If Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour “Sy” Hersh is the closest thing that print journalism has to a superhero, then his origin story can be found in the first few pages of his new memoir, the aptly titled Reporter.
In 1959—a full decade before he broke the story of the cover-up of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam—the 22-year-old south-side native was a shoe-leather journalist pounding the Chicago pavement for the famed City News Bureau.
Hersh describes one night on the job when he sped to the scene of a fire not far from his father’s cleaning store on the southwest side. There he discovered that an entire family, five people in all, lay dead among the burning embers of the shabby wood-frame house—possibly due to a murder-suicide. What a story, Hersh thought. But before he could file it, an editor butted in to ask if the victims were “of the Negro persuasion.” When Hersh replied that the deceased family was black, his boss said to “cheap it out,” which meant relegating the story to a single line in the next day’s newspaper: “Five Negroes Died in a Fire on the Southwest Side.”
“That was shocking to me,” Hersh writes.
During another late shift, he overheard two cops discussing a robbery suspect who’d just been shot and killed, reportedly while trying to avoid arrest. One police officer, Hersh recalls, said something like, “So the guy tried to run on you?” The second cop replied, “Naw, I told the [N-word] to beat it and then I plugged him.” Hersh later obtained a coroner’s report and found that the suspect had been shot in the back, but when he wanted to write up what looked like a murder committed by Chicago police, his editor again told him no, there was no story. Hersh didn’t push the issue any further, and the matter died there. It left him feeling “full of despair at my weakness and the weakness of a profession that dealt so easily with compromise and self-censorship,” he writes.
Hersh learned a hard lesson by the end of his seven-month stint in his first journalism job: black lives on the south side didn’t seem to matter as much as white lives on the north side. More broadly, he learned that those in power regularly prey on the and that the profession he was “smitten” with—journalism—often lets them get away with it.
“At some I realized that I was in a tyranny,” Hersh says.
Hersh, now 81, has spent much of the last six decades of his career as America’s preeminent investigative journalist, doggedly exposing abuses of all kinds of power. He’s shined a much-needed light on the excesses of the U.S. military (from My Lai to the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib in 2003); the deep state and intelligence community (such as the CIA’s illegal surveillance of citizens); high-ranking government officials (he was especially a thorn in the side of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Dick Cheney); and massive corporations (e.g., his 2001 New Yorker story on Mobil Oil’s role in the corrupt world of oil acquisitions).
It hasn’t always been easy. Hersh’s combative style and take-it-or-leave-it philosophy with editors and others have meant a lot of burned bridges, and they’re why he’s jumped around to so many publications over his long career. In a review of Reporter, the New York Times (one of his former employers) labels Hersh a “lone wolf” for his tendency to hunt alone for the kind of difficult stories that helped take down presidents and change the public’s attitudes toward wars—no matter which political party is in charge.
In an interview, Hersh expanded on the metaphor, explaining that he’s a hunter and most people in the journalism world—or otherwise—are meat eaters. “The meat eaters are the guys who receive what the hunters get, but they don’t quite understand the hunters. They don’t really like them,” he says. “I’m always going to have trouble as a meat eater. I’m always going to be the guy throwing dead red full of life on an editor’s desk.”
The Reader spoke with Hersh about his early life and career in Chicago and how it shaped him, the sad state of modern media, and, yes, Trump.
Ryan Smith: Where did you grow up in Chicago?
I grew up on 47th Street. During World War II and up until the end of the war there was a de facto line of segregation. It was called Cottage Grove Avenue, and if you were at 700 Cottage Grove Avenue, it was an all-black neighborhood. And at 800, it was all white. It was a very segregated world. The neighborhood we lived in . . . I don’t think it had a name. It just was sort of a , but it was an area of great and stuff like that—mostly African-American. Like a lot of eastern Europeans, my parents were just happy to be in America.
Did you witness a lot of racism there?
In a funny way, growing up and working and living in a black neighborhood, I was insulated, so I just don’t remember thinking about color that much. In a lot of ways—at least in my area—we were much less sensitive to color. I understood that I was white and (many of my neighbors) were black, but I didn’t realize there was some sort of institutionalized racism.
