Donald Trump; Seymour Hersh (Getty/AP)

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh: The world is "run by ignoramuses, wackos and psychotics"

Legendary investigative reporter on why the media can't stay out of Trump's "kitty-litter box of tweets"


Chauncey DeVega
July 23, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

Seymour Hersh is one of America's greatest investigative reporters. Over his career of more than 50 years, he has covered many of the most important stories of that period. He helped expose the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed by American soldiers. Writing for the New York Times, he helped to bring more public attention to the Watergate cover-up. Hersh was also among the first reporters to offer a proper account of Richard Nixon's and America's "secret" war in Cambodia.

Hersh has also shone a light on America's "War on Terror" and its related programs of extraordinary rendition, "black site" torture prisons and other human rights violations. He one of the first public voices to warn that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's war with Iraq was based on false pretenses and outright lies.

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Hersh has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Associated Press and numerous other press organizations and publications. In addition to his other prestigious awards, Hersh earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for international reporting. He is also the author of many books, including "The Dark Side of Camelot," "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House" and "Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib." In Hersh's new book, "Reporter: A Memoir," he discusses many of those stories and some of the lessons drawn from his long career.

In total, Hersh is a man who has never been afraid to speak truth to power, even when those truths are uncomfortable or unpopular.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Hersh reflects on the current health of the American news media, why today's newsrooms are so easily distracted by Donald Trump's use of social media, and why too many reporters and journalists are afraid of telling the truth and instead have become slaves to weak standards of "balance."

Hersh also shares his thoughts on Robert Mueller's investigation of the Trump-Russia scandal, whether Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee, how Trump may win again in 2020, and how the Democratic National Committee's attacks on Bernie Sanders in 2016 may be the party's undoing in the 2020 presidential race.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to my full conversation with Seymour Hersh through the player embedded below.

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America seems broken under Donald Trump. But could it be that America has always been broken in some fundamental and basic ways?

The complication, of course, is the orange man, the president. We've never quite had a situation like this. There were a lot of things wrong with Hillary [Clinton], but there is no question that the situation and the country would be saner with her as president. But when you have a president like Donald Trump who is obsessed with being in the news, something is amiss.

I have some friends on the inside who know more than I do about most of these things regarding Trump and this administration. With Trump and these escalations with Iran I was getting nervous. I asked some of my contacts, "What's going on?" They told me, "It is a Kabuki dance." Trump felt like he wasn't getting enough attention. He's going to do something to North Korea and he backs off. He's going to do something in Venezuela and he backs off. You name it. It is part of a pattern.

As a journalist, one of the things I can't stand is cable news. They just heighten the anxiety. You have one cable station that loves him, which of course is Fox News. You have have two that can't stand him, CNN and MSNBC. There is no middle ground. There is no place one can actually go to get something that isn't totally biased, either pro or con. My old newspaper, the New York Times, which is still, by far, the best newspaper going, does a lot of good investigative work. I do read the European press and magazines. They are much better.

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It's all about money. Newspapers are collapsing every nanosecond. We're going to be a digital world soon. There will still be national papers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but that is going to be about it.  People will just have to get their news online. Newspapers are competing for fewer dollars.

It's not just America. The whole world has sort of turned muddy. By and large, the world is increasingly run by ignoramuses, wackos and psychotics. This was long before Donald Trump. But we've got more crazy people running the world now than ever.

America is a kakistocracy and a pathocracy. Donald Trump's regime is just the crystallization of that fact. You have decades of experience as a reporter and journalist.  How should one write about something that is so utterly outrageous and yet still find a way to make the public care, in a time when so many Americans are numb to it all?   

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Do you really want me to try and make you feel better? Because I want you to make me feel better. This is where we are. It is incredibly messy. One mistake that was made by the media — and which is constantly being made — is living off Donald Trump's tweets. I call it the kitty-litter box full of Trump's tweets.

The way it works is Donald Trump sends out a tweet. The cable news immediately repeats Trump's tweet, instead of doing what I would have done if I were king of the world and editor. I would look and see the changes inside the bureaucracy and the system.  What is Trump doing? He is replacing good people everywhere with these extreme conservatives — they are not all necessarily fascists. These Trump government types do not want to give food to the poor. They don't think that immigrants should be treated well. We're seeing this strategy of Trump ruining the government all over the place.

There is going to be a presidential election in 2020. I am afraid that Trump wins, because my guess is that the Democratic Party is not going to be able to keep Bernie Sanders if they don't do something for him. The Sanders people are going to be considerable in number. If they are not given something it makes it easy for Trump to win. I also wouldn't be surprised if the overall number of Americans voting actually goes down. It is so easy to say the hell with it, a pox on all of them.

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I was one of the first people on national radio, in my writing and elsewhere to say that Trump was going to win in 2016. I think he wins again, and quite easily, in 2020.

I was with you on that all the way. I thought once Hillary called those people "deplorables" it was all over. She was dead from that moment. She lost millions of votes on that by criticizing people who were considering an alternative to her.

You have broken so many stories in your career, from the My Lai massacre to Watergate to the "War on Terror." Where is the big exposé on Donald Trump's concentration camps and the abuses by his ICE and Border Patrol enforcers?

First of all, it is a hard story to do. And in general the newspapers have missed some really significant stories anyway. For example, Mueller was an FBI director first and he's been in the government for a long time. It is not a big secret in Washington that Mueller is not as quick as he used to be. He lost his fastball. A lot of people know that. And now the Democrats are in love with FBI directors? Those aren't our people.

