From Covering to Uncovering the Story
Sy Hersh checks in to support local investigative journalism
Mensch, a Yiddish word that loosely equates to the street term “real stand-up guy,” is not a compliment bandied about these days, but it came to mind Tuesday night as Seymour Hersh held forth at the Castle.
No living American journalist (including Carl Bernstein) has done more and better investigative reporting. From Vietnam and My Lai in 1968 to Iraq and Abu Ghraib in 2004, Hersh has been the messenger. The Pulitzer winner’s intense, fact-soaked, source-protected narratives in The New Yorker have pried open secret Pentagon and CIA conversations and operations for decades. To hear that right now he’s deep into a story about Pakistan is no surprise.
It also made sense that he was here at Boston University to raise the curtain, after a suitable amount of wine, hors d’oeuvres, and mingling, on the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, an initiative launched in January to train the next generation of investigative journalists — whether or not there are newspapers around to hire them. Center director Joe Bergantino, well known around Boston for his “I-team” television work, was not shy about articulating the mission: if investigative journalism can’t be fostered, he told the crowd, “it’s not just the end of journalism, it’s the end of democracy. And that’s not an exaggeration.”
Hersh was just as apocalyptic about newspapers. “It’s over,” he said, many times. “The model’s done, the game’s over. Maybe the New York Times will find a way to stay national, but it’s over. . . . And maybe the future is the model right here” — a budding collaboration between a university and local media to train independent reporters.
But the assembly, which included familiar faces from the Boston media world, knew much of that already and had convened to hear Hersh’s take on the world more than on the profession. He obliged, roaming from continent to continent and subject to subject, providing a kind of Hersh sampler.
On “victory” in Afganistan: “Do we have a chance? Not a chance.”
On Iraq: “Who’s talking about the moral obligation we have to the people of Iraq? All we talk about is getting out.”
On Pakistan: “Here’s what scares me most: the Pakistani army hates us. And why? Because they think when we’re done going after Iran’s bombs, we’ll go after their bombs.”
On our military’s treatment of enemies: “We have nothing on anybody in terms of treating people brutally in war.”
On Dick Cheney’s rising public persona: “If there’s any act of terrorism in the next year, Obama’s in trouble. Cheney’s doing a very, very good job of pushing Obama into a corner on terror.”
On our political expectations: “Respect and trust, we demand it in our personal lives. But look at our public lives. We don’t even begin to expect of our leadership what we expect in our personal lives — except maybe now with this guy.”
His thoughts on “this guy” — President Obama — were guarded. He recalled going to bed election night in November thinking that the kiss had happened, “the prince” had arrived, but he got up in the morning remembering the demands of his profession. “It’s a frog; that’s our job, it’s a frog.” He worries that Obama is “obsessed with money,” and has put off foreign policy decisions that should be addressed right away. He sees a “very disciplined, controlled White House,” not complimentary adjectives in a journalist’s lexicon.
If this sounds cynical, Hersh would probably plead guilty. That’s his stock in trade — don’t trust, and verify. But the modern muckraker didn’t come across as negative. He still believes in the power of the press (even minus a press), still believes in developing sources, and is still of a mind that given information rather than spin, the public will apply the right pressure and force good choices.
Underlying was an unassuming style, the suggestion that a journalist needs to avoid an expanded ego that leaves no room to be filled by sources and subjects.
“I’m in the phone book because I can’t imagine not being in the phone book,” Hersh said. “That’s my problem with celebrity journalism.”
It was the kind of thing a mensch would say.
Seth Rolbein can be reached at email@example.com Comments