But then, as you read, I was working at City News and heard a cop talk about the casual murder of, in his words, N-word]. I mean, that was all shocking to me.
It seems like you quickly grew to be very sensitive to institutionalized racism. You ended up being a civil rights reporter for the Associated Press early in your career.
Only because I grew up without it. My father’s business was within the black community, and my mother was just as friendly with the black women working for him as she was with her own friends.
I did learn on the job about racism and it made me sensitive to it and interested in people like Martin Luther King and [gospel singer and civil rights activist] Mahalia Jackson. Three years after my City News job, I got back to Chicago working for the Associated Press. It took me a while to make it known that I was pretty good. But once I made it known, the editors there were wonderful and didn’t want it to be a desk job. They just said come in with a story every day, five days a week. That was the deal.
And I just saw myself gravitating to writing a lot about racism. That’s why I wrote about Mahalia Jackson. I knew how powerful she was in the black community, and in she couldn’t go anywhere without [selling shows] out, but then I realized she wasn’t all-powerful in the rest of America. And Martin Luther King . . . I mean, how hard was it for him to seduce me? He’d just give me a look and I was his guy. He could read reporters and could tell that I was eager to fall in love.
I remember a story I did for the AP. I went to an apartment building and the [landlords] offered me 20 apartments, but then I went with some African-American friends and they “We’re full.”
There wasn’t anything astonishing about it, it’s just the way it was. And Martin Luther King’s problems in Chicago were so acute. The racism in southwest Chicago—it was a lot of fear: “The blacks are coming not only to take our houses and marry our daughters but to take our jobs.”
Is that why it seems like so much of your journalism is to get Americans to care more about the lives of people of different countries—especially countries with a lot of black and brown people?
Don’t make me say that’s all because of what I learned working in Chicago in the black neighborhoods. It’s not. No, that’s just me. Are you kidding? Look, you’re talking to somebody whose parents are immigrants off a boat. I don’t think either one got through high school—we never talked about it. My father came from a town that was completely destroyed by the Nazis, and I only learned about that 20 or 30 years after he died. So I’m not going to be somebody that says we’ve got to keep people from coming to America. We have to have our doors open. We have to respect people everywhere—human beings are human beings.
I love the story you tell in the book about how you got your first journalism job because you lost a poker game.
Losing a poker game was something I did, particularly in the army. But I kept on playing it anyway. So the deal was I applied to City News, but I didn’t pay attention and went back to selling beer at Walgreens. I moved away from the apartment with the phone number I gave City News, so they had no way of reaching me. But it just so happened that I was back in that place one night because a bunch of graduate students [were there and] had what they call the table stakes no-limit poker game. I stuck around for a bit, but I lost early—the card games usually went all night.
But instead of going back to my apartment, I crashed on the couch. And in the morning, the phone rang at nine o’clock and I happened to be up and answered. And they said “Hersh?” I was surprised, but said, “Yeah.” He goes, “This is Ryberg, City News—ready to start?” So, that’s how I got my job.
I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten that call. It’s funny, I read the papers a little bit, but I had no interest in journalism at all. I just knew I could write.
Yours is an increasingly rare story these days. A working-class kid with no journalism degree getting a job in the field. This has become a white-collar profession.
Yes. Are you kidding? Journalism is totally this thing, a pipeline from the Harvard Crimson and Yale Daily News to the New York Times.
How much influence did attending the University of Chicago have on you? I did the math and you beat Bernie Sanders there by a few years.
No, no, no. If anything it was pretty conservative. I remember listening to the famous (Leo) Strauss, of Straussian economics. He was an icon of politics. I was 18 or 19, I go to listen to lectures from Philip Roth, my god, it was a very intellectually stimulating place. But I was never a great student and wasn’t really that connected. Don’t forget I was working my father’s store then.
But I could always mask my lack of knowledge, and I could play sports. Someone actually just sent me a picture of me taken by the Chicago Tribune from October 1955 from a football game. We only played about five games that year and I got a concussion, knocked out trying to tackle somebody who could actually play.
You learned the truth about institutional racism while a reporter in Chicago. What else did you discover?
I didn’t know anything about real life back then. And then to get a job at a newspaper and get on the street and understand that you don’t report a cop for killing somebody and you don’t even begin to mess around with the Mafia because the cops sure didn’t as long as they didn’t cross the line. I mean, what the hell?
