Seymour Hersh has got some extreme ideas on
how to fix journalism - close down the news bureaus of NBC and ABC, sack
90% of editors in publishing and get back to the fundamental job of
journalists which, he says, is to be an outsider.
It doesn't take much to fire up Hersh,
investigative journalist who has been the nemesis of US presidents since
the 1960s and who was once described by the Republican party as,
"the closest thing American journalism
has to a terrorist".
He is angry about the timidity of
journalists in America, their failure to challenge the White House and
be an unpopular messenger of truth.
Don't even get him started on the New York
Times which, he says, spends "so much more time carrying water for Obama
than I ever thought they would" - or the death of Osama bin Laden.
"Nothing's been done about that story, it's one big lie, not one word of
it is true," he says of the dramatic US Navy Seals raid in 2011 [see
Hersh is writing a book about national
security and has devoted a chapter to the bin Laden killing.
He says a
recent report put out by an "independent" Pakistani commission about
life in the Abottabad compound in which Bin Laden was holed up would not
stand up to scrutiny.
"The Pakistanis put out a report, don't get me
going on it. Let's put it this way, it was done with considerable
American input. It's a bullshit report," he says hinting of revelations
to come in his book.
The Obama administration lies
systematically, he claims, yet none of the leviathans of American media,
the TV networks or big print titles, challenge him.
"It's pathetic, they are more than
obsequious, they are afraid to pick on this guy [Obama]," he declares in
an interview with the Guardian.
"It used to be when you were in a situation
when something very dramatic happened, the president and the minions
around the president had control of the narrative, you would pretty much
know they would do the best they could to tell the story straight.
that doesn't happen any more. Now they take advantage of something like
that and they work out how to re-elect the president."
He isn't even sure if the recent revelations
about the depth and breadth of surveillance by the National Security
Agency will have a lasting effect.
Snowden changed the debate
He is certain
that NSA whistleblower
Hersh says he
and other journalists had written about surveillance, but Snowden was
significant because he provided documentary evidence - although he is
skeptical about whether the revelations will change the US government's
"Duncan Campbell [the British
investigative journalist who broke the Zircon cover-up story], James
Bamford [US journalist] and Julian Assange and me and the New
Yorker, we've all written the notion there's constant surveillance,
but he [Snowden] produced a document and that changed the whole
nature of the debate, it's real now," Hersh says.
"Editors love documents. Chicken-shit
editors who wouldn't touch stories like that, they love documents,
so he changed the whole ball game," he adds, before qualifying his
"But I don't know if it's going to mean
anything in the long [run] because the polls I see in America - the
president can still say to voters 'al-Qaida, al-Qaida' and the
public will vote two to one for this kind of surveillance, which is
so idiotic," he says.
Holding court to a packed audience at City
University in London's summer school on
investigative journalism, 76-year-old Hersh is on full throttle, a
whirlwind of amazing stories of how journalism used to be:
how he exposed the My Lai massacre
how he got the Abu Ghraib pictures
of American soldiers brutalizing Iraqi prisoners
what he thinks of Edward Snowden
Hope of redemption
Despite his concern about the timidity of
journalism he believes the trade still offers hope of redemption.
"I have this sort of heuristic view that
journalism, we possibly offer hope because the world is clearly run
by total nincompoops more than ever… Not that journalism is always
wonderful, it's not, but at least we offer some way out, some
His story of how he uncovered
the My Lai
atrocity is one of old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism and doggedness.
Back in 1969, he got a tip about a
26-year-old platoon leader, William Calley, who had been charged
by the army with alleged mass murder.
Instead of picking up the phone to a press
officer, he got into his car and started looking for him in the army
camp of Fort Benning in Georgia, where he heard he had been detained.
From door to door he searched the vast
compound, sometimes blagging his way, marching up to the reception,
slamming his fist on the table and shouting:
"Sergeant, I want Calley out now."
