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25Oct/180

Why we need reporters like Seymour M. Hersh

Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M. Hersh

I just finished an amazing book, Reporter: A Memoir, by Seymour M. Hersh and if you are a writer or a student or fan of journalism, I recommend it highly.

I really had no idea who Mr. Hersh was, but the jacket said the book was the memoir of a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who had worked for the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, who had covered some of American History’s biggest recent moments and people. Hersh’s reporting on the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the major events under every president from Lyndon Johnson to Obama, earned him numerous prizes and awards. The book promised an inside look at experiences of a veteran reporter, the real kind, the kind that dug for the truth behind stories most reporters would only scratch the surface on. The book promised to share the life of a true Fourth Estate writer, a journalist who believed he had a purpose in life to get at and expose the truth of big issues facing us as a country.

The book was interesting to me because I am working to find my own true voice as a writer. I hoped to learn from it, to be inspired by it. I wanted to connect with Hersh as a person and try to take something from his story that I could carry into my own writing. I enjoyed the book not only because it delivered on its promises, but also because of the riveting detail Hersh included about the major stories he’s worked on during his career.

A lifetime of major journalistic accomplishments

The book opens by taking us through Hersh’s decision to pursue journalism. Starting with his first at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Hersh does a great job of explaining the mechanics of news reporting and distribution. We get to see how regional wire service worked by fielding local reporters to cover issues and produce work they could sell to other news organizations. He takes us along on his first real, out-in-the-field assignments. He shares his insights into how he managed to earn freelance assignments for national papers and magazines. He does all this in an easy reading style, with quotes, context, and sourcing to move the story along quickly.

Once Hersh sunk his teeth into the job of reporting, he learned that he had an instinct for big stories. He trusted himself to chase leads that many other reporters were ignoring. He learned to work behind the scenes to build his story, to unearth inside information, to get to sources who knew the real truth, all in secret until he was ready to publish. An example: Hersh learned, as did many other reporters, about a mass-death of sheep near an American military testing facility. Most reporters accepted the official story - an illness or a localized contamination I believe. Hersh dug into the story and exposed the fact that the US Military, along with numerous Universities around the country, were developing, testing, and stockpiling all kinds of apocalyptic chemical and biological agents. The sheep kill was a result of an intentional release, a test, that grew out of control.

Hersh’s reporting led to public pressure for the US, and the rest of the cooperating world to agree that chemical and biological weapons were too dangerous to pursue. In 1975 the US Government entered into treaty with a number of prominent nations to end development and stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.

Hersh’s most famous early-career accomplishment came through his investigative reporting into the Vietnam War. Information coming from Vietnam accused American soldiers of committing atrocities against the North Vietnamese. Murder of innocents. Rape. Torture. Cruelty against civilians.

Hersh picked up on an account of a soldier being court martialed for killing 109 civilians in a village of My Lai 4. The official story being that this one lone soldier had gone crazy and committed an atrocity. Hersh hunted down the accused killer, who was being hidden away at a US base waiting for his trial. who said he’d participated in a sanctioned act alongside his comrades. Hersh was able to chase responsibility and knowledge (and cover up) of this, and attacks like it, across the Vietnam battlefield, all the way up the chain of command.

Hersh exposed that this captain was being setup to take the fall for something that was the American Military’s standard operating procedure. Top-level Pentagon officials knew of the on-the-ground evil being played out in Vietnam, even encouraged (or at the least allowed) it to happen. Hersh’s reporting exposed that the war was a rotten effort, that it corrupted young men, that it put our child soldiers into an impossible position that had lasting, negative mental impact on many (if not most) of them. And that the US, in the name of democracy and righteousness, were committing war crimes against innocents.

The story was picked up nationally and internationally. In 1970, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for breaking and pursuing the story. He later published a book summarizing his reporting. That led to a job at the New Yorker and, his stated ultimate goal, as a staff reporter for the New York Times.

Over his career, Hersh has been enmeshed in every major American new story and it is fascinating to see them develop from inside his narrative. Watergate, Henry Kissinger’s influence on world politics, the Gulf war, 9/11, the killing of Osama bin Laden, he wrote about them all. And not always without controversy.

Irascible at times - he speaks of editors and officials he ran contrary to, who apply pressure for him to drop stories and or change tone - he remained true to his core mission to dig for the un-pursued and important stories. Sometimes, when his current editor would not get behind a story he developed and believed in, he would sell it to another publication.

He has also been widely criticized widely for using anonymous sources, and his too-close-for-comfort reporting on issues government officials would rather remain secret was also often called into question by critics and competitors. But throughout the book, Hersh explains who the sources actually were (whenever he is able) and tells us how he determined what to pursue and map with him to the conclusions he came to. Hersh had an internal sense of integrity and compass that led him to do the right thing, as best as he could.

A masterclass in journalistic integrity

I loved this book because besides being entertaining as hell, I was able to take away a couple of major observations that, I think, will help me as I work on my own writing.

First, his sense of purpose as a writer is inspiring. Once he found journalism, he accepted it as a calling. He dedicated himself to being good at it, to standing out, to looking for ways to pursue stories that other reporters were ignoring. When his colleagues would rush pieces into print on only the perspective and assurance of the authorities in command, he would question. Does it smell right? What is the total truth? The killing of Bin Laden is a great example of this.

The official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden is that the US Government, acting on intelligence gathered by following known Bin Laden couriers, discovered him hiding in a compound in Pakistan. Then, without tipping the Pakistani military, raided the compound and killed him. Seal team Six then buried his body, within 24 hours in keeping with Muslim tradition, at sea to not give our enemies a worshipable grave. Hersh reported that the Pakistani military essentially and knowingly held Bin Laden prisoner in the compound for six years. Someone with knowledge of the arrangement tipped us off in exchange for a cash reward. Hersh writes that the team that executed Bin Laden tore his body to pieces with rifle fire and tossed some body parts out of the helicopter to scatter him over desolate mountain terrain. All a narrative of luck and unflattering brutality that runs counter to the official story.

I was also taken by how apologetically in control of his writing choices Hersh was. He executed to his own vision of what stories to chase and what conclusions to draw from his reporting. If he chose a story to write, he would write it. Which makes Hersh an admirable example for anyone pursuing journalism as a career.

Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M. Hersh, was published by Knopf this year. I highly recommend it for any writer, fan of journalism, or for anyone who wants to learn from someone who is self-determined and accomplished at the thing they chose to do with their life.

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