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October 2018, Week 4

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 		 [ Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh has gotten a few things wrong
over his career. But his memoir shows a reporter with broad and brave
consistency, exposing one atrocity and cover-up by the forces of
American imperial power after another.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 SEYMOUR HERSH: HE GOT THE STORY  
[https://portside.org/2018-10-25/seymour-hersh-he-got-story] 

 

 Michael Hirsch 
 October 21, 2018
Jacobin [https://jacobinmag.com/2018/10/seymour-hersh-reporter-review]


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 _ Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh has gotten a few things wrong over
his career. But his memoir shows a reporter with broad and brave
consistency, exposing one atrocity and cover-up by the forces of
American imperial power after another. _ 

 Seymour Hersch, credit: LeHigh University / Flickr 

 

Writing in 1940, George Orwell opined in a review of a Bertrand
Russell book that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the
restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
Much the same can be said about the more than fifty-year career of
journalist Seymour Hersh, whose pioneering exposés of the lies of the
Great Powers report and affirm facts that follow Orwell’s dictum.

His memoir _Reporter_ showcases Hersh as nothing less than
journalism’s energizer bunny, unstoppable in exposing not only the
My Lai massacre in Vietnam — for which his accumulated freelance
pieces won him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970
— but for essential information breaking the Watergate scandal
cover-up and the Nixon administration’s development of offensive
chemical and bacteriological weapons.
 

Reporter: A Memoir
[https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/79187/reporter-by-seymour-m-hersh/9780307263957/]
By Seymour  M. Hersh
Knopf / Penguin Random House; 368 pages
Hardcover:  $27.95;  E-book:  $16.99
June 5, 2018
ISBN: 978-03072-63957
E-book ISBN: 978-05255-21587

 

_Reporter_ works its way through a conga line of miscreant US
presidents, from Kennedy to Bush (though Obama and Trump get scant
attention) and the venality of Henry Kissinger
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/henry-kissinger-grandin-ferguson-chomsky],
of whom Hersh says, “the man lied the way most people breathed.”
We’re told about the excesses and connections of a major West Coast
mob fixer, the domestic spying efforts of the CIA
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/cia-russia-wikileaks-podesta-trump-clinton-obama] in
direct violation of its governing charter, the sexual abuse by
soldiers of male Iraqi inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the
incapacity of the bulk of a credulous US press corps to do more than
cozy up to administration sources and miss the big stories.

This laggard media practice isn’t new, of course. _Nation_ editor
Carey McWilliams despaired in the early 1950s over how “large
majorities can be manipulated by carefully timed headlines,
revelations, and a thoroughly unscrupulous exploitation of the silence
and secrecy surrounding many phases of government.” For some five
decades, Hersh has strived to do better.

Hersh’s story then, as he tells it, is among the world’s
lengthiest curriculum vitae. It’s all about the work, and not much
about the man. We’re told he was born in 1937, one of two sets of
twins born to post-World War I Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
In his late teens, he ran his father’s micro dry cleaning plant on
Chicago’s South Side while going to college at the same time.
We’re told he’s married and with two grown children, but the rest
of the memoir is all about his work — at Chicago’s
legendary _City News_, then the _Chicago Tribune_, United Press
International in South Dakota, and the Associated Press.

Hustling as a media flack for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential
bid, his revelations about McCarthy are a tell-all that should
disabuse any former “Be Clean for Gene” warrior that McCarthy was
in any way an improvement over the run of mainstream Democrats on
anything beyond slamming the Vietnam War. His work at the _Washington
Post_, the _New York Times_, the _New Yorker_, and freelancing is
all there, too.

A stint writing screen plays in Hollywood taught him that “it’s
all about character,” though his own character abstracted from his
work ethic can’t be easily inferred from the memoir. Beyond a drive
to be first with a scoop, there’s no person presented here beyond
the quarrelsome, even splenetic, proverbial Peck’s Bad Boy
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peck%27s_Bad_Boy] in every reporting
job he held. His wrangles with top editors including the _New York
Times_’ Abe Rosenthal were legendary, all the while being whipsawed
by a mélange of bosses who were either dismissive or supportive of
him — sometimes both, as with Rosenthal and the _Washington
Post_’s Ben Bradlee. His narrative is at its best a testament to how
stories should be investigated and told. Without his having to say so,
the recent _New York Times_ exposé
[https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-tax-schemes-fred-trump.html] of
the seamy origins of the Trump family fortune aptly follows in that
tradition.

