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Seymour Hersh, the Optimistic Pessimist

The New Yorker’s legendary muckraker Seymour Hersh, who will be stopping by UCLA’s Royce Hall on October 4 for what will no doubt be a fearsome discussion, has broken some of the most depressing stories in history.

The Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre, wherein our troops murdered anywhere from 350 to 500 defenseless Vietnamese, mostly women and children, and then tried to cover it up. The Abu Ghraib scandal, wherein our troops, along with some of the more than 150,000 private contractors currently retained by the Bush administration, tortured Iraqi prisoners in the very facility Saddam used for the same purposes — and then tried to cover it up.

And now Hersh is sounding the alarm for the United States and Israel’s impending attack on Iran, which could destroy America’s global standing and currency, as well as millions of people by the time the whole clusterfuck is over.

In other words, reading a Seymour Hersh report is like falling into a dystopian nightmare. Except the nightmare is real, not some simulation, even if all Americans have to hang on to are images and videos culled from the virtual pages of Wikipedia, YouTube and elsewhere.

Hersh’s nose for bullshit famously inflamed Richard Perle, one neocon architect of our occupation of Iraq, to whine to CNN dork Wolf Blitzer that Hersh “is the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.” Perle resorted to calling him that because the Vietnam-savvy journalist put two and two together and figured our escapade in Baghdad was reminiscent of another boondoggle that went nowhere. Which says as much about Perle’s impoverished philosophies as about anything Hersh could dream up in the pages of The New Yorker.

But Hersh, an accidental optimist bearing very bad news, remains positive. He doesn’t “think that we’re at the stage where we’re not going to have an election. That’s not going to happen.”

Great. We can still have an election. Only in America!

L.A. WEEKLY:Okay, let’s start with the obvious: Bush, Cheney and Iran.

SEYMOUR HERSH: The Iranian story is not over. My sources inside the government call me Chicken Little, but nothing that’s happened over the last few weeks convinces me [a U.S. attack on Iran] is off the table. The drumbeat is intense. Let’s put it this way: We’re about 17 months away from the inauguration of a new president. And I’ll sleep easier then. Maybe.

I’ve always had the feeling that if Bush and Cheney et al. were going to do it, they would do it closer to the election.

I’m not sure there’s any real logic to it. Why wouldn’t they do it whenever they feel like it? Or when they think the American public would buy it? Or maybe they don’t care if the American public buys it. Maybe they don’t care Republicans are screaming, “Don’t do it or the Democrats will kill us next year.” Without question, it’s the most mysterious government in terms of access that we’ve ever had. I don’t know what Bush and Cheney are talking about.

Well, if you don’t, I don’t know who does.

What happens in there, it seems, the public isn’t entitled to know. Recently, Bush signed an executive order declaring that anyone in Lebanon, meaning Lebanese citizens, who disagrees with or is in opposition to the party we support there — a Sunni Muslim group headed by a former aide to Rafik Hariri — can’t come to America anymore. He also added that those in opposition can’t have any financial transactions with the United States either. All of this without any fanfare, which is an amazing thing for a president to do. Roughly 60 percent of the population, perhaps more, disagree with the party in power there. Talk about democracy!

I think they’d attack Iran closer to the election. They’re not fans of elections.

Look, I honestly have to tell you: I think there will be an election. God knows, Bush has demonstrated the total fragility of the Constitution and the democratic process. But I don’t think that we’re at the stage where we’re not going to have an election. That’s not going to happen. He’s had a pretty good run. He’s certainly strengthened the executive branch.

So you feel that when he’s gone, all of this will be papered over?

I don’t know. It’s funny. I’m unhappy to be so skeptical about everything in this country, because in the end I’m an American. Things will change. It’s not the end of America. The politics are cyclical. But the whole world is so extreme; it could be a decade or two before we can pull this into the sunshine.

Are you confident the Democrats will take the White House in 2008?

They haven’t shown me too much so far. I’m a little suspicious of the political process these days. What is good is that the American people are starting to realize that congressional oversight on the executive branch was totally destroyed by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. The Democrats are beginning to understand that. But in some areas like special ops, renditions, prisons — we’ve got more people captured and imprisoned in Iraq than at any other time of the war — and interrogations, I’m not so sure.

