Sy Hersh and His Editors: Some Good Stories and Then It Was Time to Move On

Sy Hersh’s autobiography, Reporter: A Memoir, is full of stories about editors, with some payback and side comments about journalists who got in his way. Four short excerpts:

I left the Times office in Washington after more than five months with three strikes against me: I had not broken the code, if there was one, of the October surprise; I had constantly forgotten the name of Maureen Dowd, its star columnist, whose office was next to mine; and the one substantial story I wrote in those months for the paper, revealing that the Terex Corporation, an American company with a subdivision in Ireland, was manufacturing and selling trucks to Iraq that would easily be converted to Scud launchers, resulted in a lawsuit filed against me though not the Times.

Tina’s call meant I would be once again be working with Pat Crow, who had edited my My Lai excerpts so brilliantly, and also have the advantage of working again with The New Yorker’s solid fact-checkers. Crow and I had shared a very odd experience a year or so before when the esteemed Robert Gottlieb was editing the magazine. I had picked up a lot of inside information about turmoil inside the Pentagon over the planning for America’s 1989 invasion of Panama that ousted Manuel Noriega but left hundreds dead and parts of Panama City, the capital, in ruins. I called Pat and the two of us met with Gottlieb, who was chatty and very informal—very un-Shawn-like. He told me how pleased he was that I was offering a story, heard me out carefully, and then said go for it. As Pat and I were walking out of his office, Gottlieb added these words: “Sy, I just want you to know that I don’t like controversy.” We walked to the elevator in silence. I hit the down button, looked at Pat, and said, “I’ll see you around.”

Tina Brown continued to be totally supportive. She called me one morning while I was chasing a story to say that at a dinner in New York the night before she had been told by army general Colin Powell, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, that I was a dishonest, lying reporter who invented stories. I laughed and told her that those were the nicest words an investigative reporter could hear—a badge of honor for someone who had never been invited to the White House or on  a press junket, and never wanted to be. I was sure Powell said what Tina reported, and I was sure she did not like hearing it. But it did not give her pause. I, as all investigative reporters should be, was free to run.

Despite his cautious start, the world was in a better place with Obama in office, and I was tired and in need of a change after nearly eight years of working against the Bush-Cheney combine. There was another consideration: As much as I liked and respected David Remnick, I was troubled by what I saw as his closeness to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign and the fact that he was planning to write a biography of him. I had learned over the years never to trust the declared aspirations of any politician and was also enough of a prude to believe that editors should not make friends with sitting presidents. It wasn’t fair to David, or to me, to have such doubts, and it was time to move on.

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