Glenn Frankel, a former journalism professor at Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin, won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting at the Washington Post.
The British press baron Lord Northcliffe, who bought ink by the barrel and hated to waste any of it, once summarized the meaning and mission of journalism in 13 words: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” No journalist has taken those words to heart more passionately than Seymour Myron Hersh.
Hersh burst onto the national scene in November 1969 with a searing exposé of the mass murder of Vietnamese civilians by a company of American soldiers in the village of My Lai. He went on to produce groundbreaking articles revealing the CIA’s massive and illegal domestic spying on U.S. citizens, its abortive assassination plot against Fidel Castro, President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and complicity in the overthrow and killing of Chilean President Salvador Allende, and, in more recent times, atrocities against Iraqi detainees by their American overseers at Abu Ghraib prison. Hersh’s reporting over the past half-century has constituted an alternative history of modern America. “He knows more about this place than I do,” CIA Director William Colby once tellingly complained.
In his revealing new memoir, Hersh modestly calls himself “a survivor from the golden age of journalism.” In fact, he is a classic American archetype — the lone warrior on a quest for truth and justice. He came along at a pivotal moment when elite mainstream news organizations like the New York Times and The Washington Post had the budgets and the will to take on powerful men and institutions from the president on down.
No one did it more frequently or energetically than Hersh. Nor more controversially. Archetypes are seldom subtle, and Hersh’s journalism has often been a blunt instrument. He is known for his reliance on anonymous sources, occasional volcanic outbursts of temper — he concedes that he once threw a typewriter through a plate-glass window at the Times — and a tendency to burn bridges with colleagues, rivals and the news organizations he has worked for.
Born on Chicago’s rough-and-ready South Side to struggling Jewish immigrants, Hersh was rescued from a two-year junior college by an English professor who recognized his gifts and marched him to the admissions office at the University of Chicago. After dropping out of law school, he stumbled into a job at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a local tip sheet for the city’s then-thriving daily newspapers.
He took to journalism like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet, finding the adrenaline rush of breaking the news irresistible. He worked his way up the journalistic food chain, from Pierre, S.D., back to Chicago and on to Washington for the Associated Press. Once there, he did a six-month stint at the Pentagon, where he soon discovered that most of his colleagues didn’t share his take-no-prisoners work ethic nor his innate mistrust of authority.
Hersh has recounted many times over the years how he broke the My Lai story, but as described here it’s still a valuable lesson in shoe-leather reporting. Working off a tip from a friendly lawyer that the Army was in the process of quietly court-martialing a soldier at Fort Benning, Ga., for killing 75 Vietnamese civilians, Hersh tracked down Lt. William Calley, a bland, boyish officer who spilled his version of events during a boozy all-night interview. Hersh eventually discovered that the actual number of deaths exceeded 500, including dozens of women and children. The savagery of the massacre — “it was a Nazi-type thing,” said one witness — shocked the nation.
More scoops followed, as did a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, a job offer from the New York Times, the Vatican of American journalism. There Hersh conducted a love-hate relationship with A.M. Rosenthal, the newspaper’s demanding and mercurial high priest, who is by far the most intriguing character in this memoir. Although politically conservative, Rosenthal was fed up with the lies pouring out of the Nixon White House and frustrated by the failure of his newspaper’s storied Washington bureau to match the scoops on the emerging Watergate scandal from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Post.
Rosenthal assigned the story to Hersh, who came up with dozens of revelatory pieces on Watergate and related scandals. “How’s my little commie?” the insatiable Rosenthal would inquire. “And what do you have for me today?”
Hersh launched a personal crusade against Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s foreign policy mastermind, disclosing Kissinger’s role in wiretapping journalists and members of his own staff, orchestrating the overthrow of Allende, and committing other potential crimes and misdemeanors. What may have offended Hersh even more than Kissinger’s misdeeds was the smarmy way some of Washington’s most respected journalists lined up to kiss his ring as he spoon-fed them unadulterated spin. “The man lied the way most people breathed,” Hersh writes.
After he and the Times finally parted company in 1979, Hersh went on to write “The Price of Power,” an epic, nearly 700-page takedown of Kissinger’s career and duplicity published in June 1983. Critics said it read like a prosecutorial charge sheet.
One potential Nixon-era scoop that Hersh regrets not reporting was a tip that Pat Nixon was treated at a California hospital a few days after her husband resigned the presidency. She told doctors that he had hit her (Nixon’s family has long denied such allegations). At the time, Hersh concluded that there was no link between Nixon’s private life and policy decisions, but now he says he recognizes the importance of personal morality in public office.
He showed no qualms in pursuing his next target: the late John F. Kennedy’s allegedly corrupt politics and insatiable sex life. Using claims gathered on the record from four former members of JFK’s Secret Service bodyguard, Hersh gave a detailed account of the president’s reckless adventures with dozens of women. He also pursued a trove of documents that supposedly proved JFK secretly paid off Marilyn Monroe. The papers turned out to be forgeries, as Hersh himself revealed, but the drama surrounding them damaged his credibility. “The Dark Side of Camelot” was a big bestseller but was savaged by critics. “In his mad zeal to destroy Camelot,” Garry Wills wrote, “Hersh has with precision and method disassembled and obliterated his own career and reputation.” Hersh defends his JFK revelations but concedes, “I was in a war with Camelot I did not want and could not win.”
For a while it looked like Hersh’s career and reputation had landed on the trash heap of history. But Hersh was resurrected with the help of the New Yorker magazine. Under editor David Remnick’s watchful eye, Hersh wrote stories on the petty rivalries between the U.S. intelligence agencies that kept them from sharing information that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks, and later on the lies and false premises about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that the George W. Bush administration used to justify going to war.
As with previous jobs, things with the New Yorker eventually unraveled. Hersh says he became uncomfortable with Remnick’s growing closeness to President Barack Obama. This came to a head when Remnick hesitated to publish Hersh’s report challenging the Obama administration’s version of the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in spring 2011. “The White House’s story might have been written by Lewis Carroll,” Hersh concluded in a piece that finally ran in the London Review of Books.
Just as there are few books about the inner workings of sausage factories, good books about the making of journalism are few and far between, and Hersh’s memoir is a welcome addition. Still, some of the stories read as if the author, who recently turned 81, were in a hurry to catch a plane. Most disappointing is his perfunctory treatment of the damage that the digital revolution has done to the profits that once financed his kind of painstaking, labor-intensive reporting. “It’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today,” he writes. And with that wistful observation, the legendary Seymour Hersh boards his flight, perhaps on his way to another big-time story.
By Seymour M. Hersh
Knopf. 355 pp. $27.95