Nearly 50 years have passed since Seymour Hersh was chasing what was then the biggest story of his career, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Much has changed. The internet was born and is continuously metastasizing. Once-thriving newspapers and magazines are gasping for clicks. The Russians, our Cold War enemies, kindly assisted us in electing our current president.
Yet something about Hersh’s unvarnished account of driving a rental car around Fort Benning, Ga., in 1969, scouring an Army base the size of New York City for a murderous lieutenant, will resonate with any journalist who has been one interview away from breaking a major story.
In his memoir, Reporter, the 81-year-old Hersh taps into the same slow-burning suspense of my favorite journalism flicks, from “All the President’s Men” and “The Paper” to newer additions like “Spotlight” and “The Post.” Hersh comes through with a re-up of that feeling, which is the reason I got into this business and the reason I stay.
The tools were often different from today’s: a paper map and a payphone instead of Google Maps and an iPhone. But Seymour Hersh’s recipe for strong investigative reporting still works.
Searching for Lt. William Calley on the Georgia base, Hersh (then in his early 30s) flipped through phone books and checked gas stations that might have serviced Calley’s car. He ran, “going harder with each stride,” from an Army sergeant he feared would call a colonel to throw him off the base: “It was a scene out of a Marx Brothers movie.” He later dodged a captain who pleaded with him to drop the story, then sneaked through the back door of a barracks and crawled on his hands and knees to the bedside of a young soldier he believed to be Calley. “Wake up, Calley,” Hersh said as he kicked the bunk. It wasn’t him. But the sleeping soldier sorted mail at Fort Benning—including Calley’s. “You mean the guy that killed all those people?” he asked Hersh. Bingo.
Hersh, of course, eventually found Calley, wrote the My Lai story and won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Calley was sentenced in 1971 to life in prison for the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. But President Nixon ordered him transferred to house arrest the day after his sentencing, and his sentence was later commuted.
The My Lai story was one of several Hersh blockbusters that would help shape a half-century of American history. He often worked alone, hunting large game from coast to coast with nothing but a pen and a typewriter—one of which, in the mid-1970s, he launched through the glass window of his office at The New York Times, enraged by the way the editors were fiddling with his series about a mobbed-up Los Angeles lawyer. (Abe Rosenthal, the Times’s executive editor, responded with a memo suggesting that Hersh throttle back. “Unlike you and me,” Rosenthal wrote, “the editors involved are polite and civilized individuals.”)
Working at The New York Times, the Associated Press, The New Yorker and elsewhere, Hersh broke stories about Watergate, U.S. chemical and biological weapons programs, military cover-ups, C.I.A. domestic spying, the Mafia, corrupt businesses and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. He made his living in the gap between government talking points and the truth. He was fixated, justifiably, on Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor and secretary of state, who, Hersh writes in his memoir, “lied the way most people breathed.”
The tools were often different from today’s: a paper map and a payphone instead of Google Maps and an iPhone. But Hersh’s recipe for strong investigative reporting still works. Timeless nuggets of wisdom are sprinkled throughout the book.
The My Lai story was one of several Hersh blockbusters that would help shape a half-century of American history.
How do you prove the government is lying? Seek out the “moralists,” those who are loyal to their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, not just their superiors (the president included). This goes for cracking the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency or your local City Hall. But how do you get those sources to talk? Earn their trust and respect. Read before you write—or speak. Ask intelligent questions. Be straight with them. When you have finally nailed your target, Hersh advises, be sure to inform them that they are about to get screwed. Give them the chance to respond before you publish. A little class never hurts.
Hersh would work for months on an investigative story, but he could also chase a daily like the best of them. In 1971, an F.B.I. official met Hersh for lunch and asked Hersh to let him leave first. The official had been sitting on a manila envelope he wanted to share. It included White House requests, signed by Kissinger, for F.B.I. wiretaps on senior government officials and newsmen. Within hours, Hersh had tracked down, at their homes, the F.B.I. technicians who ran the wiretaps. “They confirmed, with some asperity, that yes, they had done the deed,” Hersh writes. The next morning, he told the Times national desk that he had a story. He was fast.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of how Hersh struck fear in the hearts of lying government officials (the journalist Les Gelb once compared him to Dracula) and poked holes in the “official” version of events. He had burrowed so deep into the agencies he covered, he was practically an off-the-books ombudsman. “The S.O.B. has sources that are absolutely beyond comparison,” a deputy attorney general told C.I.A. director Bill Colby in a taped phone conversation in December 1974. Colby’s response: “He knows more about this place than I do.”
While reading Reporter, I empathized with Hersh during his bare-knuckle brawls with his bosses, including the then-head of the New York Times business section and his “ass-kissing coterie of moronic editors.” And there are the lawyers, the damn libel lawyers, who have a knack for taking their red pens to your favorite parts of the story, all the colorful language, all the controversial stuff, and reducing it to a technical manual. Anything to avoid a lawsuit. At one meeting, Hersh writes, the New Yorker’s general counsel remarked that he found it “difficult to believe that a major corporation such as Mobil could operate as far outside the law as I was alleging. I, in despair about such comments, walked over to him, patted him on the cheek, and said, ‘You’re such a nice boy.’”
I would like to have read more about Hersh himself, about how the ornery iconoclast balanced his family life with his globetrotting career and more about those tennis matches with legends like Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee. He writes about how growing up in a racially diverse part of Chicago helped him connect with a wide range of people. But once he enters journalism, he’s off to the races and the years roll by, with few personal details added. This book isn’t a tell-all. Which perhaps should not be surprising: Hersh learned early on that the best way to tell a story is to “get the hell out of the way.”