Inside Story

Seymour Hersh, reporter

Where does the famed journalist fit into the American pantheon?

Matthew Ricketson 30 August 2018 2922 words

A shudder through the nation: Seymour Hersh in the year he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

For many years Bob Woodward has been the most famous living print journalist, his name synonymous with Watergate and the style of reporting that features in his book-length, inside-the-Oval-Office accounts of American power. His latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, is not out until 11 September but it is already an Amazon bestseller.

Woodward’s near contemporary, Seymour Hersh, has unearthed more scoops, of sharper bite, than his celebrity counterpart. In the best-known of these stories, he exposed the war crimes committed by American soldiers at My Lai during the Vietnam war, unearthed misdeeds of the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1970s, and exposed the roots of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American prison guards at Abu Ghraib in 2004.

Why is Hersh less well known or lauded than Woodward? It’s a fascinating question. The two men may be in the twilight of their careers — Hersh is eighty-one, Woodward seventy-five — but their approach to journalism differs in crucial ways. And, in Donald Trump’s America, there is a strong argument that what is needed is more Hershes and fewer Woodwards.

This is not to say that Hersh’s journalism is without flaws. His reliance on confidential sources, for instance, has long attracted criticism. But his recently published memoir, Reporter, gives us an opportunity to recall, or find out, just how many major disclosures he has been responsible for over the past fifty years.

Reporter also highlights how much has changed in American political life, and how much hasn’t, and sets some of the febrile reporting of the Trump presidency in a cooler historical context. And it gives us Hersh’s own perspective on the value and the limits of his prodigious journalistic labours.

Born in 1931 one of the twin sons of Jewish immigrants, Hersh grew up on the south side of Chicago. From his early teens he was expected to help his father in the family’s dry cleaning business after school and on weekends. Isadore Hersh’s idea of a fun Sunday was to take Seymour (usually known as Sy) and brother Alan to the store to mop the floors and then to a Russian bathhouse on the West Side where the boys themselves would be scrubbed down with rough birch branches. The pay-off was fresh herring and root beer for lunch.

Hersh learnt only recently that in 1941 the entire Jewish population of his father’s birthplace, the village of Šeduva in Lithuania, had been executed by a German commando unit aided by Lithuanian collaborators. His father never discussed the war or the Nazis. “In his own way, Isadore Hersh was a Holocaust survivor as well as a Holocaust denier.”

It is a blunt declarative statement that Hersh, rather like his father, doesn’t take any further. Indeed, his family background and childhood occupies only the first four pages of this memoir. Then he is out in the world, finding his way.

A keen reader of literature and history from an early age, he graduated with a degree from the University of Chicago before moving on to law school, hating its dryness and moving out. Looking for work in 1959, he stumbled on to the City News Bureau, or CNB, a local agency that supplied stories, mostly about crime, to Chicago’s newspapers. There, he learnt the virtues of speed, accuracy and scepticism: as a senior editor used to tell reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The CNB had been the model for the play (and, later, film) The Front Page, and a biographer of Hersh, Robert Miraldi, writes that it was not uncommon for CNB reporters to impersonate a city official to induce people to provide information. Hersh used similar methods when he was tracking down Lieutenant William Calley, who had been charged over war crimes committed at My Lai in Vietnam.

Journalists should use subterfuge only as a last resort, not as an opening gambit, and only on stories genuinely in the public interest. Judging by his memoir, and checking it against Miraldi’s 2013 biography, Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist, it is clear Hersh has deployed dubious news-gathering methods during his career. Sometimes — but not always — these methods are justified by the importance of the stories (the My Lai massacre clearly qualifies here) and the degree of difficulty Hersh faces in nailing them down.

Almost as important, Hersh learnt in his time at CNB about self-censorship and racism in the media. One night he overheard a police officer say to a fellow officer that he had shot and killed an unarmed robbery suspect in the back. Asked if the suspect had tried to run away, the officer said, “Naw. I told the nigger to beat it and then plugged him.”

Hersh took the story to his editor, who dissuaded him from writing it even after he obtained the coroner’s report showing the suspect had indeed been shot in the back. Hersh backed down, “full of despair at my weakness and at the weakness of a profession that dealt so easily with compromise and self-censorship.”

It’s fair to say that since then Hersh has hardly ever backed off from a story or been accused of self-censorship. He is notorious for browbeating sources to provoke a reaction, and he wears out editors in a similar way — even those lauded for their tough-mindedness, like Abe Rosenthal at the New York Times or David Remnick at the New Yorker. Editors tire of his belligerent advocacy for his stories — Hersh is an old-school newsroom typewriter-thrower and expletive-utterer — as well as his reliance on confidential sources for stories accusing those in power of lying, corruption or worse.

