Friday, June 6, 2008
Sy Hersh on why journalism matters
When you hear Seymour Hersh speak, you kinda understand why a free society really needs good reporting.
Hersh, who made a huge impact nearly 40 years ago when he broke the story about American troops massacring women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai, spoke at First Amendment luncheon during the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention in Philadelphia.
These are difficult time in journalism — mainstream media, hungry for big profits but losing advertisers and readers, while electronic media and social networking are ascendant — but that in no way negates the need for good reporting, Hersh said, whether that’s in a small community, a big city or for a national audience.
Hersh is a great storyteller. He spoke of how he tracked down a key figure in the massacre by calling directory assistance in state after state (in the days of payphones, when you could call and get phone listings, from a real person, for no charge). After several hours of trying, he found the right last name in Indiana, made the call and got the young man’s mother on the phone. He hopped on a plane and eventually found his way to the family’s decrepit chicken farm.
Hersh’s My Lai story is famous now, and one of the most significant examples of investigative reporting our nation has produced. It certainly provided the counter-story to the propagandized version of war that was commonly told in the old films of the 1940s, when our boys always looked good and acted properly.
Hersh also broke the story of the torture at Abu Ghraib. He spoke about that during the luncheon and how he tracked down a young female soldier who’d been assigned to the prison. After she came home, her stepmother, who’d supported the war, noticed something badly wrong and eventually discovered digital photos of the torture on the soldier’s laptop. The woman tried to reach the major newspapers, without luck, and eventually got in touch with Hersh by calling into and NPR news-talk program on a day he was a guest.
In both cases, he noted, the parents said something amazing and telling about the horrors of war. The farm boy’s mother said something to the effect of, “I sent them a good man and they sent me back a monster.” The young woman’s stepmother, noting that the soldier had gotten tattoos from head to toe, noted that it was “like she was trying to change her skin.”
Hersh has written extensively about U.S. plans to invade Iran before George Bush leaves office. He called Bush the most radical president ever, and noted that he is “uneducable” and therefore exceedingly dangerous because he can’t accept that there may be new or overlooked information that changes his own conclusions. Hersh has written a number of stories about Iran, with more on the way, but predicts it won’t matter, and that Bush will take action and act aggressively up until the day he leaves office.
Hersh also shared several anecdotes he’s picked up from his varied sources. One, a former Mossad agent, expressed extreme disbelief over the methods of torture inflicted on Arab men, because the Koran expressly forbids them from showing their genitalia The New Yorker published one photo showing a naked man with snarling Belgian shepherds on either side, restrained. Other unpublished photos showed that the dogs didn’t stay restrained and actually shredded the man’s sensitive parts. Hersh noted that American soldiers tried to use a needle and thread to sew the victim back together because they didn’t want to be found out.
On the presidential race, he spoke glowingly of Barack Obama while expressing deep frustration over Obama’s recent sucking up to AIPAC. He said Obama is tough and extremely disciplined and that he is smart enough to know how to play his campaign — for example, he didn’t smack Hillary Clinton too hard in the debates, despite the protestations of pundits, because he knew that a black man picking on a white woman on TV, where everything is even hotter, would make him look “uppity” — a lose-lose proposition.
He said McCain is strange and that we’ll “like him less the more we see of him.”
I’ve seen a number of these talks over the years, and this was among the best. The room full of editors largely agreed, and appreciated the pep talk about why these things still matter — that when we go to bed each night, we know we’ve tried to do something to counter the culture of lies that pass for normal in our country.
LAST NIGHT: The AAN bunch had a terrific party at the Amtrak station, featuring tasty samples from more than a dozen Philly restaurants, local brews and free TASTYKAKES. If you know anyone from Pennsylvania, they’ve surely boasted about these little homegrown treats.
After that I made my way to Lucky Strike, where the Philadelphia Weekly sprang for a couple hours of free open bowling. I watched Game 1 of the NBA finals until the Celtics wrapped it up. How about that Paul Pierce — he gets carried off the floor with an apparently severe injury but comes back to score 15 in the third quarter. Nice.
I did get to bowl a bit — 9 frames till they cut us off. Before that I watched my buddy Dan Bockrath, from Cincy CityBeat, roll a sweet 210. For God’s sake, he had his own bowling ball. He’s a lefty and I think he learned a few things from Earl Anthony.
THIS MORNING: We have an annual tradition of playing a pick-up basketball game, which always happens early in the morning so we can attend the sessions. We found a local park, picked up a local guy to help us get five-on-five (he never passed half-court!) and played one excruciating game. (We won.) On about the fourth play of the game, I was chasing a guy on a breakaway, got my big feet tangled and bit the asphalt. Nice strawberry on the knee and some good bruises on my left side.
TONIGHT: One of my buds scored tix to see the Roots at a small theater. The Roots have an all-day picnic here tomorrow, so this is like an appetizer. It sold out in five minutes, so we’re pretty lucky to get in. I guess you’re never too old to start learning about hip-hop. —CARY STEMLE