Media Circus

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh has taken a beating in the press after it was revealed that documents he used in writing a new book on the Kennedys were fake.

Published October 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Bob Woodward was always the nice one -- the one who felt your pain, flattered your ego and maybe even came to your dinner party. He was rewarded with seven-figure book contracts, a top management job at the Washington Post and the virtually unanimous admiration of friends and foes alike. Sure, other reporters were jealous of Woodward, but he was so damn nice, what was the point of railing against fate?

Sy Hersh, he was the nasty one. He didn't feel your pain; he caused it. He had the goods already but he wanted more. He had his own view of the way the world worked and it wasn't pretty. Woodward, the former Navy officer and Ivy League Republican, would never have uncovered a massacre like My Lai, where American troops raped and pillaged like the Huns of yore. He wouldn't have believed it possible. But for young Sy Hersh, war crimes by American troops merely confirmed his view of the whole nasty business. As Clausewitz might have said, politics is merely war conducted by less honest means. No one ever considered Sy Hersh for an editor's job, and quite a few worried about the consequences of having him over for dinner. Would he browbeat the help about whether they were getting minimum wage?

The Woodward team, which includes almost all of semi-official Washington, has been rejoicing over the past few weeks over what looked like the bad boy's comeuppance. Working furiously on his big exposi of the Kennedy clan, "The Dark Side of Camelot," Hersh thought he had happened upon a previously buried treasure-trove of documents proving all kinds of previously unsubstantiated allegations. Newsweek reported that a series of signed agreements dated between March 1960 and Jan. 1962 allegedly proved that Kennedy paid Marilyn Monroe more than $1 million for her silence -- not just about her long-rumored sexual affair with John Kennedy, but about JFK's purported relationship with mobster Sam Giancana and other "underworld figures." According to one quoted source, the papers suggest that Kennedy asked J. Edgar Hoover to arrange Monroe's murder. Hersh told his publisher, Little, Brown, that the documents were "too good to be true," and they were.

As everyone now knows, a long and complicated process designed to authenticate the documents in question finally determined they were indeed forgeries. ABC News, which is still tentatively planning to air a special on Hersh's findings, confronted the man who has been peddling them, Lex Cusack, a New York paralegal whose father, Lawrence, represented the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and was alleged to have worked for Joseph Kennedy Sr. Cusack denied that the documents were forgeries, but no one believes him. Hersh says it's too bad he wasted so much time on a false lead, but the stuff he still has is "equally good." Hersh, however, is not talking about what these might be and neither is his editor, the estimable Jim Silberman. While a number of the articles on the controversy have claimed to know what the book contains, none of these claims appear to be based on reliable sources. Little, Brown is still committed to a massive 350,000-copy first printing and ABC, says Hersh, is not pulling its plans to run the two-hour documentary.

The proof, as always, will be in the pudding. But Hersh has rarely disappointed in the past, so it is surprising to see the glee with which his erstwhile colleagues -- none of whom has seen a single word Hersh put to paper -- have pounced on the prize-winning investigative reporter. Official Washington may yet be eating its words.

The New York Times, Hersh's former employer, carried a story in which an NBC news executive implies that Hersh deliberately tried to cover up his own doubts about the documents before the two parted company; according to the story, Hersh then did the same to ABC. Hersh calls these charges "outrageous slander," and says if they were true, "The New York Times should have investigated it and buried me." The Washington Post ran a catty front-page style-section story. Newsweek assigned three of its top investigative reporters to write up the story and Time treated it as top news as well.

Hersh's biggest hit, however, comes in the November Vanity Fair. Robert Sam Anson paints him as a nearly maniacal figure, who terrorizes sources, plays fast and loose with the facts, cheated his ex-partner and is given to frequent violent fits of temper. Though the story does treat Hersh with a kind of affection and occasionally, admiration, it quite understandably infuriated its subject. Hersh insists Anson deliberately ignored evidence that he knew would undercut his story and relied on sources of decidedly questionable credibility. "I mean, crawling on the street for four blocks, throwing typewriters through glass windows -- where did he get this crap?" he demands.

Anson's piece poses two key, incendiary questions: Did Hersh wait too long to admit that his documents were forgeries in order to milk more money out of NBC and ABC, and did he then allow the sale of the documents to other unsuspecting investors, a group that allegedly includes Steve Forbes? Second, did Hersh cheat his one-time collaborator on the Kennedy project, Michael Ewing, a former researcher for the House Select Committee on Assassinations and the son-in-law of former Iowa Sen. Harold Hughes?

In the first matter, Hersh explains that "The whole goal, for over a year, was to try to find empirical evidence that would back up the documents' claims. We were looking for a trust fund. We wanted evidence. It took a lot longer than people realize; getting a forensic analysis takes months. By January of 1997 there were serious doubts, but it took us six months to substantiate them." Why was Hersh so slow to admit the documents were fake? "Suppose we were wrong. What would we do then? There are real legal problems if we were not certain. We tell people we're out of the deal, and they could sue us. Our belief had to be verified and sustained. It is not as easy as people think. Usually, it is simply my expert against your expert."

Regarding his treatment of Ewing, who clearly provided Anson with much of his material and comes off in the piece as the unjustly aggrieved hero, Hersh is reluctant to pick on his former partner. He notes, for the record, that he has not spoken to Ewing in over 19 months. While he found his work to be unworthy of the project, he did not demand any of the $300,000 advance that Ewing received to be returned. "There's nothing to say about my ex-partner. Someone who was once in business with me is no longer in business with me. You have to draw your own conclusions. It's a question of what Anson knew and what he didn't write."

In truth, Hersh set himself up for a piece like Anson's. Hersh is not a nice man in the Washington sense; he does not know how to make small talk, flatter his bosses, spin his defeats and conceal his fierce competitiveness. He is simply the best investigative reporter alive and expects his work to speak for itself. Bob Woodward, the man who is alleged to hold that title, managed to write a book about CIA Director Casey without discovering that the man was up to his nose-hair in Iran-Contra crime. It could have happened to anyone -- except Sy Hersh.

By Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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