Seymour Hersh & Jonathan Schell
Two acclaimed journalists discuss press and politics.
NEW YORK—The blame for the news media's failures in covering the Bush administration and the war in Iraq lies mainly with the top editors at national news outlets, say acclaimed reporters Seymour Hersh and Jonathan Schell.
"I would get rid of the top editors of the networks, The New York Times, I would just cut 'em all off," Hersh said to laughs from the audience at a November 8 discussion at New York University.
Both reporters likened the coverage of the current war in Iraq to that of the Vietnam War. "Incredibly, all these years later, we're making the same fundamental mistakes," Schell said. When he first arrived in Vietnam in 1966, Schell found that many of the reporters there "were imbued with a sort of narrative or an idea of what that war was that derived from their editors back in the United States," he said. "And it was amazing illustration to me of the power of ideology ... or just of mental constructs to actually block out the evidence of one's own eyes."
Schell cited his own naivete about Vietnam as the basis for his ground-breaking war reporting for The New Yorker."I didn't know what was happening in the war, so all I could see was what was in front of my nose," he explained. "And it became almost immediately clear to me that this whole thing was an absurdity in its own terms. In other words: We were supposed to be saving the people but we were attacking them; we were supposed to be making them happy but they were being tortured and suffering."
By tailoring their reports to the prejudices of editors back home, many American reporters in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 wound up ignoring what seemed to Schell to be obvious stories. "You didn't have to be brilliant to see that the village was burning," he said. "The fire was leaping up to the sky, but this was not reported because that was not considered to be part of the story, which was how the United States was defeating world communism and bringing democracy to Vietnam, just the way we're now defeating world terrorism and bringing democracy to Iraq."
The NYU discussion was sponsored by the Center for Communication and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and was moderated by Dart Center field director and Nation contributing editor Bruce Shapiro (click here for an audio recording of the discussion, via cencom.org). Hersh (Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker national security writer) and Schell (Nation columnist and former reporter and editor for The New Yorker) discussed the general state of the national press corps (sorry), the implications of President Bush's reëlection (dire), and the prospects for a U.S. success in Iraq (grim).
They also gave advice to student journalists in the audience. "Read before you write, and go do things," Hersh said in response to one student's query. "Just go out and do it."
Explaining how young reporters might get started, Schell said: "Journalism is something to be done. Get yourself out there. Find somebody who will pretend to have sent you somewhere — or who has actually sent you somewhere — and go out and find out about what interests you and then see if anyone will publish it. And then you'll have some clippings to bring into the next place that you go."
Schell said he arrived in Vietnam in 1966 without any sort of plan and with "one phone number in my pocket." The phone number was for a French reporter for Newsweek who, along with a colleague, Schell explained, "wangled me a press pass on the false grounds that I was there for the Harvard Crimson — which was not true. So that was accidental really. The whole thing was accidental."
Shapiro asked Hersh and Schell what sort of stories reporters should be pursuing.
Hersh, after noting that he's "still reporting on stuff," cited the current speak-no-evil climate in the Pentagon as one area that ought to be explored. "I think there's a tremendous, overwhelming lack of integrity in the military right now, at the highest levels, because they know the score and they're not telling anybody, including the President," Hersh said. "They're afraid to communicate, and they know it's hopeless. They know they can't win."
He also noted the Pentagon's shyness in acknowledging the extent of bombing in Iraq: "One story the press doesn't touch is this criminal — this straw man that's been put in — Allawi, this ridiculous figure that we've installed as the prime minister. To keep him in power, we've exponentially increased the bombing ... The bombing of Iraq has gone up extraordinarily, by huge numbers. It's now a daily occurrence, around-the-clock on some occasions. Some off the carriers, but much of it done by the Air Force from Doha. We don't know where. We don't know how many. We don't know, and nobody's asking and nobody wants to know, how many sorties a day? How much tonnage? We used to get all of these numbers. But we have no idea if they're dropping X-thousand. We don't know how much ordinance is being dropped on a country we're trying to save."
Schell noted that the political situation in Iraq remains a mystery to most Western observers. "If it were possible to really report on what is going on in Iraq, the story that I think is actually going to be decisive is: What are the actual politics of that place itself?" Schell said. "Because I think that is really going to decide it at the end of the day. What are the factions? What are they thinking? What do they think about the occupation? What do they think about the other factions? What do they think about the Kurds? What do the Kurds think about them? All of those things. Because one lesson that I think is true, not just in Vietnam and this war, but of all anti-imperial fights — and that's what this really is — is that at the end of the day it's the politics of the local place that wins out in the end. That's what decides this. So that's what I would want to know about. But it may not be discoverable at this time by a western reporter or an American."
Despite his criticism of his colleagues in the press corps, Hersh acknowledged that it can be difficult for reporters to go against the status quo. "Nobody wants to be too much of a pain in the ass in a newspaper," he said. "And if you keep on pushing the envelope you'll get in trouble."
In one exchange, Hersh and Schell lamented the ease with which the Bush administration has exerted power over the press.
"The New York Times was banned from flying on Dick Cheney's plane during the campaign," Schell said. "That's an example for you ..."
"Why wouldn't the Times go after Cheney?" Hersh cut in. "Why not write editorials about it and why not refuse to cover it? Just do AP stories about it."
"What about other publications being in solidarity with the Times?" Schell added.
"Why not try that?" Hersh asked. "I don't know why they didn't try that. Why just acquiesce?"