The media’s reaction to Seymour Hersh’s bin Laden scoop has been disgraceful

Seymour Hersh has done the public a great service by breathing life into questions surrounding the official narrative of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet instead of trying to build off the details of his story, or to disprove his assertions with additional reporting, journalists have largely attempted to tear down the messenger.

Barrels of ink have been spilled ripping apart Hersh’s character, while barely any follow-up reporting has been done to corroborate or refute his claims—even though there’s no doubt that the Obama administration has repeatedly misinformed and misled the public about the incident. Even less attention has been paid to the little follow-up reporting that we did get, which revealed that the CIA likely lied about its role in finding bin Laden, which it used to justify torture to the public.

Hersh has attempted to force the media to ask questions about its role in covering a world-shaping event—but it’s clear the media has trouble asking such questions if the answers are not the ones they want to hear.

Hersh’s many critics, almost word-for-word, gave the same perfunctory two-sentence nod to his best-known achievements—breaking the My Lai massacre in 1969 (for which he won the Pulitzer) and exposing the Abu Ghraib torture scandal 35 years later—before going on to call him every name in the book: “conspiracy theorist,” “off the rails,” “crank.” Yet most of this criticism, over the thousands of words written about Hersh’s piece in the last week, has amounted to “That doesn’t make sense to me,” or “That’s not what government officials told me before,” or “How are we to believe his anonymous sources?”

While there’s no way to prove or disprove every assertion Hersh makes without re-reporting the whole story, let’s look at the overarching criticisms one by one:

Conspiracy theory

No phrase has been bandied about more than “conspiracy theory” in describing Hersh’s reporting. Critics argue that he’s accusing “hundreds of people across three governments of staging a massive international hoax that has gone on for years.” How could that be possible?

First of all, denigrating a legendary reporter who has broken more major stories than almost anyone alive as a “conspiracy theorist” because his story contained a few details a little too implausible for some people’s taste is beyond insulting. A conspiracy theory in the traditional sense would be something like The US government is covering up the fact that bin Laden is still alive, not accusing the administration of telling a story about a highly classified matter that differs from the truth—something it does all the time.

But beyond that, it is extraordinarily naive to think the government is incapable of keeping a large secret involving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. I am reminded of this passage from the memoirs of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who knows a thing or two about how government secrecy works. Not only is the idea that you can’t keep secrets in Washington “flatly false,” Ellsberg writes, but by repeating it you’re doing the government’s work for them.

[Such sayings] are in fact cover stories, ways of flattering and misleading journalists and their readers, part of the process of keeping secrets well. Of course eventually many secrets do get out that wouldn’t in a fully totalitarian society. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public … The reality unknown to the public and to most members of Congress and the press is that secrets that would be of the greatest import to many of them can be kept from them reliably for decades by the executive branch, even though they are known to thousands of insiders. [emphasis added]

As a simple example, which Hersh himself stated in this fascinating On The Media interview, how many people knew about the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence before the Iraq war? Hundreds? Over a thousand? How many knew about the NSA’s mass phone metadata program aimed at Americans until Edward Snowden revealed it? A thousand? Ten thousand? It stayed secret for more than seven years until a single person—a contractor, not an NSA employee—exposed it.

If that doesn’t convince you, read about two other recent agreements about assassinations, one with Pakistan and another with Yemen. Both stayed secret for years without the public knowing. The old adage that “three people can only keep a secret if two are dead” is a fantasy, and journalists should stop mindlessly repeating it.

Anonymous sources

It has been rich watching journalists fall over each other to see who can more vehemently criticize Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, despite the fact that using anonymous sources is a tried-and-true Washington ritual that receives almost no criticism in day-to-day reporting. Banal sound bites are regularly printed on the front pages without names attached, and entire press conferences are held every day with “senior government officials” who refuse to be named. (One of the few mainstream journalists who consistently points this out is Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ public editor.)

According to the excellent Twitter account @NYTAnon, the Times published at least 20 stories relying on anonymous sources in the five days after the Hersh story went online Sunday night, on topics ranging from new Facebook features to strife among Democrats over the stalled trade agreement to Cablevision dropping its bid for the Daily News. Imagine if reporters aimed a tenth of the criticism at those stories that they aimed at Hersh. Predictably, though, we’ve barely heard a peep.

Indeed, anonymity is sometimes warranted, and the idea that Hersh’s sources were anonymous should not come as a surprise. These are highly classified operations. The Defense Department has openly threatened to prosecute people for talking about the bin Laden raid, even as the CIA leaks its own version of events to friendly reporters and movie producers.

