Seymour Hersh at the IRE Conference in Phoenix
Sly Sy, raggin' on Neocons, editors, and the Iraq War.
Nothing's more boring than a conference room full of "serious" journalists. Unless Seymour Hersh is in it. The legendary investigative reporter, who nabbed a Pulitzer back in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and who's still breaking big stories in the pages of The New Yorker, spoke with a packed hall of journos at the 2007 Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix this morning. And though I know a blog post about Seymour Butts would probably nab more hits, the other Seymour was still pretty cool, and was a lot funnier than I thought he'd be.
Looking and sounding younger than his 70 years, Hersh responded to questions from the crowd off-the-cuff, saying some cutting things about the state of journalism today, the Bush administration, Iran, Neocon influence in DC, and so on. His best line? Describing editors as, "Mice trained to be rats." Cracks like this made up for the $3 cup coffee the Biltmore was hawking in the lobby. ($3? Don't they know that most journos are broke?)
I hate transcribing. Instead of taking typing in HS, I opted for band. As a result, I can neither type nor play the trombone, despite my best efforts on both. But here are some highlights from Hersh's remarks. My tape seems to have eaten one question from a young lady who asked Hersh about having to weather intimidation or abuse. Hersh's reply put things in perspective. He told her that for those of us in the U.S., all we have to do is our jobs. In places like Egypt, Colombia, Russia, etc., they have to worry about having a gun shoved in their faces, which is a whole different level of risk.
On saving journalism:
I think we're going to have to be more receptive to changing...Maybe we should talk more about employee ownership.They're talking literally about that at The Wall Street Journal. This isn't some big socialist movement I'm talking about.
My general thesis about editors, with the exception of some, is that they're all mice trained to be rats. Doesn't mean there aren't good editors.
On the Neocons:
The Neocons are still very strong in the Pentagon, as they are throughout the bureaucracy. In the government they tell me, when you walk into someone's office, and they've got a Bible in the right hand corner, that's a sign you're one of the boys. The Neoconservatives and the born-again crowd are very, very dominant still. They can't get rid of them. Particularly in the Pentagon. Even though [Robert] Gates is there, people are worried that he's been drinking the Kool Aid too a little bit, you know.
On getting people to spill their guts in DC:
More people are talking now more than ever. You just have to go look for them...You have to go to people at night, you have to call their homes. These search aids that are out there, you know, the home phone numbers, are amazing. Particularly for Pentagon people. Even the highest ranking people, everybody has a private AOL account. Or an e-mail. So you can get that.
I don't think it's that hard. One of the things you do, sometimes it takes two years, before you can get somebody to the place where they're willing [to talk]. One of the tricks is, I think, is not to do much with people when they first talk to you. Have a talk with them, nothing happens. Then you call them in three weeks, talk to them more, nothing happens. Some of that's long-range stuff. A lot of you guys don't have the luxury. You know, if I'm in print four or five times a year, I'm workin' myself to the bone.
On being political:
Len Downie once, we were on a panel speaking to a couple of thousand college kids, no, high school journalism, this was 10 years ago. Downie was managing editor then, now executive editor of the Washington Post, and they asked the same question, he said, "Well I don't think you should have any political view. I don't even vote." And I remember jumping on his bones and saying he's telling you that to be a journalist you're supposed to be a political neuter. First of all, that's crazy. You don't have to be a Freudian to know that there's a lot more going on in our heads than pure objectivity.
About what to do about the war, nobody has a good answer. Can anybody say to me that at one month, two months, three months, six months, nine months, one year, two years, three years, it's gonna be better? Can anybody say that? No, they really can't...The Sunni-Shia stuff is not going to get better. And as long as that is true, the options, it seems to me, not because I'm wearing my lefty politics on my sleeve, the options are really simple. We have two options about Iraq. One, get everybody out by midnight tonight. Or two, get them out by midnight tomorrow night. Other than that, you're going to be in an immoral position of killing boys that don't need to die, and killing God knows how many thousands of Iraqis.