Seymour Hersh: a reporter of the old school

Seymour Hersh is the outstanding investigative reporter of his generation.  From the My Lai massacre to the Abu Ghraib torture center , he made a career of exposing things that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies didn’t want the American people to know.

His new memoir makes me feel I wasted my 40 years working on newspapers.  I never really got below the surface of things.  The world was a very different place than I thought it was.

He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting of the My Lai massacre.  All he had to go on was a tip that a soldier at Fort Benning had been court-martialed for massacring Vietnamese civilians.  He systematically scanned microfilm records of the New York Times and found a short item inside the newspaper about a Lt. William Calley being court-martialed for the death of an unspecified number of Vietnamese civilians.

Later he was told the last name of Calley’s lawyer—Latimer.  With that to go on, he was able to locate George Latimer, a returned judge on the Military Court of Appeals now practicing law in Salt Lake City.   Latimer confirmed that he was defending Calley, but refused to help Hersh locate him.  He finally did by driving into Fort Benning and finding Calley for himself.

What Calley told Hersh was far worse than he suspected at the time, and far worse than I remember it.   The massacre was not something that happened in the heat of battle.   It was a systematic killing for more than 700 people, including women (after being raped) and babies.

In a follow-up, Hersh learned there was a soldier named Paul Meadlo in Calley’s unit who’d lost a foot to a land mine.  He told Calley that God had punished him for what he did, and would punish Calley, too.  All Hersh knew was the Meadlo lived somewhere in Indiana.  He called telephone information operators in Indiana until he found his man.

His first book, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal, was published in 1968,   He reported that, among other things, there were some 3,300 accidents at Fort Detrick, Maryland, involving biological warfare research, resulting in the infection of more than 500 men and three known deaths, two from anthrax.

Fort Detrick’s experiments resulted in the deaths in experiments each year of 700,000 laboratory animals, ranging from guinea pigs to monkeys.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church supplied 1,400 conscientious objectors to Fort Detrick to do alternative service in the form of being exposed to airborne tularemia and other infectious diseases.  Hersh said that at least some of them had no idea what they had volunteered for or been exposed to.

I mention this because at the time, I was a reporter for the Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, and Fort Detrick was within our circulation area.  I had no idea that any of this was going on, and I probably wouldn’t have believed it if I had been told.

Hersh uncovered the facts by first obtaining a Science magazine article that listed all of the U.S. military’s chemical-biological warfare centers in the United States, then obtaining the in-house newspapers for these centers.  The newspapers listed retirement parties for officers leaving the service, and Hersh sought them out to interview.   Enough of them were bothered by what they had seen to provide the information for Hersh’s articles and book.

Hersh grew up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago.  His father died when he was in his teens.  He made an agreement with his twin brother to manage the family dry cleaning business until the brother got through engineering school and found a job.  The brother would then take responsibility for supporting their mother.

He drifted into newspaper work almost by accident.  He rose in a succession of jobs through a combination of lucky breaks and doing more than the job required.

Seymour Hersh in 1970

His My Lai articles and books brought him into national prominence.  He exposed the CIA’s attempt to infiltrate anti-war groups.  He did important reporting on the Watergate scandal.  He reported on Henry Kissinger’s engineering of a military coup against the Allende government in Chile.

He worked for the New York Times under the editorship of Abe Rosenthal until he resigned in order to have time to write a book about the misdeeds of Henry Kissinger.

He worked for the New Yorker under the editorship of David Remnick, which published many of his articles, notably his expose of the Abu Ghraib torture center.  But Remnick refused to publish his article contradicting the official story concerning the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.   Instead Remnick published a version fed him by his friend, President Obama.

Hersh’s source told him that the U.S. raid on Bin Laden’s refuge in Pakistan was done with the cooperation of the Pakistani government.  The original agreement was to kill Bin Laden, then “discover” corpse somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Hersh’s source was angry that the Obama administration broke the agreement.

