TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Aid-and-Comfort Journalism: Seymour Hersh Attacks the Troops

Whatever one may think of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, one can only cringe at investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s reported assertion that “There has never been an American army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq.”

Murderous? Quite a harsh accusation directed against American troops at war. No doubt this message has already been carried back to Iraq where it can only stiffen the resolve of the insurgents as they gun down Americans as well as Iraqis (which may or may not qualify as “murderous” in Hersh’s view). Aside from this likely de facto assistance to the enemy, Hersh’s accusation was distinguished by a poor choice venue: Hersh decided to denounce the allegedly criminal character of American soldiers at an address outside the US, at McGill University in Montreal. There is no accounting for this particular tastelessness: Hersh could have easily pocketed honoraria in US currency at scores of American universities where his denigration of the troops would have been at least as welcome as in Montreal.

Hersh’s blindness to the impropriety of holding this sort of diatribe on foreign soil is stunning. (Or is it the blindness of his booking agent: googling “Seymour Hersh Montreal” to collect background for this blog, I found that the first pop-up ad on the right of the screen directs the reader to the agency that can bring Hersh to your hall. More on the fee structure below.)

The Seymour Hersh Show in Montreal amplifies some of the thoughts on journalism raised here during the summer: the slide away from a fact-based journalism to a kaleidoscope of images, as much a consequence of a “culture-industry” logic—news becomes a commodity and has to be sold, hence sensationalism—as it is of a postmodern disregard for objective truth, replaced by a multiplicity of narratives. Moreover this undermining of a norm of objectivity opens the flood gates for an opinionated and partisan journalism, as the difference between front page news and editorial opinion in effect disappears. That is why the news reports in the New York Times simply corroborate editorial opinion. But how does this work specifically with Hersh?

He is an egregious case, even by the low standards of contemporary journalism, and his Montreal attack on US troops in the battlefield has provided an opportunity to reexamine Hersh’s own troubled relationship to truth. An elaborate discussion in New York Magazine by Chris Suellentrop is entitled “Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print): The runaway mouth of America’s premier investigative journalist”—the implication being that Hersh has a track record of making extraordinary claims in speeches, with much less attention to truthfulness than in print. The pertinence of this analysis to the Montreal gaffe has been analyzed well by Ray Robinson in The American Thinker under the title “Seymour Hersh’s Other Reality.” The term “other reality” is Hersh’s own, an indication of his notion of a genuine truth, which he however cannot prove or document.

Some of this highlights an interesting distinction between oral performance and written text—the former (so argued Walter Ong) much less subject to strict and critical norms of factual verification. Yet speech is not only an empire of lies. On the contrary, there’s a popular expectation that a face-to-face communication ought to be honest, in contrast to the deception one expects in the mendaciously “fine print” of contracts. Moreover, there may be a dynamic at work involving Hersh’s technological backwardness: he thinks he can be loose with the facts in speeches, but in the current polarized atmosphere, his assertions are immediately turned into streaming videos and circulated on the net. From Suellentrop’s account:

There are two Hershes, really. Seymour M. is the byline. He navigates readers through the byzantine world of America’s overlapping national-security bureaucracies, and his stories form what Hersh has taken to calling an “alternative history” of the Bush administration since September 11, 2001.

Then there’s Sy. He’s the public speaker, the pundit. 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.”

Yes, that’s what Hersh said: “I can certainly fudge what I say.

And in bending the truth, Hersh is, paradoxically enough, remarkably candid. When he supplies unconfirmed accounts of military assaults on Iraqi civilians, or changes certain important details from an episode inside Abu Ghraib (thus rendering the story unverifiable), Hersh argues that he’s protecting the identities of sources who could face grave repercussions for talking. “I defend that totally,” Hersh says of the factual fudges he serves up in speeches and lectures. “I find that totally not inconsistent with anything I do professionally. I’m just communicating another reality that I know, that for a lot of reasons having to do with, basically, someone else’s ass, I’m not writing about it.” (emphasis added)

Yet the argument about protecting sources (“someone else’s ass”) cannot support the distinction between speech and written text. Revealing sources would—by naming them or by including details that would point to them—apply equally to each medium. So the journalistic nobility of protecting sources (the one nobility it has left, after it gave up on objectivity in pursuit of another reality) does not explain the greater, well, fudginess of Hersh’s speech as opposed to his writing. What’s the difference?

