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Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)

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It doesn’t take much prompting for Hersh to supply an example of the sort of story he keeps out of The New Yorker’s pages but will discuss freely elsewhere. He tells me a long tale of the ghastly killing of some Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. He frames his account as a hypothetical set piece: “You’re a soldier on a patrol . . . and you see people running, and you open fire, okay? . . . Maybe they were bad guys, but then they run into a soccer game.” He gradually modulates the story to its climax: “You’re a bunch of young kids. And so maybe you pull the bodies together and you drop RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and you take some photographs about it because you’re afraid you’re gonna be investigated. And maybe somebody there tells me about what happened.”

Moving back into straight, declarative talk, Hersh lays out how this no-longer-quite-so-hypothetical scenario shaped his on-the-job news judgments. Investigating the tip, he discovered that, even though the photographs he obtained of the incident could suggest a terrible lapse of responsibility in the field, there was nothing here to qualify it as a Hersh story. “It was stupid, it was wrong, it was terrible, but it wasn’t murder. Do I write that? No. I don’t write that. Because then six, eight, ten American kids who did nothing but panic, and did what anybody would, would get in trouble. Do I have some photographs that are interesting? Yes. Do I publish those? No.”

But does he talk about it? Sure. Did this event happen? Who knows? Hersh never subjects these sorts of stories to any kind of public truth test, but he bandies them in his lectures, as part of the ongoing effort to bring his speaking audiences closer to that other reality of the Iraq War. He does it so frequently, in fact, that it’s hard to accept that he’s only doling out information for its own sake. In part, one senses, Hersh’s stump performances are of a piece with the sort of one-upping bravado that makes up many conversations journalists have with their colleagues—only done here in public and for hire. Again, Hersh is refreshingly candid about the showman aspect of his anecdotage: “I get paid to do speeches. . . . And I’m not there to be on straight. I’m there to tell, you know, give somebody, exchange views with people.”

It also seems clear that, more than just thinking out loud, Hersh is often reporting out loud from the lecturer’s podium. One notorious example: At Berkeley in October, Hersh described a phone call from a soldier who informed him that another platoon had massacred “30 or so” friendly Iraqi guards. Hersh advised the soldier to keep quiet about it: “You’re gonna get a bullet in the back.” The speech—and the subsequent flurry of breathless blog items—prompted the New York Observer’s Tom Scocca to theorize that Hersh “appears to be running some sort of impromptu combination of a notebook dump and an assignment meeting, challenging other reporters to pick up his loose ends and surplus tips.”

Hersh basically confirmed as much when he told Scocca that some comments he made about Guantánamo Bay abuses were an effort to get some new sources to contact him: “At some point, Army reservists were sent down to Gitmo. And they didn’t like what they saw. And that’s where I’m trying to go—I’m trying to find these guys.”

Whatever Hersh’s motivations for talking so loosely in public, none of the safeguards that keeps these stories out of The New Yorker stops the most startling of Hersh’s revelations from spreading throughout the blogging world. By assuming that these stories can be kept at the level of informal talk, Hersh overlooks the way the mediasphere he works in has been utterly transformed. All sorts of people are learning the hard way that informal public utterances are not the ambiguous exercises in cocktail-party speculation they were in the pre–wired world. Instead, off-the-cuff remarks delivered at one or another public forum have become the lifeblood of crusading bloggers, online groups, and discussion boards—and their missionary zeal now can set agendas in mainstream news coverage. Eason Jordan resigned his post as chief news executive of CNN on February 11 after his off-the-record musings on whether American forces targeted journalists in the Iraqi theater of war became a blogging cause célèbre. Harvard president Larry Summers has been spared his job so far, but he has sparked a global controversy—and all sorts of interest-group crusades for his ouster—based on his spoken speculations on whether women possess less innate aptitude in math and science. And Judith Miller of the New York Times drew criticism from Times public editor Daniel Okrent (among others) for suggesting on Hardball that Ahmad Chalabi would be offered a job in the post-election Iraqi government—a scoop that her own employer hasn’t yet seen fit to print.

In the new-media world, the line between a spoken remark and a written one is becoming more and more blurry. “The world has changed, because there is this monstrously large amplifying megaphone that hovers at all moments everywhere,” says Okrent. “There’s no such thing as speaking out loud, off the record. As Jordan learned, I believe unfairly, you can’t take it back once it’s said.”


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