The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, in his memoir “Reporter,” describes a moment when as a young reporter he overheard a Chicago cop admit to murdering an African-American man. The murdered man had been falsely described by police as a robbery suspect who had been shot while trying to avoid arrest. Hersh frantically called his editor to ask what to do.
– Chris Hedges
“The editor urged me to do nothing,” he writes. “It would be my word versus that of all the cops involved, and all would accuse me of lying. The message was clear: I did not have a story. But of course I did.” He describes himself as “full of despair at my weakness and the weakness of a profession that dealt so easily with compromise and self-censorship.”
Hersh, the greatest investigative reporter of his generation, uncovered the U.S. military’s chemical weapons program, which used thousands of soldiers and volunteers, including pacifists from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as unwitting human guinea pigs to measure the impact of biological agents including tularemia, yellow fever, Rift Valley fever and the plague. He broke the story of the My Lai massacre. He exposed Henry Kissinger’s wiretapping of his closest aides at the National Security Council (NSC) and journalists, the CIA’s funding of violent extremist groups to overthrow the Chilean President Salvador Allende, the CIA’s spying on domestic dissidents within the United States, the sadistic torture practices at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by American soldiers and contractors and the lies told by the Obama administration about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet he begins his memoir by the candid admission, familiar to any reporter, that there are crimes and events committed by the powerful you never write about, at least if you want to keep your job. One of his laments in the book is his decision not to follow up on a report he received that disgraced President Richard Nixon had hit his wife, Pat, and she had ended up in an emergency room in California.
Reporters embedded with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely witness atrocities and often war crimes committed by the U.S. military, yet they know that access is dependent on keeping quiet. This collusion between the press and the powerful is a fundamental feature of journalism, one that even someone as courageous as Hersh, at least a few times, was forced to accept. And yet, there comes a time when reporters, at least the good ones, decide to sacrifice their careers to tell the truth. Hersh, relentlessly chronicling the crimes of the late empire, including the widespread use of torture, indiscriminate military strikes on civilian targets and targeted assassinations, has for this reason been virtually blacklisted in the American media. And the loss of his voice—he used to work for The New York Times and later The New Yorker—is evidence that the press, always flawed, has now been neutered by corporate power. Hersh’s memoir is as much about his remarkable career as it is about the death of investigative journalism and the transformation of news into a national reality television show that subsists on gossip, invective, officially approved narratives and leaks and entertainment. …