The largest single section of the book details his ferreting out the
real story of the My Lai massacre. His descriptions of GIs wantonly
skewering small Vietnamese children with bayonets bring the horror
back viscerally, and his fevered hunt for Lieutenant William Calley is
a wonder. Calley was later dubbed the chief perpetrator of the war
crimes despite ample evidence that he was the fall guy for more senior
officers derelict in self-servingly viewing the slaughter as a
firefight.

Not only did he expose the massacre, but he located Calley, then
hidden away by the military in senior officer bachelors’ quarters at
the military’s sprawling Fort Benning, Georgia, base. “I was
stunned,” Hersh writes about the result of his tortuous hunt, “a
suspected mass murderer hidden away in quarters for the army’s most
elite.”

Such masterly investigative and sleuthing justified his conclusion
that Calley was a scapegoat for a hypocritical military rule abjuring
torture as policy while permitting it factually and blaming such
massacres on lower-ranking “bad apples.” The suspicion that the
policy was in fact to tolerate such horrors is inescapable, though
Hersh never says as much.

In this bizarro-world war, he noted how “many navy pilots, convinced
that their targets in Vietnam were not worth the risks involved, were
eager to get out of the service as quickly as possible. It was a story
that no one at the top wanted to hear.” The reality, as numerous
flyers told him, was that just 10 percent of bombs dropped actually
hit their intended targets, a figure that made bombing itself not only
a hell for noncombatant Vietnamese but — given flack from the
North’s anti-aircraft batteries — organized suicide for pilots.

If Hersh learned one golden operating rule, it’s this: “If your
mother says she loves you, check it out.” After a series of his was,
as is still the custom, scrupulously fact-checked by the _New
Yorker_, resulting in damaging but exacting exposes that mooted any
libel threats, “I’ve been an avid supporter of fact-checking ever
since.” He likewise adopted the savvy credo, “Read before you
write.”

Culling sources also became a key piece of his _modus operandi_. “I
learned early in my career,” he writes, “that the way to get
someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask
questions that showed it. Humor and persistence often would work, …
but being threatening or aggressive never would.”

One of his trade secrets was tracking retired senior generals and
admirals, a class of people beyond the military’s’ reach to punish
for telling tales. Insider sources “quickly became more than
sources; they were friends and stayed friends after they left
government.” Often criticized for his voluminous use of unnamed
sources, he made it a practice of revealing source names to every
editor he’s worked with, with the consent of the sources.

One such source had been a Middle East CIA station chief. Asked why
other CIA operatives had such apparent contempt for the FBI that
sharing information was a non-practice, even after 9/11, “[h]is
answer stunned me,” Hersh writes. “”Don’t you get it, Sy?”
he’s told. “The FBI catches bank robbers. We rob banks.”

In writing 1983’s _The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White
House_, his tell-all book on the rest of the press’s sanctified
warlord Henry Kissinger
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/09/vietnam-war-cambodia-ellsberg-pentagon-papers-kissinger/],
he added “Find people who know the truth, or a truth, and let the
facts tell the story.” While the book was shunned by the mainstream
press whether or not it was read at all, it got accolades from Noam
Chomsky, who called it “really fabulous, apart from the feeling that
one is crawling through a sewer. “ That and reporting on Kissinger
for the _Times_, Hersh claims, kept Kissinger out of any Reagan White
House appointment in 1984.

Even after 9/11, when arch-neocon Vice President Dick Cheney was
orchestrating the undermining of constitutionally required
congressional oversight of foreign affairs, Hersh had sources willing
to talk about “operations, planned and ongoing — and only those
operations — that were contrary to American values, or what was left
of them.” Still, Hersh had to be selective about what he used, lest
he risk Cheney’s unearthing critics. Much as today with a leaking
Trump administration, sources used Hersh “as a conduit to have their
say without any risk” to their careers.

