Seymour Hersh on My Lai and the state of investigative journalism

In 1968, a group of American soldiers massacred more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village known in the Army as “Pinkville.” The following year, a young American reporter exposed the massacre in what became a watershed in the American public’s understanding of the war in Vietnam.

“Pinkville” turned out to be the hamlet of My Lai 4. The reporter was Seymour Hersh, who went on to a storied career with The New York Times and The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer.

When he first reported the My Lai story, Hersh was a freelancer. Magazines including Life turned down his initial account of the massacre, which included a difficult-to-obtain interview with Lieutenant William L. Calley, the commander who led the slaughter. Hersh initially published his blockbuster scoop with a small antiwar newswire called the Dispatch News Service.

Hersh did his early reporting on the massacre story from the US, and he recently visited My Lai for the first time, writing an account of his visit for The New Yorker in late March. The story includes extraordinary anecdotes that never appeared in his very straight reporting on the killings in the late 1960s. The new piece is, in part, a media story—Hersh tells the background to one of the big investigative works of the 20th century.

Among other morsels, he reveals the story of his interview with William Calley. At the time, the circumstances of how he obtained the information were left ambiguous because of an agreement with Calley’s lawyer.

After tracking down Calley in Fort Benning, in Georgia, Hersh took down Calley’s account as the two stayed up late drinking beer. “At one point, Calley excused himself, to go to the bathroom,” Hersh writes. “He left the door partly open, and I could see that he was vomiting blood.”

I spoke with Hersh about why he went to My Lai, the state of investigative reporting, and how, as a reporter for The New York Times in a different era, he could fly to Paris on a moment’s notice to pursue a story. I also approached New Yorker editor David Remnick for his thoughts on the role of Hersh’s brand of slow, painstaking, investigations in the current age of journalism.

“A huge aspect of journalism—or any journalism worthy of the name—is the act of putting pressure on power,” Remnick said in an email. “This requires time and it requires effort and it requires resources.”

What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Hersh.

What prompted your recent visit to Vietnam?

I’ve been to Vietnam a couple of times. I went to Hanoi during the war, and I was in Saigon in 1980 or so, for the Times and for a book I was doing. I’ve been there maybe three times, but never went back to My Lai.

For three decades, my wife and the children, and the dog and the cat and the gerbil, have been lobbying me to go back to take ‘em all back to Vietnam and go back to the site where it began for me in a way, even though I’d been a reporter for seven years before then. So I did.

The government invited me a bunch of times, but I just avoided it. I can give you the high-end, self-serving reason, which is also true: I figured I’d exploited these poor dumb suckers who were there in the war, fighting a war they didn’t understand, and for reasons they didn’t understand. Of course that doesn’t diminish what they did or in any way minimize it, but just figured I’d made enough fame and glory off their backs, so I had resisted going. But as I wrote, there’s always something new to learn.

In the piece you said this was your first visit to My Lai. Is that right?

I did the [original] story from America. It’s pretty clear in the story. Once I got to Calley and began to get things going and write some stories. The mainstream press picked it up eventually. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but by then it [My Lai] was a crime zone, and they sealed it of course. Naturally, they didn’t want anyone talking to anybody.

By the time I was back again in Vietnam, in Hanoi, it was the north and the north was fighting the south, and I couldn’t go south. I just never had an occasion to go back.

I was there in 1980 or ‘79. Those were hard times because the Party was very strong then. Now it’s just another mafia, a la China. The Party leadership is just comical, so corrupt. But then it was really strong, hardline stuff. I had other fish to fry when I was there. I was doing a book about Kissinger.

It’s interesting that you did your breakthrough foreign reporting as a US-based reporter.

There’s a lot of stories you could do. But who’s going to go into northern Syria now? And that doesn’t mean the reporting has to be as bad as it is, with so many reporters relying on phone calls from various groups tied either to Al-Nusra or the government—the propaganda war that’s going on. I wish the press sometimes wouldn’t get caught up in it.

It’s amazing how much reporting you can do from America. People retire. Two stars retire very angry that they didn’t make three stars. Three stars retire angry that they didn’t make four. Four stars retire angry that they weren’t [Joint Chiefs of Staff]. There’s always a lot of room to talk to people when they get home.

