In its ideal form, investigative journalism is part detective story, part philosophical inquiry and part moral crusade. For Seymour “Sy” Hersh, the reporter who broke the stories about the My Lai massacre, the CIA spying on American citizens and torture at Abu Ghraib, his work included all of the above, with a fair helping of adventure and suspense thrown in.
Robert Miraldi, who’s taught journalism at SUNY New Paltz for more than 30 years, has told Hersh’s story in his new book, Seymour Hersh: Scoop Artist. Published by Potomac Books, Scoop Artist is a well-written, exciting and thoroughly detailed examination of a man who made a career out of tirelessly digging up secrets very powerful people tried very hard to hide and bringing them out into the light, very much to those powerful people’s chagrin.
Scoop Artist traces the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s 50 years of journalistic crusades, exposés and confrontations with six presidents. Hersh, a writer for The New York Times and the New Yorker at various points in his career, as well as the author of several books, is perhaps best known for exposing the 1969 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American soldiers at the village of My Lai. He did groundbreaking reporting of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib in 2004. In 1975, he revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency had an extensive and completely illegal program of spying on civilians inside the U.S. — what the National Security Agency is accused of doing today. In a time where journalism, especially the kind of long-form, take-no-prisoners work in which Hersh specializes, is under pressure from both the Internet age’s fracturing of information and the fiscal cutbacks made by many media outlets, Hersh’s style, and his story, take on an added relevance.
“He’s a great American character and a true American rebel — I love the guy in that way,” said Miraldi, who resides in Stone Ridge with his wife, Poughkeepsie Journal investigative reporter Mary Beth Pfeiffer.
Muckraking is very hard work even with the help of the Internet and the Freedom of Information Law, and Hersh did much of his stuff before either existed. Part of Scoop Artist’s appeal is learning how a great reporter puts it all together — Hersh did things, like pretend to be an attorney, that wouldn’t fly with most editors today, and his confrontational style wouldn’t fly with a lot of editors or sources either.
“He’s a very abrasive character, he’s a difficult character,” said Miraldi. “At times he does things that really come close to edge of being offensive, journalistically.”
Another pitfall of investigative journalism is inherent in its nature: the reporter is trying to reveal what powerful people would prefer concealed. The more fearless a reporter is the better; when the heat comes from both the powerful and from one’s own editors and publishers, the fearful can and do crumple. Hersh has never crumpled and many many more times than not, been vindicated.
“Basically, Sy doesn’t like anyone in authority, which is what makes him so great,” said Miraldi. “He doesn’t like those guys at the top — he wants to hold them to a really high level of accountability.
“In 1975, Hersh did an expose of the CIA, a major major story … showing that the CIA was in violation of the law, opening the mail and tapping the phones of American citizens. Sound familiar?”
“He got incredible heat. They hung him out to dry for about six months, kept saying he was wrong, he was terrible, how could he write this, it’s not true … then it all gets confirmed. In fact, [Hersh] underestimated the number of dossiers. He was [NSA leaker extraordinaire Edward] Snowden in ’75. All the crap that happened to Snowden happened to him.”
Speaking of Snowden, are leakers like him vital to investigative reporting? Miraldi, who taught a course in muckraking journalism that this writer took back in 1989, says they’re a start, but just a start. “It’s a disservice to people like [Bob] Woodward and Hersh to say they live off leakers,” Miraldi said. “They certainly profit and do very well from leakers. A guy like Hersh might have two leakers and then 12 or 15 or 20 sources on the record and a trove of documents and records. They build the whole package.”
Partly cooperative process
Miraldi calls the book a “semi-authorized biography” — Hersh took part in the process, mostly answering questions via phone and e-mail, but was, the author says, agnostic as to how it would turn out.
“He clearly didn’t authorize it. From the outset he was clear, as I say in the introduction to the book, ‘Until these sons of bitches are out of the White House — he was talking about Bush — I don’t have time to sit down and talk about myself.’ … He doesn’t think he’s the story.”
Miraldi interviewed hundreds of people for the book, and heard the same story time after time from subjects who asked Hersh if he minded them talking to a biographer. Hersh’s response was, “I don’t give a shit. If you want to talk to him, talk to him.” (The ace reporter’s family was a notable exception; Hersh, said Miraldi, shut down access to the people closest to him.)
The book reveals Hersh as more than just the most determined reporter around — his ego, drive to be the best and desire to be paid for what he does are all explored, rounding out a picture of a human being as journalist. It also gets into the incredible, burning drive Hersh has to use journalism as a bringer of justice. “He’s a man still on fire — he’s maintained some sense of being indignant at terrible things.”
Miraldi sees Hersh and Woodward competing for the title of America’s best investigative reporter, but gives Hersh the edge.
“Of the two of them, I think he’s the greatest in the sense that he’s continued to do muckraking and investigative reporting and exposé journalism while Woodward became an insider,” said Miraldi. (Woodward, who gained fame for, with Carl Bernstein, breaking the Watergate story has recently blasted Snowden, saying he does not consider him a hero — and that Snowden should have come to him instead of Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian.) “Hersh has just done more things for more years than anyone. … Hersh has never allowed anything to interrupt him … I think he’s the greatest reporter America’s ever had.”
Scoop Artist, released a couple of months ago, has gotten some attention and positive reviews. Kirkus gave it a star, which it bestows upon “books of exceptional merit,” and called it “an important, long overdue biography.” It was also included in Harvard Univeristy’s Niemann Foundation for Journalism’s list of the top 10 investigative journalism books of 2013; Niemann Reports’ Steve Weinberg writes, “[Miraldi] has captured Hersh’s unusual personality, his mad-dog pursuit of evidence, and his masterful information-gathering techniques.” For more about the book, check out scoopartistthebook.com.