'In America we have failed'

Seymour Hersch (71) is an engaging yet difficult man to interview, at least from the point of view of taking notes. His sentences break into fragments as he casts around for the right word, editing himself, as he feels his way into a question.

He’s the original pro.
He blew the lid off the story about mass murder by American troops at My Lai in 1969, for which he won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. He has written eight books, the most recent of which is Chain of Command, based on his reporting on Abu Ghraib for the New Yorker.

Hersch was in Johannesburg last weekend to hand over the Taco-Kuiper prize—South Africa’s richest, at R200 000, for investigative journalism. He’s similar to what I imagine Henry Kissinger to be like—a thousand secrets have been poured into his ears—and when he leans forward to make a point, everyone else in the room leans forward to listen.

He now seems to be taking his foot off the gas. Though he denies he’s going to retire, he’ll “do a book maybe”, after George W Bush leaves office.

He also says he’s at the stage where he doesn’t like sources coming to him. “I’m worried about being set up in my last year … so I’m much more prudent.”

Though he may be more prudent, this doesn’t extend to his comment that: “I think governments are full of shit and investigative reporting is really important … In America the press failed. Our job was not to cheerlead Bush into an invasion of Iraq. Our job was to analyse his facts and we did not. If we had done so we could have demonstrated to the public that he was talking through his hat. I don’t think Bush is a liar, I just think he’s on another planet. I think he’s somebody who thinks he can bring democracy to where you can’t bring democracy. He’s the most radical president we’ve ever had and he’s completely uneducable. He still believes what he believes. It’s terrifying.”

The media’s failure in the States? Where does it come from?

“It comes from jingoism, from 9/11. The president made a decision, a terrible decision, that he was going to respond to 9/11 by starting something we called GWOT—global war on terrorism—that he was going to run a war against an idea. I’m not telling you anything I didn’t think at the time, but of course, I didn’t write that, because I wasn’t sure. I was pretty sure he’d end up bombing in Afghanistan. I had looked at Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda leadership were not beloved by the Taliban. The Taliban were crazy, they were wackos—but they weren’t killing anybody but their own people. They had no aspirations of jihad and global war, but anyway, the president makes a call, he starts global war.”

He says there’s a “powerful strain” in the US media arguing that torture is acceptable and whatever the military and the president say is right.

“And that’s what our job is: our job as journalists is to say no, there are standards, there are not only international standards, there are international laws, there are also common sense standards of loyalty, and morality and of decency.”

He mentions Israel’s bombing of a building (a “reactor”) in Syria late last year and he rails against reporters who didn’t see any of the holes in the story. “Israel committed an act of war and nobody cared.” I mention that photographs of the so-called reactor were bandied about on the wires after the attack, to which he replies: “Photoshop.”

“The way it works in America is they leak stuff to the New York Times and Washington Post … They write these bullshit stories, they write stories without any questioning.”

Still, South Africa and the Scorpions is still a story in the US. “As fucked up as America is, they’re really pissed off at you guys for cutting back the Scorpions. But there’s a big story there. Are you going to get it on the basis of an anonymous source? You can’t. You’re going to need some documents.

“Stories are stories. The wonderful thing about our profession is if we do it right, stories are not Democrat or Republican, left or right, hawk or dove, pro or anti-government. Stories are stories, and they’re just the truth.”

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