergman has raised over $20 million to support investigative reporting and mentored several generations of young reporters and filmmakers.

One such filmmaker was Jason Spingarn-Koff. “As a grad student, I fondly recall being an intern on Lowell’s epic four-hour Frontline series “Drug Wars,” Spingarn-Koff says. “In a small suite of offices inside North Gate Hall, with a handful of other grad students, my main job was to log footage with a shelf of transcript binders as thick as phone books. This was around the same time “The Insider” film was in theaters, and we all felt so honored to be in his presence. I was in awe of Lowell’s ambition, rigor and gutsiness to take on the most powerful people and interests, without fear. Lowell also taught a fantastic class, Breaking the News, where he championed the value of investigative original reporting, rather than being reactive to world events.”

Bergman looks forward to handing off the responsibilities of the position while he continues to pursue film projects, mentor students and begin work on an oft-threatened memoir.

“I’m good at starting things,” Bergman says, reflecting on his half-century in the business. “Today the IRP is truly an established part of the university and Berkeley Journalism. I want to go back to reporting. At the same time, I want to do some imagining about what needs to be done to promote and protect this ‘public good’ we call investigative reporting.”

By Jason Felch (’03)

Additional reporting by Marlena Telvick


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