Book of the Week: Nicky Hager on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh

Investigative reporter Nicky Hager reviews the new memoir by one of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists, Seymour ‘Sy’ Hersh.

There are only a few people I have really looked up to in my life, in the sense of thinking about their life admiringly as I wonder about what I am doing with my own. Seymour Hersh is one of those people.

This book is the story of his life and career. Sy Hersh grew up on the poor south side of Chicago where his parents, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Poland, ran a dry cleaning shop. The book describes how he started his work life in the dry cleaning shop and went on to be one of the world’s greatest investigative journalists.

He came to prominence in the late 1960s, in the midst of the Vietnam War, when he published a series of newspaper stories exposing an act of atrocity now known as the My Lai Massacre. As he wrote: “Early on March 16, 1968, a company of soldiers in the United States Army’s Americal Division were dropped in by helicopter for an assault against a hamlet known as My Lai 4, in the bitterly contested province of Quang Ngai on the northeastern coast of South Vietnam. A hundred G.I.s and officers stormed the hamlet in military-textbook style, advancing by platoons; the troops expected to engage the Vietcong Local Force 48th Battalion — one of the enemy’s most successful units — but instead they found women, children, and old men, many of them still cooking their breakfast rice over outdoor fires. During the next few hours, the civilians were murdered.”

The American soldiers involved kept what they had done secret and instead claimed they only killed Vietcong fighters. The attack was reported in the world news as a victory. Later, when some news of the atrocity leaked out, military officers said that some civilians had inadvertently been killed by artillery and crossfire during the battle. A cover up was under way.

Some US media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, had been tipped off about the massacre but decided not to pursue the story. Then freelance reporter Sy Hersh got a tip-off from a young lawyer he knew named Geoffrey Cowan. He travelled around the US tracking down and talking to soldiers who had been involved. Bit by bit, he pieced together the story. He then faced a new set of obstacles in finding any media organisation willing to publish it.

But he did find a way to get it published – he and an old friend set up a news agency for the purpose – and the rest, including having a lasting effect on public opinion about the Vietnam War and being awarded a Pulitzer Prize, is history.

A short headline on a long story

“A question I’ve been asked again and again by others,” he writes in Reporter: A Memoir, “and one I’ve asked myself, is why I pursued Cowan’s tip. There was not much to go on. I did not know Cowan. The answer came from my days in the Pentagon pressroom, where such a rumour, or tip, would be dismissed by all, so I believed, without a second thought…. I chased Cowan’s vague tip because I was convinced they would not.”

Even before the My Lai story, Hersh had written a book about the threat of chemical and biological weapons. “The debate over the morality of [chemical and biological weapons] was spreading beyond the campus,” he writes, “but the debate was a nonissue for the nation’s mainstream media.” It was the same motivation as it would be for My Lai: “I was not surprised at the inability of the press to comprehend that America was intent on developing a new strategic weapons system…. It was much easier, I understood, to accept an official denial than delve into a difficult and controversial issue.”

After the My Lai articles and now working at the New York Times, his editor assigned him to help expose the other great scandal of those times: Watergate. By then he was in his mid 30s and could have settled down. But another 45 years of remarkable investigative work followed.

There were more books, some prominent and others not as big as he hoped (such as an exposé of Israel’s development of nuclear weapons). Then the 2001 September 11 attacks brought the war on terror. Hersh, now in his 60s and 70s, was as important there as he’d been in the Vietnam War. He was central to exposing the prisoner torture and abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the Obama administration’s faking of the story of how Osama bin Laden was found and killed – along with many other stories in between. More recently, he’s written about a chemical weapons attack that may have been falsely blamed on the Syrian government. There are so many stories about big stories in this book that you just have to read it. How he found the things out is often just as interesting as what he found out.

It’s also interesting the way he’s stayed an outsider despite all the prominence and awards. Being the first person to expose difficult subjects is reliably difficult, attracting criticism and denials. It’s taken a stubborn, determined person who doesn’t care too much about being liked. He’s assisted by a dry sense of humour and a sharp tongue, but he’s a kind and likeable person. I’ve experienced this personally.

Seymour Hersh at the 2004 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award

Several years ago, the organisers of Wanaka’s Festival of Colour managed to persuade Hersh to come to New Zealand and be a speaker. He told the organisers that he was thinking of “making the 200-mile dash to Wellington” to “yap” with me, but instead, they invited me to be a speaker as well and we ended up having a long talk over dinner at a local restaurant. He said he’d read my book Other People’s Wars on the war in Afghanistan and had read out sections to his wife and children during a family gathering.

He also talked about the scepticism his stories get from the types of journalists who attend White House press conferences. It was strangely comforting to hear that other people – even someone as famous as Sy Hersh – has to put up with that stuff.

A year later, the police raided my house looking for the source of Dirty Politics and my lawyer asked Hersh if he could help. He took the time to write a serious nine-page statement to help my case: “I, Seymour Myron Hersh, investigative journalist of Washington DC, United States of America, solemnly and sincerely affirm…” He used the example of his investigation of the My Lai massacre to explain the crucial importance of finding and protecting confidential sources, people who “by providing the information are inevitably breaking some or other rule and are risking criminal sanction.” He is a busy man, with the whole world banging on his door. He was in the middle of writing a book. I was struck by his generosity in writing a long statement for a court case in Wellington.

As the book reveals, chapter by chapter, various different personal traits go together to make this outstanding investigative journalist, the first being kindness. The next is his journalistic instincts and skills. He writes in the book that he believes there are always a proportion of military officers and senior government officials who genuinely believe in the values they are supposed to be upholding and who want to act with integrity. He finds these people and invites them to help him expose wrongdoing and lies.

I heard him speak at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva several years ago, where a questioner asked him to provide some advice for upcoming investigative journalists. He replied that he could answer in three words –  I. Watch. Retirements. Those who might not talk to him while they were in the military or other government jobs were often more willing after they’d left.

Reporter: A Memoir

But I believe the most important thing about Seymour Hersh – the reason he has done project after project and achieved so much – is that he cares. His stories really matter. He cares about the people hurt by war or the actions of intelligence agencies. He cares about people tortured and mistreated. He cares about abuse of power and the public being deceived. “I happen to believe,” he writes in Reporter: A Memoir, “innocently perhaps, that official lying or authorised lying or understood lying about military planning, weapons systems, or intelligence cannot be tolerated. I cannot look the other way.”

He does not hide his personal beliefs in the book. After the chemical and biological weapons book, and even more so after the My Lai revelations, he “made scores of anti-war speeches at colleges and political events across the nation.” Strangely, some people see a reporter being anti-war as less respectable and “objective” than a reporter being pro-military. But the beliefs and the caring are what provide the motivation to take on important and difficult subjects.

The skill and care are part of why I look up to Sy Hersh. But most of all, it’s because he’s kept going. If the world needed investigative journalism during the Vietnam War, it needed it just as much in the war-on-terror years and needs it more than ever today. That is what the book is about: continuing to go on in the knowledge that his work was making a difference. We, of course, need to keep going too.


Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M. Hersh (Penguin Random House, $55) is available at Unity Books.

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