SEYMOUR HERSH: SCOOP ARTIST by Robert Miraldi

When Robert Miraldi sat down to choose the title of his new book, SEYMOUR HERSH: SCOOP ARTIST, he might have thought about a different title to describe one of the most important investigative reporters of his generation.  Seymour Hersh was more than a scoop artist, to use Theodore Roosevelt’s term to describe the likes of Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair and others during the Progressive Era, he was more of a muckraker, a writer who thrives in the muck to locate and develop a story.  This was Seymour Hersh, a reporter whose tactics were unconventional to say the least, which developed his own stories no matter where they took him, and became a thorn in the side of any person with power who he set his sights on.  Hersh was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of the George S. Polk award for distinguished journalism, and the author of numerous books.  In exploring Hersh’s career, Robert Miraldi has not produced a traditional biography, but an examination of Hersh’s methodology in tracking down stories, and he provides numerous insights into his subject’s character and relationship to the people and topics he is drawn to.  What emerges is a flawed Seymour Hersh, who fights for justice and righteousness, but at times, allows his larger than life ego take hold of him, resulting in great praise from the public, but also denigration, and enemies from the protectors of his targets.

Having read most of Hersh’s books over the years I had little insight into the type of individual that he was on a personal level.  I always believed after reading a book or article written by Hersh that he was a person who let the public peer into the halls of power and was driven to seek justice whether it be the My Lai massacre, the downing of flight 007 by the Soviet Union, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or any of the myriad of causes he took up.   Miraldi opens a window into Hersh’s work that is both personal and analytical.  Resting on numerous interviews, documents, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Hersh’s writings, Miraldi has produced a useful narrative that seems to track his subject’s life from book to book, and article to article that he has written.  By adopting this approach the reader is exposed to a history of the United States from 1960 through the present, through the eyes of Seymour Hersh.

If Hersh had you in your cross hairs it meant you were a very powerful individual or a government agency that had overstepped its constitutional limits as seen by Miraldi’s, “scoop artist.”  After an early career at the Chicago City News Bureau and UPI, Hersh latched on to the AP Chicago bureau by 1965 proclaiming that David Habersham, the award winning New York Times reporter as his role model and would soon pursue similar investigative subjects.  Early on Hersh was interested in civil rights and the military and after being transferred to Washington, D.C. Hersh began his first investigation of the military confronting the truth behind General William Westmoreland’s thirty hour bombing freeze in December, 1965.  Hersh’s first major crusade dealt with the inequalities of the draft.  We witness Hersh’s standard writing technique as he refused to name sources as his articles are sprinkled with “unnamed sources,” informants, anonymous citations which led many to question the veracity of his approach.  One of the most important parts of Miraldi’s book is his description of Hersh’s tactics which were very successful, but as he correctly points out, at times, are over bearing and based on falsehoods and bullying.  For Hersh, the investigation meant the ends justified the means.  The My Lai massacre investigation that Hersh turned into a book, MY LAI MASSACRE: A REPORT ON THE MASSACRE AND ITS AFTERMATH made him nationally known figure, and created a reputation as a tenacious investigator who knew how to uncover information better than any of his peers.  If he wanted to talk to you, he had a way to extract what he needed even if you did not want to provide the information.  From the outset the “Hersh treatment” was ever present.  First, Hersh is a voracious reader.  No matter the subject if it dealt with an ongoing investigation he would consume books, articles, and documents so that he was as well versed, or more in the subject matter than the person he wanted to interview.  To get to a source Hersh was extremely disingenuous and outright lied, bullied, or threatened a target until they succumbed to a conversation.  Most of this took place on the phone and at times in person.  Jay Peterzell, a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, an advocacy group in Washington had a “bird’s eye view of the telephone terrorist” as Hersh conducted over a thousand interviews for his book on Kissinger.  He would “overwhelm you with his verbal barrage” and bait his target into finally granting his wishes, as “they got caught in the enthusiasm, the importance, his energy.” (237)  This approach was evident in all of his research but especially when dealing with Henry Kissinger, who Hersh despised, at one point stating that he would “love to get that son of a bitch.”  The question must be asked is Hersh’s approach too over the top, or did his mantra of “terrible things happen in war, [but] the responsibility of the press…to find, verify, and publish the truth” justifies everything. (32)  Hersh was able to alienate his targets as well as his colleagues who resented his success, but in many cases felt that he was very biased in his approach and he could not “fairly evaluate reality.” (95)

