Sy Hersh's Plan to Fix Journalism: First, Fire All the Editors

Legendary New Yorker reporter Sy Hersh is not pleased with the media's reporting on the death of Osama bin Laden — "Nothing's been done about that story, it's one big lie, not one word of it is true," he tells The Guardian's Lisa O'Carroll. 

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Legendary New Yorker reporter Sy Hersh is not pleased with the media's reporting on the death of Osama bin Laden — "Nothing's been done about that story, it's one big lie, not one word of it is true," he tells The Guardian's Lisa O'Carroll. This might make for some uncomfortable conversation around The New Yorker office, given that the magazine Hersh works for published the first long, detailed narrative by Nicholas Schmidle of what happened in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on the night of May 2, 2011. And, in the feisty interview, he is only slightly more critical of President Obama's foreign policy than he is of his fellow journalists. "It's pathetic, they are more than obsequious, they are afraid to pick on this guy." What the truth is about bin Laden, Hersh does not say. But he adds, "Our job is to find out ourselves, our job is not just to say – here's a debate' our job is to go beyond the debate and find out who's right and who's wrong about issues. That doesn't happen enough. It costs money, it costs time, it jeopardises, it raises risks. There are some people – the New York Times still has investigative journalists but they do much more of carrying water for the president than I ever thought they would … it's like you don't dare be an outsider any more."

Hersh, who did stints at The New York Times in the 1970s and has published nine books so far, is a hero to pretty much any kid going to journalism school hoping to unearth government secrets. During the Vietnam War, he broke the story of the My Lai massacre (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and then the Abu Ghraib abuses during the Iraq war. Some of his critiques are compelling — that reporters are more afraid to criticize Obama than they were George W. Bush, that news organizations rely too much on non-profits to count, say, the number of drone casualties, instead of doing their own reporting.

He has some ideas for how to fix things:

"I'll tell you the solution, get rid of 90 percent of the editors that now exist and start promoting editors that you can't control," he says. I saw it in The New York Times, I see people who get promoted are the ones on the desk who are more amenable to the publisher and what the senior editors want and the trouble makers don't get promoted. Start promoting better people who look you in the eye and say 'I don't care what you say'.

But some of Hersh's complaints carry the hint of professional jealousy. Take Edward Snowden's leaks on the NSA's expansive data collection programs. Of that story, Hersh says he was reporting on it first — it's just that no one, i.e. his editors, listened until Snowden leaked some PowerPoint slides:

"Duncan Campbell [the British investigative journalist who broke the Zircon cover-up story], James Bamford [US journalist] and Julian Assange and me and The New Yorker, we've all written the notion there's constant surveillance, but he [Snowden] produced a document and that changed the whole nature of the debate, it's real now… 

Editors love documents. Chicken-shit editors who wouldn't touch stories like that, they love documents, so he changed the whole ball game…"

He mentions the same problem with his Abu Ghraib reporting. "I went five months looking for a document, because without a document, there's nothing there, it doesn't go anywhere."

In addition to his reporting, Hersh is famous for making explosive claims in public speeches — claims he's admitted sometimes stretch the truth. In 2005, New York magazine reported that there were two Hershes: the byline, and the public speaker. The byline is a sticker for the truth. The speaker?

On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. “Sometimes I change events, dates, and places in a certain way to protect people,” Hersh told me. “I can’t fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say.”

At the time, Hersh had made controversial claims that, say, Abu Musab al Zarqawi was possibly a "composite figure," and that Karl Rove was actively involved in "prisoner interrogation issues." In 2011, he claimed Gen. Stanley McChrystal — later fired by Obama for comments to Rolling Stone — was a member of "Knights of Malta" and was on a religious crusade in Afghanistan. As for Hersh's most recent comments, we don't know where they fall under his caveat of "I’m just talking now, I’m not writing." Is really everything we know about the bin Laden raid a lie? Like that bin Laden is dead?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.