“There is no middle ground anymore,” veteran journalist Seymour Hersh told me. “There’s no standard. If you like Trump, you watch Fox. If you don’t like Trump, you watch CNN or MSNBC, or read The Times.”
He should know. After spending his career investigating government corruption and abuse of power––reporting on everything from Watergate to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib––Hersh has closely observed how government, and reporting on government, have evolved. Currently a freelance reporter and frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Hersh was a staff writer for the AP in Chicago and The New York Times and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker. His exposé of the Mai Lai massacre and U.S. government cover-up––which he published himself––earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
I spoke to Hersh, whose memoir, Reporter, was published in June, about the problem he sees with cable news, the fate of investigative journalism, and why he thinks that Democrats are underestimating Trump, among other topics. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: You spent most of your career as a freelancer––and even earned the Pulitzer Prize for a story you originally published on your own––instead of as a staff reporter. How have the two experiences been different?
Seymour Hersh: I’ve been a freelancer since 1979. There’s something good about it, because I can pick what I want to do, within limits, assuming I can turn in enough good stories and my ideas are good enough. I’m not at the mercy of an editor.
When I did it, you could do long-form reporting as a freelancer. Once I began to get connected with The New Yorker, everybody assumed I was working for it, but I was always on contract. I wanted to be. I could have changed it, but then I would have had the editors have control over me, so I didn’t want that. On the other hand, they still had control over me, because I would do an assignment. They were the editor and they paid the bills. I don’t know if I was being silly or not, but whatever happened, it turned out that it was all fine. Serendipity, I guess.
The problem today is you can’t go to an editor today and say “I’ve got a story,” which I would do for years. I joke about it, but it was real. I was the equivalent of walking to an editor’s desk and throwing a dead rat full of lice on his table and saying, “I want to do this, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money, and I may not get it, and if I do get it, you’re going to have law firms yelling at you, and you’re going to lose subscribers, and you’re going to publish something that a lot of people won’t like.”
You know, that does wear out, no matter how effective the stuff is––but I could do that then. I left the AP. They got tired of my Vietnam reporting. I left The New York Times. They got tired of my bitching and complaining about their processes there, which is sometimes sort of tedious and redundant, and at The New Yorker it was the same thing. They got tired of me always finding the dark side. It was much easier to do when Bush and Cheney were there, but when Obama was around, it was much harder.
It’s just the way it is. I feel sorry for kid reporters starting now, because the idea of telling an editor, “I want to spend two or three months on a story” just doesn’t work anymore.
Right. On the plus side for freelancers, so many publications are now relying on them, so there’s some more opportunity––even if the pay is awful.
I hear what you’re saying. On the other hand, the internet is the internet, and that’s different. When I was writing in the 80s and 90s for The New Yorker, when I had a good story, I had to make sure I let somebody at The New York Times and Washington Post know it’s coming in advance, slip them an advance copy so they could have a story ready––because you really needed the newspapers to make the stories go. And maybe the wires would pick it up, the AP or somebody––but if you got in The Times or the Post you were started. Now, in terms of freelance, any good story can explode off the page. That’s a big plus. The downside is the quality of the stuff can’t be as good, because everything is so ephemeral. Nobody has money.
Everything’s so souped up now. Cable television is basically ruining media. You’ve got a president now that is considered to be a major liar but on an international event, if he puts out a statement, it’s immediately taken. “President says so and so did so and so,” and that’s the mantra. It’s a very strange procedure now.
Yeah, I wanted to ask more about the money. Freelancers don’t make much, and media outlets are struggling financially. How has that affected the kind of journalism that we’re producing?
Well, I mean, look, I’m exalted, you know what I mean, so I’ll get work. At The New Yorker I had a contract every year, but there was a long time when they needed me more than I needed them, so I was being paid very well by them––although insurance and all the other stuff, I took care of myself. That was the downside of not being a staff reporter.
Since then, the pay is ridiculously much less. Don’t forget, there was a period in the 70s and 80s where magazines were flourishing. I can’t tell you how many books I made more money on magazine syndication than I did on the actual book.
Like when Harpers published a 30,000 word excerpt of the My Lai story, right?
Not only that, just even books I wrote into the early 90s, if it was an Asia thing, there was a Japanese magazine that would pay thirty or thirty-five thousand dollars to reprint. Nobody pays anything like that now. Are you kidding? Japanese magazines aren’t even in the market anymore.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to the media, but somebody told me today that even the editor of the Washington Post is worried that in six or eight or 10 years, everything will be online.
