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 a 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 the 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.