By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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Seymour Hersh is one of America’s foremost investigative journalists. His work–particularly his efforts to uncover military misdeeds at My Lai and Abu Ghraib–changed the course of American foreign policy. Hersh has been a thorn in the side of the powerful for almost sixty years, an example of journalistic integrity who never traded honesty for access.
Reporter, his just-released memoir, recounts his career with surprising detail and candor, chronicling both high points (Watergate) and mistakes (failing to report on President Nixon’s abuse of his wife, Pat). Like any journalist, Hersh cultivated connections with major players in the arenas he covered, and he used those associations to find stories. The inside information he gathered spills out of his book, offering a wealth of fascinating anecdotes for politics and history junkies.
The book recounts Hersh’s early days as a copy-boy hoping to work his way into the newsroom, as well as the various pieces of good fortune and kind advice that propelled him forward. Some of his biggest triumphs came down to lucky breaks–people who let vital information slip or inadvertently confirmed something they didn’t understand. The massacre at My Lai, for instance, came to light in part because a high-ranking military official assumed Hersh knew more than he actually did and blurted our the name of William Calley, who led the butchery.
Of course, uncovering scandals does not endear one to the powerful. Hersh worked on Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign in 1968; his political leanings were well known. Henry Kissinger (and others) viewed him as an adversary. Reporter discusses the impact a known bias can have on a story and the pains a good journalist will take to confirm facts to protect the work from accusations of political motivation. The story must be true above all else. If your mother says she loves you, Hersh writes, verify it.
We live in a precarious time for the media. Most newspapers lack the budget to pay for in-depth investigative reporting or for foreign correspondents. Cable news offers little more than a platform for partisan debate. “Hearing both sides” takes precedence over relaying the unadorned facts. Reporter acknowledges the dire state of current affairs. It offers no prescriptions to cure our ailing Fourth Estate, but it feels like a blueprint for the sort of tenacious truth-seekers a democracy needs.