“There is no better journalist in the country,” one colleague says of Berkeley resident Lowell Bergman. (Gabriel Greschler)
“There is no better journalist in the country,” one colleague says of Berkeley resident Lowell Bergman. (Gabriel Greschler)

‘Ideologically committed to the truth’: Inside the life of Lowell Bergman, living legend of investigative journalism

When you meet Lowell Bergman, the first thing the longtime journalist probably will do is crack a joke.

Upon learning that J. would be covering the cost of his corned beef and pastrami hash breakfast at Saul’s Deli, where this interview took place, he quipped, “Your newspaper’s got the money?” When Bergman laughs, he does so with a big, toothy grin. Then, just as easily, he can become philosophical and serious.

A Berkeley resident since 1973, Bergman is considered one of the greatest American investigative reporters of all time. He has dug into a seemingly never-ending variety of issues over his 50-year career in broadcasting and print journalism, notably at “60 Minutes.” Stories that are often bypassed by major media outlets have been his forte: tobacco companies and their misconduct, organized crime, international drug trafficking, dangerous labor conditions and police corruption.

And that just scratches the surface. But where his journalism has helped take down crooks and billion-dollar industries, his role as a mentor at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism (from which he retired last year) has uplifted and spawned a generation of reporters who share his view that investigative journalism, as tough and frustrating and unprofitable as it may be, is a public service and a pillar of our democracy.

Despite today’s somewhat bleak existence for journalism, Bergman, 74, has been a bulwark against the downward spiral, helping to create two Bay Area centers for investigative journalism that take on some of the world’s most pressing issues.

“There is no better journalist in the country than Lowell,” said David McCraw, one of Bergman’s friends and the top newsroom lawyer at the New York Times. “He combines a sense of story and a deeply held belief in the truth.”

Born in New York City in 1945, Bergman had a secular Jewish upbringing. His mother, a native New Yorker, was a member of Poale Zion, a Marxist-Zionist Jewish movement. (She passed away last summer at 101.) His father, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, left the family when Bergman was 7.

Bergman has roots in organized labor. His grandmother, Sophie Lang Malerman, was one of the founders of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. “Feminists love this picture,” he says at Saul’s, searching his iPhone for a photo of his grandmother, the only woman among a large group of men.

Lowell Bergman’s grandmother, Sophie Lang Malerman (center right), was one of the founders of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
Lowell Bergman’s grandmother, Sophie Lang Malerman (center right), was one of the founders of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Growing up in working-class Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, Bergman attended progressive Jewish schools that taught him Yiddish. He also learned a little Hungarian. He says he first started to become interested in facts and truth in his youth while watching the 1950s game show “The $64,000 Question.”

Bergman received a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, later, a fellowship to study philosophy as a graduate student at UC San Diego. He was exposed to the teachings of two Jewish German expatriates: George Mosse, the first resident scholar at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Herbert Marcuse, sometimes described as the father of the New Left movement.

Bergman says it was these professors, along with the German expatriate sociologist Hans Gerth, who informed one of his core beliefs: Rational arguments don’t necessarily win.

“And I think that is the same question we have today,” said Bergman, who sees the spread of misinformation on the internet as the greatest threat to truth.

“What we basically have are irrational, emotional triggers and practices that we know are historically dangerous,” Bergman said. “There is no regulation on content. It is a problem of public education, fundamentally.”

While living in San Diego in the 1960s, Bergman shared a house with other antiwar organizers, including political activist Angela Davis.

The city would end up being Bergman’s journalistic “trial by fire.”

“My getting into journalism was in many ways a last-ditch attempt to try to do something that was based on reason and fact,” Bergman said. “The media [in San Diego] was terrible.”

At the time, the main newspapers were the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune, both owned by Jim Copley, who had a group of shady allies whose activities weren’t scrutinized by — well, anyone, Bergman said.

To counter this lack of scrutiny, Bergman and others started an underground paper called the San Diego Free Press.

“What we were doing was profiling the power elite of San Diego,” Bergman said. The paper published stories about the shadowy business practices of race-track owner John Alessio and the political schemes of multimillionaire banker C. Arnholt Smith. (Alessio and Smith, business partners at one point, later spent time in prison for tax evasion and embezzlement, respectively.)

The underground paper’s confrontation with the San Diego elite turned dangerous. A reporter’s car was firebombed. The paper’s office was ransacked and damaged. Newspaper staff were often visited by police officers.

