Sy Hersh's Loose Relationship with the Literal Truth
June 2, 2005 6:54 PM   Subscribe

Sy Hersh's Loose Relationship with the Literal Truth | Interesting article from NY Metro which seems to condem Hersh's squirrely handling of facts while admiring his accomplishments & tenacity: "In bending the truth, Hersh is, paradoxically enough, remarkably candid. When he supplies unconfirmed accounts of military assaults on Iraqi civilians, or changes certain important details from an episode inside Abu Ghraib (thus rendering the story unverifiable), Hersh argues that he’s protecting the identities of sources who could face grave repercussions for talking. 'I defend that totally,' Hersh says of the factual fudges he serves up in speeches and lectures."
posted by jenleigh (30 comments total)
Off the record is just like telling a secret. As soon as its said, it ain't secret no more. Hersh definitely sems to have learnt that his words get instantly broadcast to a far greater audience than his remarks would have reached a year before. Then again is devils advocate such a bad deal? or is it a case of have you stopped beating your wife yet? He seems to try and sew grains of truth to reap his harvest later. More power to him.
posted by adamvasco at 7:57 PM on June 2, 2005

And all these Abu Ghraib photos? Obvious fakes!
posted by clevershark at 8:17 PM on June 2, 2005

Here's my question for the day, should a country more harshly judge its leaders or the people who tell it what its leaders are up to?
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:20 PM on June 2, 2005

The answer to your question, Staggering Jack, evidently depends on which side of the American political divide the answerer stands on.
posted by clevershark at 8:27 PM on June 2, 2005

I agree with Hersh that what is put in print is more sacred than what is said as a speaker.

He's basically a speaker version of Drudge, telling half-stories unfit for print yet. He's protecting his sources (and his story, since he is the one uncovering it) by smearing certain details and mixing together stories. People love to hear it, so he delivers, but like Drudge one should understand the source better to fully appreciate what's being done.

At least he's honest about lying.
posted by trinarian at 10:23 PM on June 2, 2005

another thought...

This whole Newsweek "scandal" I think really validates that there is still a strong ethic within the mainstream media on serious stories. They reported something that was probably true, but recanted because they couldn't completely verify.

I think there is an "alternate reality" that Hersh sees and hears about that few people really know about... he's in the middle of all the dirt. Even though he's got some anonymous PFC telling him something happened w/o any proof, that's not enough to get something published... yet there's a nugget of truth, without the specific who/when/where, worth telling the masses - just not on the front page of the New Yorker.
posted by trinarian at 10:30 PM on June 2, 2005

Several months back, a person I know who worked in Iraq passed me some very disturbing photos of about seven dead and dying young Iraqi teens.

There were about 15 pictures in all. The first seven or so showed these kids, dressed in civilian outfits, apparently dead or dying from a U.S. artillery barrage fired from over ten miles away that leveled blocks of palm groves near this town. These first seven pictures showed the kids after they were apparently searched, but showed no weapons on their bodies, no ammo casings, or anything really that indicated that the kids in question were involved in combat at all.

The next seven pictures or so showed the same pictures, only with an RPG inserted by a U.S. soldier into each and every photograph -- the same RPG inserted into each picture, over and over again. Clearly, the intent of the soldier taking these pictures was to somehow justify the death of these kids.

After thinking about it a long time, I did a bit of searching and found out how to contact Sy Hersh, who, incidentally, answers his own phone and runs his own show. Talking to Mr. Hersh was very intimidating, as you might suspect. I didn't want to go on record as being the source of these photos, but I thought it was important that the public see them, if only to realize what it really means when the U.S. "killed ____ insurgents" today.

Sy told me -- and taught me -- some very important things. He told me that the reason he is able to do what he does is that he *NEVER* reveals his sources. Not only that, he never goes public with a story without first talking to the person in question and getting their approval for what is said. Hearing those words from him put my mind at ease... I sent him the photos, confident that he would do the right thing.

Sy Hersh thought the photos were very compelling and troubling. That said, he eventually decided after a bit of research that there wasn't enough clear information to determine exactly what happened that day in Iraq. He also feared that releasing the pictures would result in a bunch of scared soldiers getting into trouble, essentially making them scapegoats for the conduct of the war, such as it is.

Sy could've made gravy on the pictures I sent him... and they would've been a major story, covered on every news channel. He decided not to. I'm still not entirely certain I agree with his decision, as I think there is a strong public need to know, but I respect his integrity.