It’s not out of line to criticize Hersh’s sourcing, or to question his informants’ knowledge. Should he have relied on more sources than he did? Possibly. But Hersh has said in multiple interviews that, while the crux of the story came from one person, he confirmed the details with many others. This has been conveniently ignored by his critics.

The CIA

The venom and vitriol from Hersh’s journalistic colleagues has been especially astonishing given their kid-gloves treatment of one of the main players in Hersh’s story, the CIA.

Most journalists would never dream of confronting CIA officials with the same aggressiveness they now direct at Hersh—even though, less than six months ago, the Senate released a 500-page report documenting in meticulous detail the dozens of times the CIA blatantly lied to the public, the press, and Congress about torture over the past decade.

Hersh’s assertion, which has by now been at least partially confirmed by multiple news organizations, that bin Laden was found thanks to a “walk-in” tip—rather than by tracking his courier as the government has claimed—should be a major scandal. For years, the CIA has said it found bin Laden thanks to information about his personal courier—information that was obtained by means of torture.

Besides one piece by Huffington Post’s Ali Watkins, the press has barely made a peep about the fact that the CIA’s argument about bin Laden and torture—one that Hollywood made a movie about!—is a lie. Meanwhile, Slate ran five hit jobs on Hersh within 36 hours. Perhaps that’s why Hersh treated their reporter with contempt during this already-legendary interview.

We know that the administration made many assertions about the bin Laden raid in its aftermath that turned out to be false. The purported details, many given to reporters “anonymously,” were downright fantastical—yet reporters dutifully printed them just the same. We also know that the government ordered the photos of bin Laden’s body destroyed—possibly in violation of federal law—and, in an unprecedented move, had all information about the raid transferred to the CIA, where it can’t be accessed through Freedom of Information Act requests. John Kerry told reporters directly to “shut up and move on.” How Hersh himself deserves more scrutiny than these disturbing moves by the government is beyond comprehension.

Largely ignored in this is debate is the opinion of longtime New York Times Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent Carlotta Gall, who has more knowledge of the region in one finger than most of Hersh’s critics put together. She wrote in the Times this week that she “would not necessarily dismiss [Hersh’s] claims immediately” and that “he is following up on a story that many of us assembled parts of.” Of his claim that an informant, rather than a courier, led the CIA to bin Laden, Gall wrote that “my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s.”

Then there’s Robert Baer, the highly regarded former CIA officer (and the inspiration for Stephen Gaghan and George Clooney’s Syriana). He refused to criticize Hersh’s story when asked on a podcast and repeatedly insisted that the administration’s story had to be false. Baer, a CNN contributor, was not invited on CNN to say this, of course. Instead CNN had on torture cheerleader Philip Mudd, who proceeded to trash Hersh’s story as “nonsense” while largely avoiding specifics. Politico uncritically quoted CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, one of the agency’s most notorious liars about WMDs in Iraq, as their proof that Hersh was wrong. The author of the Politico piece later admitted to The Intercept that “spokespersons like Harlow are ‘usually the least informed in the spy world.’ ”

This is not to say all the assertions contained in Hersh’s story are accurate. Some may turn out not to be true; I simply don’t know. But neither do any of Hersh’s critics, because, unfortunately, the flippant blog posts dismissing Hersh out of hand outnumber follow-up reporting on his stories by about 50 to one.

Hersh does not need me or anyone else to defend him—he’s entirely capable of doing that himself, as he has been doing on national television and radio all week, in response to the kind of skeptical questioning that most reporters would never dare to direct at government officials who had lied to their face. “I’ve been around a long time,” Hersh told CNN, “and I understand the consequences of what I’m saying.” It’s a shame others don’t.

All this brings to mind a story from earlier in Hersh’s career, when, as a relatively unknown reporter in Vietnam, he put together the pieces of his My Lai scoop. At first, no one would listen. He tried to sell the story to Life and Look; both turned him down. It ended up going out on a little known wire service known as Dispatch News Service. Twenty of Dispatch’s 50 customers rejected it.

Within months, of course, Hersh’s stories would be on the front page of The New York Times. He soon started reporting on intelligence agencies. In 1974 he broke the story that the CIA was systematically spying on Americans in violation of federal law. The rest of the media ridiculed it. They questioned his sourcing while calling the story “exaggerated” and “overwritten and under-researched.” A year later, CIA director William Colby was forced to admit to Congress that it was all true.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. He is also a twice-weekly columnist for the Guardian, where he writes about privacy, national security, and the media.