Seymour Hersh on America’s Capacity for Fascist Brutality
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has broken some of the biggest stories of the past 50 years. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. His book “Reporter: A Memoir” delves into his reporting on My Lai, as well as on the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Hersh and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer ponder why other journalists were hesitant to report on the notorious My Lai case. Hersh tells how he was sensitized to incidents of “tyranny” he witnessed as a young police reporter in Chicago, adding that self-censorship is something he has fought against much of his career.
His reporting on My Lai stunned readers.
The U.S. soldiers of Company C “didn’t just kill babies,” Hersh notes. “They were throwing infants up and catching them on their bayonets.”
But Hersh and Scheer dismiss the idea that the killers were a uniquely twisted band of monsters who just happened to coalesce at a certain point in time. In fact, Scheer notes the journalist’s sympathy for the perpetrators of the massacre. “They had been radicalized by the fact that they were in a foreign country and didn’t understand anything,” Hersh explains. “In a way, they were victims, too.”
Before covering the war, he says, he made a point of reading about the history of the conflict and quickly learned that “the war was a bloodbath.”
As he reported the incident, which the military quickly attempted to cover up, Hersh recalls visiting Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers involved. When he arrived for the interview, he spoke to Meadlo’s mother, who said, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.”
“God knows what made them do what they did,” Hersh says. But then he answers his own question. “They were trained to do that. In the Army, the first thing they did was take all social values away.”
The two also discuss how opposition to President Trump may be responsible for a resurgence in investigative journalism among young people.
Listen to their conversation and read the transcript below. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests. Obviously no question, Sy Hersh, you know, one could argue you are the most significant journalist this country has produced in certainly the last half century. I’ll say it. And I was warned, picking up your book you say right in the beginning, you can’t stand people who go out and report a story without doing their homework, without reading, without reading the book. And I read the book, several times actually. And I want to highly commend it before I engage it. So let me just do that. And there’s a trajectory in this book. It starts with you being a kid in Chicago. It turns out you’re a young one, you’re only about 81 now, right?
RS: Yeah, I’m 82, so I remember the old days. And so you’re born in the middle of the Depression, and in Chicago, and your father and mother have gotten out of Eastern Europe before all the Jews were killed. And you have a sort of unvarnished memory of those years. There isn’t much reflection on that, other than that this, you know, horrible Holocaust happened. And then you kind of spend the whole, your whole life pursuing the basic question raised by the Holocaust: how did this most advanced society, best educated, Germany—you know, admired by many people even in the U.S. government at the time, and in U.S. industry for their engineering, their education, their music—end up being the great barbarians of modern history? And you answer—well, you don’t really answer it, but your book, the power of this book is your reporting delves into barbarism in our homeland, and the things that we’ve done. What informed you from the very beginning? There’s a passion, there’s a feeling. I’ve read some of the reviews, and they really don’t capture it. It’s not about scoops, it’s about giving a damn about people and what happens to them.
SH: For me, the question I don’t really get into is why. I mean, what—I can give you another version of why I would have done what I did, that’s much less moral, and much less with high integrity. It’s—I like showing up people. I like making ’em look bad, you know. There’s always that element. So all I can tell you is, I was a self-starter. My parents, as you said, were immigrants; they came over speaking Yiddish, mostly. My mother communicated by cooking, my father didn’t communicate at all; he got cancer when I was 15. Certainly he was very young, he was only in his 40s, late 40s. Smoked three packs a day of Lucky Strikes, and I can remember hearing him cough even now, at night. The thing that I think drove me is, I ran my father’s business from when I was basically 15, when he got ill, until I got through college at the age of 22. I opened up a store in the black ghetto of Chicago at 7am, and day and night—
RS: Cleaning store.
