'Reporter' offers a captivating account of an entire era of journalism
Seymour Hersh's memoir is full of smooth storytelling and well-turned anecdotes, but it can also be a bumpy ride.
“There are two kinds of news reporter memoirs,” a tart old Boston-daily editor once quipped, “untrue and unpublished.”
The cynicism is connected to an adage-cum-warning that's as old as professional journalism itself, that the journalist is never the story. The story is the real point; the journalist is just the messenger – at least, this has been the standard model.
But in his latest book, Reporter, the semi-legendary Seymour Hersh breaks with the model in ways that are alternately touching, fascinating, and infuriating – starting right in the opening pages, when he fulminates against the 21st century 24-hour news cycle in tones that could charitably be described as “cranky.” He refers to himself as a survivor of the golden age of journalism, “when reporters for daily newspapers did not have to compete with the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads, and when I was free to travel anywhere, anytime, for any reason, on a breaking news story without having to constantly relay what was being learned on the newspaper's web page.”
And he contrasts this with our present journalistic environment: “We are sodden with fake news, hyped-up and incomplete information, and false assertions delivered nonstop by our daily newspapers, our televisions, our online news agencies, our social media, and our President.”
The assertion here – that daily newspapers, news agencies, and cable news TV deliver fake news “nonstop” to their audience – is fairly astonishing, something that would sound unsurprising coming from Donald Trump or Alex Jones but that an experienced news reporter ought to know better than to say even in a moment of spleen. The 2018 Pulitzers in journalism went to the hard-working reporters of the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, The Arizona Republic, and the Cincinnati Enquirer; Ronan Farrow won the same prize for game-changing long-form reporting about the sexual misconduct of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein; at The New York Times White House beat, Maggie Haberman is consistently producing era-defining work. These people – and hundreds of their less-famous colleagues – are not delivering non-stop fake news.
Fortunately, the spleen sputters out fairly early in "Reporter" and yields to a kind of cinematically-detailed and warmly human storytelling that's at once reminiscent of vintage Hersh and also tonally unlike anything else he's ever written.
Hersh, who's won the Pulitzer himself as well as virtually every other award his profession can bestow, is famous for breaking the story of the My Lai massacre committed by US troops in South Vietnam in 1968. He did groundbreaking work on the Watergate scandal, and he's continued to be a thorn in the side of official government narratives for decades, writing scathingly about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Clinton and Bush administrations, the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In "Reporter," readers get the protracted and often breakneck efforts behind these stories – the legwork, the poring over documents, and most of all, the handling of confidential sources, one of the mainstays of Hersh's career. Sources were so vital a part of his work, in fact, that Hersh thinks the word is too weak to describe the relationship. “I shared 6:00 am breakfasts in diners and other offbeat places with my sources, and many lunches and dinners with them when they were on duty outside Washington,” he writes. “These insiders quickly became more than sources; they were friends and stayed friends after they left government.”
These sources are drawn like characters in a novel, as are all the various powerful government officials with whom Hersh has contended over the years (none more so than Henry Kissinger, about whom Hersh writes, “the man lied the way most people breathed”).
All the key figures of a long and storied career come alive again in Hersh's vivid recollections (with the curious exception of his wife, but maybe that's simple old-fashioned discretion), from sources to adversaries to old allies like New York Times managing editor Abe Rosenthal and other colleagues from Hersh's old newspaper days. Those days ended abruptly when a Times editor showed Hersh a back-channel memo critical of him: “[the editor] was appalled at the utter stupidity of the note and the insult to me therein. I resigned immediately, without saying why, and took a long-standing offer to write a book about Henry Kissinger. I would never work regularly for a newspaper again.”
The book is full of smooth storytelling and well-turned anecdotes, but it can be a bumpy ride. Poor old Abe Rosenthal isn't the only editor in these pages who'll elicit reader sympathy; Hersh does very little to hide the fact that he could frequently be a nightmare to work with. Ultimately the book yields up a warts-and-all picture not just of Hersh but of an entire era of journalism. It's as captivating an account of that era than anything since Judith Miller's terrific 2015 book "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" – and of course this particular story is ongoing.