Bergman moved from San Diego to Berkeley in the early ’70s, working as a freelance reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and as an associate editor at Rolling Stone.

Again, he ran into trouble. In 1976, after writing an article for the Examiner about a Chinatown murder, Bergman was named in a $30 million libel suit. Because Bergman was a freelancer and not on the Examiner’s staff, the paper, owned by the Hearst Corp., wouldn’t legally protect him. A friend of Bergman’s introduced him to Frank McCulloch, who at the time was the managing editor of the Sacramento Bee and, later, the Los Angeles Times.

“I said [to McCulloch], ‘Well, I’m going to have to raise some money,’” Bergman recalled. McCulloch volunteered to help him organize a defense. The case would drag on for 10 years, ending up at the California Supreme Court, which ruled in Bergman’s favor.

Lowell Bergman (top row, third from left) at his home in Berkeley with other Bay Area journalists on Nov. 13, 1986, celebrating a favorable decision by the California Supreme Court in a libel case against him. (Courtesy Michael Nolan)
Lowell Bergman (top row, third from left) at his home in Berkeley with other Bay Area journalists on Nov. 13, 1986, celebrating a favorable decision by the California Supreme Court in a libel case against him. (Courtesy Michael Nolan)

Bergman says McCulloch’s intervention is one of the main reasons he mentors younger journalists.

“It’s a form of payback, actually,” Bergman said. “People helped me. And I wouldn’t have survived [without it].”

Robert Lewis, an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, was Bergman’s grad assistant at UC Berkeley’s journalism school, where he graduated in 2008. He described his former mentor as a “funny, quirky guy” who feels a “responsibility and calling to pay it forward.”

Moved by Bergman’s example, Lewis now mentors younger journalists. “As I move forward, I feel some responsibility to support [their] careers,” Lewis said. “That’s created by what Lowell provided.”

In the 1980s, Bergman became a producer for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” working side-by-side with two television legends, star reporter Mike Wallace and executive producer Don Hewitt.

He produced a variety of segments, including the first American interview with Hezbollah leaders. But it was the story about Big Tobacco, later adapted for film, that made Bergman a star in his own right.

In 1993, Bergman received a box on his doorstep in Berkeley. Sent anonymously, it contained internal documents from the tobacco company Philip Morris. For help with analyzing the material, Bergman contacted Jeffrey Wigand, a former head of research for the tobacco company Brown & Williamson.

Wigand recently had lost his job at B&W after disputes with the company’s CEO, specifically over an additive the company used called coumarin, which Wigand found through his research to be harmful. B&W fired Wigand and had him sign strict confidentiality agreements.

While that meant Wigand couldn’t talk to Bergman about his issues with B&W, “60 Minutes” used him as a paid consultant for an investigative story about fire-safe cigarettes.

But Bergman knew Wigand had more to tell.

Despite receiving multiple death threats to keep quiet about his insider’s knowledge of B&W, Wigand eventually agreed to an exclusive interview with Bergman in 1995.

Bergman began his reporting, but soon learned that CBS’ lawyers were hesitant about airing the story, fearing a costly lawsuit by B&W. Their fear was understandable; ABC News had lost a legal battle with Philip Morris after airing a story and ended up paying $15 million in legal fees.

Bergman soon discovered other reasons why CBS might not have wanted the story to see the light of day.

From time to time, you’ll find people who are ideologically committed to the truth. He is very aware of how much of our public discourse is dishonest.

Just a year before, seven tobacco CEOs had testified before Congress about the possible side effects of their company’s products. All seven said under oath that they believed nicotine was not addictive. Months later, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation of the CEOs, charging they had committed perjury.

One of those CEOs was Andrew Tisch, the son of CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch.

In addition, CBS and Westinghouse Electric Corp. were in merger talks. If the $5.4 billion deal went through, top executives at CBS were going to make millions. The news outlet did not want to air the tobacco report for personal reasons, Bergman said, worried that a lawsuit by a tobacco company could jeopardize the merger.

At one point, Bergman said, a CBS executive told him: “The corporation will not risk its assets on this story. Period.”

Bergman sought the help of Ephraim Margolin, a San Francisco attorney he had known since the early ’70s. Margolin has a fascinating story himself; he was a private secretary for former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and head of the Irgun, a pre-state underground paramilitary organization.