 

Funny, I don’t read too much about that in the mainstream press.

Everybody’s mad at the mainstream press, and for good reason. The NewYork Times, the Washington Post and others blew probably the most important moral issue of this decade, which was the weak foundation on which we went to war in Iraq. They blew it. Totally.

Do you think the administration learned from the Vietnam War that their first priority was to co-opt the press?

Oh yeah, but I think co-opt is a weak word. I think it was more than that. The ability of this administration to spin the press is unbelievable. Just look at the surge, how the press was atwitter about the report from General Petraeus — or King David, as they call him. I mean, he’s a Ph.D. from Princeton and he likes himself. The White House and its press decided that this report would be some mystifying document that is somehow going to save the world. Well, guess what? You can spin it all you want, but we’re taking a pasting. Iraq is an unmitigated disaster, and the Bush administration is going to leave it for the Democrats to clean up. The point is that the White House must be ecstatic over its ability to spin the press so easily. Every time I watch a network news show, I feel like I’m watching a Jon Stewart parody.

It’s hard to tell what is reality and what is hyperreality.

Absolutely. I give up on the TV. They try to sell themselves as trusted guardians of the news, but they’re not. Lately they’ve just been an outlet for the rabid neoconservatives. In newspapers, these people are usually identified, but not on TV — you rarely find out that their so-called experts come from the Heritage Foundation or wherever.

How about print? Murdoch owns the Journal now. I hear he’s going after the Times next.

Murdoch’s smart. He’ll be around as long as it takes to muscle The New York Times.

Do you feel that he’s a return to the Hearst model of media megalomaniac?

Yeah, but I think he’s smart enough to leave the Journal alone. Look, there is a bunch of people at the Journal and the Times, including the L.A. Times, who are good people doing good work. Same with the Washington Post. But collectively, I don’t think there’s any question that the press overall missed the big story. I used to be reluctant to talk about that, but I don’t think there’s any question that something has to be done. The press has no inclination to do anything other than say things could have been done better.

Yet they have power. Should they have accountability?

It’s an interesting thing to study. Anybody reading the evidence could figure it out. I certainly did. We had too many myths out there being passed off as news.

What I don’t understand is how the press could miss all of this, yet not take at least partial responsibility for our present misery.

Well, you see, the trouble is you are imputing motive, and I don’t see it. For better or worse. The whole issue is pretty complex.

Yeah, but in court, you’re either guilty or not guilty. You don’t get the luxury of complexity.

You have the luxury of saying that, but they’re not criminals. I’m going to disagree with you. People do strange things for strange motives. And they think they are doing the right thing. Look, I’m not trying to get off the hook by saying that. We’ll have to let history decide.

Are TV and print media failing because they haven’t changed? From The Colbert Report to bloggers, journalism has been transformed.

Ten or 15 years ago, when I started writing for The New Yorker, the idea was to make the pages of The New York Times. Now I do a story for The New Yorker and I’ve got a million readers in a matter of days. Look how many stories have been generated because of the Internet. Communications have changed; everything is moving faster. So journalism is not dead. We haven’t sorted it out yet, but it’s not dead. Even I might end up blogging for some Web site rather than writing for some magazine or newspaper.

You could start your own site and make millions.

I’ve thought of that. There are people making millions doing that, although I’m not sure I would make that much. In my case, something might get lost in the translation. The Internet has a discipline problem. There are people at The New Yorker keeping me honest, and I wouldn’t trade that for a million dollars. We just have to make the bloggers . . . well, I don’t know what you could do. I don’t want to say rein them in, because I like their energy. But also, they’re crazy.

 

Well, they lack what I would call the hypocritical pretense to impartiality that TV and print media profess to have.

But to make the Internet work, you need readers with a strong sense of reality, a grasp of the facts, a healthy amount of information, and the ability to separate the bias from the story. When you have that, the Internet is a fascinating tool. When you don’t have that, you can get into trouble.

Seymour Hersh will speak at UCLA Live, Thurs., Oct. 4, 8 p.m., at Royce Hall. (310) 825-2101 or uclalive.org


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