Hersh resigned and took his article to the London Review of Books, where he was able to get his articles published on a regular basis until 2017, when the editor turned town an article questioning a claim that President Assad used a nerve agent against the civilian population.

He took the article to Die Welt, a German magazine.  Hersh said Defense Secretary James Mattis later admitted he didn’t have reliable intelligence on what happened.

Investigative reporters tend to wear out their welcomes, Hersh said.  Editors and publishers get tired of constantly being on the defensive and standing up to pressure.


A reporter of the old school

One of Hersh’s rules about reporting is to keep his opinions to himself, and just report facts.  Nobody should bother listening to a reporter who says, “I think”.   I didn’t find any opinion in Reporter more specific than that conviction that governments should not commit crimes and acts of war, and then lie about them.

Another is “to read before you write.”  He reads everything he can find about an individual before he interviews them.  He does not start his interviews with his core questions.  He first tries to establish that (1) he knows what he is talking about and (2) he is open to what the person has to say.

Seymour Hersh in 2004

Hersh is different from Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, whose books are based on interviews with top-level politicians and officials.  In Woodward’s books, you can almost always  guess who told him what, if only because he describes peoples’ unspoken thoughts and feelings.  Woodward’s leverage is that his book is going to be published, and that the people who don’t talk to him aren’t going to have their version of events put on record.

Hersh’s sources come mainly from the low and middle levels of their organizations.  The U.S. military and intelligence agencies are full of people who are a kind of loyal opposition, he said  They are devoted to their legitimate missions, but object to abuses of power.  Hersh respects them and gives them a voice.

He said he can only do this if he conceals their identities.  He puts protecting his sources ahead of everything.  He only reports certain facts when the person who told him has died or retired and is safe from retaliation. The identities of his sources are revealed to his editors and fact-checkers, but to no-one else.

The problem with this, from the standpoint of the reader, is that there is no independent way to evaluate the reliability of Hersh’s information.   The reader has to decide whether to trust Hersh’s judgment.   As for myself, I do trust it.  Hersh’s record of accuracy holds up well.

He said he had to hold up work on his current book, which is about former Vice President Dick Cheney, because many of his sources are still in government and would suffer if it were published now.

Hersh is different from Julian Assange, who regards the U.S. military and intelligence agencies as mere high-level conspiracies.  Hersh said he refrains from revealing information that would put Americans at risk or endanger U.S. security.

He always contacts people he writes about and tells them the day before publication what his article is going to say about them—however bad.  He said this helps create an impression that he is not writing out of malice, only trying to do his job.

Hersh said he lived in a golden age of journalism, in which newspapers, magazines and broadcasters were willing and able to stand up to pressure from governments and advertisers, and to finance long-term investigations.  He and others were able to rise from obscurity, reveal crimes committed by their government and not only go free, but be rewarded and honored for their accomplishment.

Now news organizations are less and less able to afford the cost and risk of investigative reporting.  “It’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the  chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today,” he wrote.  “Of course I’m still trying.”


A Reporter’s Reporter: a Conversation with Seymour Hersh by Daniel Falcone for Counterpunch.

Seymour Hersh’s New Memoir Is a Fascinating, Flabbergasting Masterpiece by Jon Schwartz for The Intercept.

Seymour Hersh’s Memoir Is Full of Useful Reporting Secrets by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

America’s Reporter: the Hersh Method by Vijay Prashad for Counterpunch.  [Added 7/23/2018]


One Response to “Seymour Hersh: a reporter of the old school”

  1. halbauer Says:

    The scope and life decisions demonstrated by Seymour Hersh’s heroic investigative journalism is truly extraordinary. As I replied to Phil, “where was I?” as I seemed to have missed so many details, only superficially covered in popular media. The book is very readable too!

    Other local, NYC old school journalists, I largely missed during this late 20th Century, living in Canada, Africa, Europe and pursuing scientific research and university teaching, are dramatized in this remarkable, current, HBO documentary:

    Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists
    HBO subscription.

    Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were independent investigative New York City journalists with a common person’s empathy and perspective. The interviews and stories are remarkable.


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