Before Bob Woodward, before Carl Bernstein, there was a giant of journalism named Seymour “Sy” Hersh. In 1968, Hersh uncovered one of the Vietnam War’s greatest horrors: the massacre of hundreds of civilians by U.S. Army soldiers at My Lai.
“There is a long ditch in the village of My Lai,” Hersh wrote in the New Yorker just two months ago as he revisited what he called “the scene of the crime.” “On the morning of March 16, 1968, it was crowded with the bodies of the dead — dozens of women, children, and old people, all gunned down by young American soldiers.”
Hersh, now 78, won a Pulitzer for the effort. This wasn’t just a 500-word blog item.
“I was then a thirty-two-year-old freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.,” Hersh wrote. “Determined to understand how young men — boys, really — could have done this, I spent weeks pursuing them. In many cases, they talked openly and, for the most part, honestly with me, describing what they did at My Lai and how they planned to live with the memory of it.”
If this was a scoop of a lifetime, Hersh scored another in 2004, revealing the mistreatment of detainees at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. In the decades between these two stories was a fabled journalism career, including groundbreaking pieces on classified CIA programs, the Nixon White House, the Soviet Union and Israel’s nuclear arsenal. He was the “scoop artist”: America’s “quintessential investigative reporter,” in the words of a 2013 biography.
But Sy Hersh now has a problem: He thinks 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue lied about the death of Osama bin Laden, and it seems nearly everyone is mad at him for saying so.
“The killing was the high point of Obama’s first term, and a major factor in his re-election,” Hersh wrote in a widely reviled piece in the London Review of Books. “The White House still maintains that the mission was an all-American affair, and that the senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance. This is false, as are many other elements of the Obama administration’s account. The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll.”
The White House called Hersh’s account “utter nonsense” — no surprise there. But Hersh was also targeted by his peers in the scoop industry.
“Hersh has had a storied career,” Peter Bergen wrote at CNN. “One hopes that he won’t end it with a story about the Obama administration and the bin Laden raid that reads like Frank Underwood from ‘House of Cards’ has made an unholy alliance with Carrie Mathison from ‘Homeland’ to produce a Pakistani version of Watergate.”
Whoa. Storied journalist publishes controversial story that challenges widely accepted narrative that helped elect a president to a second term. What’s not to like?
No. 1: Sy Hersh’s sources. No. 2: Sy Hersh.
The journalism problems with Hersh’s account of bin Laden’s death were easy to spot. As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple pointed out, Hersh relied at least 55 times on an anonymous retired senior intelligence official in reporting that “hangs from a thread.”
“Readers are expected to believe that the story of the Bin Laden assassination is a giant ‘fairy tale’ on the word of a single, unnamed source,” James Kirchick wrote at Slate. “This source fits the profile of nearly all of Hersh’s informants in the national security world: a grizzled veteran of the intelligence sector who, freed from the shackles of government work, has become a withering critic of the national security state and American hubris overseas.”
Indeed, Hersh shopped his bin Laden story to the New Yorker, which declined because it was worried about his sourcing, as Politico reported. Another problem: The magazine had already enshrined the official White House account of the Abbottabad raid.
“The article’s stunning claims put Hersh on the wrong side of his longtime journalistic home,” Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine wrote. “Was it a sign, as some people are saying, that Hersh’s relationship with The New Yorker has soured over Hersh’s sustained critique of the Obama national-security apparatus and [editor David] Remnick’s reluctance to challenge it?”
New York also published a memorable quote from the famously cantankerous Hersh.
“David said, ‘Do a blog,’” Hersh said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a blog.’ It’s about money. I get paid a lot more writing a piece for The New Yorker. … I’m old and cranky.”
That crankiness was also at the center of much Hersh-bashing this week. This veteran reporter wasn’t just fusty or world-weary, some said — he was a conspiracy theorist.
“Hersh’s problem is that he evinces no skepticism whatsoever toward what his crank sources tell him, which is ironic considering how cynical he is regarding the pronouncements of the U.S. national security bureaucracy,” Kirchick wrote at Slate. “Like diplomats who ‘go native,’ gradually sympathizing with the government or some faction in the host nation while losing sight of their own country’s national interest, Hersh long ago adopted the views of America’s adversaries and harshest critics.”
Some of this criticism seemed extra ad hominem.
“In recent years … Hersh has appeared increasingly to have gone off the rails,” Max Fisher of Vox wrote. “His stories, often alleging vast and shadowy conspiracies, have made startling — and often internally inconsistent — accusations, based on little or no proof beyond a handful of anonymous ‘officials.'”
Reached by phone late Tuesday at his Washington address, Hersh declined comment for this article. Well, he did have a little something to say.
“I don’t care,” Hersh said.