Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sy Hersh: Greatest journalist ever?

This afternoon I went to see Texas Monthly's Evan Smith interview Seymour Hersh at the Paramount Theater downtown. Hersh was in town promoting his new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, and Smith interviewed him before a packed house as part of the Texas Book Festival.

Despite Laura Bush's high profile role with the festival, she was nowhere to be found in the crowd of Hersh supporters, and frankly she wouldn't have been very comfortable had she come. Hersh, whose primary journalistic home is The New Yorker, skewered the administration from start to finish, particularly the neoconservative cabal he charges has successfully duped the president and the nation into war.

I wasn't surprised by Hersh's bluntness. Accounts of other Hersh speaking engagements sound like we heard his basic spiel today. It was still a high impact talk, though; that somebody with that level of insider knowledge and access to power believes the war in Iraq has been "already lost," it's stunning, even when you know it's coming.

I haven't read Hersh's book yet, though we left the book fair with a copy. I do read his stuff in The New Yorker. But as the man who broke the stories about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in the Iraq War, it's fair to question, "Is Seymour Hersh the greatest American investigative journalist in history?"

For me, I can only think of a couple of competitors: Lincoln Steffens and I.F. Stone.

The argument for Lincoln Steffens stems from his taking investigative journalism to a higher plane than at any previous time in American history, spawning the term "muckraking" in the process. Steffens focused on cities, and his exposes of corruption changed American perceptions of government forever. I'm not sure he was the "greatest" journalist, though. New ground Steffens pioneered using foraging techniques, Stone and Hersh later settled, planted and harvested using methods that would have astounded the tart-tongued Steffens.

The only other American investigative reporter whose work deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sy Hersh would be I.F. Stone. I think the main difference between Stone and Hersh would have to be that Hersh's work is appreciated by a huge portion of the public -- he received a standing ovation in the Paramount, and a few folks even stood when he was introduced. By contrast, Stone was ostracized and demonized for his efforts, and survived by creating a niche market of politically sympathetic opinion leaders, which he proceeded to fill for several decades.

In a way, Stone was a proto-blogger. His I.F. Stone's Weekly was relatively short and punchy, and it only went to folks who particularly wanted it -- he didn't rely on mass distribution, but niche targeting. Using today's Internet technologies, Stone would have easily found a mass audience and taken on guys like Josh Marshall, who's pioneered investigative journalism in the "new media."

Hersh rivals Stone because both men's careers demonstrated decades of excellence, not just one or two big stories -- Bob Woodward is still living off the credibility earned from the Watergate story. But Hersh isn't sitting around on laurels from his Pulitzer covering My Lai. He's still in trenches more than thirty years later.

In the end, I think the edge goes to Stone for the following reason. As great as he is, Hersh's journalism relies on top level sources confiding in him, and astonishingly, they do. In many cases, these are sources Hersh has cultivated for decades. At age 67, officers he's known for thirty years have moved up the ranks to become Colonels and Generals now. That's amazing and great, and incredibly useful.

On the other hand, I.F. Stone's methodology used public documents and open records laws to piece together the truth, and in that sense his methods are more accessible to the rest of us. If the three-star General won't talk, Hersh wouldn't get the story, and that source just isn't available to most journalists. Hersh is a special man with a special talent and a key and hard-to-replicate role in American public life. By contrast, Stone's methodology spawned the type of blogger's journalism method where one takes information already out there, and with one's own research adds value to it, reprocesses it, and kicks it back out into the public arena for more debate and vetting. They didn't call Izzy Stone the father of modern investigative journalism for nothing.

In that sense, I think Stone made the more enduring contribution to journalism as a profession, while Hersh's writing probably had the biggest political impact of any American journalist in the last century.

In any event, today I got to see America's greatest living journlist interviewed live, and he didn't disappoint.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Scott. I'm not sure I agree the "military justice pipeline" would have exposed either My Lai or Abu Ghraib. I think both stories took some journalistic chops, and not just a little courage. Rumsfeld wasn't going to show us the Abu Ghraib pictures.

Anonymous said...

How was Hersh the story when exposed the Mi Lai massacre in Vietnam or the atrocities at Abu Ghraib? Or in his writing about the factions within the current administration who are gunning to nuke Iran?

The main problem with Hersh's magazine and newspaper writing is that he relies so extensively on anonymous sources.

It's not a problem for Sy Hersh because he's got one of the best networks out there, but it's a bad style of journalism for others to emulate.

Even if you're Sy Hersh, your credibility suffers when you rely on anonymous sources. I trust Hersh's judgment and integrity, but it's difficult to assess some of the claims his sources make because we have to trust him for the context.

The great thing about IF Stone is that he focused on publicly accessible information that anyone could check for themselves.

Audrey said...

I do see the similarities between you and I.F. Stone. I think NY Times recent acknowledgement of your blog is giant. I appreciate your candor, thoroughness and authenticity!!