I am not in general a fan of the memoir genre but when I heard that legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had written one, I rushed out to buy a copy the day it was released because I knew it would be good. And I was not disappointed. The book is excellent, containing details of how he arrived at his stories and should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a good reporter because he tells you how he went about getting important information. As I read it I started marking various passages to quote in a review but they became so numerous that there is no way that I can do so without this becoming very lengthy. What I will do is from time to quote from sections of it as it relates to other topics I write about.
Hersh says that a deeply formative experience occurred after his father’s death when he was still in high school, when he was thrust into running father’s dry cleaning business in a poor, largely black neighborhood in Chicago. He said that this enabled him to mix easily and talk with people from all socio-economic backgrounds. One of his first experiences as a raw reporter was an editor reducing what he thought was a heartbreaking story about a tragic fire to just one or two sentences, just because the victims were black and thus not worth spending much space on.
One of the first rules he said he learned as a young reporter was that “Being first is not nearly as important as being right, and being careful, even if it did not matter in the case in hand.”. (p. 21) He says that any mistakes he made later in his career could have been avoided if he had kept that rule in mind. Another thing he learned while serving as a Pentagon correspondent during the early days of the Vietnam war was that the government would lie shamelessly to you, and then boast privately among themselves about how easily the media could be led by the nose. His solution? “There are many officers, including generals and admirals, who understood that the oath of office they took was a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution and not the President, or an immediate superior. They deserved my respect and got it. Want to be a good military reporter? Find these officers.” (p. 62-63)
One thing he always did was be careful to make sure his sources were not exposed, often going to elaborate lengths to hide their identity such as interviewing large numbers of other people whom he knew would not give him anything, just so that his source could not be singled out and identified. If he could not hide the source, he would not report the story. As a result, word spread among the honest people in government that he could be trusted and they would tell him things and even copy secret documents and hand them to him. What he distrusted was when top people in government would voluntarily give him information because he did not want to be a vehicle for advancing the government’s agenda. (p. 294)
I was aware of his major stories from Vietnam such as the My Lai massacre, the horrors of US treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the illegal domestic spying programs of the CIA, and of course the chronic lying and deceit of the war criminal Henry Kissinger of whom he says “the man lied the way most people breathed”. (p. 191) I was not as aware that he had also broken major stories on Watergate and US chemical and biological warfare programs. His book reminded me also of how Bill Clinton, in his first months as president in 1992, had launched a missile attack on Baghdad, in retaliation for a supposed plot by Saddam Hussein to assassinate his predecessor, George H. W. Bush. There is nothing that Democratic presidents love more than to launch attacks on other countries to show the American people that they are as tough as Republicans, and Clinton exulted in the resulting media-showered glory. Hersh undermined the reasons given for that bombing, for which he was roundly vilified by the government and many others in the media for spoiling their collective patriotic orgasm. (p.276) He was also the reporter who wrote about General Barry McCaffrey’s murderous and cowardly assault in the desert on a retreating Iraqi tank battalion after the first Gulf war had ended. (p. 295) He also says that much of the official story put out by the Obama White House about the killing of Osama bin Laden was false. It was true that US soldiers had killed him but that bin Laden had been kept a prisoner by the Pakistani intelligence service ISI for years and it was they who had been working closely with the US to present the event as a purely US effort so that their role in double-crossing him was left out. (p. 327) Getting that story published in the US media was hard, given how the country was awash in glee at the supposedly daring Rambo-like raid, and he eventually published it in the London Review of Books.
Hersh was astounded that so many of his colleagues in the media loved and/or admired the CIA, a feeling that he did not share, and they would sometimes undermine his negative reporting on that agency. (p. 221). He is scathing about Ted Koppel, a much admired ‘journalist’ in the US whom I have long despised, whom he described as fawning over Kissinger and was angling for a position as a state department spokesperson. (p. 260) He also says that getting his stories about the abuses of corporate American into the paper was often harder than getting published his stories about government abuses because the top people in the news business socialized and were friends with the top people in the business world. (p. 247)
This book is a page-turner and well worth buying.. Hersh writes with passion and conviction but also carefully and authoritatively.