The Problem With Seymour Hersh

Remember Jonathan Klein’s famous quote?

“…(Y)ou couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at ’60 Minutes’], and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.”

Of course, Klein’s quote was in defense of the forged CBS memos…oops!

But, let’s face it — Klein isn’t the only one who holds that opinion. I’m sure there are legions of folks in the mainstream media who think that way. The counter to that usually goes:

Oh yeah? Well, if the MSM is so much more accurate than the blogosphere, explain Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, Stephen Glass, & Jack Kelley?”

It’s fair to bring all of those people up and it certainly undercuts the whole “multiple layers of checks and balances” argument, but there might be those who would say, in the MSM’s defense, that all of those people were fired except Rather who could be fairly said to have been demoted.

On the other hand, you want to know about a big name reporter who hasn’t been demoted or fired and who’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the mainstream media today? I’m talking about Seymour Hersh — a man who undeniably has scored big scoops over the years including the My Lai massacre story which made his career. On the other hand, Hersh is also extremely sloppy, relies extensively on unverifiable anonymous sources, and has been known to outright lie. Despite the big stories that he breaks on occasion, Hersh shouldn’t even have a job. However, because he almost exclusively targets politicians and causes near and dear to the conservative heart (like the military), Hersh has been given a free pass by the liberal mainstream press even though he would have been run out of the business long ago if he targeted Democrats.

Want some proof?

Then read this long column in the New York Metro by left-of-center columnist Chris Suellentrop who takes Hersh to task, rather gently I might add, over his “loose relationship with the literal truth” and decide for yourself if Hersh should be treated as a journalistic icon or should be out of a job. Here are some excerpts from Suellentrop’s piece:

…There are two Hershes, really. Seymour M. is the byline. He navigates readers through the byzantine world of America’s overlapping national-security bureaucracies, and his stories form what Hersh has taken to calling an “alternative history” of the Bush administration since September 11, 2001.

Then there’s Sy. He’s the public speaker, the pundit. On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. “Sometimes I change events, dates, and places in a certain way to protect people,” Hersh told me. “I can’t fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say.”

…Seymour Hersh has always had a rather loose relationship with literal truth. He seems to share with many of the people he writes about the belief that in certain circumstances, the end justifies the means. When Hersh was pursuing the My Lai story, he tracked down the lawyer of William Calley Jr., the man later convicted of participating in the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Hersh intentionally inflated the number of deaths for which Calley was charged, in order to get the attorney to tell him the correct number, 109. A few years ago, Hersh told a crowd at Duke, “a word for what I did—an actual word, it has three letters—it’s called ‘lie.’”

…Hersh’s rocky tour through the print Establishment has involved some factual misfires. In 1981, while he was working on his Kissinger book, Hersh wrote a 3,000-word, front-page retraction in the Times as penance for having mistakenly named Edward M. Korry, the former U.S. ambassador to Chile, as a collaborator in the CIA-backed 1973 coup. Throughout his career, Hersh has won a reputation as something of a journalistic pit bull, who can unsettle even his admirers with his single-minded determination to establish certain facts above others.

…Hersh’s career as an author has run the gamut from intensively researched exposés to dubious scandalmongering. And its wilder swings in the latter direction came close to endangering his career. His first two books after leaving the Times—1983’s exhaustive, 700-page account of seemingly inexhaustible Kissinger moral trespasses, The Price of Power, and 1986’s The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It—were critically applauded. But his next book, 1991’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, relied heavily on a source whom Hersh later characterized in an interview as a liar. And after the publication of The Dark Side of Camelot in 1997, Hersh’s reputation took another dip.

The reviews of Hersh’s singularly tumescent account of the Kennedy presidency were savage. Gail Collins wrote in The Nation that Hersh’s book on JFK was “best read as a sort of journalistic tragedy.” In the Los Angeles Times, Edward Jay Epstein decreed that Hersh “must have invented” some of his facts and that the book “turns out to be, alas, more about the deficiencies of investigative journalism than about the deficiencies of John F. Kennedy.”

More damaging than the book’s critical reception were revelations that Hersh had fallen for a set of forged Kennedy documents—including a handwritten note from JFK offering Marilyn Monroe hush money to keep quiet about their affair—peddled by Lawrence X. Cusack III, a con man. The phony docs didn’t make it into The Dark Side of Camelot, but the moral of the story stuck: The onetime giant of investigative journalism had let himself be duped again. Hersh’s next book, on Gulf War syndrome, was almost completely ignored.

…Occasionally, Hersh’s half-confirmed spoken accounts of key events in the Iraq War do get significantly revised when they make their way into print. Last July, not too long after the Abu Ghraib story broke, Hersh spoke to the annual membership conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. He stood before the crowd and in mid-speech appeared to talk to himself. “Debating about it,” he muttered, then paused. “Um.” Clucked his tongue. “Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. Okay? Videos,” he said. “And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has. They’re in total terror it’s going to come out.”

What Hersh said wasn’t entirely correct. His book Chain of Command would deliver the authoritative Seymour M. version: “An attorney involved in the case told me in July 2004 that one of the witness statements he had read described the rape of a boy by a foreign contract employee who served as an interpreter at Abu Ghraib,” Hersh wrote. “In the statement, which had not been made public, the lawyer told me, a prisoner stated that he was a witness to the rape, and that a woman was taking pictures.”

Horrifying stuff. But key details were different from the impression Hersh gave to the ACLU crowd. And the Sy version raced halfway across the Internet before Seymour M. could get his boots on.

Seymour Hersh regularly engages in sloppy, Enquirer-style journalism that’s impossible to be independently verifiable, yet he’s a mainstream media rock star. If you’re looking for reasons not to trust the MSM, Hersh is as good as any…

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