I got friendly with [former Chicago reporter and press secretary to Richard J. Daley] Bob Billings, who was a tough-talking guy who gave me all kinds of grief. But we had something in common: golf. This is Chicago in because he was dating the wife of a police captain. One day we drive 50 miles out of the city to play golf in a suburb and we took his car, and I remember he opened up his trunk and he took out a pole that he extended to be about eight feet and it had a mirror on it. He was clearly looking for a bomb that would have been left by the police captain. Are you kidding me? I was knocked out by that. I didn’t know anything about that stuff. But I learned.
It was tough then, there was one police district in Lawndale in 1960 in which they indicted half the police district for doing most of the crimes they were allegedly solving. It was a funny world. Mort Sahl used to call the Chicago drive “the last outpost of collective bargaining.” You’d learned to drive with a $10 bill below your driver’s license so when you got stopped for speeding, you just gave the cop the license and money and he would say, “OK son, better be careful,” and give you back your license.
I remember one shock. There was an AP story I wrote about police corruption, and one of the Chicago papers ran a story I wrote, a Sunday feature story about police corruption, on page one. Obviously, the newspaper had people on staff that knew a lot more about corruption than I did, but they didn’t want to write it themselves because the cops were crooked and there would be payback. So they just laid it off on the wire service story.
It’s all different now. Thank god for iPhones and video cameras. If [I’d] had an iPhone back then, I’d be in business. But come on. There are more killings, and nobody’s figured out how to resolve the problem.
If you were a reporter working in Chicago in 2018, what do you think you’d focus on?
Getting out of there.
What can I tell you? Chicago is one of those cities that sort of—it does look its racism a little bit more in the eye than most cities. Right. They’re a little more open about it, and the city keeps moving on and it works a little bit like Beirut. I go to Beirut and incredible strife and this political unrest but the first thing you want to know is, Where’s the new French restaurant? So the city is very vital.
I’m sorry the newspapers suck.
So you’re aware of the state of journalism in Chicago these days?
Yes, of course, I watch it carefully. It’s the typically sad, pathetic state. It’s bad. For the Tribune to be in such bad shape—which is such a proud paper, and so arrogant, and maybe not that good, but so arrogant. The Sun-Times was always another story. But the problem you have with papers now is they don’t have the staff to cover the city the way they use to.
I found it really fascinating that while you were press secretary for the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign back in 1968, you tried to arrange a conversation between him and Chicago mayor Richard [J.] Daley to get an endorsement.
Eugene McCarthy was, as his daughter once said to me, alienated. Once Bobby (Kennedy) got in the race, I think it was over and he didn’t want to acknowledge it to himself. He got bitter. But yes, I was the guy and I’d been with him from the beginning. There was a certain connection I had him, but sometimes he would get angry at me. The press sort of respected me as press secretary, and he used to get angry at me about that a lot. He’d say, “they all love you, but they’re supposed to love me.”
But I thought, if you’re in, you’re in for the dime, so let’s go for it. And maybe he could beat Bobby, who knows? And so we did arrange for McCarthy to call Daley because of the Catholic connection—McCarthy was a very, very religious and profound guy. But he got very nasty about me when I was trying to get him to pick up the phone and talk to Daley. He told his lunch crowd—there were movie stars always around him—”Sy Hersh wants me to kiss Mayor Daley’s ass.”
I could have killed him at the moment, I’m like, are you fucking kidding me?
And you weren’t a fan of Daley.
Are you kidding? That Mayor Daley, a fan of him? I couldn’t stand the way Chicago was run: the corruption, the racism, the insensitivity.
Here in Chicago in 2018, we’ve got this powerful mayor who’s been accused of cover-ups and abuse of power. What do you think of Rahm Emanuel? Did you deal with him in Washington?
Not directly, but like a lot of reporters I was around him. He’s a bully.
It was interesting, after a couple years as Obama’s chief of staff, he’s exhausted and bored and done with that and decides to switch jobs. How many Chicago aldermen were absolutely convinced they were going to be the next guy nominated to be mayor? Instead, this guy comes from Obama’s office and then [Bill] Daley gets to be the next chief of staff—it was a disaster. Daley couldn’t hack it. That’s another story.
