A Reporter’s Reporter: a Conversation With Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh on Democracy Now!

Seymour Hersh states that the “deadliest words” in US media today are, “I think.” With media cycles constantly fluctuating and changing format and delivery based on website clicks it’s hard to keep up and find good reporting. For example, Hersh points to a lack of coverage or deep analysis regarding the war in Yemen and Trump’s removal of Sudan from the travel ban list, as crucial stories in need of further investigating.

Hersh also refers to America’s “continuing special force operations and the never ending political divides” across several continents that don’t get enough play because of our current state of news coverage. Aside from “today’s newspapers that cannot afford to keep correspondents in the field,” for Hersh, the news of today seems “unstructured and chaotic,” and is pieced together much like the country as “partisan and strident.”

Author of My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (1970), and Pulitzer Prize recipient and best-selling author Seymour Hersh is “a survivor from the golden age of journalism.” Hersh, the author of numerous groundbreaking articles and nearly a dozen books, most recently, The Killing of Osama bin Laden (2017) and Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, (2004) has just come out with his story and a revealing look at one of the top-rated investigative journalists in US history. Reporter: A Memoir, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)outlines Hersh’s early life, his rise in journalism, and sketches an illustration for the state of journalism in a changing world.

I spoke with Seymour Hersh on June 12, 2018, by phone from New York City, for nearly an hour in his Washington D.C. office and he shared with me great insights and stories about his career and his latest book.  I started by asking Hersh to comment on how he was “a survivor from the golden age of journalism,” wanting to find out what was entailed in this “golden age.”

Hersh indicated that, “there was a period then when we could dominate the news.  In other words, the newspapers were believed more than anybody else in the government, and that’s what I called a “golden age.” Hersh added it was a period that lasted for three or four years.

“There were a couple of years when the state couldn’t control what we were doing,” remarked Hersh. “They couldn’t do it.” Hersh’s message in Reporter is that good investigative journalism tells the story, and essentially does not set out to make the United States look good. “That is not the function of a good newspaper,” explained Hersh.

Hersh also explained to me how Trump is a “circuit breaker,” and is redirecting the nation’s foreign policy orthodoxy. Furthermore, his poll numbers increase in the face of constant attacks as he dangerously controls the agenda, partly because journalists got too far away from telling the story, or sat on stories, and instead settled on mediocrity, as they lost resources, over the past several years.

Hersh told me his thoughts on entering the memoir project to write Reporter. I tried to discover if he had learned anything about himself and if he enjoyed the process. Hersh told me that he never thought he would. He had a book deal on Dick Cheney. A book that he was starting to have people review and edit and there were some issues with it. First, Cheney is still alive and second, Hersh started this project in the Obama years when the administration was prosecuting people left and right or had the potential to.

The publishers were absolutely nervous about Hersh’s work-in-progress on Cheney.  And so Knopf the publisher, who had financed his research for three years said, “Do a memoir.” Hersh remarked in self-deprecating fashion that the big thing he learned was that his “memory was absolutely useless.”  He thought, at first, he would just go back and reread everything he wrote, but commented on the concern he had – of not being able to find his early work with the UPI in South Dakota in 1972 and 1973.

I asked Hersh to talk about his formative years and to discuss the impact of Chicago on his writing style and his worldview. Hersh grew up and worked in his father’s business in the black ghetto in the 1950s. In the 1930s it had been the area where James T. Farrell, a wonderful Chicago writer, wrote the Studs Lonigan Trilogy. Chicago was also a place where people like Studs Terkel used to talk about the South Side.

Hersh also admired Saul Bellow and Philip Roth commenting on how he “was influenced by the realistic style of fiction, because it was so gritty.”  But it’s not as if Hersh was tuned in at the age of 20 to a writing style per se, the plain fact was simply: he could always flat out write.

Chicago was also where Hersh would later work as a police reporter covering for City News. “Cops basically ran the city with the mob, and if some guy was found downtown in a mob-controlled area, such as the nightclub on Rush Street—with 14 bullets in him, it was reported to be a traffic accident, you didn’t take on the police,” said Hersh.

It’s not that Hersh didn’t try to resist this tyranny. He once overheard a cop talking about killing a black guy as a suspect. The cop told the suspect “beat it, just get out of here,” and then shot him in the back, later claiming that he tried to escape from a bust. Hersh called his editor with the intent to break the story and was told it was his word against the cop’s. The editor, more or less replied to Hersh, we have to get you out of that police station or you’ll be out of the business [emphasis mine].

In Reporter, Hersh explains how the Civil Rights Movement and his close friendship with I.F. Stone shaped his approach to covering the war in Vietnam and his subsequent topics of study and investigative reporting. Hersh spoke about his work for the AP, where he was assigned to be a civil rights reporter. Hersh had “enormous respect for Martin Luther King, because he would walk through these neighborhoods in Southwest Chicago and be greeted with the worst abuses.” Not only were things thrown at King, recalls Hersh, but the language directed at him was awful, coming from a white area under threat of African encroachment.

Another area of interest and inspiration for Hersh was found in the Bertrand Russell tribunal, which had a lot of very interesting things to say about the war in Vietnam, with firsthand accounts of soldiers who had committed atrocities, but Hersh also paid attention to the various publications and church groups. “There were church groups in fact who did very good work on the atrocities in Vietnam, even long before Mỹ Lai,” said Hersh.