SH: Cleaning, laundry. And it was just a business. And I don’t know why we couldn’t figure out there was an easier way to do it, particularly when I got old enough to get into college; I don’t know why we kept it going. But that’s what you do, you hold on to what you have. My mother just held on. And I sort of ran that show. I read on the side, I did a lot of reading. I just picked up something there, in that whole process. Some of it may have to do with the fact that we had black employees, and I got to be friendly with them. And in Chicago at that time, we’re talking right at the end of World War II, ’46, ’47, ’50, ’53, the Negro league baseball was very big. And when the Chicago White Sox, who were, their ballpark was about a mile from my father’s store, when the Negro league was in town they rotated; when the White Sox played away, the Negro leagues took over on weekends, and they would get the same crowds, 40,000. One of the guys who pressed pants for 12 cents a pair would take me to ballgames. And I realized his limitations. I mean, he was just blocked because of his color. He was a bright guy, but the idea that there was something beyond didn’t exist for him. And there was an inequity I did see. I went on, I got a ride into the University of Chicago and I went there, but I still ran the store while I was at the university. Still did it until finally we got, when I graduated from college, that was it. My mother went off to California with my brother, and I was free. And it was a freedom I reveled in. I got a $12 or $14 a week room in the basement of some apartment building, with the bathroom down the hall, and I’d never had such freedom. I was able to do what I wanted. The only thing I can connect to is I got friendly with that world. And I, you know, Mahalia Jackson, I had lunch with a couple of times; it’s because I was a working kid, and a white kid in the black neighborhood. And maybe that drove me to a sense of inequity. Bob, I’d love to give you a better answer.
RS: The big story, I mean, I thought I knew a lot about Vietnam; I spent time in Vietnam over the years, and you know, even before you got involved. And yet I read the chapter in your book on My Lai, and my wife—who’s an experienced journalist, she was a big editor at the Los Angeles Times—we were both crying reading these scenes. And it was a reminder of the barbarism in all of us. I mean, or at least in our cultures. I mean, you have Nazi-like crimes that you’re exposing, the deliberate killing of infants in My Lai. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book. And so the big question begged by your book is, why weren’t there more Sy Hershes? Why weren’t there more Daniel Ellsbergs? Why weren’t there more people in the CIA or in the infantry or anywhere else who spoke out?
SH: You know, that’s particularly true for the journalists who were in Vietnam at the time of My Lai, who certainly, it was widely known what happened, that this group of kids had gone nuts and wiped out a village of about 565 people. But you know what’s interesting about that in terms of me, I didn’t, when I first got the tip from a mutual friend of ours, Geoffrey Cowan, when I was a reporter—if there’s anything I can say that I did, that attracted Izzy Stone, and he could see that even when I was beginning to write for, I eventually got to—I was a kid. I went to law school, I hated law school, quit in the third year, flunked out, was thrown out basically, but I gave up. And was selling whiskey in a Walgreens drug store when I learned that you could go get a job as a police reporter in a place called the City News Bureau, where I ran into my first notion of tyranny, trying to be a police reporter in Chicago in early 1960. There are two things you learned as a police reporter; I was working for an agency that covered the crime and courts for the major newspapers. It was, Mike Royko had started there; if anybody knows the movie, the play “Front Page,” Ben Hecht’s play, it was based at the City News Bureau. And what you learned, I’m on the street being a police reporter with no, I hadn’t gone to journalism school, it was just get in there and if you got a BA we’ll hire you and see if you can figure it out. The motto of the place was, if your mother says she loves you, check it out—don’t make a mistake. And so when you’re on the street, I learned that Irish cops in Chicago can kill black people with impunity; you don’t, nobody reports that story. I learned that the mob, the police didn’t interfere with the mob in Chicago, if some guy is found dead on the street full of bars and clubs that the mob controls, and then you know what street it’s called. If some guy is found in the street with 14 bullet holes in him, and it’s being reported as a traffic accident, why, that was it. And so I, I learned in four or five months; I went in the Army, I had to go in the Army after that. But I