Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour Hersh – review

US journalist Seymour Hersh recounts in fine detail the stories that made him, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib

Ten years ago, not long before the election that put Barack Obama in the White House, I went to Washington to interview Seymour Hersh, the reporter who, in 1969, single-handedly uncovered the atrocities that had been committed by an American platoon in My Lai, South Vietnam, 12 months before: a story that hastened the end of the Vietnam war and for which, in 1970, he won a Pulitzer prize. I remember our encounter vividly: the chaos of his office, with its filthy walls and toppling piles of notebooks; the unstoppable flow of his conversation; the wolfish greed with which he scoffed his eggs at breakfast. Above all, what has stayed with me was his almost total lack of interest in anything other than his reporting (by his own estimation, pretty brilliant); his contacts (so numerous that they rival the crowd at the Super Bowl); his editors (occasionally fantastic, but more often annoying and dumb). If Hersh had a hinterland, he was keeping it well hidden.

Thanks to this, I was well prepared for Reporter, a memoir he only embarked upon because the book he was contracted to write for his publishers – a coruscating volume about Dick Cheney and all who sail in him – had hit the buffers. I guessed – correctly, as it turned out – that Reporter would be unrelenting, and focused entirely on his work; that it would come with no false modesty (or much modesty at all). All the same, even I was taken aback by the extent of his completism. Did he kidnap the book’s editor, tie him or her up until it was at the printers? It’s right that the big stories he has reported – My Lai, the domestic and foreign policy crimes of the Nixon era, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib – are recounted in chapters that run to many pages. But it seems a bit much when, determined not to leave anything out, he resorts literally to running lists of the other, smaller scandals on which he worked in between. Detail swamps his narrative, like creeper clambering over an ancient Mayan ruin, and for the reader, hacking through it is completely exhausting.

Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh... never invited to a White House junket, never wanted to be. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

It is not, however, dispiriting – or not all the time. Here is journalistic tenacity of a kind that, social media being what it is, is close to nonexistent today. The story of how Hersh, then a broke freelance, stumbled on the appalling events at My Lai is familiar by now: when a military lawyer told him that a soldier at Fort Benning in Georgia was facing a court martial for killing at least 109 Vietnamese civilians, Hersh simply rocked up at the base and went door to door until he found 26-year-old Lt William L Calley Jr (he later followed this up with an even more amazing interview, this time with Paul Meadlo, a farm kid from Indiana who had shot many of the civilians before losing a leg himself). Reading about it here, though, you’re reminded all over again of just how hard it was to get such a scoop published. The first report was rejected out of hand by many media organisations, among them the New York Times, and carefully rewritten – Hersh sold it through a tiny agency – by others seemingly made nervous and resentful by it.

All the Vietnam movies in the world, moreover, cannot lessen the impact of My Lai; 50 years on, its horrors will not be varnished. Hersh’s excitement at the trail, and what it might mean both for his career and those of the warmongers, is tempered here by details that stay with you long after you put the book down: the sight of Calley, on the night the two men first met, vomiting blood, the result of a serious ulcer; an account, given to Hersh by a GI who’d shot himself in the foot in order to get out of My Lai, of a soldier who used his bayonet to toss a little boy in the air as if he were a “papier-mache piñata”. Hersh might be a monomaniac, but he deserves all the respect in the world for the work he did then. Determination, even obduracy sometimes, directed unyieldingly at politicians and other high-ups, is never not a good thing – something that, as he notes, his more craven colleagues in the US press would do well to remember. Judge a hack by his enemies (Kissinger was one of his), not his friends. Journalists must arm themselves with facts, not settle into tired punditry. “I think, I think…” For Hersh, these are the deadliest words in the language.

Hersh’s parents were Jewish immigrants to Chicago, and when his father died in 1954, a month after his son had graduated from high school, it seemed likely that he might spend the rest of his days running the family cleaning business. He was saved by a college teacher and after graduating from university, joined a local news bureau as a copy boy. Apart from a brief period when he worked as press secretary to the Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy – surprise, surprise: they fell out – he has never not been a journalist. After winning his Pulitzer he joined first the New Yorker, then the New York Times; he would later return to the former under Tina Brown. Did he make editors like her nervous? Just a little. Brown once told him that the US secretary of state Colin Powell had informed her, over dinner, that Hersh was a liar. He heard the edge in her voice, but reminded her that such a comment was “a badge of honour” for someone who’d never been invited to a White House junket and never wanted to be. (The closeness of editors to politicians, whether of left or right, appals him.)

He’s not always sure-footed. In the 90s, when he was working on a book about Kennedy, he was taken in by some documents that purported to show that the president was being blackmailed by Marilyn Monroe; the fact that he discovered this in time to remove all mention of them didn’t stop his critics from piling in. But you have to say that his instincts are mostly great. Hersh’s laws of journalism, which will, alas, never be taught on any media studies course, are something to live by. Sometimes, he writes, a story just “smells” right: this was certainly his feeling when an Iraqi general first told him that under the US occupation, women prisoners were being assaulted by guards to the point where, regarding themselves as dishonoured, they would write to their fathers and beg them to come and kill them. But still, it is important to hold your scepticism, if not your cynicism, close. Or as he puts it: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

• Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M Hersh is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Vanity Fair Diaries review – Tina Brown’s supreme balancing act
Brown’s record of her years as editor of the magazine in the 80s is both enthralling and terrifying

Peter Conrad

19, Nov, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Reporter by Seymour Hersh review – memoir of a giant of journalism
The reporter who exposed the My Lai massacre and the CIA’s illegal domestic spying in the 1970s continues to be a rebel outsider

Rafia Zakaria

06, Jun, 2018 @6:31 AM

Article image
Invisible Walls by Hella Pick review – vital lessons from a titan of journalism
Pick recounts her incredible life story, from Kindertransport evacuee to doyenne of the diplomatic press corps, in this profound must-read

Fergal Keane

22, Mar, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Power and the Story: The Global Battle for News and Information – review
John Lloyd’s thorough survey of the state of the free press is a timely reminder of how vital it is to democracy

Peter Preston

13, Aug, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Only Girl by Robin Green – review
No areas are off limits in a vivid account of life as the only female writer on Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s

Barbara Ellen

20, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Turning: A Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee – review
A young woman embraces a cold-water cure for heartbreak in this intelligent meditation on loss, identity and nature

Katharine Norbury

02, May, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
A Radical Romance by Alison Light review – a tender but oblique memoir
Alison Light’s account of her marriage to the historian Raphael Samuel is both admirable and frustrating

Stephanie Merritt

09, Dec, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Afterglow (A Dog Memoir) by Eileen Myles review – anthropomorphism meets Joyce
This dog’s-eye view of its owner, the world and the canine afterlife is told with great literary flair

Kate Kellaway

12, Feb, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier review – memoir of a driven autograph hunter
Andrusier’s book puts a singular spin on the cult of celebrity and its allure for a suburban boy in the 1980s

Anthony Quinn

21, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A Life in Questions review – Jeremy Paxman keeps his distance in his memoir
The former Newsnight presenter gives little away in a frustrating look back at his career

Andrew Anthony

10, Oct, 2016 @6:00 AM