Hersh continued to explain, how later as a war reporter, he also got to know officers who had a lot of integrity, and who didn’t like the fact that “some got promoted by body count.”  The more people an officer killed, the more the officer would get promoted. Hersh remarked that this was “a horrible unwritten rule.” It was also during Vietnam that Hersh realized that “the guys running the war didn’t tell the truth.”

When it came to I.F. Stone, Hersh stated, “The bottom line is, he taught me you have to really work hard, you have to read things and you have to do a lot of re-reading to understand events in order to put them in perspective.” I.F. Stone was a “golden age” journalist that saw Hersh as someone who had potential to look at the story, not in terms of it “hurting America, but if it were true, and that’s the way I reported,” remarked Hersh, “I didn’t worry about hurting America,” he added, “and that wasn’t my function. My function was to tell the story about how bad the war was and why I thought it was bad.”

A lot of readers are familiar with Mỹ Lai 4, but before that was Hersh’s first book, Chemical and Biological Warfare, where he gathered war crime research from Quakers all the way up to senior people in Washington and also those at Harvard. Hersh recalled Seymour Melman, who was putting out great writings like, In the Name of America, trying to alert the American people to what was going on in our names and if we only knew.

“I read that stuff carefully,” said Hersh. “I thought when I first got to the Mỹ Laistory that it was about some kid that just lost his mind and with a tank fired a rocket into a house or just blew a part of a village and killed 75 people or so. And as I got into it more and more I discovered it involved the deliberate murder of 550 including things like rape, throwing babies in the air and catching them with bayonets. It was really just awful stuff.”

Leading up to Reporter, Hersh has written extensively on not just Vietnam, but Henry Kissinger, American mid-east foreign policyThe Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, and many other pieces in several publications throughout his career, as well as books. Then, with the emergence of the Obama Administration, which many people held tremendous optimism for – he found it more difficult to cover his presidency than others in the past.

Hersh said, “more difficult is a mild way of putting it, it was much harder because [Obama] was a very attractive man and he wasn’t [perceived uneducable] like George Bush, but he also beat Hillary, who a lot of people did not really like very much.” All of this made Obama criticism more difficult in Hersh’s view, even though he didn’t do much coverage of the Obama Administration, he did write pertinent and explosive stories.

“There’s a sad truth,” remarked Hersh, “a sad truth is all presidents lie.” The story that caused the most problems for Hersh was the Bin Laden story in 2013 after he explained with inside sources that Osama bin Laden was being held as a prisoner and Pakistan had facilitated the United States capture, retrieval, and murder of him. “My God, was that a time of trauma, there was a lot of anger at me for doing that,” lamented Hersh.  “I was pretty much attacked from one end of the city to the other.”

I closed my discussion with Hersh by bringing up the topic of Syria. I wanted to discuss the article, “Whose sarin” from the December 2013 edition of the London Review of Books, where he challenged the widespread perception that Bashar Al Assad had used nerve gas against his own people.

Hersh wrote the piece to explain his evidence that the United States had “omitted important intelligence and that [Obama] presented assumptions as facts.” Hersh emphasized that the White House pretended there was only one suspect, Assad, when they were two, the Turks and the Saudis, both believed to be possibly responsible. Hersh commented on how the Saudis were likely working through Lebanon, while the Turks were working through the border of the Idlib province. In effect, large quantities of precursor chemicals were smuggled into Syria and the US government had knowledge of it. The overall point was, after the gas attack, how was anyone sure?

Everyone in the US media was ready to blame the Syrians, when in fact the American government knew for two months that there was a second group that could have been responsible. Hersh indicated that, “it was a grave disservice of the Obama Whitehouse to not tell the world that we had evidence.”

Hersh has never stated that Assad is a great leader but he does find the hatred for Assad in the US to be irrational and acute. He also finds it borderline hypocritical while he alluded to Vietnam:

“I know a country that used barrel bombs. They dropped them all by helicopters. And they were considered to be very pernicious and a violation of the Geneva Accord. I know a country that used barrel bombs for seven years, (particularly in the provinces between Saigon and reaching to the west of Cambodia) in a war in which the President of the country was never in danger. If Assad loses this war to ISIS or whomever, he’s going to end up like Mussolini, executed and strung up by his neck with his wife and children next to him on a pole somewhere in downtown Damascus.”

Hersh basically asserted that the US corporate media coverage of Syria is not independent from state pressure, it overcompensates, and it’s shocking that Assad is seen as such a horrible person without a comparison to Saudi Arabia.

Hersh also explained what it was like to first interview Assad and recalled when in 2003 Assad asked him, “do you mind if I give a long answer?” In other words, he was shy about it, or anxious in Hersh’s estimation. Hersh, and others, do see a problem with Assad – “he isn’t doing enough on human rights.”  But he’s somebody who will protect the Sunnis in his country. That doesn’t mean he’s a peacenik, “but it’s a war for survival,” remarked Hersh, “it’s a brutal civil war.”

“And is he a great leader? No.”

Doug Henwood for The Nation said it best regarding Reporter: “Reading Seymour Hersh’s memoir. It is great. He is great.” In closing, Reporter is another outstanding book by Seymour Hersh and reads very fast, insightful and entertaining. Hersh’s career is obviously prolific and his latest work covers an extraordinary amount of territory, making such a conversation with him about it somewhat difficult. (In the index Richard Nixon gets nearly an entire column of references.) Considering the age of Trump and what Noam Chomsky calls the “Me First Doctrine,” the most frightening portion of the book was the chapter that discussed Bush 43’s War on Terror, which reminded me that war can be used to reelect a president.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.