learned in four or five months about tyranny. There was a tyranny there. I was free to do what I wanted, as long as I didn’t cross any lines. It was a great experience, because it taught me all about self-censorship. The whole function of the police, covering the police, in order to be creative and stay alive and be healthy with the cops, stay on the right side, is you self-censored yourself on all sorts of stuff. I overheard a cop talk about telling a black suspect, “Go ahead, beat it,” and then shot [him] in the back, and he was bragging to other cops about it. And I tried to report it, I tried to get the City News Bureau editors, and they all said the same thing: are you out of your mind? You know, you won’t last another day if you do that. So I went in the Army thinking, this is a profession I love; I fell in love with it right away, I was smitten by the idea of being a reporter, the freedom. And I also realized the enormous self-censorship that existed. And how much I did it, too; I played in that pigpen, too. So I remember leaving for the Army thinking, “I’m going to get back to this, and I’m not going to do that.” And I don’t know where that came from. So I ended up, I got out of the Army and I ended up working for UPI in South Dakota, covering the legislature. In which, on my own, I wrote about the plight of the Oglala Sioux, the wonderful Sioux who wiped out Custer, you know, Lieutenant Colonel Custer then, you know, a decade earlier, a hundred, 70, 80, 90 years then; it was only 60, oh, about a hundred years earlier. I wrote about their plight, because nobody was paying attention. And that got me to the attention of people that made the Associated Press hire me in Chicago, and I became attached in a way to Martin Luther King. I was assigned to cover civil rights, and Martin Luther King with just a wink of his eye and a wiggle of his finger could get me to meet with him and write a story. And eventually that sent me to the war, because I was sent to Washington; I’d done well, I was a good reporter. I could write feature stories, and I could write a story a day in Chicago. And then I was sent to cover, to Washington, and I started covering the war. And I had been reading—I, the thing I can’t emphasize is, you said it in your beginning—it’s all about reading before you write, or reading before you think. [Laughs] Or reading before you talk. It’s, I read. I began to read The New York Times daily, and David Halberstam of The New York Times, and Neil Sheehan of UPI, and Mal Browne of AP were somebody—I read Bernard Fall, and I moved on to some of the French writers who had written about Dien Bien Phu, the great collapse of the French army in 1954 against the Vietnamese. So I start covering the war, and I’m attracted to those officers, and they’re attracted to me, who take the oath of office—it’s to the Constitution. It’s not to the general in charge, or the president in charge, or Robert McNamara the secretary of defense. It’s to the Constitution. And so I very clearly began to do the kind of stories about, I began initially sideways into it. I wrote about McNamara lying about pilot loss and airplane loss in South Vietnam; he lied. And so the officers who knew that would call me, and I got to know the war was a bloodbath. OJT, on-the-job training. I eventually got driven out of that job by the Pentagon because McNamara was calling my bosses and complaining about me. I was reassigned I think to health and human services, something like that, anyway. And I freelanced. And then I was writing for The New York Times Magazine as a kid, I was married with a wife, and a dog, a cat and a mortgage like anything else, and car payments. But in ’69, I’m freelancing, and my office is right next to Ralph Nader’s in the National Press building, who I liked a lot. And Geoff Cowan calls me one day in the fall, early fall of 1969. And he said, there’s been a terrible massacre. I asked him later why he called me; he asked a friend he knew who might do this, and my friend that’s a lawyer in town mentioned me; I wasn’t at a news, I was freelancing, I’d written for The New York Times Magazine, not, the paper ignored me, but the magazine, the editors liked me, three or four stories in the previous year. I read the Russell Tribunal. And Bertrand Russell was maligned in America as anti-American, creepy old man—
RS: Well, particularly by The New York Times—
SH: You bet.
RS: —that said he was senile, and they wrote an editorial—I know, I went there to Wales to interview him, to establish that he wasn’t out of it, and he was very sharp. I mean, his eyesight was miserable, he was 94 years old, but The New York Times had totally maligned this great thinker, ‘cause he dared—this guy had been a strong anti-communist, he denounced communism in the Soviet Union and everything. But when he denounced the U.S. in Vietnam, then suddenly he became, you know, an enemy.