Frankly, I didn't know whether Sy Hersh did the right thing or not. I don't like the idea of causing a bunch of scared soldiers problems, but part of me thinks it's occasionally necessary, in order to reveal what war really means.

The true horror of this war isn't that U.S. soldiers are committing unpardonable atrocities. It's that our soldiers *usually don't know who the enemy is*, and our attacks against them are often nearly as indiscriminate as the insurgent attacks against us.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:48 PM on June 2, 2005

This smear job is about seven weeks old, and rather silly.
posted by fleacircus at 10:57 PM on June 2, 2005

... and was brought up then on a previous jenleigh thread.
posted by fleacircus at 11:07 PM on June 2, 2005

insomnia_lj, I'm pretty sure Hersh talked about this episode but I think he's mixed his vernacular with "digital video" and "digital pictures" and some other "deliberate" inconsistencies. I guess it could have happened more than once, or he's being economical with the truth -- depending on one's point of view. A quote from here:

In one case -- after I did Abu Ghraib, I got a bunch of digital pictures emailed me, and – was a lot of work on it, and I decided, well, we can talk about it later. You never know why you do things. You have some general rules, but in this case, a bunch of kids were going along in three vehicles. One of them got blown up. The other two units -- soldiers ran out, saw some people running, opened up fire. It was a bunch of boys playing soccer. And in the digital videos you see everybody standing around, they pull the bodies together. This is last summer. They pull the bodies together. You see the body parts, the legs and boots of the Americans pulling bodies together. Young kids, I don’t know how old, 13, 15, I guess. And then you see soldiers dropping R.P.G.'s, which are rocket-launched grenades around them. And then they're called in as an insurgent kill. It's a kill of, you know, would-be insurgents or resistance and it goes into the computers, and I'm sure it's briefed. Everybody remembers how My Lai was briefed as a great victory, “128 Vietcong killed.” And so you have that pattern again. You know, ask me why I didn't do this story. Because I didn't think the kids did murder. I think it was another day in the war. And even to write about it in a professional way would name names and all that.
posted by gsb at 11:15 PM on June 2, 2005

Wow... Hersh did talk about it. That said, the way he did was to my prior approval.

I am willing to release the pictures to my journal, if someone is willing to make a FPP about it. I would've done this before, but I don't think it would be appropriate to self-link.

If anyone is willing to take me up on the offer, please email me.
posted by insomnia_lj at 1:14 AM on June 3, 2005

Oh, come one, the administration would never retaliate against whistle-blowers. (jenleigh posted "Again and again and again and again and again and again, strange things seem to happen to those who criticize the Bush admin's policies....")

And Mark Felt was unethical for not going to the grand jury -- all the Nixon administration conspirators, indicted and unindicted co-conspirators, agree!

So STFU, lib'rals.
posted by orthogonality at 1:38 AM on June 3, 2005


I'd like to see your pics.
posted by rougy at 1:49 AM on June 3, 2005

insomnia_lj: If you post the the pictures on your blog, you can put a link here and I'm sure someone will FPP it.
posted by delmoi at 8:23 AM on June 3, 2005

insomnia-lj: Thanks for your story - it's very interesting stuff.
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:29 AM on June 3, 2005

Insomnia, be aware that publishing these pictures could react on your source. That said, read your email.
posted by warbaby at 8:31 AM on June 3, 2005

ortho, i believe the actual term is "libruls".

(the judges would also have accepted "america-hating leftists" )

insomina, i'm afraid, like hersh, that your pictures will get the soldiers in trouble rather than impugning the remf's who are giving the orders, strutting around and talking about "regretable, but necessary, actions."
posted by lord_wolf at 8:41 AM on June 3, 2005

When Hersh was pursuing the My Lai story, he tracked down the lawyer of William Calley Jr., the man later convicted of participating in the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Hersh intentionally inflated the number of deaths for which Calley was charged, in order to get the attorney to tell him the correct number, 109. A few years ago, Hersh told a crowd at Duke, “a word for what I did—an actual word, it has three letters—it’s called ‘lie.’”

Wow. Hersh tricked a lawyer into giving him a number, by lying to him in a private conversation. This is probably the first time any reporter anywhere has thought of that tactic.

