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From Covering to Uncovering the Story

Sy Hersh checks in to support local investigative journalism

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Seymour “Sy” Hersh at the Castle Tuesday night, with Joe Bergantino (left), director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. Photo by Dominick Reuter

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 srolbein@bu.edu.

9 Comments

9 Comments on From Covering to Uncovering the Story

  • J.M. Lawrence on 05.21.2009 at 12:15 pm

    Keep the investigative fires burning

    Hersh and Bergantino are right. Democracy is at stake. The death of investigative reporting in newspapers will affect thousands of lives as quietly as the melting polar ice caps threaten the planet’s equilibrium. No more exposes of innocent men on death row. No more David v. Goliath stories of corporate abuses. No more verbal sunlight to disinfect the halls of power.

    Some will keep the fires burning through private partnerships as a new business model emerges and the public, faced with some horrific post-mortem after a tragedy, asks, “Why didn’t we know about this before?”

  • Stuart on 05.21.2009 at 1:00 pm

    "Writerisms"

    Note to student journo: you should have dropped the first and last graphs. Otherwise a good piece.

  • Anonymous on 05.21.2009 at 1:39 pm

    huh

    That is a very strange lead paragraph and an equally discordant reference to Carl Bernstein in the second paragraph. Is it the reporter’s job to declare up front he thinks his subject is a good guy and to use a term he admits is obscure to do it? And if the reporter reads his own subject’s words, he’ll see that Mister hersh doesn’t approach any of his own subjects with such effusive embraces.

  • Anonymous on 05.21.2009 at 1:43 pm

    Hersh speech

    Mr. Rolbein: And who is Bob Woodward, chopped liver?

  • Anonymous on 05.22.2009 at 9:44 am

    Who is Bob Woodward?

    Bernstein was mentioned because ..stein connects with mensch. Woodward isn’t jewish.

    I’m not accusing Mr. Rothbein of bein subtly racist here – just pandering to the pocketbooks. For his sake, I hope he got a good price for that ounce of integrity that may be difficult to get back.

  • Wilma Ralls on 05.23.2009 at 5:51 pm

    SOME OF US LIKE THAT THE PRESS IS GONE

    I would be sorry for what is happening to newspapers if I thought it would help us to keep them going, but I do not think that. In fact, my first response is GOOD RIDDANCE! For all of the moaning and groaning over losing our newspapers, what happened to the moaning and groaning over the past 10 years due to the LYING and SPIN that was put on everything? I guess what this person will be missing is the paragraph of truth he finds hidden in an obscure place on a back page every week or so! I do not miss any of that. TV news is even worse, but not having a television saves me from that irrelevant exercise. NO! WE DO NOT NEED NEWSPAPERS WHO SPIN AND LIE ANYMORE THAN WE NEED POLITICIANS WHO LIE BUT THAT IS WHAT WE GET! I rely on the internet for my information AND WILL BE PUTTING ALL MY ENERGY INTO PROTECTING THE NET rather than moaning over the loss of the newspaper industry.

  • Wilma Ralls on 05.23.2009 at 6:02 pm

    I WILL NOT MISS NEWSPAPERS WITH ALL OF THEIR SPINNING AND LIES! So much moaning and groaning over losing our newspapers? Where is all of the moaning and groaning over the fact that since moving into the 21st century OUR NEWS HAS BECOME MORE AND MORE LIKE PROPAGANDA! Why should we want this kind of industry back when all it has done is RUINED OUR LIVES FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS. If the newspapers had been doing their job WE MAY HAVE AVOIDED A WAR BASED ON LIES. WE MAY HAVE AVOIDED BEING GUILTY OF MURDERING MORE THAN ONE MILLION CIVILIANS! Yeah, they really did a good job covering this stuff! NOT! I will continue to get my information where I have gotten it for the past 20 years… MY COMPUTER CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET. The rest of my life will be devoted to SECURING FREE OPEN ACCESS TO THE INTERNET FOR ALL!

    Give it up people. NO SOCIETY NEEDS NEWSPAPERS THAT MAKE THE NEWS WHATEVER THEY WANT IT TO BE! That is what we got in the run up to the war and that is what we always get from our REPUBLICAN OWNED AND RUN NEWSPAPER INDUSTRY. Just watch! As soon as Obama figures out he won’t have newspapers to spin the news for him… HE WILL BE HANDING THEM BAIL OUT MONEY IN BUCKETS! I am just waiting for it to happen!

  • Munir Umrani on 05.24.2009 at 9:58 pm

    Where's the Evidence?

    Mr. Rolbein, what evidence do you have to support your contention that, “No living American journalist (including Carl Bernstein) has done more and better investigative reporting” than Sy Hersh?

  • Anonymous on 05.25.2009 at 6:29 am

    Mensch is not Yiddish, it’s German for “human”, in this context it stands for a “kind soul”.

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