Commerce has to be part (if only part) of the explanation: Suellentrop reports that Hersh can get $15K per lecture. But for the fee, Hersh has to put on a good show. That’s why he’s prepared to be looser with the truth in his speeches, where, of course, his audience is probably already convinced of his bias. Hersh traffics in anecdotes and events that may or may not be true. Again, Suellentrop:

Hersh never subjects these sorts of stories to any kind of public truth test, but he bandies them in his lectures, as part of the ongoing effort to bring his speaking audiences closer to that other reality of the Iraq War. He does it so frequently, in fact, that it’s hard to accept that he’s only doling out information for its own sake. In part, one senses, Hersh’s stump performances are of a piece with the sort of one-upping bravado that makes up many conversations journalists have with their colleagues—only done here in public and for hire. Again, Hersh is refreshingly candid about the showman aspect of his anecdotage: “I get paid to do speeches. . . . And I’m not there to be on straight. I’m there to tell, you know, give somebody, exchange views with people.” (emphasis added)

In contrast to the sensationalism of the hired speech, his printed texts are subject to stricter editorial scrutiny and fact-checking, especially due to major errors that have repeatedly tarnished his journalistic credibility.

Seymour Hersh has always had a rather loose relationship with literal truth. He seems to share with many of the people he writes about the belief that in certain circumstances, the end justifies the means.

Hersh’s rocky tour through the print Establishment has involved some factual misfires. In 1981, while he was working on his Kissinger book, Hersh wrote a 3,000-word, front-page retraction in the Times as penance for having mistakenly named Edward M. Korry, the former U.S. ambassador to Chile, as a collaborator in the CIA-backed 1973 coup.

So let’s return to the casus belli, Hersh’s denunciation of US troops in front of a foreign audience, the allegation that the US army in Iraq is more “violent and murderous” than any other US army. What Hersh might mean by this is unclear. Is his point that the army in Vietnam was blameless? But Hersh is the guardian angel of the My Lai massacre. Has he really undertaken an empirical investigation of per capita killings throughout the history of the US (which is what his hyperbole suggests)? Yet killing of anyone in Iraq does not approach the bloodiness of the Civil War (50,000 fell in the three days of Gettysburg). And the dead in Tokyo, Hiroshima, the German cities? Or is he playing games—attacking the “army” alone and excluding the other armed forces? Or is there a numerical trick: because the number of US troops is low (and this Rumsfeld doctrine has been extensively criticized), the denominator in any calculation of killing is smaller, and the ratio therefore higher? On this, Hersh says nothing, and his hyperbole turns out to be even less than that rhetorical term: just hype, of a particularly dishonorable sort.

One certainly ought to be able to criticize the war policy without libelous attacks on the troops. But in wartime, truth is one of the first victims, even in investigative reporting. This is “aid and comfort journalism”—it aids the enemy and comforts the journalist pursuing honoraria.

An Addendum

In a curious twist to the Montreal event, Hersh gave an interview to the Montreal Mirror and lambasted the interviewer, Matthew Hays, for unprofessionalism. As much as Hersh concedes to sharing Hays’ opinions (aka bias), Hays’ implicit anti-Americanism is even too much for Hersh. Go figure.

M: Why does so much of the American public often seem wilfully ignorant? Much of the populace seems intent on not knowing what is going on in terms of political and foreign affairs.

SH: This is the strangest interview I’ve ever had.

M: Why?

SH: Because you’re so fucking opinionated. I don’t disagree with you, but we’re just rolling through your thoughts on things. It is sort of silly. No, it’s not silly, but we’re just rolling from whatever obsession you have to the next. You’re pretty obsessional.

This sidebar sheds interesting light on the claim about the “violent and murderous” US troops that Hersh would make that evening at McGill. As pointed out above, Hersh launched the comparative assertion (more murderous than any other US army) without quantitative back-up. So it’s more or less just his guess. In the interview, he explicitly concedes that he does not have the date:

M: But we hear about the military casualties, but rarely hear about the numbers of dead Iraqi civilians. I have found that alarming.

SH: Okay, that’s something to be alarmed by. I think you’ll discover in all wars, that’s one of the casualties. Inevitably in a war, that will happen, and it’s depressing. But I’ll save the alarm for something else. Not to be cynical about it, but Jesus Christ, what can I tell you? The discrepancy about casualties is pretty alarming, and if those numbers are true, then the average American is doing a lot more killing in this war than in any other war perhaps. But it’s very hard to get a figure on the casualties. It’s incredibly vague, which is one of the horrible things about stupid wars. Opinions are one thing, but I try to be quite empirical about these things. I have no idea, but I would think 300,000–400,000 is probably about right. But it’s hard for me to give a rational answer, because I don’t have one. (emphasis added)

Finally some honesty: Hersh finds it hard to give a rational answer, because he doesn’t have one. . . . A perfect campus speaker.

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