Investigative reporting is often an elaborate dance around truths, large and small, wherein journalists hint at explosive revelations in order to induce sources to spill some relevant bit of compromising information to steer them onto the right path. Investigative stories often read like code, and they are hard to decipher (and evaluate).
The New Yorker rigorously polices the Hersh dispatches it publishes and insists that, like all the material in the magazine, Hersh’s pieces are fact-checked tight as a drum. The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick, looks over Hersh’s copy closely and keeps himself advised of the true identities of the writer’s many unnamed sources. Even so, he says, “closing is not easy. My job is to ask tough questions, and he answers them. Sometimes I say, ‘We don’t have enough,’ and he pushes forward in his reporting.”
Occasionally, Hersh’s half-confirmed spoken accounts of key events in the Iraq War do get significantly revised when they make their way into print. Last July, not too long after the Abu Ghraib story broke, Hersh spoke to the annual membership conference of the American Civil Liberties Union. He stood before the crowd and in mid-speech appeared to talk to himself. “Debating about it,” he muttered, then paused. “Um.” Clucked his tongue. “Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. Okay? Videos,” he said. “And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has. They’re in total terror it’s going to come out.”
What Hersh said wasn’t entirely correct. His book Chain of Command would deliver the authoritative Seymour M. version: “An attorney involved in the case told me in July 2004 that one of the witness statements he had read described the rape of a boy by a foreign contract employee who served as an interpreter at Abu Ghraib,” Hersh wrote. “In the statement, which had not been made public, the lawyer told me, a prisoner stated that he was a witness to the rape, and that a woman was taking pictures.”
Horrifying stuff. But key details were different from the impression Hersh gave to the ACLU crowd. And the Sy version raced halfway across the Internet before Seymour M. could get his boots on.
Many who blogged the revelation believed that Hersh was talking about multiple rapes committed by American soldiers. Nearly everyone took it for granted that Hersh had seen the videotapes himself because he’d described their horrifying soundtrack. And everyone did assume that there were in fact videotapes, which there may not be. (“Was it a video camera or a digital camera? Nobody was quite sure,” Hersh told students at Tufts later in the year.) The speech was so widely blogged that the ACLU says Hersh asked it to remove part of the video—including the sodomy allegation—from the organization’s Website, which it proceeded to do.
That was Hersh’s first encounter with streaming online video, something that makes a spoken remark as replicable and as easy to distribute as the written word. He’d never heard of it before. “I actually didn’t quite say what I wanted to say correctly,” Hersh now says. “It wasn’t that inaccurate, but it was misstated. The next thing I know, it was all over the blogs. And I just realized then, the power of—and so you have to try and be more careful.”
Yet a more careful Hersh may not be what the world needs at this moment. Former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong puts it this way: Say Hersh writes a story about how an elephant knocked someone down in a dark room. “If it was a camel or three cows, what difference does it make? It was dark, and it wasn’t supposed to be there.” And nobody else had yet described it. Sometimes, says Warren Strobel, “it’s worth it for him to be wrong.”