Reporter

From the New York Review of Books:

* A merit of Reporter is the way in which it divulges Hersh’s trade secrets: Be a bookworm (“read before you write”); work the graveyard shift (late one evening in 1967, he allowed Stone to slip in and ransack the AP’s files); scrutinize the retirement notices of government and military officials (some of them will sing); be alert when meeting sources in restaurants (they may leave secret manila envelopes on chairs); behave as though journalism is a bazaar (when CIA Director William Colby asked Hersh in 1973 not to publish a story, “I told him I would do what he wished, but I needed something on Watergate and the CIA in return”); and, lastly, assume your job is precarious (“Investigative reporters wear out their welcome…. Editors get tired of difficult stories and difficult reporters”).

* The My Lai story earned Hersh a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 and the recognition he craved. Random House wanted a book, which became My Lai 4, from whose newspaper syndication rights alone he earned $40,000. He began to lecture on campuses, galvanizing students with blistering vignettes of the My Lai carnage, and has continued to give lucrative speeches ever since.

Hersh’s aspiration had long been to work for The New York Times, and he arrived in its Washington bureau in 1972. It wasn’t a logical destination: the Times had no tradition of muckraking. But The Washington Post was beating it to the story of the Watergate scandal, and the Times’s executive editor, A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, needed a master reporter to match Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

* “I keep thinking of all the money Woodward and Bernstein got,” Hersh told Downie. “But then that’s what helped to create the mystique about investigative reporting. I can’t really complain. It’s put money in my pocket, too.” In a long, fascinating interview with Rolling Stone in 1975, Hersh alluded to the film version of All the President’s Men and proclaimed that “having Robert Redford play me wouldn’t bother me at all.” There has never been a film about Hersh’s journalistic adventures, but he profited nevertheless, getting ever higher fees for his speeches.

* Vietnam and Watergate had receded; the press was becoming more restrained and centrist; by 1979, it was time for Hersh to move on. Editors at the Times were uneasy about his use of anonymous sources and his aggressive tactics for getting information. Hersh contends that he didn’t abuse sources on the telephone, but one of his editors at the Times, Robert Phelps, told me incredulously sixteen years ago that “he would call people and he’d say, ‘I’m Seymour Hersh, I’m doing a story on this…If he doesn’t call me, I will get his ass.’ They’d call back.” “His ability to make people cower on the phone was unbelievable,” the influential Times editor Arthur Gelb remembered in 2011. Woodward has said that Hersh’s reporting techniques at The New York Times in the 1970s would not have been condoned at The Washington Post.

* In 1993 Little, Brown offered Hersh and a coauthor a $1 million contract for a book on John F. Kennedy that would illuminate his sexual escapades; he also obtained a lucrative TV deal for the same project. “I started the book on Kennedy,” Hersh told an audience at Harvard in 1998, “for a couple of reasons. One, I had a publisher who was going to give me a lot of money to do it. That’s very important, you know, these days.”

It was Hersh’s first work of tabloid journalism. Early in his research, he was offered an astonishing trove of handwritten documents about JFK—some of which seemed to be written in Kennedy’s own hand—showing, for instance, that he had paid hush money to Marilyn Monroe, given bribes to J. Edgar Hoover, and given instructions to employ the mobster Sam Giancana to manipulate the 1960 election. But the documents were forgeries, and Lawrence X. Cusack, one of the men who peddled them to Hersh, was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud. The resulting book (minus the forged material), The Dark Side of Camelot, was savaged: in these pages, Garry Wills wrote that Hersh had “obliterated his own career and reputation.” Hersh admitted to the journalist Robert Sam Anson in Vanity Fair that he’d fallen for “one of the great scams of all times,” but he pointed to the occupational hazards faced by investigative reporters: “Any investigative journalist can be totally fucking conned so easy. We’re the easiest lays in town.” When I interviewed Hersh in 2003, he expressed grave doubts about the book, which featured salacious details from members of JFK’s Secret Service team. “I wish they hadn’t spoken on the record,” he told me. “I wouldn’t have used it.”

* Hersh told Vanity Fair’s Anson in 1997, “You think I wouldn’t sell my mother for My Lai? Gimme a break.” In what seem to be some hastily composed pages near the end of the memoir, he affirms that journalists “tend to like those senior officials and leaders, such as Assad, who grant us interviews and speak openly with us.” Apparently one can kill hundreds of thousands of people and still be a valued source. Hersh tells us that “Remnick was far more skeptical than I was of the integrity of Assad.” The journalist who documented war crimes in Vietnam and Cambodia has overlooked them in Syria.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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