REPORTER: A Memoir. By Seymour M. Hersch. Knopf. 368 pages. $27.95.
Seymour Hersh is the honey badger of investigative journalism, the digger who uncovered the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, exposed abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and, more recently, claimed the Obama administration lied about how Osama bin Laden was killed.
Hersh is a rumpled whirlwind of a man. Several years ago, I attended a small gathering with him in Boston. He arrived sweating and disheveled. For more than an hour, he spoke nonstop about his skepticism of those in power and how he protected sources in part by avoiding digital communication. Then, as if an alarm had gone off, he suddenly said, “I gotta go take a shower” and rushed out of the room. No mincing words. It was the best exit line I could ever imagine for a reporter.
Hersh’s new memoir, appropriately titled “Reporter,” is a lot like that talk: a blur of stories over the past 40 years, rushed at times, irritating but admirable in the end. Like a good truth-teller, he has no patience for people-pleasing; he pursues his stories as if they’re the most important ones of the day, and in some cases, they’ve been just that.
Hersh grew up on the South Side of Chicago, son of Jewish immigrants. He worked in his family laundry business before graduating from the University of Chicago. After college, he landed a job with Chicago’s City News, a bureau that cranked out crime briefs and culled sports scores for the city’s daily papers. His journalistic origin story begins there, in a newsroom of dirty typewriters, ornery editors and large sign on the wall that said: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
While covering an assignment about a police shooting of a black man, Hersh overheard a white cop say with predictable expletives that he’d told the man to run, “and then plugged him.” Hersh found a copy of the coroner’s report saying the victim had been shot in the back. He took the story to his editor. “He wasn’t interested. No one was interested,” Hersh writes. “So I left the story alone.”
The rest of his career plays out as a form of atonement. As his anger over Vietnam grows, he pursues stories that he hopes will change its direction, eventually unearthing a story about William Calley and how American soldiers committed horrific atrocities in My Lai. Hersh is upfront about how this story could bolster his career — it led to a Pulitzer Prize — as well as how it might turn the American public against the Vietnam War.
This theme of journalistic activism continues through his later stories. For Hersh, it’s not about being liberal or conservative. It’s about lies and people getting harmed, and then the moral imperative to make sure others hear this story. When you hear a story about a cop “plugging” a black man in the back, or a soldier who stabbed a little boy with a bayonet as if he was a pinata, is there any reason to be objective?
Working as a freelancer, and then for The New York Times, Hersh produces a succession of big reveals: how the CIA spied on U.S. citizens; President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia; Watergate revelations; Henry Kissinger’s duplicity; and later, abuses in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion.
A lone wolf, he runs afoul of many of his editors. He seems to hold them with the same disdain and distrust as he does government secret-keepers. Editors who soften his stories are “cowardly.” He once threw a typewriter through a glass window at The New York Times. He also has no patience for reporters who write like stenographers and fail to hold those in power accountable. Like that honey badger, he doesn’t give a flip.
Here’s where it gets dicey. Good editors are the unsung heroes of journalism. Without byline gratification, they force aggressive reporters to go beyond what they think is the story. In doing so, editors often force reporters to open new doors, get closer to the truth. They save reporters from themselves. This is especially important when dealing with anonymous sources as Hersh did to get some of his biggest scoops.
This came to a head in one of his most controversial stories: a report in 2015 about the death of bin Laden.
The Obama administration had described the mission as unilateral, so secret that the United States hadn’t told the Pakistanis. But Hersh wrote that this was a lie, and that the U.S. military collaborated with the Pakistanis to assassinate bin Laden. The story was based largely on one source. The New Yorker had decided not to go with it in part because of this thin attribution, prompting Hersh to sever ties with the magazine.
When it appeared in the London Review of Books, the claims received worldwide attention because of Hersh’s reputation. But at least two members of the SEAL team who participated in the mission said Hersh was wrong, along with staunch denials from the Obama administration.
Hersh devotes just a few pages to this controversy, and this is problematic. When journalists cite a source by name, readers decide for themselves whether the source is credible.
Hersh is a master at uncovering secrets. But in this case, Hersh asks readers to do what he doesn’t do in his job: trust him.
Reviewer Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier.