Seymour M. Hersh — the Journalist as Lone Wolf
By: Alan Rusbridger
The lone wolf — in journalism, as in nature — is a rare creature. Many reporters prefer the reassuring comfort of the pack. But every age throws up a few hunters who prefer to go it alone, scorning the safety and consensus of the crowd. They are often noble beasts, even if they can present formidable challenges to their handlers.
Seymour M. Hersh (better known as Sy) is perhaps the most notable lone wolf of his generation. Now 81, he has nearly always operated on his own: There has been no Bernstein to his Woodward; no investigative team into which he could easily blend. He broke some of the biggest stories of his time. He fell out with editors. He threw typewriters through windows. He could be petulant, unreasonably stubborn and prudish. But, boy, could he report.
His memoir is — with some niggling reservations — a master class in the craft of reporting. People sometimes shorthand the act of dogged discovery as “shoe leather” journalism — pounding pavements rather than sitting at the desk Googling. In Hersh’s case reporting involved long hours in libraries as well as jumping on last-minute flights to far-off small towns to hunt down reluctant witnesses. It meant knocking on doors in the middle of the night; learning how to read documents upside down while pretending to make notes; painstakingly cultivating retired generals; showing empathy, winning trust.
His chosen areas of investigation were often the hardest to penetrate: He burrows away at the secrecy of the state, the military, intelligence, foreign policy and giant corporations. Over nearly six decades he exposed brutality, deception, torture, illegal surveillance, government-sponsored fake news and much else. More often than not — much more often — he was right. From the My Lai massacre of 1968 to the degrading treatment of detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, Hersh delivered the goods.
He introduces himself as a survivor from the golden age of journalism, “when reporters for daily newspapers did not have to compete with the 24-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads, and when I was free to travel anywhere, anytime, for any reason, with company credit cards.” Back then reporters were given the time and money to tell “important and unwanted truths” and made America “a more knowledgeable place.” He makes the classic case for public interest journalism.
The book has its journalistic heroes — Harrison Salisbury, I. F. Stone, Neil Sheehan, Bob Woodward among them — and political villains, including Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger (“the man lied the way most people breathed”), Dick Cheney and neocons. It also has its editorial enemies. He scorns the practitioners of “he said, she said” journalism as stenographers. He ridicules reporters who claim not to have an opinion on what they’re writing about. He chides other news organizations for not following up his exclusives. He holds in especial contempt the Vietnam-era press room of the Pentagon for what he regarded as its collective lazy gullibility.
The skepticism that made him such a considerable reporter extended to the organizations that employed him and the editors who commissioned him. There is a fine line, in Hersh’s ever-suspicious mind, between editing and censorship. His nose was always twitching for a sniff of cowardice or collusion. On one occasion he investigates his own editor, suspecting that a loan from the company’s directors to help him buy an apartment could have compromised him when he should have been solely “beholden to the newsroom and the men and women in it.”
That editor was A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of this newspaper from 1977 to 1986, one of several editors with whom Hersh had a complicated relationship torn between mutual respect and something close to despair. Hersh — brought up in a lower-middle-class family on the South Side of Chicago — grew up revering The New York Times and is beyond honored when he finally makes it to the paper in 1972. But the story of Hersh and The Times involves a troubled courtship; a sometimes happy marriage; a trial separation and eventual divorce.
His work on Vietnam — an “obsession” he thought he shared with Rosenthal — initially appeared to please his editor, though Rosenthal was ever anxious about his “little commie” reporter’s overt politics. But the paper — being comprehensively outgunned by The Washington Post on Watergate — soon redeployed its star scoop-machine to Washington to try to retrieve some journalistic dignity.
Hersh performed well, but struggled to understand the paper’s pathology, in which it was “a bitch” to get important stories into print. He quotes his former colleague Bill Kovach, later the Washington bureau chief, bemoaning the difficulty of “managing Sy at a newspaper that hated to be beaten but didn’t really want to be first. … The arguments and the debates and the rassling back and forth on every Sy Hersh story were almost endless. It wasn’t because Sy was sloppy. It was material they didn’t want to be out there with.”
For much of the time he felt supported: Hersh recognized in Rosenthal an editor with guts. But there were not infrequent screaming matches, temper tantrums, middle-of-the-night phone calls and accusations of betrayal. He was mortified in January 1975 to learn that top editors at the paper had enjoyed a private lunch with Gerald Ford in which the president had told of setting up a commission to investigate alleged C.I.A. abuses. Ford told the assembled editors that he needed to keep some things secret — “like assassinations.”
Hersh is appalled that this startling admission from a president should have been allowed to be off the record and — more than 40 years later — there is real bitterness in his rebuke: “Talk about unrequited love. The guys running my newspaper who for years had showered me with praise and raises had a higher loyalty to a president … than to someone who had pulled them out of the Watergate swamp.”
Hersh decamped to The New Yorker (where he had written before his stint at The Times), first under Tina Brown and then the “superb” David Remnick. Here he did much good work — but his habit of asking readers (and editors) to take on trust his heavy use of anonymous sources got him into scrapes. Many of his sources were — as time has shown — impeccably informed. But his more recent sources have also included, for instance, the Syrian president Bashar Assad. Some of his writing on who should bear responsibility for chemical weapon attacks in Syria has been vehemently contested.
Remnick — worried about his journalist’s reliance on “the same old tired source” — had already declined to use Hersh’s reporting that questioned the official narrative around the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Hersh is enraged — “editors get tired of difficult stories and difficult reporters” — and takes this and subsequent investigations off to The London Review of Books or to the German paper Die Welt.
It was painful for some to see Hersh’s 2014 and 2017 reporting of chemical attacks in Damascus forensically interrogated by the British blogger Eliot Higgins, who criticized his reliance on a tiny number of unnamed sources. Higgins is a new breed of reporter, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the weaponry deployed in this conflict, meticulously bolstered by video footage, as well as by multiple on-the-ground sources and satellite photographs.
Hersh skates over these challenges to “the truth as I found it.” There’s an octogenarian weariness — to his mind — in this cycle of doubt followed by vindication: “I will happily permit history to be the judge of my recent work.” But even Hersh’s admirers may feel that history will judge some of the late-period articles in a different light from the blazing trail of his earlier investigations.
Even so, society needs reporters like Hersh — skeptics who take nothing on trust and who go to exhaustive lengths to dig beneath the thick veneer of gloss, dross, fakery and spin. “If your mother says she loves you,” an early news editor declares, “check it out.” He did, time and time again.
He sees the writing on the wall when, in 2011, Remnick calls him and — in an embarrassed near-whisper — asks him to interview an important source by telephone rather than fly 3,000 miles to see him face to face. Will most future newsrooms ever again be in a position to allow their reporters the resources and time to do the kind of work that Hersh, in his prime, so magnificently produced? His memoir is a compelling argument for why they should.
Alan Rusbridger was for 20 years editor in chief of The Guardian. Now principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, he chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
By Seymour M. Hersh
Illustrated. 355 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.