INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING PIONEER IDA TARBELL
There is a back story to the back story that underpins Seymour Hersh's controversial new exposé claiming that the Obama administration lied about virtually everything having to do with the death of Osama bin Laden: If as a journalist you buck the official line, expect to be castigated not just by the people spouting that line, but by your peers, as well. What is so irretrievably sad about this state of affairs is that it reveals too many journalists as being not merely incurious, but downright lazy.
As I note in my own somewhat critical analysis of the Hersh exposé, which was published on May 10 in the London Review of Books, this legendary muckraker's stories are routinely criticized. That comes with the territory, and did way back when pioneering investigative journalists Lincoln Steffens revealed the corruption of big-city governments in 1902 and Ida Tarbell laid bare the viciously monopolistic practices of Standard Oil in 1904, as well as when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post blew the lid off of Watergate in 1972 and sank the Nixon presidency.
This criticism reliably is a mix of indignity from officials who feel they have been wronged and huffing and puffing from media mavens, some of whom can barely conceal their jealousy. But the blowback from the pundit class over the bin Laden story has been especially ferocious, which tells me Hersh is really onto something. Or at the very least has again (inadvertently) exposed the soft underbelly of a news media content to chew its self-important cud without the bother of questioning, let alone being ever so slightly skeptical, of what our presidents and corporatocratic leaders tell us.
Exhibit A in this regard is the late, unlamented Iraq War.
While there were rare exceptions, most media outlets and pundits swallowed whole the Bush administration's lies, obfuscations and talking points about this fool's errand from the outset of the invasion and continued to do so through the war's various phases -- the troops not being home by Christmas 2003, per Dick Cheney's prediction, the Abu Ghraib scandal revealed in all its horror by Hersh himself, the civil war and emergence of ISIS predecessor Al Qaeda, and even The Surge because, after all, American casualties were way down, never mind that was because most troops were now being garrisoned, and who cares that the strategy's major goal of national reconciliation was stillborn.
When I wrote about this years-long media train wreck, which I did with some regularity, I kept coming back to these underlying factors:
* The ongoing retreat from good old-fashioned reporting. You know, sussing out the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of every story that used to be drilled into journalists from the day they first got their feet wet. In a 24/7 news world, those fundamentals too often have gone AWOL.
* The ongoing consolidation of the media into the hands of a few corporations more interested in good profits than good journalism. You know, we can't really go after the Bush administration because that might drive away advertisers and hurt our bottom line.
Worst of all, there continued to be no consensus in the MSM about why there had been a war in the first place. And there were very few reporters beyond the dogged duo of correspondents Jonathan Landay and Walter Stroebel, formerly of the former Knight Ridder and later McClatchy Newspapers, who stepped back far enough to see that the media and public had been sold a bloody bill of goods. It was mostly left to bloggers, notably Juan Cole, to tell it like it was, and there remains a generic reluctance in the media today to promote a long overdue and candid discussion about the war despite there being a delicious opening to do just that: The missteps of Jeb Bush and other Republican presidential wannabes when confronted by tough questions on the war.
The most infamous media retailer of big lies during the war was Judith Miller of The New York Times, who broke a slew of cardinal rules of journalism, including becoming too close to her sources and ultimately being co-opted by them, inserting herself into the middle of her stories and running roughshod over her editors -- a breathtaking institutional failure -- in repeatedly asserting in her articles that there were weapons of mass destruction. Which, of course, was one of several shifting rationales given by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika for invading Iraq in the first place.
Speaking of shifting rationales, Miller has been on something of an image rehabilitation tour lately, her new mantra being that while it turns out there may not have been WMD, that is not really her fault because her unnamed sources fed her bad information. Would Sy Hersh make that kind of excuse? Nah.
This conveniently brings us back to Hersh's own unnamed sources in his bin Laden exposé, which as I and others have noted, are lacking in number as well as verifiability.