SH: But in the Tribunal were some statements by GIs about—simply there were a bunch of GIs that were interviewed, and they were beautiful interviews, and you could find the guys; they were real, they went back home, and there were little AP stories about them coming home. And they talked about, they would go on missions in ’65, ’66, early in the war, looking for the bad guys, the Viet Cong, the enemy. And who, of course, we never saw. We thought, the notion was for a long time there were Viet Cong, the guerrillas against us at night, but farmers by day. So we would go into villages trying to wake up people early in the morning, thinking we might—it’s that stupid. Anyway, they would find nothing, these kids. And it’s in the Tribunal. And the captain of a company, a hundred guys and maybe a tank or two, and some guys with automatic machine guns—he would say, OK, guys, at the last minute, after three or four villages, you know, we produced nothing; let’s have a mad moment here, you can all just shoot up. So they would just shoot all the hooches, the places where people lived. And when I, when Cowan told me that’s what it was, some GI went nuts and killed 75 people, I thought it was just like that or a bomb had fallen on the wrong place. Bob, as I’m doing the story, I begin to see, as you would, the right word, to use it right, the enormity, the absolute evilness of what was going on. They just didn’t kill babies, they were throwing infants up and catching them on their bayonets, having that game. And it was so psychotic, I guess, but they were kids that had, they’d been increasingly anti, you know violent and radicalized by the fact that they were in a foreign country, didn’t understand anything, and in three months of being in the country, this company, Charlie company, attached to the worst division in the war, the Americal division, just a sloppy bunch of officers all looking for stars and more promotions and ignoring the kids and their plight. In a way, the kids were victims too; they were uneducated, by this time McNamara had lowered the standards, he didn’t want—
RS: By “the kids,” you’re talking about the shooters—
SH: The shooters.
RS: —the ones who shot real kids, babies—they shot 1- and 2-year-olds. You do show a great deal of sympathy for the people swept up to become killers.
RS: Or good Germans, or what have you. You have a scene where you go to a farm, I forget where it is, in Iowa or something—
SH: New Goshen, [Indiana]. A little farmhouse. And I’m doing this story, and nobody wanted it. I had trouble getting in; Izzy tried to get it in for me into the New York Review of Books, and I had a fight with Bob Silvers about it; nobody wanted the story. I had a document, I had a charge sheet against William L. Calley of, initially it said “killing 109 Oriental human beings.” And I’ll tell you what I did do, I did go to, the secretary of defense was Mel Laird, the congressman, who I knew a little bit; I knew he wasn’t that crazy. And to say “Oriental human beings,” as if 12 Orientals equals one white, or 15 blacks equals one white, I couldn’t figure out what the ratio was. It was the most racist thing I’d ever seen. I did go, before I wrote anything, as I was publishing it, I said I’m taking out that word “Oriental,” not because you don’t deserve to have it, but because it will inflame so many people, people who basically don’t have much of an aggrievance against the Americans, Vietnamese, they’ll start killing soldiers at random. Such racism. Anyway, the point is, I’m chasing this story and I’m working for an anti-war news service, the only people who would publish it. And it was getting traction despite the fact that it was from the far side, because I had a document, and I quoted a document that said he was found guilty by his peers, or accused. One of the kids was, I learned, was named Meadlo, M-e-a-d-l-o, and I could find that name, he was in Indiana, and he was a shooter. I interviewed three or four kids that knew about it, witnessed it, were in the unit, but didn’t shoot. And there were some who did not. And he was a shooter, a farm boy. And I called for hours, I was in Salt Lake City, I don’t remember—
RS: You’re leaving out a key point, Sy. He had been wounded.
RS: And while he was waiting to be evacuated—I mean, this chapter in your book is compelling. And while he’s waiting to be evacuated, he denounces Lieutenant Calley.
