Fire the editors, and keep working till you die

For the last few months, I had been looking forward to attending the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva. This is the sixth meeting of a group that brings together muckrakers from dozens of countries.

Unfortunately, the Icelandic volcano had a say in my travel plans, and I had to cancel at the last moment. But that didn’t stop me from following some of the proceedings online, including a keynote speech by the always provocative and entertaining Seymour Hersh.

No one has had a more illustrious career in investigative work than Hersh. He came to international prominence with his story about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Later, working for the New York Times, he broke many of the important stories during the Nixon administration. And he has kept on working, breaking the Abu Ghraib detainee scandal and many other exclusive stories about Iraq and Iran. Hersh’s books are also fine examples of his investigative reporting.

Hersh began his remarks in Geneva by describing how difficult the life of an investigative journalist can be, chasing relcutant sources, and struggling with the moral dilemma of trying to convince people to talk, while knowing that their participation might ultimately damage their own interests. And then there is the question of editors.

“The better the story, the more they hate it,” he said, only half-jokingly. Hersh repeated a line I have heard him use before. We could lose 70 per cent of the top editors at newspapers and networks, and be better off. The reason: people who get promoted into the upper echelons tend to be among the most cautious and conservative.

To the relief of many in the audience, he acknowledged there are a small contingent of editors who demand accurate sourcing and work with reporters to make their stories better. But then he turned his attention to governments.

“Governments lie,” he said, echoing maverick journalist I.F. Stone’s most famous dictum. “We don’t. We make mistakes. There’s a big difference.”

In fact, Hersh said the biggest danger he sees in the collapse of the conventional journalism model is the potential for unchecked corruption at the local and regional levels. Without vigorous teams of investigative reporters operating at a local level, politicians will have a field day at the public’s expense, he said. The rise of foundation-based journalism models, together with mass distribution possibilities of the Internet, could well pave the way for a promising future for the genre.

After trashing editors and government, Hersh turned his attention to journalism schools. He wasn’t that impressed with them, noting that they often concentrate too heavily on newspaper layout and other technical tasks to the detriment of real journalistic skills. Even the live streaming version of the speech showed that the moderator of the session — Brant Houston of the University of Illinois — squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

When asked about how much longer he could continue doing this kind of work, the 73-year-old Hersh seemed amused.

“This is a lifetime job,” he said. “Illegal and immoral wars are good for my career.”