Eventually his efforts paid off
his first story appearing in the St Louis Post-Despatch, which was
then syndicated across America and eventually earned him the
"I did five stories. I charged $100 for
the first, by the end the [London] Times were paying $5,000."
He was hired by the New York Times to follow
up the Watergate scandal and ended up hounding Nixon over Cambodia.
Almost 30 years later, Hersh made global
headlines all over again with his exposure of the
abuse of Iraqi
prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Put in the hours
For students of journalism his message is
put the miles and the hours in.
He knew about Abu Ghraib five months before
he could write about it, having been tipped off by a senior Iraqi army
officer who risked his own life by coming out of Baghdad to Damascus to
tell him how prisoners had been writing to their families asking them to
come and kill them because they had been "despoiled".
"I went five months looking for a document,
because without a document, there's nothing there, it doesn't go
Hersh returns to US president
He has said before that the confidence of the US press
to challenge the US government collapsed post 9/11, but he is adamant
that Obama is worse than Bush.
"Do you think Obama's been judged by any
rational standards? Has Guantanamo closed? Is a war over? Is anyone
paying any attention to Iraq? Is he seriously talking about going
We are not doing so well in the 80 wars
we are in right now, what the hell does he want to go into another
one for. What's going on [with journalists]?" he asks.
He says investigative journalism in the US
is being killed by the crisis of confidence, lack of resources and a
misguided notion of what the job entails.
"Too much of it seems to me is looking
for prizes. It's journalism looking for the Pulitzer Prize," he
"It's a packaged journalism, so you pick
a target like - I don't mean to diminish because anyone who does it
works hard - but are railway crossings safe and stuff like that,
that's a serious issue but there are other issues too.
"Like killing people, how does [Obama]
get away with the drone program,
Why aren't we doing more?
How does he justify it?
What's the intelligence?
Why don't we find out how good
or bad this policy is?
newspapers constantly cite the two or three groups that
monitor drone killing?
Why don't we do our own work?
"Our job is to find out ourselves, our
job is not just to say - here's a debate' our job is to go beyond
the debate and find out who's right and who's wrong about issues.
That doesn't happen enough. It costs money, it costs time, it
jeopardizes, it raises risks.
There are some people - the New York
Times still has investigative journalists but they do much more of
carrying water for the president than I ever thought they would…
it's like you don't dare be an outsider any more."
He says in some ways President
George Bush's administration was easier to write about.
"The Bush era, I felt it was much easier
to be critical than it is [of] Obama. Much more difficult in the
Obama era," he said.
Asked what the solution is Hersh warms to
his theme that most editors are pusillanimous and should be fired.
"I'll tell you the solution, get rid of
90% of the editors that now exist and start promoting editors that
you can't control," he says.
I saw it in the New York Times, I see people
who get promoted are the ones on the desk who are more amenable to the
publisher and what the senior editors want and the trouble makers don't
Start promoting better people who look you
in the eye and say 'I don't care what you say'. Nor does he understand
why the Washington Post held back on the Snowden files until it learned
the Guardian was about to publish.
If Hersh was in charge of US Media Inc, his
scorched earth policy wouldn't stop with newspapers.
"I would close down the news bureaus of
the networks and let's start all over, tabula rasa. The majors, NBCs,
ABCs, they won't like this - just do something different, do
something that gets people mad at you, that's what we're supposed to
be doing," he says.
Hersh is currently on a break from
reporting, working on a book which undoubtedly will make for
uncomfortable reading for both Bush and Obama.
"The republic's in trouble, we lie about
everything, lying has become the staple."
And he implores journalists to do something
This article was amended on 1 October 2013.
The original text stated that Hersh sold a
story about the My Lai massacre to the New York Times for $5,000 when in
fact it was the Times of London. Hersh has pointed out that he was in no
way suggesting that Osama bin Laden was not killed in Pakistan, as
reported, upon the president's authority: he was saying that it was in
the aftermath that the lying began.
Finally, the interview took place in the
month of July, 2013.