Seymour Hersh has got some extreme ideas on how to fix journalism – close down the news bureaus of NBC and ABC, sack 90% of editors in publishing and get back to the fundamental job of journalists which, he says, is to be an outsider.
It doesn’t take much to fire up Hersh, the investigative journalist who has been the nemesis of US presidents since the 1960s and who was once described by the Republican party as “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist”.
He is angry about the timidity of journalists in America, their failure to challenge the White House and be an unpopular messenger of truth.
Don’t even get him started on the New York Times which, he says, spends “so much more time carrying water for Obama than I ever thought they would” – or the death of Osama bin Laden. “Nothing’s been done about that story, it’s one big lie, not one word of it is true,” he says of the dramatic US Navy Seals raid in 2011.
Hersh is writing a book about national security and has devoted a chapter to the bin Laden killing. He says a recent report put out by an “independent” Pakistani commission about life in the Abottabad compound in which Bin Laden was holed up would not stand up to scrutiny. “The Pakistanis put out a report, don’t get me going on it. Let’s put it this way, it was done with considerable American input. It’s a bullshit report,” he says hinting of revelations to come in his book.
The Obama administration lies systematically, he claims, yet none of the leviathans of American media, the TV networks or big print titles, challenge him.
“It’s pathetic, they are more than obsequious, they are afraid to pick on this guy [Obama],” he declares in an interview with the Guardian.
He is certain that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “changed the whole nature of the debate” about surveillance. Hersh says he and other journalists had written about surveillance, but Snowden was significant because he provided documentary evidence – although he is sceptical about whether the revelations will change the US government’s policy.
“Duncan Campbell [the British investigative journalist who broke the Zircon cover-up story], James Bamford [US journalist] and Julian Assange and me and the New Yorker, we’ve all written the notion there’s constant surveillance, but he [Snowden] produced a document and that changed the whole nature of the debate, it’s real now,” Hersh says.
“Editors love documents. Chicken-shit editors who wouldn’t touch stories like that, they love documents, so he changed the whole ball game,” he adds, before qualifying his remarks.
“But I don’t know if it’s going to mean anything in the long [run] because the polls I see in America – the president can still say to voters ‘al-Qaida, al-Qaida’ and the public will vote two to one for this kind of surveillance, which is so idiotic,” he says.
The 76-year-old Hersh is on full throttle, a whirlwind of amazing stories of how journalism used to be; how he exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, how he got the Abu Ghraib pictures of American soldiers brutalising Iraqi prisoners, and what he thinks of Edward Snowden.
He was hired by the New York Times to follow up the Watergate scandal and ended up hounding Nixon over Cambodia. Almost 30 years later, Hersh made global headlines all over again with his exposure of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
For students of journalism his message is put the miles and the hours in. He knew about Abu Ghraib five months before he could write about it, having been tipped off by a senior Iraqi army officer who risked his own life by coming out of Baghdad to Damascus to tell him how prisoners had been writing to their families asking them to come and kill them because they had been “despoiled”.
“I went five months looking for a document, because without a document, there’s nothing there, it doesn’t go anywhere.”
Hersh is adamant that Obama is worse than Bush.
“Do you think Obama’s been judged by any rational standards? Has Guantanamo closed? Is a war over? Is anyone paying any attention to Iraq? Is he seriously talking about going into Syria? We are not doing so well in the 80 wars we are in right now, what the hell does he want to go into another one for. What’s going on [with journalists]?” he asks.
“Like killing people, how does [Obama] get away with the drone programme, why aren’t we doing more? How does he justify it? What’s the intelligence? Why don’t we find out how good or bad this policy is? Why do newspapers constantly cite the two or three groups that monitor drone killings. Why don’t we do our own work?
“Our job is to find out ourselves.”
Asked what the solution is for the sorry state of journalism, Hersh says: “I’ll tell you the solution, get rid of 90% of the editors that now exist.”
Hersh is currently on a break from reporting, working on a book which undoubtedly will make for uncomfortable reading for both Bush and Obama.
“The republic’s in trouble, we lie about everything, lying has become the staple.” And he implores journalists to do something about it. – The Guardian