For 50 years, journalist Seymour Hersh has been at the center of nearly every major story involving the U.S. military or intelligence agencies. Now, in a new memoir, he (mostly) tells all.
Vietnam’s My Lai massacre. Watergate. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal. For nearly five decades, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Seymour Hersh has been shining a light in the darkest corners of American politics and business, including the Mafia. He probably knows more about the inner workings of the CIA and the Pentagon than most intelligence officials, and reading his new memoir, Reporter (Knopf), you get the sense that he has a source behind every closed door in Washington. You also get the impression that he’s an inveterate crank, inclined to express his opinion at every turn, regularly arguing with his editors over stories. He even once called legendary New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal at 2 in the morning—at his mistress’s apartment, no less—demanding more space for a piece on domestic spying. He got an extra page. Even today, at 81, Hersh is still pushing hard, recently publishing stories on the complicity of Pakistan in the capture of Osama Bin Laden and the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We caught up with him at his home outside D.C.
After all the years, you haven’t slowed down. What do you like so much about reporting?
It feels virtuous to me. I can’t think of a better way to spend your life. You’re making people toe the line. What I hate, and what I see more and more of that passes for investigative reporting, is some guy will have a good story and he’ll do, “He said, she said.” Our job is to go beyond that, to really go find out who was the asshole… Sorry, I’ll watch my language. But who is the culprit? Who did it? Or who do we think bears the most responsibility? It’s all so fun.
After reading your book, I would guess that your editors might feel differently.
You always get mad at your editors. That’s part of the game. It’s like being in the Army. I was in the Army. You bitch. We always bitch, that’s the way it is.
What was it like covering the Pentagon during the Vietnam War as a critic of the war?
People knew I didn’t like the freaking war. They just did. I didn’t think that made me a lefty; it just made me objective that the war was a freaking disaster. That was an objective assessment. The Pentagon press corps, they were so passive. They just took the briefings and put them in the paper. And so officers would talk to me because they didn’t like the war either.
How did you know they weren’t lying?
Look, I got suckered, and we all get suckered. I wrote a bad story on page one. We do that because somebody tells you something who has told you good stuff before. I always had two or three people in the inside that I could vet with when I had a story from somebody else. They would tell me who’s good. Over the years, you figured out. I still got suckered.
You covered Watergate for the New York Times. Is there ever going to be another time in journalism as exciting as that?
Well, there was nothing like Watergate, because we had a president on the run.
What about now, with Russia and Trump?
I’m a big skeptic on Russian hacking. I think somebody in Russia could have hacked the DNC emails. But I can tell you right now, our NSA, they are not pansies. We know about malware. We know who goes where. The fact that there’s been nothing out of the NSA, no official, no statement saying we really know…
So you think there was no collusion?
The trouble with collusion, collusion involves the capability of taking step A because it’s going to impact step B. Trump doesn’t do that. It’s all impulse, you know what I mean?
What’s wrong with the media today?
I’m very troubled. The New York Times and the Washington Post are our best newspapers, there’s no question about that. But I think what’s ruined everything is 24-hour cable news. Every hour they put up another “breaking news” or “exclusive.” “Watch at 6 o’clock!” And MSNBC and CNN and Fox, they all have their different points of view, but they’re all nuts. There’s no middle ground anymore.
But you also said reporters should make a stand on stories. Aren’t the cable networks doing just that?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having an opinion if there’s a factual basis for it or the reporting is there. I’m a professional journalist, and I have a great dentist, but I’ve never asked him who he voted for. What do I care? He’s a great dentist. I look at it the same way for reporters.