I already thought that Hersh is fast and loose with the truth in his public statements, but that article had absolutely nothing that would have convinced me if I believed otherwise.
posted by iron chef morimoto at 10:07 AM on June 3, 2005

Wow. Hersh tricked a lawyer into giving him a number, by lying to him in a private conversation. This is probably the first time any reporter anywhere has thought of that tactic.
How is that any different than the exact same tactic the police use to ferret out the truth? Did he print the inflated number? I believe, no. This article was crap a few months ago, and is crap now.
posted by plemeljr at 11:07 AM on June 3, 2005


Uh, yes. I agree.

That may have been too subtle on my part.
posted by iron chef morimoto at 11:11 AM on June 3, 2005

odinsdream, you're right, the soldiers should have to answer for what they appear to have done. sorry i didn't make that clearer.

what i meant was that i fear only the soldiers will be severely punished, while the people at the top who make things happen will be safe and secure, untouched and unfazed by the consequences of their actions.
posted by lord_wolf at 11:51 AM on June 3, 2005

The New York Observer article mentioned in the link can be found here:

Sy Hersh's News: He’s Describing Massacre In Iraq, October 25, 2004.
posted by mlis at 3:23 PM on June 3, 2005

Boy, it's such a coincidence that this (old story from April) is being spread around to discredit Hersh just as the government is being ordered to release the torture and abuse pictures and videos--which Hersh made the world aware of in the first place.

jenleigh, maybe a little less transparent next time?
posted by amberglow at 3:48 PM on June 3, 2005

Deception in politics is the only true bipartisanism.
posted by angry modem at 5:33 PM on June 3, 2005

any update on those pictures being released?
posted by iamck at 6:25 PM on June 3, 2005

I called Sy Hersh, as I want to give him a heads up and ask his advice. He's busy, but I will be talking to him again next week.

At this point, both Troutfishing and Warbaby should be able to verify that I do, infact, have these photographs.

Basically, I'm in a catch-22 here. If I release the photographs, several soldier's careers may be ruined, and others may face additional risk of attack. If I don't release the photographs, then those kids who survived the attack may spend years in Abu Ghraib or some other hellhole under false arrest, and the families who lost their kids will never have justice... and of course, the public will never know about such things.

The thing I have always tried to tell people is that this kind of stuff isn't the exception, but is all too often the rule. Lots of innocents get killed routinely by both U.S. soldiers and foriegn contractors, because in most circumstances, they don't know with any certainty where the enemy is.
posted by insomnia_lj at 6:09 AM on June 4, 2005

I know it's always easy to give advice from one's armchair, but the balance doesn't seem that difficult to me: soldiers who did something wrong, even if their punishment may be in some sense unjust if it doesn't involve higher-ups, versus kids who did nothing wrong and (in your words) "may spend years in Abu Ghraib or some other hellhole under false arrest." I think those pictures need to come out.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on June 4, 2005

Jesus, amberglow, you just can't give it up can you. Either we toe your party line, or we're partisans working against you.
posted by Snyder at 3:54 PM on June 4, 2005

"soldiers who did something wrong . . . versus kids who did nothing wrong and (in your words) "may spend years in Abu Ghraib or some other hellhole under false arrest."

I wish it were that simple. Releasing those pics could indirectly result in the death of other soldiers and Iraqi civilians... possibly even people outside of Iraq itself, if their release triggers protests.

"I think those pictures need to come out."

I do too. They will. I don't know how much attention they will get, but they certainly deserve attention, especially if it means that those kids who may be innocently convicted of attacking coalition troops are allowed to go back to their families.

For this reason, I would rather release them in such a way that gets them serious media attention, which is why I went to Sy Hersh in the first place. I respect his reasoning for not releasing the pictures, because he would be burning his own source, which I assume was one of the soldiers directly or indirectly responsible.

I, however, have no such commitment to his source. It may be enough for the press to know it happened and what the outcome was, rather than where and when it happened, but that *STILL* doesn't free any Iraqi kids who were unjustly imprisoned.
posted by insomnia_lj at 4:19 PM on June 4, 2005

In other words, in order to help these kids, not only do I need to offer up the pictures, I need to give the press the same information I gave Sy Hersh. When the pictures were taken, where they were taken, and what group of soldiers took them. One of Sy's sources is probably within that group of soldiers, I presume, which is why I want to talk to him first.

That's also why I respect Sy Hersh. He is 100% loyal to his source's confidentiality. He has been 100% loyal to me, and yet he has told the public as much as he reasonably could. I wouldn't expect less, frankly.
posted by insomnia_lj at 4:25 PM on June 4, 2005

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