Equally, Hersh has earned a reputation for being a ferociously competitive, hard-working investigative journalist who is feared and intensely disliked by those he targets, from former secretary of state in the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, to Richard Perle, a powerful business figure connected to the Bush administration, who once said, “Sy Hersh is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist, frankly.”

Hersh became internationally famous in 1969 when he broke the My Lai massacre story. American soldiers had killed up to 504 Vietnamese civilians; of them, 182 were women (seventeen of them pregnant), 173 were children and sixty were men over the age of sixty. Historian Kendrick Oliver describes it as a pivotal event not only in the Vietnam war but in American history.

Before My Lai, war crimes by American troops had rarely, if ever, been disclosed in the news media. A massacre of between 250 and 300 civilians, mostly women and children, had taken place during the Korean war, for instance, but was not disclosed until nearly half a century later by an Associated Press investigative team.

The atrocities at My Lai had taken place in March 1968, but they were not revealed until late the following year and not by the mainstream news media. Hersh, freelancing in Washington, followed up a public interest lawyer’s tip with a tenacity and resourcefulness that rivals Wilfred Burchett’s trip to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb in 1945, which I’ve written about for Inside Story. Hersh’s revelations about the events at My Lai were initially turned down by outlets such as Life magazine and the New York Times. Eventually, a small, independent, anti-war news agency run by a friend of Hersh managed to sell it to newspapers around the country, not including the New York Times.

On the same day as this initial, muted response to what were shocking revelations, President Nixon sent his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, out to deliver a speech criticising the “liberal eastern establishment” media’s coverage of the war. “The day when the network commentators and even the gentlemen of the New York Times enjoyed a diplomatic immunity from comment and criticism is over!” Agnew declared. His speech and its reception — it drew a standing ovation — are a marker of the hostility towards the press that has only intensified under President Trump’s relentless stoking.

The big television networks ignored the My Lai revelations until Hersh found a soldier in Calley’s company who could be persuaded to be interviewed by Mike Wallace on CBS. Paul Meadlo then admitted on national television that he had killed women and children. “It sent a shudder through the nation,” recalled Hersh’s publisher friend, David Obst.

The shudder became a seismic shift three years later, in 1972, when Woodward and his colleague at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, began reporting on the implications of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate hotel-office complex. The Watergate story, which begins with dirty tricks by low-level Republican Party political operatives and ends with president Richard Nixon’s forced resignation in August 1974, is well known; what is less well known is the role Seymour Hersh played in it.

By 1972, having won a Pulitzer Prize for his My Lai disclosures, Hersh was in the Washington bureau of the country’s most prestigious newspaper, the New York Times, covering national security issues. The Times, “a cathedral of quiet dignity,” according to Gay Talese’s history, The Kingdom and the Power, was slow to respond to Watergate. The problem, as one of its then editors, Bill Kovach, pithily put it, was that the Times “hated to be beaten but didn’t really want to be first” on stories that genuinely challenged power and authority. Spiro Agnew hated the newspaper for being liberal and eastern, but the third word of his description — establishment — is crucial: the Times was part of the establishment.

After numerous Woodward and Bernstein disclosures, the newspaper’s hatred of being beaten outweighed its reticence about being first, and managing editor Abe Rosenthal instructed Hersh to begin covering the story. Most of the key sources were already dealing with Woodward and Bernstein, including the most famous anonymous source in media history, “Deep Throat” (revealed three decades later to be deputy FBI director Mark Felt).

Even so, beginning in early 1973, Hersh broke several important stories about Watergate, including the key disclosure that those on trial for the Watergate break-in were being paid “hush money,” allegedly by the Committee to Re-elect the President. Woodward and Bernstein hated being scooped, but they liked seeing Hersh verify and amplify their revelations in the nation’s most powerful newspaper.

The three journalists competed as fiercely as they respected each other’s work ethic. The difference was that the Washington Post duo wrote a book about their Watergate coverage, All the President’s Men, that sold 2.7 million copies on its release in 1974 and was turned into an Oscar-winning Hollywood film starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. No newspaper journalists had ever been as famous or glamorous.

Hersh has only good things to say in his memoir about Woodward (they played tennis on Sundays for many years, and occasionally shared notes about sources), but Miraldi documents Hersh’s envy of his better-known counterpart. “It’s a very crass materialistic thing to say, but it’s a fact,” Hersh once said drily. “I wouldn’t mind making a million dollars on a book. Having Robert Redford play me would not bother me at all.”

That mattered less than the extraordinary series of stories Hersh unearthed about national security during this period, including his revelation that the United States had illegally and secretly bombed neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Just before Christmas 1974, Hersh revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency, in violation of its charter, had “conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States, according to well-placed government sources.”