In his work there’s no thick description beyond what he is told or
dug up, the kind of color and texture so richly done by Orwell or
Clancy Segal, whose in-depth depictions of working-class life
[https://jacobinmag.com/2018/08/hope-lies-proles-john-newsinger-review-george-orwell-working-class-socialism] are
classics. Hersh’s strengths are elsewhere: they lay in what he’s
heard, read, gotten sources to tell him and confirmed. While much of
the information had to be on background so as not to expose sources,
it was so well-grounded that it made its own mark, particularly in a
field in which mainstream reporting consisted in large measure of
aping administration spokespersons and retouching press releases.

In these ventures Hersh was a pre-eminent outlier. Among his
influences was the independent journalist I.F. Stone, saying he “was
wowed by Stone’s ability to take on, and debunk, the official
accounts of events annunciated by the Johnson administration. There
was no mystery to how Stone did it. He overworked every journalist in
Washington.” (It was Stone who said, “All governments lie, but
disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same
hashish they give out.’’) Hersh describes the Pentagon press room
as “stunningly sedate,” with “the earmarks of a high-end social
club” and a press claque too ready to repeat whatever pap the
administration handed out that day. Its line was always the
Pentagon’s.

Keynoting a conference of the American Civil Liberties Union, Hersh
told the crowd, “There is a corporate mentality out there, but there
is also a tremendous amount of self-censorship among the press. It’s
like a disease.”

His research is indefatigable. Even in My Lai, where he is justly
revered for relentlessly hunting facts, working sources and breaking
the story, he also makes clear that he built his case on earlier work,
especially that of _Times _reporter Harrison Salisbury’s
dispatches from North Vietnam. While widely assumed by the growing
anti-war movement that US war policy was not only unjust and
unnecessary but murderous, he turned that subtext into text — even
before the release of the Pentagon Papers that blew the lid off of
every government war lie.

Piggybacking on Elinor Langer’s research in _Science_ magazine on
the Pentagon’s chemical and bacterial warfare (CBW) program, Hersh
was also instrumental in targeting the Defense Department’s CBW
programs, which were aimed not as defensive measures as claimed, but
for offensive forays. He also broke the story that Arkansas’s Pine
Bluff Arsenal in the late 1960s was storing bombs filled with anthrax
and other poisons as well as anti-crop agents “especially tailored
for crops grown in Cuba.”

As his reputation for exposing government perfidies grew, so did his
battery of sources. While his bosses at the _Times_ and _Washington
Post_ were queasy about his against-the-grain reporting, “more and
more officials on the inside were talking to me and knew I would deal
honestly with the information they shared and protect their
identity.”

It’s never clear whether this self-described “fast-talking,
hot-headed operator” thinks that bad policy leads to monstrous
results, or that the policies have intrinsic value and can be
separated from the odious outcomes by a more righteous adhesion to
stated rules of war. Were the massacres of peasants in Vietnam the
logical outcome of imperialist penetration, or could closer government
oversight of troop actions have made for a less barbarous outcome?
Marxists would say the latter is nonsense, and that the slaughter of
populations is implicit in how a counter-guerilla offensive by
imperial forces is waged. But humane rules of war seem to be Hersh’s
lodestar.

Similarly, his coverage of Israel’s developing nuclear weapons made
him a host of enemies, but his own defense is problematic, as when he
writes, “My point was not that Israel should not have the bomb but
that the sub-rosa American support for it was known throughout the
Middle East and made a mockery of American efforts to stop the
proliferation of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and other nations with
undeclared nuclear ambitions.”

Would imperialism in Hersh’s view be defensible if the neocons
surrounding George W. Bush or the neoliberals in the Obama brain trust
were amenable to giving the wise men in the CIA more say in policy? Or
if a more inquisitive, less subservient press corps dominated news
cycles? We don’t know his thinking, though his comment that he was
“only interested in CIA operations or any intelligence activities
that were stupid or criminal” leaves the door open for great power
abuses that are neither. By that yardstick, Russian support for Assad
or US backing of the Saudis can be justified as rational and
excusable, no matter the body count.

Hersh admits he was whipsawed between reporting the truth as he knew
it and protecting the careers of his sources — a problem plaguing
him throughout his career, forcing him like Bob Woodward to rely on
unnamed sources. On the administration’s venality, Hersh admits to
being

more than a little frightened. I had no idea of the extent to which
the men running the war would lie to protect a losing hand. I was
dealing with a dilemma that reporters who care and work hard
constantly face; America needed to know the truth about the Vietnam
War, but I had made a commitment to an officer [his source, then a
Navy captain] of integrity.

