The My Lai Peace Park, under construction in 2008.

The My Lai Peace Park, under construction in 2008.

“Reporter” had to be the inevitable title for legendary investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh’s 2018 autobiography. It’s perfect — a simple, proud word that encompasses craft, passion and conscience. In Hersh’s telling, it’s the grandest job in the news business and, done right, the most demanding.

Hersh was a freelancer in 1969 when he uncovered the truth behind the My Lai massacre, a search-and-destroy mission that left 504 Vietnamese villagers dead, the majority of them women and children. His story became one of the revelations that shaped American sentiments against the Vietnam War. It also earned Hersh a Pulitzer Prize and elevated a career that included stints at The New York Times and The New Yorker.

I was a college undergraduate studying journalism when the My Lai story broke. By the time Hersh had moved on to covering Watergate, and President Richard M. Nixon resigned, I was a young reporter in my first job at a daily newspaper, where I sat next to the AP wire machine. My soundtrack was a constant rattle of news rolling off the machine, punctuated by the clang of “four bells” to announced major breaking news — the equivalent of DEFCON 1 in the daily news cycle.

In those days I learned a lot about journalism by reading the best work of my colleagues. I’ve been in the news business for almost 50 years now, these days as the publisher and editor of a tiny weekly in the remote mountains of Washington state. That puts me about as far from Hersh’s world of big names and big scoops as you can get. But good journalism is good journalism. I found his fundamental wisdom about the baseline tenets of the profession so essential that I read “Reporter” twice.

Book jacket blurb-speak is often cloying and hyperbolic, but I couldn’t characterize the book any better than it characterizes itself: “an object lesson in reporting in its highest form.” Hersh, we’re told, “has been relentless in his pursuit of truth and his belief in challenging the official narrative.” That would be an air-puffed cliché if it weren’t so spot on.

Seymour M. Hersh at Dispatch News Service in Washington, after being awarded the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Hersh disclosed the cover-up of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War.

Seymour M. Hersh at Dispatch News Service in Washington, after being awarded the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Hersh disclosed the cover-up of the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War.

Hersh didn’t write “Reporter” as a textbook or tutorial. It is labeled a memoir, and is a straightforward, detail-dense, chronological account of how he has always done the job, and why he does it that way. Nevertheless, it ends up being instructive throughout, if you are paying attention. Hersch rarely offers directives, but if you are or aspire to be a good reporter and are not taking notes, you’re missing the best journalism course you can get for under $30.

If nothing else, read the chapter titled “Finding Calley.” By reporting standards, it’s the equivalent of an action movie, with a cliffhanger plot. William Calley was a U.S. Army officer convicted by court martial of murdering 22 South Vietnamese civilians during the slaughter at My Lai.  Of 26 soldiers officers and soldiers charged with some role in the massacre, he was the only one convicted.

Sheer doggedness, instinct and serendipity led Hersh to Calley’s door at a Georgia military base, where he was awaiting court martial, when no one else could track him down.

The book jacket blurb’s preemption of “relentless” says a lot about Hersh, but it doesn’t begin to cover all the personality characteristics that make him a successful reporter. Above all, he is a hard worker, and good reporting is grindingly hard work. It can be slow, dull, frustrating and seemingly pointless, but the “aha” moments usually don’t come without a lot of slogging. Hersh’s curiosity is boundless, as is his willingness to learn and do the necessary research. He believes in initiative and enterprise, opportunism born of tenacity, truth as the only acceptable outcome.

Here are a few things I gleaned from Hersh’s memoir that are, and always should be, fundamental to good reporting:

  • “Being first is not nearly as important as being right, and being careful …” Hersh says he learned that lesson in 1959 as a neophyte reporter at City News in Chicago. Too many journalists are still learning that basic tenet, or ignore it altogether.
  • Experience matters, and one does well to pay close attention to those who have it.
  • Sourcing is everything. Hersh carefully but assiduously cultivates sources, building relationships that may last for decades. Hersh pushes his sources as far as he can, and protects them when necessary. He cites a lot of anonymous sources — a continuing criticism of his work — but says he can vouch for them if required. Also, he is a voracious collector of documents. For instance, he gained unofficial access to and read 40 volumes of investigative testimony related to the Calley case, which let him draw “harrowing conclusions from the more than four hundred interviews the [investigative] panel conducted.”
  • The “core lesson” of being a journalist, Hersh writes, is “read before you write.” For Hersh, in the pre-internet days, that meant hours in libraries or newspaper morgues, finding everything he could in the way of background.
  • Good stories beget more good stories. Hersh’s exclusive revelations often generate additional information, contacts and angles. The credibility of his reporting encouraged additional potential sources to come forward.
  • Don’t just jump abruptly into interviews with questions. The Hersh rule: “Never begin an interview by asking core questions.” When appropriate, tell the interviewee what you know (or think you know) to get things started. They may be motivated to correct or amend what you’re telling them. “I learned early in my career that the way to get someone to open up was to know what I was talking about and ask questions that showed it,” he writes.
  • At the same time, don’t play coy with sources: “I never did an interview without learning all I could about the person with whom I was meeting, and I did all I could to let those I was criticizing or putting in professional jeopardy know just what I was planning to publish about them.”
  • When you’ve thought of every way you can to get at the story, think some more. Be creative, innovative and, sometimes, a little unconventional. It was an impulse, at the end of a exhausting and frustrating day, that led Hersh to talk to a couple of guys working on a car in the dark, which then led him to Calley’s residence.
  • Develop a thick skin and stand by your work. For months after the Calley story broke, Hersh endured brutal criticism by many in the military and even from professional peers. Hersh says he learned that “I would survive any criticism of a story I knew to be true.”
  • Every detail matters, no matter how small. One slip-up can undo an otherwise brilliant story. Check everything, then check it again.
Interestingly, Hersh doesn’t talk much about writing. He reported, and then he wrote, to lengths unimaginable in most contemporary publications. “The best way to tell a story, no matter how significant or complicated, was to get the hell out of the way and just tell it,” he writes.

Hersh doesn’t spare himself, citing mistakes, setbacks and moments of humility that come with the job if you do it long enough. He can be egotistical, arrogant, abrasive and high-minded. (“I was such a purist,” he says of a clash with editors at The New York Times over their agreement with the CIA not to publish a story Hersh was working on). He is a self-described loner who doesn’t always work and play well with others (like bosses and editors, for instance). In other words, he sounds like many investigative journalists we know. They’re not bland people.

In recent years, Hersh has encountered more complaints about his use of anonymous sources, and more of his work has been called into question.

That doesn’t make the lessons learned in “Reporter” any less valuable. Over the course of many decades, Hersh has worked with smart, courageous colleagues who believed in his work and made sure it found an audience. He also encountered, with evident disdain, a few journalism higher-ups whom he considered timid, self-censoring or too chummy with the same power elites whose questionable acts Hersh was about to expose.

Hersh, at age 82, isn’t finished. He continues to work on projects with the same one-foot-in-front-of-the other determination that has distinguished his career for more than half a century. He’s a reporter.

 

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