SH: He had been told by Calley, he had been—Calley had gathered people into a ditch, and he asked two or three boys to shoot the people, 90 there were or so of them, in a ditch. And Meadlo was among, Meadlo was—he put clip after clip, there’s 17 bullets, I think, in an M-1 clip. And he put about, he said six but it was more than that, he fired a couple of hundred bullets into the clip. And one of the soldiers did a few, but most of them just balked. Just—not to spare your audience, why should I? When they were done shooting into the ditch, Calley was one of five, six lieutenants, he was the only one that did this kind of organized stuff, which was why he was the focal point. But the other lieutenants let their guys run around and rape and murder and kill at will. They just didn’t collect—he collected people. And so, and when they got done killing, they sat a few dozen yards away and had their lunch, K-rations. And they heard a noise, a keening noise. And this is so vivid to me. It was told to me by some of the early kids I talked to. Some mother at the bottom of the pile had tucked her 2-year-old boy, Vietnamese boy, under her stomach. And he was crawling through the pile in obvious panic, and he was screeching, full of other people’s blood. When he got to the top, he began to run across a field. There was a paddy there, there still is a paddy, it’s been paved over now. Lieutenant Calley said to Meadlo, “Plug ‘im.” And Paul Meadlo, his name, this farm boy, couldn’t do that. So this great, brave officer, Lieutenant Calley, with his, he had a weapon, a carbine, a smaller rifle, ran behind the kid and blew off his head. And everybody remembered that. The next day, Meadlo steps on a landmine. They get out, they move on, nobody’s, you know, some colonel asks them some questions, oh, nothing unusual happened, sir. The cover-up began right away. And the next day Meadlo steps on a landmine, and while they’re waiting for the chopper, the helicopter to take him out, they call a medevac, he’s screaming, “God has punished me, Calley, and God has punished you.” So I’m looking for him. And what I have is, somebody gave me a Thanksgiving menu for the company; they were trained in Schofield Barracks in late ’67 in Hawaii, they got to Vietnam in early ’68; this is March, they’ve been there maybe eight, 10 weeks, and they’ve lost maybe 10 percent to snipers, and they hadn’t seen the enemy. And they’d gotten increasingly violent, but not that violent. God knows what made them do what they did. They were trained to do that.
RS: They were trained to think of these people as disposable, not human.
SH: Well, of course they were.
RS: And you can’t kill a 2-year-old that’s looking for his now-dead mother and have any regard for life of, what, a brown person, a foreigner.
SH: Well, of course not. I mean, you know, in the Army the first thing they did is they take all social values away. Enemy is the enemy. I finally found this phone, I was calling, looking for Meadlo, M-e-a-d-l-o, and I knew that was enough of an oddball spelling. I finally find a place in New Goshen, and that name, and I call up and an old lady, the old Southern voice—this is old Ku Klux Klan territory in southern Indiana, right on the border with Illinois, very rough stuff for African Americans back in, a hundred years earlier. I asked, how’s Paul’s leg? And she said well, he’s doing OK. And I said I’m going to come tomorrow. So I knew we had the right person. And so I told her I’d come the next day. And I get to this farm, and it’s a run-down farm; she comes out looking a lot older than she had to be, she was only in her 50s, she looked much older, tough life. And I said, is he there? I said is Paul here? And she said yes. She pointed to a little wooden shack where he was living with his then-wife. I said, will he talk to me? And she shrugged, I don’t know. And then she said to me, “I gave them a good boy, and then sent me back a murderer.” Which is one of those lines that you could be a reporter for a hundred years and not run into. And so I knew then what this was going to do. And he did agree to go on TV, he had to expiate what he had done. And he went on TV, and here’s where it gets to be, to get to your question about self-censorship, and your idea of why some people do things and some people do not. Paul Meadlo agreed to go to, Walter Cronkite was then the only really anti-war guy going on television; I wish we had one now. We have nothing. And I, somebody helping me got him David Obst, who you probably know. And David called CBS and said, put him on. And so they agreed; I flew Paul, the next morning, with his wife to New York. And he went on television. And Mike Wallace of CBS began to interview him, and they put the cameras on him, and right away he just talked about killing infants, and infants, and infants. And that blew the story open. The New York Times, which had sort of been fighting me on that story, didn’t want to go, were just ignoring it—they did their own version of it. Anyway, the point is, it’s all over the newspapers. And that Sunday—it was a Thursday, I remember, in September or October—that Sunday, six or eight reporters that had been in Vietnam since ’65 with the first troops wrote their story of a massacre that they had witnessed. And so I initially was enraged at that censorship—why didn’t they write it at the real time? And as I grew older, it was a long time ago, 50 years now, almost, 48, I realized, what the hell. If they’d written that story, they would have been kicked out of the war by the Army; the story wouldn’t have been run anyway. We had such self-censorship going about that war.
