Seymour Hersh Credit: Photo by Marjorie Lipan/Flickr

In 1989, I read an article in the New Yorker that changed my professional life—”The Journalist and the Murderer”—Janet Malcolm’s monumental takedown of journalists.

Journalists, she wrote, were con artists who, among other misdeeds, trick their subjects into saying things they wouldn’t ordinarily say on the record. Or, as Malcolm wrote in her first sentence . . .

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Thirty years later, that’s still one helluva lede.

After reading her article, I vowed to be upfront with my subjects—reading my article to them before it was printed, if that’s what they wanted. I made that offer throughout the 90s to profile subjects ranging from Bill Ayers to Norm Van Lier.

At some point, I mentioned my practice to a class of aspiring Medill journalists and their professor ripped me for giving too much say to my subjects.

Fast-forward all these years and I discover that Seymour Hersh—one of the great journalists of our time—well, let’s hold off on what I recently discovered about Hersh.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been up late reading Hersh’s memoir, Reporter.

I know you’re thinking—wait! Didn’t you just write a column about staying up late to read some old journalist’s memoirs? Yes, but that was Working, Robert Caro’s memoir.

Actually, Hersh and Caro are as different from each other as a hare from a tortoise. Caro is plodding, earnest, and exacting in his approach—dedicating years to a project, if that’s what it takes to get it exactly the way he wants.

In contrast, Hersh is constantly racing toward a deadline, with one eye over his shoulder, as though he’s worried some other writer will scoop him.

Not saying one style is better than the other. Just saying they’re different.

Hersh’s memoir begins on the south side in the 1950s, where his father ran a dry-cleaning business at 4507 S. Indiana.

It follows him from the old City News Bureau (right here in Chicago) to the South Dakota state house (he covered politics) to Washington, D.C. (where he made his name as a fearless muckraker).

There are many wonderful anecdotes. Like the time he had to track down Abe Rosenthal, his editor at the New York Times, at three in the morning with a question only Rosenthal could answer. Using the tricks of the investigatory trade, Hersh persuaded Abe’s wife to give him the name and number of Abe’s mistress, where the editor was spending the night. The mistress wasn’t happy when Hersh woke her to ask for Abe—but a reporter does what he’s gotta do.

In 1970, at the age of 33, Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his series in the Dispatch News Service about the My Lai Massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were murdered by American soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley.

Hersh’s efforts to verify what happened at My Lai make for a tale of unrelenting tenacity. A key moment comes when Hersh confronts George Latimer, Calley’s lawyer. Hersh had interviewed Calley without Latimer’s permission and Latimer worried that Calley’s quotes could be used against him. So they wound up cutting a deal—you can take the kid out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the kid.

“Latimer offered a deal,” writes Hersh. “If I would in some manner avoid saying outright that Calley’s comments were made directly to me . . . he could go over the story, line for line, and correct any factual mistakes he could.”

When I read that, I was like—oh, my god, I’m not alone! Seymour Hersh also reads back quotes!

I was so excited, I almost called Mick Dumke, my First Tuesdays partner, the only other journalistic geek I know who could possibly get so excited about this.

Good thing I didn’t. Man, Mick would have been as grumpy as Abe Rosenthal’s mistress if I woke him up at four in the morning to say—”Mick, did you know that Seymour Hersh reads quotes back to his sources?”

Point is . . . if reading back quotes to sources is good enough for Hersh, it’s good enough for wannabe journalists at Medill. (As you can see, there’s no statute of limitations when it comes to me and ancient arguments.)

That brings me to a larger issue of sourcing in a story.

Here’s the journalistic challenge: people in the know have something to say, but they don’t want anyone to know they’re saying it. Especially to a journalistic troublemaker.

I know all about this from writing about Mayor Daley’s attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago.

Basically, corporate and civic Chicago signed on to Daley’s foolishness because they were too chicken to take a public stand against the mayor.

So, they’d tell me things like— “I hope we don’t get the Olympics, but for God’s sake, don’t quote me.” Like getting yelled at by the mayor is worse than watching the city go broke paying for his vanity project.

Back to Hersh: like any good reporter, he’s always cutting deals with his sources. Once he convinced Paul Meadlo, one of the soldiers who killed innocents at My Lai, to fly to New York City for an on-camera interview with CBS News.

“[My publisher] had somehow convinced CBS . . . to pay ten thousand dollars . . . for an exclusive interview with Meadlo the night before my My Lai story was about to be published,” Hersh writes. “There was a huge argument for television exposure, if Meadlo would agree to do an interview, but it would be completely unethical, in the newspaper world, to pay him to do so. You cannot pay for information that the public has a right to know. . . . And so I asked Paul if he would do it, and also made clear that he could not be paid for the interview, and that I and the Dispatch would be.”

Hersh talked Meadlo into doing the interview, but without taking the cash—though CBS did “fly Meadlo and his wife to New York City and put them up in a good hotel.”

Here’s a question for Janet Malcolm: Why is it ethical to pay the journalist but not the murderer for news?

Hersh’s memoir is an enlightening read. I only wish it had come out earlier. His tales of dealing with lying and conniving Washington officials would have come in handy for any reporter covering the Daley/Rahm years.  v