The Slow Death Of Investigative Journalism
Above photo: Seymour Hersh, 1972: Wally McNamee/Corbis, Getty Images
The title of Seymour Hersh’s memoir is simply Reporter. It’s what he did and what he does: dig out and report important facts that need to be seen in the daylight, no matter how much the CIA, a US vice-president or secretary of state, or a mafia boss, may want to keep them hidden. Hersh, as the editor of the New Yorker says on the book’s cover, is ‘quite simply the greatest investigative journalist of his era’.
It was Hersh who uncovered the facts of the My Lai massacre that occurred in Vietnam in 1968, and revealed not only the full horror of what took place but also that the officer named as the culprit, Lieutenant William Calley, was operating in a context where such treatment of Vietnamese civilians was tolerated and even expected. Hersh was the reporter whom The New York Times belatedly sent in to investigate Watergate after the pioneering exposures made by Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. His book on Henry Kissinger told the truth about many of the latter’s outright lies and illegal activities. He exposed the fact that the CIA was – contrary to the law – conducting massive surveillance of anti-war movements in the United States.
Later, he showed the falsity of the case for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and went on to expose the disgraceful torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. As one official told him, ‘the rules are: ”Grab whom you must. Do what you want.” The US had resumed the assassination or attempted assassination of its enemies, despite its illegality. As Hersh had shown much earlier in his career, John Kennedy had directly authorised attempts to kill Fidel Castro; in the 1980s the US had financed death squads in El Salvador (whose victims at different times included Bishop Romero as well as US citizens), and now US agents were killing with even less discrimination in the Middle East. When, much more recently, the Obama government tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden, Hersh was able to show that – far from being a heroic solo effort by the US forces involved – the action required close collaboration with Pakistani intelligence who effectively had the target and his family trapped in their compound before the attack took place (I was able to hear an affable Seymour Hersh give his account of this investigation in a talk at the London Review of Books).
Towards the end of his memoir, Hersh bemoans the demise of the kind of journalism that became his hallmark. As he puts it: ‘I watched over the next years as the American media, overwhelmed by twenty-four-hour news, would increasingly rely in a crisis on the immediate claims of a White House and a politically compliant intelligence community. Skepticism, the instinct that drives much investigative reporting, would diminish even more after Barack Obama, full of hope and promise, took office in early 2009.’
Nowhere has this assessment been truer than in the coverage by the media of events in Latin America. Where now are reporters of the ilk of Gary Webb, who uncovered the drug trafficking that financed the US-sponsored Contra attacks against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s, struggled to get into print with his revelations, and was eventually described by The New York Times as a journalist ‘betrayed… by his own calling’? Who is exposing the actions of the US government in propping up despotic governments in Honduras and Haiti (where, as one of Hersh’s government contacts put it, the US works on the side of the torturers – or ‘the nail pullers,’ as the informant graphically describes them). Who is exposing the clandestine operations of the CIA and other US agencies in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and the other countries that are trying to follow a different path from US-imposed neoliberalism?
The answer is that it is seldom The New York Times or the Washington Post (both newspapers put the blame on Evo Morales for the coup in Bolivia, exactly as the Trump administration would have wanted). Only rarely in the UK is it The Guardian (for example some of the freelance work by Nina Lakhani). Instead, the burden of scepticism has been shouldered by online media such as The Intercept, Mintpress or The Grayzone, where inevitably it is more easily disregarded. These and larger outlets such as Telesur can also be dismissed by traditional media as being partisan, rather than being straightforward seekers of truth in the Hersh mould. The reality is that deeply researched, balanced and incisive commentary is in very short supply, and too often the interested observer has to triangulate between right-wing and left-wing viewpoints in the hope of arriving at something close to the truth.
Nicaragua provides many examples of the demise of investigative journalism, and three will suffice to make the point. During last year’s (2018) coup attempt, a freelance ‘journalist’ reported from Managua on behalf of The Guardian and the Washington Post (and once for the BBC). Carl David Goette Luciak’s biased reports made no attempt to expose the opposition violence: indeed he was shown not only to have ignored such violence when witnessing it, but to be an active opposition supporter. Neither newspaper apologised when this was exposed, rather they complained about the persecution of a journalist. Neither paper has investigated opposition violence, and in fact have maintained the fiction of ‘peaceful’ protests against the Ortega government, not questioning assertions by John Bolton, the US’s former national security adviser who has a track record of attacking progressive governments in Latin America.
The second example is the exalted status of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a self-appointed champion of investigative journalism, the only Nicaraguan member of the worldwide International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A fellow member, Sasha Chavkin, puts him at the head of the struggle for press freedom: “The media independence that exists now in Nicaragua was not a gift,” Chamorro tells him. “It was won by journalists and the people.” An article by Chavkin, guided by Chamorro, is a totally one-sided account of violent events in the Nicaraguan town of Diriamba, which fails to report that opposition gangsters killed and tortured Sandinista sympathisers. Nor does it mention that Chamorro’s organisations receive US funding for their work.
A final example comes from the New Yorker, where Seymour Hersh was once its most distinguished reporter. Jon Lee Anderson, a writer on Latin America who should know better, eulogised Carlos Chamorro in a lengthy piece for the magazine. “Once again,” Chamorro told him, “journalists are on the front lines.” Written at the start of the crisis, an investigative piece by Anderson could have encouraged more balanced reporting about the attempt to overthrow the Ortega government that was then underway. But not only does he accept what Chamorro tells him, he makes no apparent attempt to investigate who is funding him nor to check whether his version is correct. His piece largely repeats what opposition sources told him. Months later, the title of another Anderson piece refers sardonically to the ‘fake news’ he was warned against by one government supporter, but instead of checking whether what he was told about Masaya (the city where I live) was accurate, he does indeed repeat the fake news that the protestors there were armed only with ‘homemade mortars and slingshots’. How then did they hold the police station under siege for several weeks, making nightly attacks that killed three policemen and injured many others?
Seymour Hersh often refers to the rigour with which his articles were fact-checked, especially those he wrote for the New Yorker. I don’t know how if he paid much attention to last year’s events in Nicaragua, but I suspect that if he did he would question whether any ‘investigative journalism’ took place at all. As he nears retirement, he and his peers are sadly missed.
Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M Hersh is published by Allen Lane.