It’s especially a problem for the kind of investigative reporting you built your career on. There’s just no budget for that anymore. So how can we make sure those stories get told? Do you have faith in investigative journalism?
I gave a speech in Orlando to a national group called the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). I think they started in the 70s, and it started to meet regularly, and they were training people how to use data.
I really support the group, and most of the people that began it––they’re all good reporters. But the last time I went, there were about six or seven hundred people there, about three or four years ago. Then I went to one in Orlando in the middle of June, and there were 1,800 people there. It was impossible to figure out unless you realize this––and this is really encouraging––that a thousand more kids than you would expect had decided to go to journalism school.
They were journalists, mostly, an awful lot of from-school kids, attending journalism school, a lot of people working part-time at newspapers. That’s their group. The old kind basically are the people that give lectures, like me, but the young kids that were there all decided that, given Trump, and given where America was and the scary situation there was, journalism offered some hope of doing something useful. They were going to journalism school, and they were taking jobs at odd places. A lot of them finding a niche where you can publish stuff. And it was very encouraging. Young kids still see journalism as a viable way of dealing with the problems of society––particularly with a president who’s tone deaf on so much stuff.
As someone who didn’t go to journalism school, what do you think about journalism school in general?
It never occurred to me. I just flunked out of law school. I worked all the time through college, and I got into law school because the father of one of my good friends was a professor there. I applied to law school probably on the last day of August 1958 and I was accepted two days later. But anyway, the bottom line is I bummed around and I finally heard about a job as a police reporter. The requirements were a BA and you were alive and willing to work for $40 a week or something like that. It was 1960.
So that’s how I started. Sheer serendipity. And I learned my own way. I assume that I was a better reporter for having worked as I did for United Press International and then for the AP. And come up being a police reporter in Chicago. I thought I was more equipped to deal with the dirty world that existed than some guy that was editor of Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News.
On the other hand, I met a lot of people who were editors of the Harvard Crimson or worked for David Halberstam [editor of the Crimson] who were great reporters. So all of my biases probably don’t have much [basis in] reality.
I’d like to think that being on the street like I was for years helped.
Your whole career has been searching for the truth, exposing lies from the government. We’re now dealing with an administration that makes it hard to trust anything we hear. How should journalists cover this administration? How is this different from what you’ve seen before?
How is it different? We have a man that doesn’t read.
But I think that people underestimate him. My worry is the Democrats still certainly underestimate him. And I think history will show that we will eventually learn that Russia had not much to do with this loss. That the Russians had that much power. We have that much power inside of Russia. I mean come on. There’s a lot of reason not to buy that story. I’m actually working a little bit on it, but I don’t know what I’ll do with it.
The bottom line is, when you got a guy like this, you have to remember, this is the guy, reviled for his ignorance, seemingly, and his lack of respect for most norms. This is the guy that took down fifteen Republicans, with an accumulated political experience of about 300 years. He put down two dynasties. The Bush dynasty. And the Clinton dynasty. And so to sell him short is a big mistake. He’s not a moron, and I just think it’s big mistake for the Democratic party to keep on attacking him for his lies and misstatements and his obvious inability to plan. And [the Democrats] better offer middle America something. They lost that election because the white working class walked away from them. And by the way, blacks didn’t come out for Obama as much as the public thinks they would, because they got tired of him, too. They didn’t see him as the great leader that he could have been.
So I think the Democrats have to come back, to stop yipping about it. They’re playing into his hand with the tweets. They’re playing in his ballpark. Why do that? Just go write about what he wasn’t doing. And write about what’s going on in the communities because of the changes in regulations his people did. There’s a lot of stuff to do.
We are living in a politically divided country. What do you think about the role of media considering this schism? Do you see outlets playing to their audiences? If so, how can we fix this?
When I worked at The New York Times in the 70s, I went and started covering things about the war. And it was immediately credible. Even people that supported the war could read the story and say, “Okay, this is something I don’t like.” But they didn’t say it’s not true. And that’s gone now.