RS: [omission for station break] Let me be a little bit critical here, because there’s a couple of things in the book that bothered me.
RS: One goes to the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary point. Which you have a similar sentence in your book, or paragraph. And at the beginning of the Ken Burns documentary, of this long thing on Vietnam, it begins, I forget the exact wording, but it’s something like, where good people did bad things, or they were all good and somehow bad things happened. And you have a paragraph there, I made notes here but I don’t have it handy, where you, yes, we have to understand these young soldiers, and we have to understand they’re 20, 21 years old and then they’re suddenly free to kill or torture. But that begs the basic question, what does it say about a culture that that could happen? And that so few people would object? In the case of My Lai, just to cut to the point—yes, Geoff Cowan, who is a terrific writer, he’s written very important books, he was actually my boss as the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC—his father was the head of CBS at one point, and he himself went on to be head of Voice of America. And yet, he felt outrage about this story, and he brought it to you. And you acted on it. But the question remains, where was everyone else? In the case of My Lai, you kind of let Colin Powell off the hook. You have a run-in with him later about something, but Colin Powell was in that chain of command, right?
SH: Colin Powell, you know, he came a year later. And there are grave questions about whether or not he was the chief of staff, but he wasn’t; that’s a colonel’s job, he was a major or a lieutenant colonel; he was promoted ahead of his time in the division headquarters, I mentioned the Americal division. And the records were kept there, and they disappeared, a lot of files disappeared. This was discovered by an Army inquiry. And after I did my stories the Army began a big, they had started an investigation, but they really souped it up. And so they did have an internal investigation. The trouble with the Colin Powell story is, of course, he insists he knew nothing about it. But he was working for a couple of generals who got in big trouble because they did, and in fact a year later, did everything they could to vitiate the records, eliminate stuff. That was discovered. And so journalistically, I could never find any direct evidence that he went into a safe and destroyed files. We know files were, we know somebody in the headquarters did it, but I didn’t know who.
RS: Why, in a free society, where OK, you can have a kink in your career curve; you know, you can suffer somewhat; but the fact is, we ask people all over the world to speak out against tyranny, where they’re going to have their fingernails pulled and genitals crushed, right? And then you ask yourself, why aren’t there other people at the NSA who did what Snowden did? Why aren’t there other people at The New York Times who did what Sy Hersh did, or Ron Ridenhour? Why weren’t there more people in the Pentagon who did what Daniel Ellsberg did? That’s the big question your book raises. And I noticed that the critics want to make it about, oh, he has to have scoops, and he’s a wild guy, and he’s out there, and he’s energetic. Even when they give you credit, it’s kind of like you’re “Scoop,” you know, Hersh. But that’s not what this is about. This is about, not your success, really; you certainly have done a disproportionate amount of the great reporting done in this country. But why was that necessary? And you know, in your book, my other criticism of this book, you sort of have the perfunctory or obligatory beginning, oh, it’s terrible now with cable and internet and all that, and the good old days—
SH: Yes. More than perfunctory, I, I—
RS: OK. I understand that, and I’m with you on that in many ways. But—the good old days were not so good, or you wouldn’t have had Sy Hersh be that lone voice so often. That’s the question that’s begged here. Why weren’t there other Sy Hershes?
SH: I could go on about my colleagues, but I’m not interested in self-immolation. You know, I have to get along with people. And so I don’t want to speculate about why others don’t do things they should do or should have done. I found at the Times, I thought the best reporters were the reporters who had worked for a wire service and hadn’t come to the Times straight from the editor of the Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News. You know what I mean? I thought the reporters that really got in the street and did stuff were better reporters, at least that seemed to be—not always, Halberstam’s an example of somebody who was a wonderful reporter. Ah, it’s tough for me to go after people, be critical of others.