It’s always preferable to be on the scene, I guess. But in the case of My Lai it just wasn’t necessary.

Isn’t the picture a little more complicated these days in situations where the US isn’t always directly implicated on the ground, like in Syria?

You’ve got a situation now where there’s clearly something going on between us and the Bashar [al-Assad] regime that’s not being talked about. When the Iraqi and the Iranian and the Syrian air force are doing bombing and we’re doing bombing.

Believe me, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that no American fighter pilot is going to go into a combat area without knowing exactly who else is going to be there when, and what location. There’s a lot of communication going on, obviously.

It must be, or it wouldn’t be safe for air travel, for bombing missions. And so we obviously are bombing in concert with those people. We’re obviously trading target information.

Let me ask you a question: How long do you think the Houthis have been around? You think the Iranians just invented them? What if I told you for dozens of generations, that there was a civil war in Yemen. Bet you didn’t know that. In 1961. I bet you didn’t know that the Houthis, who had been there forever, supported the Saudis and they were the royalists, hahaha! And they were the royalist party. So what the fuck is going on in Yemen?

I heard you give a talk years ago, and I’m paraphrasing, but you said something like, “If you want to push back on the establishment, you have to be empirical about it. Do it with reporting.” Do you still believe that? Is that your method?

The only thing I can tell you is that there’s an awful lot of good people in the government, believe it or not—an awful lot of people who don’t like lying. A lot of people in the military who get up to high positions and can’t stand what they had to do to get there and try to stop what they’re doing. A lot of people in the intelligence community that, you know.

And it’s the lying that’s the vehicle for me. The other vehicle also the generic notion of counter-narrative.

I worked for The New York Times for nine years, under Abe Rosenthal, who was a very conservative guy. I always joke, he used to come into the newsroom in Washington and tap me on the top of my head and say, “How’s my little commie?” The next sentence would be, “What do you have for me?”

I think newspaper reporting is—let’s look at it this way: It’s like being a dentist. Does the fact that my dentist is a Neocon or a Glenn Greenwald Democrat, does that make any difference to how he’s going to treat fixing up my cavity? I don’t think so. We’re professionals.

And there are counter-narratives to stories. And the problem is, you get to a place like The New York Times, and I saw it from the inside, where it’s all about access. So you trade, in effect—not everybody, but too many reporters—they could trade, I could almost argue, their integrity for the access. Their curiosity, let’s put it in an easier way.

Nobody bothered to learn anything about Yemen or about the Houthis. So it becomes easy to say the Iranian-led Houthis. What?!

You know how many people the Iranians killed, Americans, since 2003, since we invaded Baghdad? I mean deliberately killed. I’m not talking about some accident. Zero. I don’t think there’s any serious evidence that the Iranians, the Republican Guards, targeted American troops all during the invasion there, despite the fact that you read it all the time. There’s no empirical evidence.

The mainstream press is driving itself out of business and it’s probably going to be okay, because some of the younger stuff, once they get their feet on the ground and get a little more money, a little more success, a little more security, and a little more confidence, they’ll fill the gap.

When you say the younger people…

I’m talking about the BuzzFeeds. Gawker. I’m looking right now at the screen at a Gawker piece with ProPublica.

Do you read Gawker every day?

No.

What do you read on a daily basis?

I still read the newspapers and scream every morning. Everybody just doesn’t listen to me in my house. The kids are all gone. My wife, she goes, “Mmmhmm, finish your coffee. Goodbye.” I scream every morning.

I screamed at The New York Times this morning.

What is your advice to younger journalists?

It’s real simple. One is: Read before you write. And the other one is: Get the fuck out of the way of the story. There’s no such thing as a sensational story. There’s a story that if you write it right is sensational.

That’s one reason I was so apprehensive about going to My Lai, because it’s so self-serving. That’s why Dave Remnick of The New Yorker—he’s a brilliant editor. I mean, I disagree with him on a lot of things. We fight like two grumpy old men. I always disagree with editors. But on this story he was fantastic because he’s such a good editor, he made sure that it wasn’t just about how wonderful I am.

