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

As a magazine writer, Hersh is given more leeway in his public remarks than an executive like Jordan, who is answerable not only to the press and the bloggers but also to CNN’s investors. A speech or public remark from Hersh is unlikely to do much damage to The New Yorker and its renowned fact-checking apparatus. But while Hersh may not be able to do much damage to the credibility of the magazine he writes for, he’s certainly capable of doing damage to his own.

Seymour Hersh has always had a rather loose relationship with literal truth. He seems to share with many of the people he writes about the belief that in certain circumstances, the end justifies the means. When Hersh was pursuing the My Lai story, he tracked down the lawyer of William Calley Jr., the man later convicted of participating in the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Hersh intentionally inflated the number of deaths for which Calley was charged, in order to get the attorney to tell him the correct number, 109. A few years ago, Hersh told a crowd at Duke, “a word for what I did—an actual word, it has three letters—it’s called ‘lie.’”

Few would argue that Hersh’s impropriety should diminish the astonishing coup and public service of bringing the My Lai story to light. But Hersh’s swashbuckling journalistic methods have made for a very bumpy career. So vast was the impact of Hersh’s revelations of the massacre at My Lai that it’s easy to forget he did it essentially on his own, without the sanction of any major journalistic institution. He came to Washington from Chicago as an AP reporter in 1964 and knocked around town for a few years—he served briefly as press secretary for antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy—before uncovering the My Lai story. Circulated in 1969 on an independent antiwar syndication service called Dispatch News Service, it won the Pulitzer. Soon thereafter, Hersh published two books on My Lai and was admitted to the journalism Establishment’s Holy of Holies, the New York Times. At the Times, Hersh published scoop after scoop—on Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the CIA’s massive domestic spy operation—but when he asked for a leave in 1979 to write a book on Henry Kissinger, editor A. M. Rosenthal refused. Hersh quit. “He’s not a gear that fits into any motor very smoothly,” says the author Taylor Branch, who has known Hersh for more than 30 years.

Hersh’s rocky tour through the print Establishment has involved some factual misfires. In 1981, while he was working on his Kissinger book, Hersh wrote a 3,000-word, front-page retraction in the Times as penance for having mistakenly named Edward M. Korry, the former U.S. ambassador to Chile, as a collaborator in the CIA-backed 1973 coup. Throughout his career, Hersh has won a reputation as something of a journalistic pit bull, who can unsettle even his admirers with his single-minded determination to establish certain facts above others. Charles Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, revised his opinion of Hersh somewhat after serving as a source for Hersh’s controversial Kennedy book, The Dark Side of Camelot. Hersh talked with Peters several times to discuss bribes the Kennedy campaign made to West Virginia sheriffs to deliver a victory for JFK in the critical 1960 state primary.

“He called me a lot, and he both educated me and disturbed me,” says Peters, who served as a West Virginia county director for the Kennedy campaign. “He converted me to some extent, but I would say I did not convert him at all to the reasonable points that I had. He took my good points on his side, and he ignored my good points that weren’t on his side.” Whenever he disagreed with Hersh, Peters says, Hersh would start exclaiming, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”

“I get paid to do speeches. . . . And I’m not there to be on straight.”

“You can’t help but have a certain skepticism once you’ve been through that experience,” Peters says.

Hersh’s career as an author has run the gamut from intensively researched exposés to dubious scandalmongering. And its wilder swings in the latter direction came close to endangering his career. His first two books after leaving the Times—1983’s exhaustive, 700-page account of seemingly inexhaustible Kissinger moral trespasses, The Price of Power, and 1986’s The Target Is Destroyed: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It—were critically applauded. But his next book, 1991’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, relied heavily on a source whom Hersh later characterized in an interview as a liar. And after the publication of The Dark Side of Camelot in 1997, Hersh’s reputation took another dip.

The reviews of Hersh’s singularly tumescent account of the Kennedy presidency were savage. Gail Collins wrote in The Nation that Hersh’s book on JFK was “best read as a sort of journalistic tragedy.” In the Los Angeles Times, Edward Jay Epstein decreed that Hersh “must have invented” some of his facts and that the book “turns out to be, alas, more about the deficiencies of investigative journalism than about the deficiencies of John F. Kennedy.”

More damaging than the book’s critical reception were revelations that Hersh had fallen for a set of forged Kennedy documents—including a handwritten note from JFK offering Marilyn Monroe hush money to keep quiet about their affair—peddled by Lawrence X. Cusack III, a con man. The phony docs didn’t make it into The Dark Side of Camelot, but the moral of the story stuck: The onetime giant of investigative journalism had let himself be duped again. Hersh’s next book, on Gulf War syndrome, was almost completely ignored.

After editor Tina Brown began using him as a regular contributor in 1993, Hersh wrote regularly for The New Yorker. But Hersh scoops that once would have prompted congressional inquiries and a bevy of prizes—such as his 2000 account of how troops under the command of Gen. Barry McCaffrey massacred Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War—faded after minor media flare-ups. Even after he published a flurry of New Yorker stories in the wake of 9/11, Hersh’s reputation was not completely restored.

But with the launch of the politically divisive Iraq War and the unexpectedly difficult American occupation that followed, Hersh’s nose for bad news and mysterious but obviously very deep sourcing found a larger, more receptive audience—and his methods once again yielded historic scoops. In late March 2003, Hersh pronounced in The New Yorker’s pages that the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger were based on an obvious forgery. He followed that up with stories about how the Pentagon and the White House circumvented the government’s traditional methods for evaluating intelligence. And in 2004, Hersh’s succession of shocking stories about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison proved that Hersh was back on top of his world—or, more precisely, underneath it, unearthing the Bush administration’s trove of secure, undisclosed secrets.

Newsweek’s Evan Thomas soured on Hersh after The Dark Side of Camelot, telling the Columbia Journalism Review in summer 2003, “I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty.” But Thomas has since changed his mind. “Even if he’s made a few mistakes—even if you’re not sure what they are—overall you’d have to say he’s pretty much been ahead of everybody,” Thomas says.