Legendary LA Times labor beat reporter Harry Bernstein died last week at the age of 83. To appreciate Harry’s contribution to the world, you have to first grasp the concept of the “labor beat” reporter, a concept that’s all but vanished from the American scene. This is a sad commentary on the state of the labor movement, but it’s also a sad commentary on the state of the media today. In these days of tight budgets and streamlined staffs and the emergence of the Internet, reporters are multi-tasking, covering many beats at once. In days of old, you had a beat and you stuck to it. And in the old days there was a labor beat. For well over 30 years, Harry Bernstein dominated that beat.
It is said that the LA Times rattled the journalism universe by hiring Harry to be its dedicated labor beat reporter way back in 1962, but it proved to be a good decision. Harry covered the beat like no other, developing long relationships and even friendships with people throughout the labor movement, and including folks on the management side as well. We met Harry when his great career was winding down, but he was no less vigorous, no less sharp, no less able and probing than when he first began in the days of George Meany.
The fact that we were of a different political stripe and that we agreed on very little mattered not to Harry. He was a hale-fellow-well-met — a mensch, if you will. He had a nose for a story and wasn’t particularly naive. Not sure anyone ever pulled the wool over Harry’s eyes. He was a healthy skeptic, and always did his homework. And he knew his beat. Lord, did he know his beat.
And so we mourn his passing, an icon gone from the scene. Every journalist who ever worked the labor beat owes him a debt of gratitude — and in fact he mentored many. He was that kind of guy. Every reporter on every beat should aspire to someday reach Harry Bernstein’s level of professionalism, dedication and expertise. The Times became just a little less interesting when Harry retired. To those who had the pleasure of knowing and working with Harry Bernstein, the world just became a little less interesting as well.
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