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A Ghost In The Iraqi Prison By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 14, 2004

Gray and disheveled, this specter reportedly has the glazed eyes and rattling chains seen in its previous hauntings of other news stories during the past 35 years.

This apparition’s moanings have already made other national and world news coverage about American treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners much more negative and dire.


But should this spirit be believed, or is it a lost soul condemned forever to walk the earth in perpetual pursuit of glory lost and its bete noire?


This ghost is investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.


In 1969 as a freelance writer Hersh wrote a story for the tiny Left-wing Dispatch News Service run by his neighbor David Obst. The story, based on Hersh’s stateside interviews with soldiers back from Vietnam, was about what came to be called the “My Lai Massacre.”


This story, with its vivid portrayal of alleged American atrocities, was perfect for the propaganda purposes of the anti-war Left. The liberal media echoed and amplified Hersh’s report into front page news – and in the process turned him overnight into a journalist superstar, winner of the first of four career George Polk Awards, the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and other honors.


Such fame is an intoxicating drug. When your story sits atop the world news wires, the telephone rings constantly – are you available to appear tomorrow on the Today Show? On CBS News? To give a speech Saturday for $25,000? It was a magical moment in Hersh’s life that he has tried again and again to recapture with shocking stories – but never quite succeeded.


And so once again Sy Hersh is making news with his investigations “Torture at Abu Ghraib: American Soldiers Brutalized Iraqis. How Far Up Does the Responsibility Go?” in the May 10 New Yorker magazine and “Chain of Command: How the Department of Defense Mishandled the Disaster at Abu Ghraib” in its May 17 issue.


These articles, like much of his writing over three and a half decades, feature Hersh’s favorite villains – wrong-doing American soldiers, wicked American leaders and evil agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA.


Before you swallow these stories whole, as if they were accurate and true, you ought to know more about this aging enfant terrible of American journalism.


Hersh and his fraternal twin Alan were born in Chicago, Illinois on April 8, 1937. “His parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania and Poland, spoke Yiddish and ran a dry-cleaning shop in a tough section of the city’s South Side,” wrote Scott Sherman in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).  “Hersh, however, was raised in a more genteel section near Hyde Park.” Hersh described his parents to David Rubien of Salon.com as middle-class and apolitical. Seymour and Alan had two older sisters, also twins.


By 1955 Hersh had already experimented with marijuana, read J.D. Salinger and watched controversial comedian Lenny Bruce at a Chicago club. A poor student, Hersh in 1958 eked out a bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Chicago. While there he met his future wife Elizabeth Sarah Klein, with whom he would have three children.


Trying to find his way in life, Hersh “was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School,” wrote Sherman, “but was expelled for poor grades.” He worked at Walgreens drug store for $1.50 an hour, but then took a $35 per week job reporting on crime for Chicago’s City News Bureau. After a brief stint in the Army at Fort Riley, Kansas, he in 1961 founded a short-lived suburban Chicago newspaper.


In 1962 Hersh was hired by the wire service United Press International (UPI), which assigned him to cover the legislature and other news from South Dakota. A year later he left UPI to report for Associated Press (AP), which in 1965 moved him to Washington, D.C. Befriended by muckraking Leftist journalist I.F. Stone, Hersh soon learned to approach middle and upper level government people directly to ferret out information concealed by government press briefers.


In 1967 AP assigned this hard-digging young reporter to its special investigative unit. But after a story he wrote about the Pentagon development of chemical and biological weapons was heavily edited by his bosses, Hersh quit AP and sold his story to the liberal magazine The New Republic.


At the urging of Left-leaning columnist Mary McGrory, Hersh in 1968 took the job of Press Secretary for the renegade anti-Vietnam War presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy (D.-Minnesota). After three months he quit, disillusioned with political gameplaying.


On a tip from a Village Voice columnist, freelance journalist Sy Hersh in 1969 began tracking down the story of a purported massacre of civilians a year earlier in the South Vietnamese village My Lai. Hersh, with a small grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism, located and for hours interviewed the officer accused of what happened at My Lai, Lt. William Calley, Jr. and others.


After Hersh’s investigation was released by David Obst’s small Left-wing Dispatch News Service and got published in 36 newspapers, it snowballed into major news and made him a superstar. Hersh’s book about My Lai was published in 1970 to critical acclaim but less-than-stellar sales. But he was nevertheless established as a new star in the journalistic heavens.


In 1972 the New York Times hired Hersh as its investigative superstar to compete with Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s “Watergate” reporting at the Washington Post.


Starting far behind them, Hersh did well in covering this and other hot stories, but then as now he envied Woodward’s fame, portrayal by Robert Redford in the movie “All the President’s Men,” and high income. Ironically, David Obst became the literary agent who sold Woodward & Bernstein’s books, as well John Dean’s and the classified Pentagon Papers released by Daniel Ellsberg. But for whatever reason, Obst did not likewise enrich Hersh.


In fairness, Bob Woodward has been far easier to sell. A consumate Washington insider, graceful stylist and dramatic storyteller, Woodward is what his critics call the master of giving the deeper version of what is still the “official” story of events.


Hersh by contrast is abrasive, unkempt, obsessive, anti-establishment, the consumate outsider who works in a small office on Connecticut Avenue N.W. with a listed telephone number but no name on his door. As for his literary style, reading Seymour Hersh is typically like reading a laundry list that ticks off carefully accumulated details and quotes as if they were a dry enumeration of socks and tee-shirts. The power of his work comes from his dogged work as a researcher who tracks down bits of information that nobody else finds.


The passion that drives Hersh has often manifested as obsessive hatred for American leaders, the projection of American power, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 


Hersh’s relentless animosity for these American institutions prompted the then-Executive Editor of the New York Times A.M. Rosenthal to refer to him routinely as “my little commie.”