bodies of civilians killed in My Lai massacre

Bodies of Vietnamese villagers killed at My Lai, March 16, 1968

One of the most surprising things that I learned from Miraldi’s book is that Hersh worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign in 1968 as its Public Relations director.  This brought two imposing personalities head to head, as McCarthy, who hated publicity that he did not control, and Hersh who was overbearing and controlling, it was obvious that after a short period of time they could not coexist.  After Hersh quit or was fired from the campaign he published CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WARFARE: THE HIDDEN ARSENAL making him the “Ralph Nader of the bio-chemical industry” and helped to push the Nixon administration to stop building biological weapons.  Nixon had his own reasons apart from what Hersh exposed, but Hersh must get some of the credit for Nixon’s actions.  Hersh followed this success by becoming involved with the POW issue in Vietnam.  He even visited Hanoi and after joining the New York Times he continued to get under Richard Nixon’s skin.  Another surprising aspect of the book is Miraldi’s discussion of Hersh’s view of Bob Woodward and the Watergate investigation.  Woodward and his partner at that time, Carl Bernstein were out front in the investigation from the outset.  Hersh was caught up in the New York Times, Washington Post competition and grew jealous of Woodward’s success and growing reputation.  Throughout the book this competition remains in the background as Hersh wanted to be considered the number one investigative reporter in the American press, and though he praised Woodward’s work, and became his friend, he never truly accepted him as his equal.  Hersh was able to enter the “Watergate competition” late and eventually the Nixon White House became “scared to death of this guy…We don’t know what he can prove or can’t prove,” (158) as stated by an unidentified White House source during the investigation into the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

What was shocking to me was Miraldi’s discussion of how many top governmental figures, be it political or military that spoke with Hersh and leaked important information to him.  For example subjects as diverse as Senate Armed Services Committee head, John Stennis, a conservative Democrat during hearings concerning U.S. bombing of Cambodia; Frank Sturgis, a Watergate co-conspirator, dealing with hush money paid by the Nixon White House; to CIA Director William Colby who became a Hersh “phone mate” during the investigation dealing with the coup against Salvatore Allende in Chile.  Hersh always sought out new sources, particularly in the Pentagon, and according to Miraldi when Hersh called declaring, “Hi I’m Sy Hersh and you probably want to talk with me,” retired generals, in particular liked to hear from him.” (171) The book is also useful for shedding light on the inner workings of the New York Times editorial board and how the “paper of record…did not seek to create or make that record.” (233) The reader also witnesses the competition between staff and board members and the volatile nature of the Hersh-Abe Rosenthal relationship.  The two sides tolerated each other for six years but after Hersh’s articles dealing with Gulf and Western Industries in 1979 they went their separate ways.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Miraldi’s description of how Hersh went about writing his work on Kissinger, THE PRICE OF POWER.  Having read the book I agree with the author’s critique that the book is difficult to read and Hersh is probably guilty of overwriting, particularly certain topics, i.e., SALT negotiations with the Soviet Union.  On a more positive note, historian, Stanley Hoffman has written, “this is a book that through its factual density avoids the typically hectoring tone of the investigative reporter or the ideologue with an ax to grind.” (252)  This cannot also be said of THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT where Hersh ran up against the myth of JFK and the family that tried to protect the image of Camelot.  As Hersh uncovered some of the more salacious details of Kennedy’s private life he fell for some doctored documents and his reputation suffered and in the end he wound up mentally exhausted.

Hersh would recover and he latched on with the New Yorker, under the influence of its editor David Remnick who supported Hersh’s work and gave him the leeway and resources that reenergized him.  This resulted in Hersh becoming a “war correspondent” after 9/11.  Hersh was truly shaken by the attack and over the next three years “Hersh produced twenty stories and over 110,000 words.” (319)  Hersh concluded that the intelligence community was not prepared to stop the terrorists as government agencies and the military lacked the training and communication to be successful.  Once the United States invaded Iraq, Hersh concluded that President Bush had lost control of his foreign policy to the cabal of neocons inside and outside his administration.  Hersh argued that “the intelligence community had ignored the sacrosanct ‘stove piping’ rule-that only carefully vetted information should go up the chain of command.” (323)  Hersh was once again faced criticism of his sourcing as most of his sources were anonymous, but he felt the neocons were now out of the closet.  This would lead to his book, CHAIN OF COMMAND: THE ROAD FROM 9/11 TO ABU GHRAIB, which took advantage of over thirty years of sources who were at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other places to critique US policy on Afghanistan, Iraq, and terrorism.  Donald Rumsfeld became part of the center piece of Hersh’s narrative in the book and articles written based on his own research dealing with the torture at Abu Ghraib.  Hersh’s presentation has proven very accurate during the last ten years since the book was written. PHOTOGRAPH: ABU GHRAIB PRISONER ABUSE Abu Ghraib prison, site of US torture and demeaning of prisoners in Iraq

Whether Seymour Hersh uses unethical tactics to obtain information, whether he is a bully who extracts the necessary documents he needs, what is important for Miraldi is that Hersh presents the facts and lets others ponder the consequences.  If you are a fan of Hersh’s raison ‘detre, or believe he has gone too far, Miraldi’s book is comprehensive and provides the best portrait of one of the most important journalistic figure of his age.

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