Seymour Hersh is a living legend among American journalists.
Now 81, Hersh is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work to break the story of the My Lai massacre in March 1968. He also earned renown for coverage of the CIA’s domestic spying efforts during Vietnam, of Watergate, of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, among other big stories.
Hersh has had a phenomenal ride, as chronicled in his recent memoir that I’m now absorbing. A nose for news and a peerless ability to cultivate sources and information catapulted him from running his family’s dry-cleaning store, which he did as a young man after his father passed away, to a career airing the dirty laundry of America’s power brokers.
Hersh’s book, though fascinating, also is a blatant reminder of how far American journalism has plunged into the toilet -- as evidenced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on alleged collusion between Team Trump and Kremlin operatives.
Our elite media had convinced many that President Donald Trump was the new Manchurian (or Moscovian) Candidate who stole the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton.
Yet Mueller concluded no collusion occurred, and in elevating Trump from deep suspicion, he torpedoed the national media that almost daily for more than two years had hyped the expectation that Trump would be herded into an Abu Ghraib-like ending of his own.
Gone, perhaps forever, is the elite media’s reputation for being objective truth-tellers, traded for the justifiable perception of being partisan political hacks.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, certainly no fan of Trump’s, touched on this in refreshing a chapter of his forthcoming book after Mueller released his report.
The media’s “galactic errors” in covering “Russiagate,” Taibbi writes, were worse than the reporting debacles surrounding weapons of mass destruction that led America into the Iraq war nearly a generation ago.
“As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate,” Taibbi writes. “The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.”
Taibbi’s refreshingly honest and spot-on take is even more disturbing because the upper echelons of the news industry don’t appear to see the problem.
Had it happened in isolation, the national media might have recovered from the goofs and hyperventilating oversell of Russiagate. Sadly, it didn’t. It’s more a snafu. Just look at the last six months.
In September, the media unleashed a torrent of flimsy, and sometimes idiotic, accusations about Judge Brett Kavanaugh being a raping boozehound as a student in high school and college. The strongest evidence, provided by Kavanaugh’s main accuser, was a foggy, unsubstantiated, three-decade-old account whose background info contained more holes than three pounds of Swiss cheese -- and still the media swallowed it. Whole.
In January the media pounced on the MAGA-cap-wearing teenagers from Covington Catholic High School during the March for Life in Washington. The rush to engineer an anti-Trump smear job on those young men eventually prompted a rheotrcal beatdown of the media administered by observers who actually took time to do what reporters should have done: analyze available evidence on social media of who did what. Now, The Washington Post, which led the charge against the teens, must defend itself against a plausible $250 million defamation lawsuit.
Then, barely a week after the Covington Catholic morass, the media leapt hip deep into the anti-Trump caca concocted by “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett. Smollett claimed he was battered by a pair of beefy Trump supporters in the middle of a frigid night in the heart of “MAGA country,” aka Chicago. After the media spent weeks making him a hero of the intersectional coalition, Smollett’s story collapsed under the weight of indisputable evidence of a hoax meticulously gathered by Chicago police.
Any of these incidents, by itself, could be forgiven as an unforced error. Combined, though, they form a pattern that reinforces Taibbi’s point about anti-Trump “side-choosers” infesting the national media.
In his book, Hersh writes, “I always thought it was a newspaper’s mission to search out the truth and not merely report on the dispute.” But, he adds, ”(t)he newspapers of today far too often rush into print with stories that are essentially little more than tips, or hints of something toxic or criminal.” He could have added completely fabricated.
Quite often it’s more correct to call it activism rather than journalism. Considering that, it’s too bad we don’t see more Hershes around. We could use them.
Bill Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.