But when it comes to sources, some context is helpful: Hersh's first big exposé was the My Lai Massacre, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. I have just reread all of his My Lai stories -- written for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and then the late great Dispatch News Service -- and there is not one unnamed source or blind quote. By comparison, Hersh cites an anonymous retired senior U.S. intelligence official at least 55 times, by one count, in making the case that Obama and his national security team were serial liars when it came the bin Laden epic.
That would seem to bolster the contention of Hersh's biggest critics, to paraphrase one of them, that he has become an old crank who anonymously cites old kooks to carry his investigative water. Yes, there are some internal inconsistencies in the bin Laden story and aspects of it difficult to believe, among them that the U.S. shared precise operational details of the raid with its Pakistani counterparts. I cite these problems in my own critique, but suggest that people not jump so effing fast in concluding that Hersh has become addicted to unnamed sources.
As Hersh notes in a March story in The New Yorker on his recent trip to My Lai, "In many cases, the soldiers interviewed" about a massacre the Army claimed had not happened "talked openly and, for the most part, honestly with me, describing what they did at My Lai and how they planned to live with the memory of it." And most of the sources used by Steffens and Tarbell back in the heyday of muckraking were on the record. But not so Woodward and Bernstein 70 years later in unraveling the tentacles of the Watergate octopus. No one dared go up against the Nixon White House publicly, hence their extensive reliance on Deep Throat, the most famous unnamed source in journalistic history.
A question: What's the difference between Deep Throat and Hersh's anonymous retired senior U.S. intelligence official? Nothing of substance, the larger point being that people have become increasingly reluctant to go on the record when an investigative reporter comes calling.
And so the biggest takeaway for me from the bin Laden story blowback is not the predictable flap about sources, but that an esteemed journalist -- or a once esteemed journalist, if you are a Hersh basher -- has published a controversial story challenging a narrative widely accepted by the Washington establishment and Hersh’s mainstream media peers who remain, for the most part, in the thrall of a president who nimbly used the bin Laden assassination to catapult to a second term.
Some of the commentary on the piece has been silly and some way out of bounds.
Salon gets the silly prize for stating that "[Independent presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders has just been handed a powerful new weapon in the unlikeliest of forms . . . if used effectively, Hersh’s story could also serve to expose the deepest fissures in the Democratic ranks — and thus provide an opening for its upstart left-wing challenger."
Politico, in all its non-wisdom, turned to Bill Harlow, a former top spokesman for the CIA with a big ax to grind who had lied repeatedly about those nonexistent WMD in Iraq, to review Hersh’s exposé. The predictable result was a hit job.
Meanwhile, The New York Times published a piece by the deeply-sourced Carlotta Gall, its own bin Laden expert, supporting the major point made in the exposé — that the Pakistanis had aided the U.S. in taking out bin Laden — but inexplicably only online and not in its print edition.
Slate has been all over the place on the piece with a highly critical take, a generally supportive take and a take somewhere in between written by Philip Carter, a former Army officer and Pentagon official who writes:
"If the facts were as Hersh reported, they probably would have come out by now, either from one of the Navy Seals who has already gone public, or another who felt he had the story of a lifetime to share. Conspiracies like the one Hersh describes rarely occur in fact because they are simply too hard for a complex, diverse, dispersed, multilayered organization like the U.S. government to pull off. Hersh should know this, too."
Fair enough, I guess.
* * * * *
I was in charge of a big city newspaper's Washington Bureau during President Reagan's second term when, along with my counterparts from other papers, I was summoned to the White House.
Our day began with a briefing by Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and climaxed with a luncheon with the Gipper himself.
As the day wore on, the purpose of the visit became clear: The White House wasn't getting the kind of coverage it wanted from the Washington press corps and was appealing directly to editors like myself to help sell its story.
It is difficult to conceive of the Obama administration feeling the need to roll out the red carpet for my counterparts today. What a difference three decades, a botched war, grumpiness over Sy Hersh and his investigative ilk, and a cowed media make.