16 May 2015

Some Other Folks Feel the Same Way about the Media's Response as I Do

There have been two cogent and well written critiques of the generally dismissive response of the mainstream media to Seymour Hersh's story which claims to show that the official narrative of the Osama bin Laden killing was largely untrue.

The first, from the Columbia Journalism Review is likely to gain the most currency. It's a fairly conventional analysis, and notes that Hersh's critics have been lazy and knee jerk in their dismissal of his latest story:
Seymour Hersh has done the public a great service by breathing life into questions surrounding the official narrative of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet instead of trying to build off the details of his story, or to disprove his assertions with additional reporting, journalists have largely attempted to tear down the messenger.

Barrels of ink have been spilled ripping apart Hersh’s character, while barely any follow-up reporting has been done to corroborate or refute his claims—even though there’s no doubt that the Obama administration has repeatedly misinformed and misled the public about the incident. Even less attention has been paid to the little follow-up reporting that we did get, which revealed that the CIA likely lied about its role in finding bin Laden, which it used to justify torture to the public.

Hersh has attempted to force the media to ask questions about its role in covering a world-shaping event—but it’s clear the media has trouble asking such questions if the answers are not the ones they want to hear.

Hersh’s many critics, almost word-for-word, gave the same perfunctory two-sentence nod to his best-known achievements—breaking the My Lai massacre in 1969 (for which he won the Pulitzer) and exposing the Abu Ghraib torture scandal 35 years later—before going on to call him every name in the book: “conspiracy theorist,” “off the rails,” “crank.” Yet most of this criticism, over the thousands of words written about Hersh’s piece in the last week, has amounted to “That doesn’t make sense to me,” or “That’s not what government officials told me before,” or “How are we to believe his anonymous sources?”


Largely ignored in this is debate is the opinion of longtime New York Times Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent Carlotta Gall, who has more knowledge of the region in one finger than most of Hersh’s critics put together. She wrote in the Times this week that she “would not necessarily dismiss [Hersh’s] claims immediately” and that “he is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of.” Of his claim that an informant, rather than a courier, led the CIA to bin Laden, Gall wrote that “my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s.”


Within months, of course, Hersh’s stories would be on the front page of The New York Times. He soon started reporting on intelligence agencies. In 1974 he broke the story that the CIA was systematically spying on Americans in violation of federal law. The rest of the media ridiculed it. They questioned his sourcing while calling the story “exaggerated” and “overwritten and under-researched.” A year later, CIA director William Colby was forced to admit to Congress that it was all true.

Over at Pando, the redoubtable Mark Ames focuses more tightly on the 1970s CIA spying revalations, which to my mind makes for a more compelling critique of the recent press wank-fest, if just because the reaction seems identical to the last time:

Hersh has pissed off some very powerful people and institutions with this story, and that means the inevitable media pushback to discredit his reporting is already underway, with the attacks on Hersh led by Vox Media’s Max Fisher, CNN’s Peter Bergen, and even some on the left like Nation Institute reporter Matthieu Aikins. Yesterday Slate joined the pile-on, running a wildly entertaining, hostile interview with Hersh.

Such attacks by fellow journalists on a Sy Hersh bombshell are nothing new—in fact, he used to relish them, and probably still does. He got the same hostile reaction from his media colleagues when he broke his biggest story of his career: The 1974 exposé of the CIA’s massive, illegal domestic spying program, MH-CHAOS, which targeted tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly antiwar and leftwing dissidents.

Hersh is better known today for his My Lai massacre and Abu Ghraib exposés, but it was his MH-CHAOS scoop, which the New York Times called “the son of Watergate,” that was his most consequential and controversial—from this one sensational exposé the entire intelligence apparatus was nearly taken down. Hersh’s exposés directly led to the famous Church Committee hearings into intelligence abuses, the Rockefeller Commission, and the less famous but more radical Pike Committee hearings in the House, which I wrote about in Pando last year. These hearings not only blew open all sorts of CIA abuses, assassination programs, drug programs and coups, but also massive intelligence failures and boondoggles.


And it was the Washington Post that led the attacks on Hersh’s reporting. In early January 1975, the WaPo ran an editorial, “The CIA’s ‘Illegal Domestic Spying,’” attacking Hersh for relying on anonymous sources—this from the same paper that relied on the most famous anonymous source in history, Deep Throat. The WaPo editorial went on:
“While almost any CIA activity can be fitted under the heading of ‘spying,’ and while CIA activities undertaken on American soil can be called ‘domestic spying,’ it remains to be determined which of these activities has been conducted in ‘violation’ of the agency’s congressional charter or are ‘illegal.’”

A common line of attack was to call Hersh’s series “overwritten and under-researched.” Gossip in the Washington press corps at the time claimed that WaPo’s famous editor Ben Bradlee denounced Hersh’s stories as “overwritten and under-researched”; and when Hersh was passed over for the Pulitzer that year, to everyone’s surprise, one columnist wrote Hersh didn’t deserve it anyway, calling his MH-CHAOS exposes “overwritten, overplayed, under-researched and under-proven.”


Hersh might’ve been buried by his own press colleagues, who were only interested in discrediting his reporting, if not for CIA director William Colby’s testimony before the Senate in mid-January, 1975. Hersh himself reported it for the Times, which led:
“William E. Colby, Director of Central Intelligence, acknowledged at a Senate hearing today that his agency had infiltrated undercover agents into antiwar and dissident political groups inside the United States as part of a counterintelligence program that led to the accumulation of files on 10,000 American citizens.”
After the CIA chief’s confirmation of Hersh’s story, his media detractors had no choice but to grudgingly walk back their criticism. Quoting again from Kathryn Olmsted’s book, after Colby’s admission,
“The Washington Post reported that Colby’s disclosure had ‘confirmed major elements’ of Hersh’s stories, and Newsweek agreed that Colby’s testimony had substantiated ‘many basic elements of the original story if not all the adjectives.’”
Today we’re seeing some of the same grudging, qualified acceptance of Hersh’s Bin Laden bombshell from the establishment press.

Later in 1975, the great Bill Greider—who was then an editor at the WaPo—summed up the attitude of the press to Hersh’s revelations:
“the press especially tugs back and forth at itself, alternately pursuing the adrenal instincts unleashed by Watergate, the rabid distrust bred by a decade of out-front official lies, then abruptly playing the cozy lapdog.”
My how we’ve grown so much in the 40 years since.
I don't know how much of Hersh's story is true, but the press response at this point seems to exquisitely lame.

Background, and underlying story here.


Stephen Montsaroff said...

I have to say, that I don't find much in his story interesting.

That Pakistan hid binLaden, and that a Pakistani shopped him, that the US government worked with the (at least some) Pakistanis is hardly surprising.

As a matter of sources and methods, I _would_ lie about it if I was in the government.

Compared with NSA stuff, this is trivial.

Matthew Saroff said...

I think that there are two important things here:
* The reflexive dismissal by the press, who have been wrong about this with Hersh a number of times before.
* The fact that the story refutes the preferred storyline of the CIA, that high intel and torture made all the difference.

Matthew Saroff said...

High tech intel, not high intel.

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