And so I think about that a lot in terms of who is Obama?
I wanted to ask you about objectivity in journalism. In your book, you describe the way in which the White House press corps acted more like a PR firm. You’ve dealt with editors who bow to pressure from government and corporate interests. Isn’t there this default in journalism in which “objectivity” means a sort of obedience to authority to maintain access?
Well, that’s the trick. It’s access that drives obedience to authority.
But you know what the bigger problem is? I’m an old man, and I’ve been in newspapers for a long time. The problem is that we’re still too America focused when we should be world focused. The focus in the New York Times and the Washington Post is what our government says, what our government does. Oh my god, we left the G-7! Oh my god. Why? Why should a G-7 set the agenda for much of the world? Who are they to do that? Do you know what I’m saying?
It’s almost impossible for us to look away and get into the bigger issue. What is NATO about besides anti-communism? The bigger picture doesn’t get in there, and there’s an American central focus.
The advent of cable news, as I talk about all the time—this just made things impossible in terms of serious journalism. Even this White House with all of its caveats can just call up at three o’clock in the afternoon and say “Here’s this new tweet.” Then it’s “Breaking news! Trump calls out Trudeau!”
I don’t think anyone has an idea of the extent to which Trump knows what he’s doing. It’s sort of random stuff, [but] it’s clearly not random. The more he exposes the media as glib, he’s going up in the polls quite a bit. I think he knows something. . . . I mean I’m not sure what “know” means to him—I think he senses something that nobody else does. But that’s another story.
One thing you have to say about him is that he’s a total circuit breaker. And yes, oh my god, yes, he’s going to meet with the guy in North Korea and the South Korean. Yes, he doesn’t have any real idea what the issues are. Well, neither does the guy in North Korea. Did you think Ronald Reagan did in his negotiations?
My own guess is that Trump is all about cutting costs, he wants to get those 26, American troops in Korea out of there—all they do is nothing. So it’s not a bad deal. Since the cold we’ve got thousands of troops there and no president has ever said, ‘What the hell is that about?” It’s always sold as “You’ve got to have them, sir” as a stay of watch against North Korea and the Chinese or whatever.
And so here’s a guy saying, well, I don’t want to spend that money. I’m sort of fascinated by it. I love to watch it.
Can I tell you what he’s offering? I don’t know, but I know enough about him. He’s telling this guy, hey, you’ve got some beautiful beaches, you could have condos, and you could have more money. I know that’s the way he thinks.
Are you saying he wants Trump Tower-North Korea?
I’m sure he’s going to have one of his kids make leases. He’s telling them, “You’ve got some great beaches there man, what are you doing?” And we do exercises, we fly up the border and we look threatening, and then we go back. I know nobody knows and pay any attention. But the Kurds just cut a deal with [Syrian Bashar] al-Assad.
It just missed the press. They just miss it. And so you’ve got Iraq maybe stabilizing, you don’t have to spend all the money there. So next thing you do is you get rid of Afghanistan, who cares what the Taliban do? They’re not going to invade America, sorry that they’re bad to women, but they won’t be as bad as they were because a lot of things have changed in the last 30 years. You can also start doing business with them. I’m telling you, there’s another way to look at the world—that wasn’t Hillary’s way.
I was told recently that one of your colleagues said you’re in journalism to hurt people who come to their power undeservedly or use it for evil.
That’s sort of because I deal with people. I just spent this morning with somebody who you could describe as somebody who works on the dark side.
The head of the CIA, Gina Haspel? She certainly participated in torture. So did all of America. Remember John Walker Lindh, the kid that was tortured out in the open during a month in December of 2001? We remember and we celebrated the fact and described them as the American Taliban. He hadn’t done anything to anyone, he was just some kid that ran away from a divorce and instead of going and doing dope or chatting some girl he went to he went to join the Taliban. But he didn’t shoot anyone. Anyway, the point is: Haspel tortured and of course everybody in Congress knew it when she was up there testifying. And I’ll tell you something about her. She’s really smart and she’s honest. I want her in the CIA.
Sometimes things aren’t so simple.