Our reporting should speak for itself. I really do believe that. You know who the good reporters are around the world. There’s people you stop and read even if it’s something you’re not interested in, because they know how to report.

The fellow that died last year in Brooklyn [Matthew Power]. He wrote all these wonderful stories about sailing down the Mississippi. He was everybody’s friend. There’s someone I had no connection with. There was nothing he wrote about I knew anything about. But you just read it because it was so well done.

So that’s the advice. You’ve got to know something before you write it.

But look, I don’t fault someone covering the White House for not telling us about some of the faults of the president. Because that’s not going to get them anywhere. He wants to cover the president. So he has to take the feeds from the McDonoughs and the Brennans and the others, and not talk about a White House that managed not to tell the president about his most important thing going, Obamacare, that the computer system wasn’t going to work until the morning it didn’t work. What that says about Obama is a lot. And what that says about the way the White House works is a lot. And that was a story that should have been done.

Can you say more about the BuzzFeeds and the Gawkers of the world becoming good for investigative journalism?

There will probably always be a New York Times. And The New York Times, for all my kvetching, it’s still the paper. And it still does great investigative reporting. I can’t stand some of its foreign coverage because it’s instinctively anti-Russian, anti-Iran, anti-Syrian. I don’t like that. My own preference and my own view is: Things are more complicated than you think. There’s nothing like The New York Times, but its prognosis is it can’t be good. I’m not suggesting that its necessarily hemorrhaging money, but it can’t be good.

I was there in the heyday. I don’t think I was that special, but, if I had a story idea and I had to go to Paris, I’d go to Paris that night. Everything was expense accounted. And that’s the way it was. You just didn’t think about it. Then of course that changed. It’s changed enormously. You have to watch the money. You have to watch the budget.

Investigative reporting, if it’s done right, it’s really high-risk. If you strike out one in three times, that’s a great batting average. You’re still hitting over .600. It’s very tough.

What I hate to see, and what I think I see even in the mainstream papers, even in the Times, a story that, they get a tip on something, and they run the tip. Like the whole story about Hillary Clinton’s emails, they did break the story and they got a lot of credit.

I wonder who told them about it. I could make a million guesses. But they had to turn over a lot of emails with her personal designator on them to the House committee sometime before the story broke. If I’m the Clintons I might want to tell that story to The New York Times myself to take the edge off the story breaking.

I get to the point where I want to know who’s telling what. And because normally if the story hadn’t come, let’s say, from the Clintons—I’m just speaking heuristically—normally if you really got that story from someone on the inside, you would then make an effort on the inside to try and do more with it. You wouldn’t have to pay it off right away. Because when you broke the story you really didn’t know much.

And I’m not crushing his reporting. It was a fine story, and I’m glad it was done. But I just wonder who they owed that story to, because they went real quick with it. I see too many stories that are tips when they get into the paper, when I would take more time and see what’s going on in the story before I make it public.

One of the stories that I did that was so important actually was the domestic spying story, about the CIA spying on citizens. I knew that for 18 months before I wrote it. And it took me that long to get to some of the senior CIA guys who actually ran the program, who talked to me because in most cases I knew enough so that I scared the hell out of them, and they decided they would talk to me because they wanted to tell me that someone higher up authorized them to do it.

You can just see it. I have the point of view of having done it. I can see what isn’t being done. If it’s not being done, if it’s a story slammed into the paper and the reporter didn’t know much about it because events came out the next few days, it wasn’t his story; he didn’t own it. For the next three months I kept on writing about it. I owned the story.

That’s just the kind of stuff if you have more money and more time you can do. And newspapers can’t do it. I think it’s going to be left to some of these high-end internet companies.

Back to My Lai for a moment.

That was a natural reporting story because it was one guy out there doing it as a freelance reporter, and making it work. And why did it work? Because I had the story. But I also worked my ass off, obviously.

But I had the story. And I waited until I got to Calley. I had a document before that. I had a charge sheet, but so what?

A story that they charged a guy with 109 would have been a good story, but getting to Calley, getting super into the story, made that first story I wrote as a freelancer: We gave it to 50 different newspapers, this little news agency I worked for, 36 of them put it on page one.

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo