On last night's episode of Countdown, the always excitable Keith Olbermann led the show with a "bombshell allegation" from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh exposing a "covert executive assassination ring" run out of Dick Cheney's office. Or least that's what I think he said. Hersh made the sensational revelation during a speaking appearance at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday. The segment:
From a quick search of Google News, it seems as if MSNBC is the only mainstream news organization to have reported Dick's Death Squads—because, I presume, most journalists are just now remembering that Hersh insists upon a distinction between what he says to paying audiences and what he writes for the New Yorker. There is literal truth, he argues, and then there is speaks-to-a-larger-truth. As Chris Suellentrop demonstrated in New York magazine, Hersh has something of a "loose relationship with literal truth," explaining that when behind the lectern he tends to exaggerate his "scoops." (New York's headline? "Sy Hersh Says It's Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)"). Some selections from Suellentrop's 2005 story:
"On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that's not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. 'I can't fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say…I find that totally not inconsistent with anything I do professionally. I'm just communicating another reality that I know, that for a lot of reasons having to do with, basically, someone else's ass, I'm not writing about it…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."
Reading this, it's not terribly surprising that, as he told an interviewer in 1984, Hersh sees himself as more evangelist than journalist: "I'm not interested in history because I'm trying to change things." Hersh always had his mainstream media detractors, but it wasn't until the release of his gossipy book on the Kennedy family, Dark Side of Camelot, that many critics expressed skepticism of his methods.
The Columbia Journalism Review, reviewing Camelot, said that "Hersh's attributions generally fall short of normal journalistic yardsticks. More important, many of his conclusions are weakly substantiated by his research and highly questionable." New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the Boston Globe, called the book "an exercise in acute paranoia informed by cabalistic quasi-logic." The Los Angeles Times sarcastically applauded Hersh's "creative journalism," that, while entertaining, "unfortunately…does not produce credible history."
The original version of the Kennedy manuscript was even less credible. Hersh was forced to excise an entire chapter of Camelot—one containing "bombshell" allegations of cash payoffs to Marilyn Monroe in exchange for silence on the family's connections to the Chicago mob—when the documents upon which it was based were exposed as crude forgeries. During the ensuing controversy, Newsweek reporters Evan Thomas, Mark Hosenball, and Michael Isikoff observed that "Like many investigative reporters, [Hersh] has an interest in conspiracy theories, but is extremely persistent—so much so that his source sometimes complain he browbeats them."
So while Olbermann hyperventilates about a new Church Committee to investigate the "executive assassination squad," keep in mind Hersh's sketchy track record and his distinctions between competing types of truth. Indeed, in an email to a Minneapolis blogger after his speech, Hersh struck a slightly different tone:
In an email exchange afterward, Hersh said that his statements were "an honest response to a question" from the event's moderator, U of M Political Scientist Larry Jacobs and "not something I wanted to dwell about in public."
Hersh didn't take back the statements, which he said arise from reporting he is doing for a book, but that it might be a year or two before he has what he needs on the topic to be "effective…that is, empirical, for even the most skeptical."