“I had never met anyone like that before,” Margolin, 93, said about Bergman. “He would go out, find stories, and then in a very unique way make those stories understandable in the press.”

Bergman connected Wigand with Margolin, who represented the former tobacco executive pro bono.

By late 1995, CBS decided to air a sanitized version of the story, but without Wigand’s interview. Soon, articles started to appear in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that exposed major aspects of Wigand’s story — partially because of calls Bergman had made to the newspapers.

“This is my friend’s brilliance,” Margolin said. “Every big newspaper in America. It lasted for about two weeks — that this was censorship by news media strictly because of money.”

In early 1996, CBS finally aired Wigand’s interview as a separate piece. “A cover-your-ass version of the story,” as Bergman puts it. By then, most of the juiciest bits had already been revealed by other news outlets.

Shortly after, Bergman quit “60 Minutes.”

“From time to time, you’ll find people who are ideologically committed to the truth,” Margolin said. “He is very aware of how much of our public discourse is dishonest.”

Bergman’s investigation of the tobacco industry and his subsequent breakup with “60 Minutes” were the basis for the 1999 film “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino as Bergman and Russell Crowe as Wigand. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

Bergman said his relationship with Wallace and Hewitt never recovered. The two bosses had sided with CBS over the Wigand interview. At a journalism conference in 2000, Hewitt denounced Bergman, saying he shouldn’t be allowed “within 100 miles of a newsroom.” A year later he called Bergman, supposedly to catch up. Bergman said he was busy and hung up. It was the last time they ever spoke.

The tobacco debacle didn’t curtail Bergman’s commitment to journalism. After leaving “60 Minutes,” he started work on a collaborative project between the New York Times and PBS’ “Frontline” that offered readers stories in multiple mediums, a pretty novel idea for the early 2000s. One of those stories won him a Pulitzer.

Acting on a tip from a Justice Department official he ran into on a plane, Bergman learned that the government was prosecuting a workplace-safety death at a pipe foundry in Texas. It was an unusual case for the feds to pick up, so Bergman pursued the lead.

The project, which became the series “A Dangerous Business,” told a devastating story of one of America’s most dangerous employers, which polluted the area and exposed its workers to injury and death. The article, co-authored by Bergman and reporter David Barstow, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

“He has an amazing sense of where stories lurk,” Barstow said. “He’s not someone who approaches sources with an air of judgment. He takes them as they are.”

One of those sources, 30-year FBI agent Joe Davidson, said Bergman has got the “bona fides.”

“Sometimes he was harsh with the FBI on [stories],” Davidson said. “I thought he dramatized it on some. But he was more than fair. And I respect that.”

While Bergman continued writing investigative stories, he also was thinking about how to share his knowledge and skills with others. In 1977, he helped establish the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit based in Emeryville that has since expanded. And in 1991 he began lecturing at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, becoming a professor in 2005.

Lowell Bergman at the Investigative Reporting Project with graduate students.
Lowell Bergman at the Investigative Reporting Project with graduate students.

A year after that, Bergman founded the nonprofit Investigative Reporting Program (IRP), based at UC Berkeley. Its journalists have taken on police misconduct, alleged ties of Chinese organized crime to the casinos of billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, and sexual abuse of immigrant female janitors and field workers.

Christa Scharfenberg, CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting, said Bergman has paved the way for the nonprofit investigative model. “They didn’t exist yet,” she said.

Abbie VanSickle, a criminal justice reporter at the Marshall Project in Oakland, worked at the IRP from 2014 to 2017. “[Bergman] has an innate ability to ask the right questions and a way to zero in on the heart of the matter,” she said. “I like watching him interview people. He’s incredibly skilled.”

In early 2019, Bergman retired after more than 25 years at Cal’s journalism school. He still hangs out at the IRP, helping with projects here and there, but says that he wants to focus on other things now — like collecting rainwater at his property up north.

“All the things that a counterculture person would want to do,” Bergman said. “Be self-sufficient, off the grid.” He also said he has about 15 years’ worth of organizing to do in his home office.

Bergman and his wife, Sharon Tiller, a former senior producer at “Frontline,” have five kids between them and seven grandchildren. He plans to spend more time with the family, but he still has a couple of projects in the works. “One will probably be out in late February on a major video-on-demand distributor,” he said.

As the interview concluded, Bergman said he had one final piece of advice for this reporter.

“Make sure you help someone out, too.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.