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That doesn't mean anything against the FBI. Just like in the government in general, I think there are a lot of wonderful people there. I deal with them all the time. There are some people of great integrity. But by and large, for the Democrats to be hanging all their hopes on an FBI director is pretty silly to me. I think the truth of the matter is that if Robert Mueller wanted to indict Donald Trump he should have done it. And if Mueller wanted Barr to indict Trump, then Barr was not going to do it.

If I were the Democrats I would stop worrying about Donald Trump and start talking to the American people about jobs and health care.

You have written a great deal about Barack Obama and his "hope and change." For all of Obama's symbolic power and importance — which was so great that a white racist backlash against him lifted Trump into office — there was not much change regarding foreign policy and American empire during his time in office.

I gave him a pass on the first term because for him to be re-elected was important for historic reasons. And like everybody else, I was all for Obama. He came in and I said, "Please shut down Guantánamo because America doesn't stand for permanent imprisonment." We have habeas corpus. We prosecute people. Some of those guys have been there 18 years now. How can we tolerate such a state of affairs as a society?

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Obama didn't shut down Gitmo. He kept the war in Afghanistan going. Obama didn't stop anything in Afghanistan. He didn't begin serious negotiations. After 18 years, how are we doing in that war? So, nothing. No progress. Soldiers getting shot up all the time.

There are a lot of things Obama didn't do. He's staying out of the election now. Obama is not supporting Joe Biden, which, I will tell you, is a death knell. I do not think that Biden is going to get very far in the 2020 race. I think somebody's is going to come up and surprise him. I just don't know who it is yet.

As you know, I wrote some years ago about the killing of Osama bin Laden. And yes, Obama was right. He learned about bin Laden and ordered the Navy Seals to kill him and they did it. That's all correct. Everything else, the details of how it went down, is a lie. I took a lot of criticism for that story. The White House controlled the news media: The Obama administration was giving briefings, reporters were begging for exclusives.

Whatever the truth is, it doesn't matter. Because once the newspapers get a story they write their version of it. It is just comical how the press was led along. And of course, the effort the White House puts into spinning them. You know you've got to give Obama his due. That was a ticket to ride for him. You got bin Laden. But there was still a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan. Obama changed nothing.

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Several weeks ago Robert Mueller held a  press conference of sorts about his report on Trump and Russia, ending his time as special counsel. To my eyes, Mueller looked a bit off, like something was amiss. What did you see?

I don't think that Robert Mueller is all there. I more than think; I know more. Basically, the bottom line is that you can yell at Barr all you want. Mueller did not indict. So there you are. And if I was a Democrat, you can run with that all week but you're not going to get anywhere. The bottom line is they had the investigation. Donald Trump may have wanted to fire everybody but they had the investigation. If I were the press, I would start writing about what the Democrats need to do. And if I were the Democrats, I'd start talking about what they are going to do to make America a better place for most people.

The corporate media  seek out the powerful and often demur to them because they too are all members of the same social class. For example: where is the reporting about the moral hazards of Trumpism and the Republican Party? Trump's "tax reform" bill was a scam, legal theft. Trump and other rich Republicans paid themselves off to the tune of many millions of dollars each. That should be a headline story. But it is not.

You are trying to talk sense in a time that isn't very sensible. Trump's popularity is still high enough that I worry that if the Democratic Party splits up, he wins. I don't think in 2024 there's any chance for a Republican to win. The demographics are going to be too bad for them.

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How do you approach the news? There is the story that is publicly presented and framed a certain way versus the facts as they actually exist. How do you deal with that tension?

I gave a talk at a journalism school recently and I told them they must read before they write. It's amazing. Even with Wikipedia, people don't know obvious things.

In terms of journalism just get the hell out of the way of the story. Do the work. There is a dispute between two people about an issue. That is not the story. The story is which one of the two people is right. But reporters and journalists are apparently just happy to say, "So-and-so said this today." That's how it goes now.

As a freelancer for many years, I have learned that complicated stories go nowhere because the media is dominated by cable and television news, formats which are all very reductionist. So if you have a complicated story that can't be translated into two sentences, it is not going to get much traction. It is a terrible thing to have to say because there are a lot of bright people in the business. But the mainstream news media we get in America is not as good as it used to be.

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What has it cost you personally to tell the truth? You are loved by some and reviled by others.

It's OK. It's just what I do. What else am I going to do? I'm old. I'm 82, and I don't really have my fastball. But I can still try and throw it. That's all. But what else can you really do?

You have studied and written about some of the most powerful people in America and the world. What do you want the American people to know about their behavior and character as a group?

I think it's inevitable that you don't get truth-tellers. I want the American people to stop believing everything they hear and to ask more questions, to become more skeptical. I think it's the one reason a guy like Donald Trump ran. They understood where he was coming from. That Trump is just a blowhard. They laughed at him. They knew Trump doesn't know what he's talking about. But Trump wasn't the same old big smile and a lot of good words. The Democrats have been going around saying, "We're for the people, we're for the little guy." And all they do is run to Wall Street for money. And the one guy that didn't, Sanders, was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee.

In the Middle Ages there were a lot of people who believed that the world was flat. Even if they saw the sun go down, they'd still say the world is flat. What did these hacked messages from the DNC say, anyway? It was about cutting off money for Sanders. Everything that was leaked showed that the Democratic Party was working against the one guy who wasn't running on campaign funds from the big corporations.

I worry about people who still think the world is flat when in reality the world is round. If I want to tell them it's round and they don't want to hear it, what do I care? I can't worry about it.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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