The CIA story prompted Congress to set up a commission of inquiry, headed by Senator Frank Church, to investigate the legality of the CIA’s covert operations, drug-smuggling activities in the Golden Triangle, and attempts to interfere in other countries’ politics. The Church Commission’s work paved the way for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

If Hersh’s influence and reputation reached a peak in the mid 1970s, they fluctuated over the next three decades as he alternated between producing revelations (about Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega’s corruption, for instance, and his dubious relationship with the American military and intelligence agencies) and becoming mired in controversy (as he was after he took a deep dive into the details of JFK’s extramarital affairs while he was president, in The Dark Side of Camelot).

Sometimes he experienced both at once, as when he alleged that duplicity was central to Henry Kissinger’s career, in his 1983 book The Price of Power, for which he interviewed more than 1000 people and spent a year on background reading. If, despite unremitting ferreting, Hersh failed to find the smoking gun that would have destroyed Kissinger’s career, the book has held up to scrutiny over time, and Kissinger’s reputation has been tarnished.

The combination of working with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted a series of significant stories, epitomised by Hersh’s reporting of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The CBS television program 60 Minutes II broke the story just before the New Yorker, but Hersh obtained a fifty-three-page internal army report on the events by Major-General Antonio Taguba, which enabled him to demolish the trope on conservative radio talk shows that Abu Ghraib was simply about a “few guys going nuts on the night-shift.”

Instead, Hersh wrote, the roots of Abu Ghraib could be found in defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to expand a highly secret program of interrogating Iraqi prisoners. The operation “embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of elite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.”

Hersh’s reporting after 9/11 culminated in his ninth book, Chain of Command, which won numerous awards but sold nowhere near as well as even one of Woodward’s quartet of books about George W. Bush’s presidency, Bush at War, Plan of Attack, State of Denial and The War Within.

If the lack of attention chafed Hersh, a comparison of these works shows Hersh hewing more closely to the promise of public interest journalism. “Bob has become the diarist of sitting administrations,” says Bill Kovach, a former editor at the New York Times, “and Sy has continued to be the muckraker. Sy continues his outrage.”

Or, as Mark Danner, himself a respected American investigative journalist, puts it, where Woodward relies for his disclosures on officials at the highest level of government, Hersh’s sources come from lower levels of the government and intelligence bureaucracy. Where Woodward provides the “deeper” version of what is, essentially, “the official story,” Hersh uncovers a version of events that “the government does not want public — which is to say, a version that contradicts the official story of what went on.”

Most of Woodward’s books, then, stay close to the moment’s conventional wisdom about any given administration. His first two Bush books, published in 2003 and 2004, show the president as commanding and decisive. It was only in late 2006, after State of Denial was released and it was apparent to even the least interested citizen that the war on terror had been poorly conceived and was being poorly executed, that Woodward began meting out criticism. As Slate editor Jacob Weisberg wrote, the state of denial applied as much to Woodward as it did to the Bush administration. For his part, within weeks of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hersh was reporting in the New Yorker that the CIA and the FBI were ill-prepared to deal with al Qaeda and were riven by intra-agency rivalry and mistrust.

Over his long career Hersh has undoubtedly made errors. And some of his predictions have proved to be wrong. But he has acknowledged at least some of these lapses in his memoir — not something that comes easily to journalists, let alone investigative journalists.

As Steve Weinberg, a former director of Investigative Reporters and Editors in the United States, writes, “Any journalist who does that many high-stakes stories and has to depend on so many sources, whose truthfulness cannot always be determined, may be misled some of the time.” Hersh himself told his biographer, “I am a mouthpiece for people on the inside. You get a sense I am a vehicle for a certain form of dissent.”

That’s not what you get from Woodward, who says he persuades political leaders to talk because “essentially I write self-portraits.” Whether or not he has persuaded Donald Trump to speak on the record, it seems unlikely that Fear: Trump in the White House will provide a “vehicle for a certain form of dissent.”

Does Hersh have in him another searing exposé, or is his memoir a swan song? You’d hope the former, but it feels like the latter. He is still promising a book about former vice-president Dick Cheney, but Cheney hasn’t been in that job since 2009 and Barton Gellman thoroughly documented his malign influence on American politics a decade ago in Angler: The Shadow Presidency of Dick Cheney.

And as Alan Rusbridger, former long-time editor of the Guardian, notes, Hersh’s reliance on anonymous sources is being overtaken, or at the least offset, by new approaches to journalism that draw on myriad communication technologies to forensically investigate events and issues.

Regardless, Hersh has already given us a lifetime’s worth of disclosures in the public interest that even at the distance of several decades are as important to read as they are disturbing. •