Seymour Hersh, arguably the greatest journalist of our time and certainly the most necessary, joined me last week at a University of Illinois conference that asked the question: “Can freedom of the press survive media consolidations?”
The Pulitzer-winning journalist reworked the question, asking: “Can freedom of the press survive the Bush presidency?”
No one is sharper in his rebukes of U.S. officials than Hersh, the man who exposed the My Lai massacre, CIA domestic spying, the role of the United States in the 1973 coup in Chile that deposed elected President Salvador Allende, Israel’s nuclear ambitions and, most recently, the failures of the U.S. government in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the prison torture scandal at Abu Ghraib.
Hersh pulls no punches. “Henry Kissinger,” he says, “lies like other people breathe.”
Yet, Hersh adds, he wishes the U.S. government had a Kissinger now because then there would be “somebody (in Washington) with a scheme up his sleeve.”
The veteran journalist, who has been writing for the New Yorker since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, says the United States today is in “uncharted waters,” with leadership that does not begin to understand the world but is playing the games of geopolitics as if it did.
Of President Bush, he says, “This is really a zealot – somebody who believes in what he’s doing and has no information.”
Hersh suggests that, unlike Kissinger, who lied but did so from a basis of knowledge, Bush spreads misinformation that the president, himself, actually thinks is true.
The vacuum in which Bush operates sees him gathering information about the war constantly. Hersh has no doubt that the president and his aides knew that acts of torture were being committed by the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere. “Did they know what was happening? Of course they did,” says the journalist, who notes the president follows the war closely, getting daily detailed briefings.
The problem, says Hersh, is that Bush gets information tailored to satisfy his biases and to mirror the warped view of public affairs peddled by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other adherents of the neoconservative line.
Reality gets lost in such a circumstance. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others in the administration continue to push the view that the war is going well. Yet it is not, as the rising death toll in that country illustrates. Indeed, argues Hersh, who knows a great deal about U.S. military adventures gone awry, “This war is going to reverberate in ways that we cannot begin to see. It’s going to be devastating for us all.”
Unfortunately, Hersh does not have an easy answer for the current crisis. “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this,” he says. “We’re not going to find leadership in Congress. … The media, for the most part, is not doing its job.”
And that is what has Hersh really worried. The man whose investigative reporting was central to changing the course of the nation during the Vietnam War, the Watergate era and other critical junctures in recent American history says that it is getting harder and harder to break through the wall of entertainment “news” – Michael Jackson’s trial, the “runaway bride” – and get the country focused on critical issues such as whether Americans want Iraqis and others to be tortured in their name.
“We need to do something different,” says Hersh, who argues that it is necessary restore a measure of seriousness to mainstream media and to explore new options for alternative media.
The issue at stake is not one of administration, nor even one of war. It is not even the question of whether freedom of the press will survive in an era of media consolidation. It is a question of whether democracy, which the founders believed needed a free flow of information and honest debate, will survive.
“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both,” warned James Madison. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
In this time of tragedy in Iraq and farce in so much of our media, Hersh says, “It turns out our democracy is much more fragile than we think. We’re in peril.”