Why You Should See More Hersh

What do John Kerry and Osama bin Laden have in common?

Think. Think harder.

Condolences, but neither made Time’s new list of the 100 most influential people after appearing on it last year.

That’s not to say that the list is devoid of terrorists and Democrats (although in the mind of at least one person on the list, those two groups are one and the same.)

One terrorist who made the cut is Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al Qaeda of Jihad of the Land of the Two Rivers, who in the past year pledged his allegiance to bin Laden while recruiting insurgents in Iraq. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit desk from 1996 to 1999, offered this forecast “A letter from bin Laden to al-Zarqawi, recently intercepted by Western intelligence, asked al-Zarqawi to ‘attack the United States.’ That’s likely to push ever more scarce U.S. resources toward al-Zarqawi, even before it is clear he has a capacity to attack the U.S.”

For the Democrats, Time, rather predictably, gives us Barack Obama. Same old story here: Immigrant father, Harvard, civil rights attorney, local politics, speech at the Democratic National Convention, easy Senate win. Time finishes off its list of cliches with this bit of soft-focus puffery: “[H]e realizes that many Americans have even greater hopes for him. They see him as a man who cannot only repair the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans but also ease racial tensions that persist more than four decades after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s an almost impossible set of expectations, but for a man whose first name in Swahili means ‘blessed by God,’ nothing seems out of reach.”

Newsweek, meanwhile, is still falling all over the pope with a “Go With God” cover promising “commemorative photos” and investigation into the “future of the faith.” The Economist goes down the same road, albeit armed with better cover art, featuring the “Future of the Church.”


And now for some Sy Hersh — but not in The New Yorker. New York magazine’s Chris Suellentrop takes on the larger-than-life journo-star, casting Hersh as a loose-lipped two-face who isn’t safe in the new era of blogging and streaming video. “There are two Hershes, really,” writes Sullentrop. “Seymour M. is the byline” which shows up in The New Yorker and is backed by the magazine’s editors and fact-checkers. But, “Then there’s Sy. He’s the public speaker, the pundit. On the podium, Sy is willing to tell a story that’s not quite right, in order to convey a Larger Truth. ‘Sometimes I change events, dates, and places in a certain way to protect people,’ Hersh told me. ‘I can’t fudge what I write. But I can certainly fudge what I say.’” The result, writes Sullentrop, is a “is a vast, tantalizing trove of what might be termed Hersh apocrypha: unpublished tales of official screwups, ideological intrigue, cover-ups, and government lies that have an influential — and growing — public life of their own.”

“Are Hersh’s exaggerations worth it?” and “Do the ends justify the means?” are the obvious questions, and Sullentrop doesn’t neglect them. From the get-go it looks like the piece is going for the kill, but in the end Hersh is let off the hook with only a haunting from the ghost of Christmas past. Sullentrop concludes, “[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 [Knight Ridder reporter] Warren Strobel, ‘it’s worth it for him to be wrong.’”

Yesterday, we learned that President Bush rocks Alan Jackson and Van Morrison on his iPod. Today we hear from US News’s “Washington Whispers” that the president sports a Trek mountain bike on Saturdays away from the White House as he races Secret Service agents on one of their dirt training courses. Whether you like the president’s tunes or not, it turns out he is Rad, after all.

Thomas Lang

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.