One target of Hersh’s reporting in both The Times and his books was the overthrow of Chile’s Marxist President Salvadore Allende, according to Hersh with CIA contrivance. Another was what Hersh saw as the evil of President Richard M. Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.


Obsession and hate are dangerous traits in any journalist. It destroys a reporter’s perspective and ability to see all sides of a story. And it tempts a journalist, consciously and unconsciously, to ignore or bend facts in order to paint a black hat on those he has decided in advance are villains.  This, say his critics, is Hersh’s great failing.


In going after the CIA regarding Chile, Hersh did more than ignore evidence that the Castro-supported Marxist Allende (who had been elected under odd circumstances with only about a third of votes cast for President) was moving to prevent honest future elections that would depose him. Hersh also accused the then-American Ambassador to Chile of being part of a plot to overthrow Allende, an error for which Hersh and the New York Times issued a rare apology on that newspaper’s front page.


“I don’t read him anymore because I don’t trust him,” Max Holland, a Contributing Editor of the ultra-Leftist The Nation magazine, told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Sherman.


“I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty,” said Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas (who, incidentally, comes by his own Leftist politics as grandson of longtime Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas).


Holland and Thomas have said they found factual errors in one of Hersh’s most provocative and worthwhile books, The Dark Side of Camelot, that called John F. Kennedy the most corrupt President in American history. Hersh documented JFK’s immorality, drug use, venereal diseases, and family links to organized crime. (When brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney General went after organized crime, he used the government to attack only those crime families not linked to the Kennedys.)


The liberal media – which, of course, wanted this book stifled – accused Hersh of being taken in by forged documents purportedly proving that JFK paid Marilyn Monroe money to keep their affair secret. Hersh, in fact, had removed that documentation from his book just before it went to press but got smeared for it anyway.


And Hersh has reported false information in other stories. His 1991 book The Sampson Option (about Israel’s nuclear weapons program) relied largely on a source widely recognized as a notorious liar. Another of Hersh’s sources for this book later admitted to telling the author what he wanted to hear, although false, in exchange for money.


When Hersh published his 1983 book The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, the editor-in-chief of the liberal The New Republic magazine Martin Peretz wrote: “There is hardly anything [in this book] that shouldn’t be suspect.”


Such offbeat books reveal that Seymour Hersh willing to take eccentric, controversial positions that do not necessarily endear him to all segments of the Left. But the Left is where his fame and success first took root.


[Oddly, since the late 1990s Hersh, according to Sherman, has shown “open hostility to the CIA and the intelligence community.” But Lefty Timothy Noah of Slate.com in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 pointed to quotes from Hersh that revealed him to be a “spy-lover” who seems to want the CIA to become more competent and powerful in fighting terrorism. Noah even found hints in an October 8, 2001 New Yorker article by Hersh that the veteran journalist admired the success of Jordan’s strong-arm tactic of threatening the families of terrorists as a way to deter and defeat terrorism.


Can we trust Hersh’s recent articles in The New Yorker (for which he has written exclusively since September 11, 2001)?  Its former editor Tina Brown in an earlier era gave Hersh free rein. But David Remnick, its editor since the late 1990s, is reportedly a stickler for factual accuracy who has said he has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year” for staff to do meticulous fact-checking of everything his authors such as Hersh write. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted, Remnick has pushed Hersh to do faster, more reportorial, less interpretative articles, and this too should lend itself to factuality.


But as former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg has observed in his fine books about media bias, a “dirty little secret” among journalists is that you can always find some “expert” who will say exactly what is needed to support the predetermined “angle” on a story. It is just a matter of looking far enough to find and then quote only that expert, not voices with contrary points of view.


Hersh relies heavily on anonymous sources for most of what he reports. But even though these sources must be divulged privately to fact-checkers and editors like Remnick, this does not eliminate potential distortion from his reporting. He merely needs to write using only the sources who say what he wants said. And when mid-level bureaucrats with grievances or a desire to backbite or cover their backsides are promised anonymity, many will say outrageous things about those above them.


But as the Columbia Journalism Review noted in its July/August 2003 issue, Hersh also has a reputation for pressuring or extorting quotes from sources. When he was seeking sources inside the corporation Gulf & Western Industries who would attack the company, e.g., he was recorded on tape threatening one company worker, saying “You better see me. Otherwise, you are going to jail with the others” and saying even uglier things that cannot be printed here.


In his book Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, author Joseph Goulden quoted Rosenthal describing how Hersh had worked the telephone to get information. “He was practically blackmailing this guy,” the veteran New York Times Executive Editor Rosenthal reportedly said. “He was saying, ‘Either you tell me what I want to know or I’ll…’ I put my hands over my ears and ran out of the room. I didn’t want to hear this sort of thing. I didn’t want any part of it.”


This might be thought of as the journalistic equivalent of a district attorney offering a deal to a criminal. “If you give me the information to hang somebody higher up, then I’ll let you off.” One possible interpretation of the quote above is that Hersh was threatening to destroy an interviewee in print unless that person provided evidence Hersh could use against a bigger fish, in which case Hersh would not report the misdeeds of this smaller fish. Is this good or ethical journalism?  We report. You decide.


Once a subject has been blackmailed, extorted, threatened or browbeaten into providing the quote Hersh wants, of course, then even the fine fact-checkers from The New Yorker will be able to get a subject to acknowledge his quote. But neither editor Remnick nor these fact checkers will necessarily ever learn how much arm-twisting Hersh might have used to get it.


Hersh, of course, would tell you that the world needs to know the information his methods obtain. He may be right. But that is also what U.S. Military Intelligence believed about getting information by hook or crook out of the criminals and terrorists confined at Abu Ghraib that could save American lives. 

Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.

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