Reflections on Seymour Hersh, Gary Webb and others whose stories we don’t hear

He is perhaps the finest reporter of his generation, but in the weeks since the publication of Seymour Hersh’s account of how the White House falsified the story of the killing of Osama bin Laden, few have followed up on those startling revelations.

Instead, as the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, about a week after Hersh’s story broke in the London Review of Books (because his usual publisher, The New Yorker, allegedly passed on it), there has been a “disgraceful” reception by American media to Hersh’s detailed investigative account.

“Barrels of ink have been spilled ripping apart Hersh’s character, while barely any follow-up reporting has been done to corroborate or refute his claims—even though there’s no doubt that the Obama administration has repeatedly misinformed and misled the public about the incident. Even less attention has been paid to the little follow-up reporting that we did get, which revealed that the CIA likely lied about its role in finding bin Laden, which it used to justify torture to the public.

Hersh has attempted to force the media to ask questions about its role in covering a world-shaping event—but it’s clear the media has trouble asking such questions if the answers are not the ones they want to hear.”

To someone like myself, who has worked in and studied the North American news media, this scenario sounds utterly familiar. Even Hersh, as CJR points out, encountered it when he wrote the first story of the My Lai massacre in 1969, for which he also had difficulty finding a U.S. publisher. He later won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

Those who have not had the opportunity to study these phenomena, and who are interested in learning the consequences of increasing ownership of U.S. media by large conglomerates bent more on profit than on journalism, will find a crash course provided in a 2012 film that never got wide distribution in the U.S., but is currently making the rounds in small venues among those who care about press freedoms and social justice. It’s called “Shadows of Liberty.”

On June 1, a group of 100 or more Clevelanders gathered to watch “Shadows of Liberty” at West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in suburban Rocky River. Among the film’s many examples that clearly illustrate how U.S. media have stopped covering what really matters and instead provide a diet of bread and circuses reminiscent of the waning Roman empire, was the story of Gary Webb. If you haven’t heard of Webb, look him up. He was another great investigative reporter who might have achieved the status of Seymour Hersh, had he not committed suicide after his career was destroyed by a campaign of character assassination remarkably similar to that now being visited upon Hersh.

Hersh will survive, of course. He is arguably the finest American investigative reporter of his generation, a fact that is quite well established. Thanks to his courage and perseverance — and perhaps most important, his independence (he works freelance, and for very sound reasons) — we have been told the truth about the Osama bin Laden raid and the lies told about it by the White House. But while Hersh is sure to survive, how many others, who might have been great reporters, are dying in the wilderness of the U.S. media today?

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About Carrie Buchanan

Journalism and communication professor, Canadian, now living and teaching in the United States. Longtime journalist in Canada, primarily for the Ottawa Citizen.
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