Seymour Hersh shows the difference between a reporter and a stenographer

Seymour Hersh is a legendary investigative reporter who has broken many major stories, perhaps most famously the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the torture by the US in Abu Ghraib. He has just published a memoir Reporter and Matt Taibbi says that current journalists could learn a lot from Hersh from the way he describes how he got information. Taibbi points to a story Hersh tells about what happened when he was preparing to write a story in 1999 in the New Yorker about Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard,

Bill Clinton was believed to be preparing a pardon for Pollard. This infuriated the rank and file of the intelligence community, who now wanted the press to know just what Pollard had stolen and why letting him free would be, in their eyes, an outrage.

“Soon after I began asking questions,” Hersh writes, “I was invited by a senior intelligence official to come have a chat at CIA headquarters. I had done interviews there before, but always at my insistence.”

He went to the CIA meeting. There, officials dumped a treasure trove of intelligence on his desk and explained that this material – much of which had to do with how we collected information about the Soviets – had been sold by Pollard to Israel.

On its face, the story was sensational. But Hersh was uncomfortable. “I was very ambivalent about being in the unfamiliar position of carrying water for the American intelligence community,” he wrote. “I, who had worked so hard in my career to learn the secrets, had been handed the secrets.”

This offhand line explains a lot about what has made Hersh completely embody what it means to be a reporter. The great test is being able to get information powerful people don’t want you to have. A journalist who is handed something, even a very sensational something, should feel nervous, sick, ambivalent. Hersh never stopped feeling that way, remaining an iconoclast and a thorn in the side of officialdom to this day.

A lot off reporters today are delighted when they are given information by high government officials even though it is clear that they are being used to push political and personal agendas. Hersh was like an earlier legendary journalist I. F. Stone who realized that lower level officials were better sources of information.

Hersh, on the other hand, has had success mining the middle and lower ranks of agencies. He constantly keeps an eye out for sources among the lesser-known (but still powerful) officials who are leaving the game. Many of these techniques are detailed in Reporter.

Hersh would break stories that angered politicians and the public because they showed that the US government was responsible for atrocious acts. For this he was, of course, called s a traitor and a communist but this did not stop him.

In advance of a speech at Tulane in the wake of My Lai, for instance, the Times-Picayune called him a “communist sympathizer” and ran an editorial literally bordered in red protesting his appearance (de-platforming was a thing even then).

Being “more than a little pissed off at the cheap shot” (an unerring sense of pissed-off-edness is another of Hersh’s gifts), he gave the speech at Tulane and decided to improvise “with a purpose in mind.”

The room was full of Vietnam vets. Hersh asked if anyone in the audience had been a helicopter pilot in a certain Vietnamese province in 1968 or 1969. A man came onstage. Once Hersh reassured him that he had no interest in his name, he asked the soldier what chopper pilots sometimes did to “cope with the rage.”

The soldier, while claiming he didn’t do it personally, said he knew what Hersh was talking about. The practice involved spotting a civilian farmer on the way back after a mission, flying low and attempting to decapitate the fleeing figure with rotor blades. The crews would have to land short of the base to “wash the blood off the rotors.”

“I did not like what I did to the vet, who was stunningly honest,” he writes, “but I wanted to get back, in some way, at the Times-Picayune.

Hersh was also among the first to describe a burgeoning American assassination program that to this day is poorly understood.

Within weeks of 9/11, for instance, Hersh quoted a “C.I.A. man” claiming the U.S. needed to “defy the American rule of law… We need to do this – knock them down one by one.” He later reported on the existence of a “target list” and cited an order comparing the new tactics to El Salvadoran execution squads, reporting that much of this was going on without Congress being told.

He described American soldiers [in Iraq] raiding houses and robbing the inhabitants (many Iraqis kept their savings in dollars). He described tales of arrestees who were set free for a kickback. And he told of a regime of abuse in American detention centers so horrific that men would “write to their fathers and brothers and beg them to come kill them in jail.”

Because of his habit of reporting uncomfortable truths, not to mention his uncompromising personality, newspaper editors would eventually get tired of dealing with the controversies he generated and he moved from place to place.

I read and enjoyed Hersh’s book The Price of Power that dissected Henry Kissinger. I am not in general a fan of the memoir genre but I have bought Hersh’s book and look forward to reading about how he got his stories. Taibbi recommends that anyone who considers themselves a journalist should read it to also find out what attitude they should have to those in power.


  1. says

    Hersh is also the reporter who dropped the story that the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapons were Jabhat Al Nusra provocation. Instantly he was persona non grata at NYT.

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