The major liberal newspapers in the East are so hostile with Trump, whatever they say is just passed over. It’s just another attack on Trump. And like the Supreme Court Justice, I’m sorry to say, he’s perfectly qualified to me. Very bright, decent man.** People don’t like him. He’s conservative. But that’s the way it goes. But that’s just the way I think the Democrats are going to spend a lot of energy on that and lose. And they’re not offering any programs except “we hate Trump.” And “he’s a moron.”
[** Editor’s note: Hersh’s comment on Brett Kavanaugh was made before what he calls “the astonishing allegations of sexual assault against the judge,” and he says it’s a “whole new ball game now.”]
I am so tired of the Democrats’ same-old, same-old foreign policy, with a few wonderful Obama exceptions––the Iran Nuclear Deal deal being the most important––that in the early months of the Trump presidency I thought his idea of talking to Putin, and to the kook in North Korea, and claiming he was open to meeting with the Iranians, despite his idiotic hostility to the nuclear deal, was worth supporting, even tepidly and much caution. But why not encourage even the faintest of rational thought? The hostility of the mainstream media to any movement in any direction by Trump was a given very early in the game. Meanwhile the continuing American war in Yemen, in Afghanistan, versus the Taliban––no matter how counterproductive––all democratic policies remained largely unremarked. I wonder what would have happened, had Trump stuck to his guns on his willingness to meet with adversaries, but that idea has been beaten back as he continued to shed any innovative foreign policy gambits he considered.
To answer your question: There is no middle ground anymore. There’s no standard. If you like Trump, you watch Fox. If you don’t like Trump, you watch CNN or MSNBC, or read The Times. And the Post. And meanwhile, what I hear all over from people living in middle America, what they call “flyover land,” I hear that support for Trump is growing.
It grows because, you know, the immigration thing plays into the innate racism that exists in America among whites. And even the minorities are worried about jobs. And so he’s playing into a ticket that’s a very complicated wicket as they say in Britain. It’s a very complicated issue because, although most Americans are appalled by what happened at the border with separating the children, they feel threatened by immigrants. Not personally, but in terms of market and jobs, etc.
So, I’m wondering too if when you kind of look back on your career if you’ve seen places where if you could do something differently, write a different story, or tell something in a different way, are there any places that you’ve learned from?
All over the place. There’s a lot of stories that I wish I’d done differently. There’s one story in particular that I wish I’d fought harder for that was killed. Because I knew it was right. The editor I thought was, I didn’t think he was in any way censoring me, he thought it was just too much of a jump.
It’s very hard if you can’t name sources, and one of the thing that I don’t do is I don’t like to name the sources. I will if they agree, but I’m not doing it. I won’t even hint too much at where they are. I just don’t want them to be exposed to anybody.
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I’m glad I hung in at Abu Ghraib, at the prison when I wrote the stories for The New Yorker about the prison, I was working on that story five months in advance. And I knew, and by the way to be perfectly honest, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two groups that monitor torture, do a good job. And they were reporting on troubles at that prison much earlier, but there were no photographs and there were no names.
So I knew that in order to do it, I needed something special, a name or a picture. And I finally got something, but it took my five months of knowing how bad they were before I could get something in print.
The whole war, the whole idea that we thought we could fight a war against an idea. Terrorism is an idea. And if I could have I would have done more, to go after the whole premise of the war. But you know, although I like to think I’m god-like, I know I’m not.
There’s a limit to what I could do. But sure, if I had my way, there would’ve been much more awful stuff about oil companies too. How they manipulate information. And I don’t have my way. I have to work within the confines.
I’ve been following one story since 2011. I haven’t been able to throw it up yet, but I will. Or I won’t.
Especially with online journalism, there’s a need for speed, for clicks and for attention-grabbing headlines. How is that affecting the kind of quality of the news?
I think it’s the whole cable news idea. Here’s the White House that, you have a president that’ll do a 20 minute interview and somebody will sum up what he said, and he’ll say, “I didn’t say that!” The reporter will say, “No, you just said that 15 minutes ago!” “No, I didn’t!” You have a president that does that.
Then there’s a crisis, whatever the president says about what’s going on with the chemicals in Syria or whatever, it’s immediately jammed into a headline on the cable news! CNN, Fox News––immediately it’s “the president says this!” And whether they screw it up or not doesn’t matter. It’s there. It’s a bully pulpit, and he uses it very effectively because he sets the agenda. And so we’re really in trouble now, because in the old days you had a crisis and maybe a day and a half later the White House might start about, because they really didn’t know what’s going on. And now everybody just goes off the top.