RS: My point, though, my constructive point, is not to put down what other people did. I’m just saying, there’s a lot of talk now about fake news, as if it’s something new. You know, the Gulf of Tonkin, the excuse for the bombing of Vietnam was fake news; people knew it in real time who were in the chain of command to the Navy, the captain of the Maddox; you know, that history has been very clear, even before you were writing, right?
SH: Right. Absolutely.
RS: The Gulf of Tonkin. It was a phony. You know, you could go back to what the Pentagon Papers showed, that there were supposed to be elections in Vietnam in 1956; we sabotaged that because Eisenhower said, the other guys. And I want to say, one of the things I thought was really terrific about your reporting, whether you’re talking about guys who were in the Army and doing terrible things, you’re talking about people in the Pentagon, or you’re talking about the Viet Cong, the dreaded VC, or anyone else, or you’re talking about Assad in Syria, I think one of the great strengths of your reporting is you see a reflection of yourself in that other person. You don’t have the idea that this world is divided between saints and sinners. And you try to figure out what causes people to become the sinners. I think that’s really the challenge of your reporting, that you know, frankly, people don’t give you enough credit for that.
SH: I’m sitting here thinking, OK, this guy is verging, he’s getting—look, you’re not wrong, you’re right, but it’s metaphysical; it’s, you’re getting into Plato’s “Republic,” sort of. You know, your, you, your mind tends to, you do tend to look for patterns. And for most people, they don’t quite understand what that means. And so I tend to downplay a notion, I’ve been doing one story for six years now about something, it takes a long time. And there is a pattern to what I do, yes, I’m trying to uncover some terrible wrongs that were done in Libya in 2011, 2012.
RS: This is when Hillary Clinton said, we came, we saw, and we—he’s gone?
SH: That statement was the result of some policies that were heinous. And so, but hard to get. And particularly hard to get because, I hate to say this about the Democratic Party, but they’re sort of lost. And really lost right now. They don’t have any leadership, they sit around and second-guess Trump and they play tweet wars with Trump, who’s a master of the tweet. And I think they’re, we’re in great jeopardy of having no one to help us get through the next election without reelecting this man. It’s terrifying to me to see the party so completely devoid of integrity and leadership. And the press doesn’t help.
RS: There’s a big message in this book, and let me just stretch this just a little bit. There’s a wisdom to the American constitutional principle, I think pretty much scholars do agree, for all their contradictions, the Founders had gotten hold of a really big idea. Which is, you can’t be an empire and a republic in the same moment. That if you’re going to spread out everywhere and conquer people and manage their lives, truth is the first casualty every time, and your own public will not know what’s going on. And the great message in your reporting is, and I haven’t done justice to this book, because it’s, again, it’s not all about My Lai, although that’s certainly the most compelling section. It’s about graft, corruption, it’s about reporting, it’s about how events affect history. However, in most of the cases, people can be held accountable if it’s local. Because they can see it. Oh, this cop shot this kid; we have these stories all the time now; there can be an investigation, you can’t hide behind national security, you can get the facts if you want them. When you get to this foreign policy, in which a lot of your writing has been about the most effective, you are systematically, as a matter of procedure, denied the information. That’s really what your journalism is about, right? This is information, even taking the most recent one, this Podesta and whether the Russians hacked it or not—why didn’t we have the right, why didn’t good journalists go after it? Did the Democratic National Committee really sabotage Bernie Sanders in the way the Podesta documents, why did it remain for Wikileaks or some Russian bot or somebody to tell us that? Why weren’t we entitled to read Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs? Why didn’t journalists push that? Right? Find the leak, get the story. And the problem is that when you get into, as your book just reeks of it, every time you’re dealing with foreign affairs, national security—you have compelling stuff on the capture and killing of Bin Laden, for instance, or what 9/11 was all about. And every one, you’re starting from scratching at an area of information that should be made available to us to begin with. I think the takeaway from your book is, journalism is a weak defense to free press. It goes under almost every time, in the old days or now.
