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Chris Hedges Unmasks American Empire in ‘Unspeakable’

Posted on Nov 9, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  Chris Hedges has been speaking truth to (and against) power since his earliest days as a radical journalist. (Skyhorse Publishing)

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from “Unspeakable,” a new book by Chris Hedges and David Talbot. “Unspeakable” is published by Skyhorse Publishing. Click here for details.

The mainstream media reacted with shock at the rise of Donald Trump on the right, and Bernie Sanders on the left. Out of touch with the growing bitterness of America’s working poor, these families’ rage came as news to the journalists who dominate our national discourse. But Truthdig columnist and former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges has been shining a light on the most overlooked people and issues for nearly four decades. Now, he addresses these burning topics in a rare, extended conversation with fellow radical journalist David Talbot, founder of Salon and Hot Books.

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Were you immediately made aware of the power that the Times gave you, as well as its limitations?

Yes. I didn’t abide by the pool system. I defied the rules. I went out alone. The other Times reporters were doing what Times reporters do best—sucking up to the authorities. They wrote a letter to the Times foreign editor saying I was destroying the paper’s relationship with the military. I knew the game. I was prepared to quit. I was young enough, I could go to another paper.

Why were the other reporters pissed off at you?

They were happily writing pool reports in the hotel. They didn’t want to go out. I blew their cover. If I could go out and get stories, why didn’t they go out? But [legendary Times editor and correspondent] R.W. Apple—Johnny Apple—was overseeing the paper’s coverage of the war from Saudi Arabia. When he found out about the letter, he called us all together.  He said, “Look we don’t work for the military.” He was my great protector. He saved my job. They would have sent me back. Johnny made sure I could stay and report.

Johnny Apple famously broke the Times’ gray lady mold—he was flamboyant, full of himself, a well- known gourmand and dinner party host.

He had a lot of Falstaff in him. But he cared about the craft. He was an eloquent writer. He respected good reporters. He wasn’t going to let the institution destroy me. My colleagues at the Times, however, were only one of my problems. The more stories I wrote outside the pool system, the more the Bush administration wanted me silenced.

Dick Cheney—who was secretary of defense then, under George Bush I—demanded that about a dozen reporters who were defying the pool system be expelled. We were called “unilaterals,” a new name for our trade. I was high on the list. But they couldn’t find me. I was sleeping with Bedouins in the desert. The US military had already arrested me and confiscated my press credentials. But I did not use press credentials. I was there to be a reporter. If I couldn’t be a reporter, I would leave. I wasn’t going to sit in a hotel and write up press conferences and pool reports. At that point you might as well take a job with the Pentagon.

I entered Kuwait City before it was officially liberated. I drove my jeep while wearing a Marine Corps combat uniform down the six-lane highway leading out of Kuwait City as thousands of Iraqi soldiers in hundreds of vehicles were fleeing north to Iraq. This soon became the highway of death with miles of burned and wrecked vehicles and charred corpses. I was eventually taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the uprising in Basra after the war. I guess you could say I was embedded with the Iraqis.

And through all this, you managed to file some strong stories.

It was interesting—when I came back home after the Gulf War, even Abe Rosenthal, who was retired by then, told Joe Lelyveld, who replaced him as the Times executive editor, that he wanted to meet me. He came down to the newsroom to shake my hand and told me, “You’re a great reporter.”

So even Abe Rosenthal respected you as a war reporter. What did that feel like?

Rosenthal had the instincts of a good reporter. The problem was that, like many who rise within institutions, he cared more about his career than his integrity. He oversaw the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. We have to give him that. The publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, who—to highlight how the close-knit fraternity of the elites function—went to my Connecticut prep school, was very reluctant. The idols of power, in the end, always atrophy your soul. Editors and the reporters, at least the ones determined to advance within the institution under Rosenthal’s eleven-year tenure as the paper’s executive editor, slavishly catered to his neocon ideology and numerous prejudices, including his blind support of Israel and virulent homophobia, which is why the paper ignored the AIDS epidemic. By the time Rosenthal retired and started writing a column, he was hysterical.

I’ll tell you what did mean something to me. When Homer Bigart [the Times’ widely respected correspondent who covered World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam] died around that time, Sidney Schanberg delivered one of the eulogies. He said we don’t have to worry, there are still reporters like Homer out there, and named me. Now that meant a lot to me. I didn’t care about meeting Abe Rosenthal. Bigart was a hero. He was a reporter’s reporter. He cared about the truth. He took tremendous risks to report it. He also loathed the paper’s hierarchy. He was once at his desk in the Times newsroom taking notes for a story about a riot that were being dictated to him by a reporter, John Kifner, from a pay phone. The riot was getting hot. Kifner finally told Bigart, ‘Jeez, Homer, I’m going to have to cut off because there’s like a hundred people that are going to push this phone booth over on me.” “At least you’re dealing with sane people,” Bigart answered.

So by the end of the Gulf War, you’re in pretty good standing in the Times newsroom.

Well, yes and no. Because remember, there were a lot of reporters who didn’t like me now. The New York Times is primarily populated by careerists. They do journalism on the side. The careerists always get you in the end.

These are the people who belong to the Council on Foreign Relations and will end up at the State Department or the Kennedy School at Harvard or on Wall Street?

Exactly. They are courtiers. They serve the elites. The elites reward them for their service with television appearances, lucrative book contracts, foundation grants, awards, journalism professorships and highly paid lecture fees. Many “prestigious” careers in journalism are built this way. These reporters spend their working lives as stenographers for the powerful. They are also your mortal enemy. They know you know them for what they are. Your reporting exposes them as mouthpieces for the elites. I had a few friends at the Times. I made the paper look good, so the hierarchy liked it, but I certainly had a lot of reporters who didn’t like me.

Still, you keep getting assignments overseas?

I was sent to Cairo as the Middle East bureau chief.

How old are you by then?

Early thirties…pretty young.

So if you wanted to play the New York Times game, you could’ve kept rising within that hierarchy?

Reporters like me do not advance at institutions like the Times.


As a war correspondent, I was paid to defy authority and often authority that was trying to kill me. War correspondents almost never reintegrate into newsrooms. We don’t bow easily before authority. At places like the Times you do not advance if you do not pay homage to the powerful and engage in the subtle games for patronage and influence. You have to be willing to incorporate the ideological parameters of the paper into your reporting.

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