In “Reporter,” even the footnotes are priceless.
Skip them and miss the story of the CIA bigwig who blamed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh for blowing his cover and causing his divorce, or the one about how Hersh chatted with a British bloke and an Asian woman at a fancy Washington, D.C., party, realizing only later that they were John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Hersh, 81, recounts his coverage of the most explosive stories of the late 20th century: Vietnam atrocities, White House coverups, CIA secrets, covert meddling overseas, Pentagon misinformation, the war on terror.
The book comes at a fraught time in journalism, when “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.”
Readers will be reminded throughout this fascinating insider account, however, that White House attacks on the media are nothing new, and that journalism uninflected by political bias long has been more of a talking point than a reality.
The Chicago native put in time at the Associated Press, the New Yorker and the New York Times, but he was a lone wolf by nature who spent much of his career as a freelancer and book writer. Hersh was unaffiliated with a newspaper in 1969 when a tipster led him to the biggest story of his career — the Army’s investigation into the 1968 massacre by Lt. William Calley and other U.S. soldiers of large numbers of civilians at the village of My Lai in Vietnam.
In thrilling detail, Hersh recalls how he began to confirm sketchy details about My Lai, and made him sense “that there was a game-changing story that revolved around William Calley, wherever he was, and I was going to be the first reporter to find him.”
The trail to 26-year-old Calley led Hersh through the Pentagon to a lawyer’s office in Salt Lake City and finally to sprawling Fort Benning in Georgia, where, in the middle of the night, Hersh finally met “a rattled young man, short, slight, and so pale that the bluish veins on his neck and shoulders were visible.” Calley’s account of the My Lai assault was “riddled with contradictions,” but Hersh, honing his uncanny ability to get hostile sources to talk to him (very often off-the-record), had enough new information to write.
Then came the challenge of finding an outlet for his report, which Hersh was certain would “end the war and win prizes.” After several rejections, the story eventually went out on a small antiwar news service and was picked up by newspapers across the United States, including the Washington Post (but not the New York Times). While it didn’t end the war, the revelation of butchery at My Lai, and continuing coverage of Calley’s court-martial, won Hersh a Pulitzer and threw gas on the already fiery antiwar movement at home.
“Reporter” has a chapter of keen interest to Minnesota politicos. In 1968, Hersh signed on as a speech writer and press secretary for liberal Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who was running for president and who scored an upset victory as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary. Hersh has not written previously about his brief entry into politics, and his take on “clean Gene” is far from entirely flattering.
Like any hard-hitting reporter worth their salt, Hersh has a hate-love relationship with his editors, and he had legendary, headline-making fights with all of them. “Reporter” contains recollections both fond and harsh of Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post and such New Yorker editors as William Shawn, Tina Brown and David Remnick.
Hersh recaps his growing up years, but writes nearly nothing about his long marriage or his children. He tends to bog down a bit in a dizzying array of names, acronyms and House subcommittees that were frankly less important than his mega-scoops.
But — and this is good for this kind of book — Hersh defends himself and his take-no-prisoners approach to journalism while acknowledging hostile reviews and occasional poor book sales.
“Reporter” has more juicy background, action-packed storytelling and name-drops per page than any book in recent memory, all told in straightforward style. At its center is a profane, dogged, passionate, tireless, old-fashioned reporter who brought to light schisms, coverups and outrages that informed the world.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.
By: Seymour Hersh.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 355 pages, $27.95.