Hersh stayed in touch with that source for decades, who retired as a
three-star admiral, and only revealed his name after the man’s
death. Adding to the difficulty was a Defense Department edict
requiring officers to inform the department of all requests for
information by reporters, a sure way to freeze out dissenting views,
such as there were, from the public.

Hersh also prides himself on staying best buds with his informers for
decades, something his mentor Stone refused to do, short- or
long-term. As Stone put it about a _New York Times_ Washington
bureau chief who played medicine ball with Herbert Hoover regularly at
the White House, “That’s enough to kill off a good reporter. …
You can’t get intimate with officials and maintain your
independence.” Even good guys, Stone believed, “will use you.”

Does Hersh get everything right? Who does? Even as astute a chronicler
as Stone could get it wrong, as in his early insistence that it was
South Korean provocations that sparked the Korean peninsular war and
not dirty dealings from all sides — including, as he would later
suggest, dueling intrigues from Truman and Stalin. Despite Hersh’s
remorseless heresy hunting of every administration since Kennedy’s,
there’s no hint that the needs of US-based businesses shape and
often determine domestic and foreign policy.

Despite his interest in Gulf and Western’s perfidies as performed by
then-head Charles Bluhdorn, “the dirtiest mogul in town,” Hersh
has more to say about a culture of greed and malpractice than about
the logic of capital. With his eyes on Washington’s misdeeds and on
occasion — when editors permit — Wall Street’s avarice but not
its systemic prerogatives, he’s more of a humorless court jester
than a rebel. In whose interest does the governing elite serve? Hersh
won’t tell us. Where is his curiosity about diagnosing and exposing
a system that requires victims? He doesn’t do that.

His division of labor makes him look — penetratingly but partially
— elsewhere. His exposures of Bluhdorn’s sharp practices are
characterological, not systemic. Gulf and Western had bad,
self-serving leadership: end of discussion. Taking in Hersh’s work
practice is like watching a _Punch and Judy
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punch_and_Judy]_show; you catch a
miscreant performance but never see the puppeteer.

Even on the stage on which he performs so well, Hersh can stumble. He
holds that Syria’s minority Alewite government did not use nerve gas
against rebels — this despite claims from the United Nations and
other credible sources to the contrary that chemical bombs were used.
In a late June 2018 interview with the BBC on the destruction by
chemical explosion of the town of Kan Sheikhoun, Hersh insisted that
stored chlorine, and not a sarin or chlorine bomb, was responsible for
the devastation.

All I can tell you,” he says in the interview, “is that the
American intelligence community report — I wish I could flash it
here — but the American intelligence community has been very clear
that there’s no evidence that the Russians, that the Syrians, the
regime used a chlorine weapon because there is no such thing. Chlorine
exists. You bomb. Chlorine gets out there.

Stephen Shalom’s in-depth reconstruction
[https://jacobinmag.com/2017/07/syria-chemical-attack-assad-trump] of
the controversy over the use or non-use of Sarin gas as an offensive
weapon effectively demolishes Hersh’s claims.

Hersh also praises dictator Bashar al-Assad as someone with
“integrity” because he never lied to Sy. As yet, Hersh has written
nothing on Kurdish independence efforts, popular civilian and secular
democratic resistance to both jihadist terrorists in the north and the
Assadist regime now in control of most of Syria, and intent on seizing
the land of many of the more than one million Syrians displaced by the
fighting. The operative word “all” in I.F. Stone’s dictum that
“all governments lie” means the US can’t be disparaged as the
world’s lone malefactor.

Still, we internationalists who count Assad among the more despicable
tyrants of the present age shouldn’t be too hard on Hersh. He can
get it wrong, too. Yet throughout his career he’s shouldered a broad
and brave consistency, adopting in effect what Orwell said so well
in _Homage to Catalonia
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/george-orwell-spain-barcelona-may-days]_: “Every
war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it
continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful
press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.” Hersh’s
career is nothing if not a life lived working to take the media out of
that grim equation.

_[Essayist Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor and political
writer and a New Politics editorial board member. He is also one of
the Culture (Books) Moderators at Portside. Other of his contributions
to Jacobin can be found HERE
[https://jacobinmag.com/author/Michael%20Hirsch].]_

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