The World According to Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh’s new memoir, Reporter: A Memoir, occasionally notes the failure of the exposure of wrong-doing to result in accountability or policy reforms. That’s the closest the book generally comes to touching on any motivation behind Hersh’s work related to ending war or torture or any other evil. The exception is the bit about Hersh’s time working for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. In 1960, in Chapter 3, Hersh joins the U.S. Army without one word as to why. In Chapter 14 he self-censors the story of President Richard Nixon seriously assaulting the First Lady because Hersh thought it was a story unrelated to public policy. Wasn’t allowing Nixon to remain in office and unindicted related to public policy?

Of course, Hersh may have a habit and a preference for keeping himself out of the story, even when the story is about him, but it seems rather that what this book tells us is that his motivation for his reporting has been reporting. It’s not a job disconnected from politics or morality; integral to it is pursuit of and exposure of the truth, especially in the face of powerful lies. But it’s enjoyment of that work that has driven Hersh. And if it were anything else, he might not tell us. Last September I worked on planning a conference at which Hersh had agreed to speak, and he dropped out at the last minute, not wanting to be seen together with Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, which might not have pleased potential sources — or at least that’s the reason he gave. Presumably Hersh’s book, like his life, is created with one eye on pleasing the future sources who will give him what he lives for still.

Hersh writes that he didn’t expect to write a memoir until he’d reached the point of being unable to work. In some senses, perhaps he hasn’t written one yet. With a book that tells as much as this one, what it does not tell is not grounds for complaint, but it is what one comes away wondering about. Hersh’s book is packed with statements of things that he says he promised someone years ago he would not reveal. The reader cannot know in each case whether permission was later granted, or a deal forfeited, or all obligations erased by death or merely by the passage of time. But it is striking how many times Hersh recounts keeping stories or parts of stories untold in order to please a source or an employer or out of actual agreement with a government demand for secrecy, or — apparently — out of a belief that some details are just too horrible to tell. What else does Hersh have, and will he ever tell us? Were he never to say another word, our complaint would remain with most of his fellow reporters and their editors and producers, about whose motivations Hersh reveals a lot more than about his own.

Hersh’s book, like his previous work, names names. But this time they are the names of editors and reporters whose behavior establishes their priorities: closeness to power, U.S. exceptionalism, militarism, racism, and rivalry — and in that order. The New York Times would rather get a story on presidential atrocities before the Washington Post, but would much rather nobody get it at all, and a story on the CIA even less, and one on the mafia less still. Hersh has followed leads that have been available to all, including the My Lai story, but nobody else wanted to follow them. There’s a scene in the book where Hersh is giving a public speech and asks a randomly chosen veteran of the war on Vietnam to come up on stage, and then asks him to confirm that U.S. helicopters made a practice of diving and trying to decapitate Vietnamese farmers with their propeller blades. That kind of story was, is, and shall be sloshing around the streets of the United States for anyone to scoop up, except that most news institutions are designed not to do so.

New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal has a great many shameful moments in this book, but what I find most disturbing is the positive moment when he expresses outrage that CIA Director William Colby does not favor democracies over dictatorships. The shock! The horror! What did he think the CIA was?

Hersh found a way to work for all kinds of people, and he describes his career as happening during a golden age of journalism, explaining that this was the age before the 24-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers had lots of advertising money and reporters had lots of time. Hersh laments the way in which inaccurate stories can be made news today. Accuracy is ever his goal. But the inaccurate stories that drown out the documented outrages are not randomly selected. They’re pro-U.S., anti-Russian, anti-Muslim, anti-Korean, anti-democratic stories of the sort that many journalists seem to have always longed for. That Hersh found a way to fit in with such people without being one, as a sort of permanent whistle blower, has radically improved our knowledge of what has actually been going on.

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