Need More Journalists Like Seymour Hersh
by Jackson Thoreau
Way back in the late 1970s when the acrid stench of Watergate
still filled the air, New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour
Hersh spoke at my college. I was just a wet-behind-the-ears
sophomore who found it hard to believe my government would
lie to me, wondering what the hell I was going to do with
I found my life's pursuit in Hersh's inspirational message:
"It is the government's job to keep secrets; it is my job
to find them out." There are many events that compelled me
to join the largely thankless, low-paying-for-most, hypocritical
business of journalism, but that hour of listening to Hersh
- who has exposed numerous government secrets, including the
1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Viet Nam men, women, and
children by U.S. troops - talk about how he unearthed such
secrets ranked right up there. I saw journalism as almost
missionary work, as a way to right wrongs, to expose injustice,
to help the needy, to speak truth to power. When I read English
novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's words, "The pen is mightier
than the sword," I believed, brother.
Little did I know I was merely entering a harsh Fantasy Island.
Once the boat left, reality was quite different from the brochure.
More than two decades later, I can only shake my head in
wonder. How can we spend so much time and energy covering
O.J. and Condit and the latest clothing trends, and miss the
really important stories - the government secrets - like the
details of exactly how the Republicans stole the 2000 election
and how we've killed more civilians in Afghanistan than those
who died here on Sept. 11? Speaking of Condit, why have we
ignored the story of Lori Klausutis, an aide to former U.S.
Rep. Joe Scarborough, R.-Fla., who was actually found dead
in the congressman's district office in July 2001 amid rumors
of an extramarital affair, the resignation of Scarborough,
and questions about cover-ups?
How can we magnify Clinton's and Gore's shortcomings to the
point we're repeating bald-faced lies without even checking
them, yet let Bush - who rarely has a press conference because
his handlers are afraid of what he might say or mangle when
not giving prepared remarks - off the hook and even compare
him to Franklin D. Roosevelt? How can we let the Republicans
convince us that the Democrats were equally tied to Enron
and it was more of a business scandal, when the Bush administration
spent the last year falling all over itself to help its friend,
The answers lie in money and myths. Let's just scratch one
myth right off the bat: The media is no more liberal than
Bush is sincere. Many reporters and editors might have been
liberal in the Watergate days. But these days most are either
moderate or lean to the right, based on my observations of
working in the media for more than two decades. And the ones
who call the shots - the corporate media bigwigs - are mostly
true conservatives. Just review federal election records,
and you will find the names of big media executives like Fox
News owner Rupert Murdoch giving money only to Republicans.
You won't find many who gave to Clinton or Gore.
That's why a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism,
a group organized by Columbia University and others, concluded
that overall Bush was twice as likely to receive positive
media coverage as Gore in the last weeks of the 2000 presidential
campaign. Another study by that group found that more than
three-quarters of the campaign coverage of Gore cast him as
someone who lied, exaggerated, or was tainted by scandal.
Meanwhile, most coverage of Bush carried the theme that he
was a "different kind of Republican."
That's why studies of presidential news coverage like Robert
Entman's Democracy Without Citizens and Mark Hertsgaard's
On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency show that
Democrats Clinton and Carter received tougher media scrutiny
than Republicans Bush and Reagan. That's why Fairness and
Accuracy in Reporting, the New York-based organization that
superbly watches the supposed watchdogs, continually puts
out releases and reports on how biased the media's coverage
of W. Bush is. One blasted Newsweek's puff piece on Bush in
December 2001 for failing to ask a more substantial question
on the "war on terrorism" than this:
"From where does George W. Bush - or Laura, for that matter
- draw the strength for this grand mission, the ambitious
aim of which is nothing less than to 'rid the world of evildoers'?"
The magazine was so thorough in fawning all over Bush that
it dismissed flaws, such as explaining why Bush doesn't read
many books because "he's busy making history," FAIR noted.
Another myth - that the media actually cares about the average
person - is equally infected by money. The media is a lucrative
business, first and foremost. The New York Times Co. made
a profit of more than $300 million last year - and most other
media firms made similar handsome profits last year. Still,
Times bigwigs cried about declining advertising revenue and
laid off more than 1,200 employees in 2001. Stories about
civilian casualties and the illegitimacy of the Bush regime
do not play well to the advertisers of the New York Times,
where Hersh once worked.
That's why the Times compared Bush's 2002 State of the Union
address to Franklin D. Roosevelt's and even said it contained
"moments of eloquence," which were insults to both Roosevelt
and the word, "eloquence." That's why the Times and other
outlets largely ignore reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan,
such as the excellent report by University of New Hampshire
economics professor Marc W. Herold on the site of Media Alliance,
a San Francisco-based nonprofit resource center for media
members, community organizations, and political activists
That's why the Times and other outlets mostly cover protesters
of events like the World Economic Forum in terms of how they
affect security, not on why they are protesting in the first
place. Occasionally, a substantial story that covers issues
that Bush's handlers don't want to see highlighted slips through
the cracks, but those are drowned out by articles that focus
on patriotism, the need for a military build-up, and similar
Add in the increasing media mergers, the constant, unsubstantiated
charges by the right-wing of "liberal media bias," and vindictiveness
of Bush's people and the right-wing toward any media member
who dares not to fall in line, and you have a complacent,
lapdog press. It's not the right-the-wrongs watchdog I envisioned
more than two decades ago.
While many of my colleagues are out chasing big bucks and
awards and being paid to care, some of us still really give
a damn about exposing injustice, helping the needy, speaking
truth to power. Bill Moyers, Molly Ivins, and Helen Thomas
immediately come to mind as well-known journalists who have
not sold out to the moneyed crowd. The alternative press is
full of unsung heroes who risk their careers and even lives
to report the really important stories.
And I can't forget Seymour Hersh. A recent story in the New
Yorker by Hersh reported that, along with Pakistan military
officers and intelligence advisers, some Taliban and al Qaeda
fighters escaped the Afghan city of Kunduz last November in
nighttime airlifts approved by the Bush administration to
help Pakistan leader General Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S.
ally, avoid political disaster.
Have you heard about this story? I hadn't until I did a search
for Hersh's name and found mention of it buried at the bottom
of a Reuters article. Obviously, most in the U.S. press chose
to ignore this intriguing story, which raises more questions
about the Bush administration's "war on terrorism."
Bush administration officials denied Hersh's report, as other
government officials had before eventually having to admit
the truth. At age 64, Hersh, who has exposed secrets of Democrats
as well as Republicans, remains an example of a member of
the media who is doing his job. I just wish there were more
journalists like Hersh.
Jackson Thoreau is co-author of We Will Not Get Over It:
Restoring a Legitimate White House [Mukilteo, Wash.: CyberRead,
2002]. The 110,000-word electronic book can be downloaded
Thoreau can be emailed at email@example.com