RS: It’s not just cable news and the internet, I mean, after all.
SH: You know, I have to make a living in this crummy business. [Laughs] I wish I could disagree with you and say, no, it’s not as bad as that. You’re pushing me into an area of self-serving, and I don’t want to get there. But there is something fundamentally wrong with approaching every problem from the American point of view. And as long as you do that, you’re not going to want to get to the truth. Because, particularly if you have a president—and the president is, the bully pulpit, particularly in the Obama years, was really powerful. And we haven’t come to terms with Obama’s second term and what didn’t happen that could have happened then. He wasn’t up for reelection. And there’s a lot of stuff there, really, that’s not good. But we’d rather have the shiny, shiny, you know, the shiny object in the sky, in the press, I guess, than the reality. That just seems to be what I think.
RS: You’re doing what journalists should be doing. That’s why we have the First Amendment protections. And what is really appalling, and it’s a depressing note to end on, but you know, for young kids coming along, it’s—in the book, you talk about why it’s a great occupation, a great craft. And the book sings in that way—yes, it’s great to be uncovering wrongdoing, it’s great to be explaining what really goes on, whether it’s environmental, or war, peace, race, what have you. But the real problem is, why is the system so fundamentally organized to suppress that search for truth?
SH: Let me—
RS: And you can’t just blame it on the internet, and you can’t just blame it on—
SH: No, no. A couple weeks ago I went to a convention at the, it’s called the IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors; it was a group started in the ’70s, in the wake of Watergate. And the conventions have slowed down in recent years as the economy has faltered, the newspapers have laid off people, and etc., etc. And I’m not talking, I’m not blaming the lack of reporting on lack of resources; there’s still plenty of money to do the stories. But what happened, usually they have six, seven hundred; the last convention, just three weeks ago in Orlando, had 1,800 people sign up. Because—here’s my reading of it—there’s so many young kids who are appalled by the rise of Trump, and Trumpism, and the vulgarity that’s creeping in, much more so directly. Young kids are flocking back to journalism schools, because they see, still see journalism as a way to maybe get things changed. They’re not running the venture capital like they were decades ago; they’re running the journalism. Eighteen hundred is an enormous crowd, of mostly young; people in journalism school, people in small newspapers, people in the internet. So I was wildly impressed by that, in a downtime when the market’s bad, there’s so much, there’s still—Bob, there’s still a lot of people out there wanting to get more from the newspaper business that they’re getting, and the media business that they’re getting. And they, I think the whole Trump thing could be a boon for journalism in different forms. Newspapers are in trouble, but there are different forms. So I end up feeling pretty optimistic right now about newspapers, the future; today, no, we’re still, the main papers are still stuck in a rhythm that’s just, I don’t quite understand, they won’t get out of it. But I think changes are coming. I’m glad I did what I did now, because I do have something to say to young kids. And I’m saying it. I go around saying it all the time. I think you do, too. I think what you’re saying is, we do need a change. That it can’t go on this way, because look where we are. We’re in dire straits around the world. We’re not liked, we’re disliked. We’re waging war. We’re seen as the most dangerous country in the world. All the polls show that, the approval polls, 42 percent of the people in the world don’t like us, et cetera, et cetera. And so it has to change, or we’re in for some—I don’t know, the next generations will be in real trouble. So I think we still have time to change it.
RS: Well, that’s a good, positive point on which to end. And after all, we had Richard Nixon, but we got a revitalized press, we got Sy Hersh, who covered Watergate, among other stories. We now have Donald Trump, and the good news is, he scares a lot of people into maybe being more energetic about pursuing the truth of the matter.
SH: Let’s hope so.
RS: Thank you, Sy.
SH: Thank you.
RS: Sy Hersh, the book is “Reporter,” and you got to read it. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thanks to my guest, Sy Hersh. His new book is “Reporter: A Memoir.” The producers of Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Today we had help from Darren Peck at Sports Byline in San Francisco and NPR in Washington. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.