Hot Air: In Book Heaven

Just picked up a fresh, hot-off-the-presses copy of Reporter, the new memoir by Seymour M. Hersh.

When you’re talking about the best in American journalism, you’re talking Seymour Hersh. He broke the My Lai Massacre story and then, nearly a quarter century later, he was among the first to detail the abuses perpetrated by US military and intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Funny thing is, when crusading reporters became all the rage in the mid-’70s, it was primarily Woodward & Bernstein who were the popular idols. Sure, they were instrumental in making certain the Watergate burglary and ensuing cover-up didn’t fade into a forgotten mist but, really, plenty of other intrepid reporters did as much or more as they did to bring down the Nixon presidency. But, hell, W & B got a movie out of the whole deal.

Nobody’s yet made a movie about the likes of Seymour Hersh starring either Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford, although I’d probably cast Steve Buscemi in the role. No matter.

Hersh was the embodiment of Studs Terkel’s old dictum about the reporter’s sacred responsibility to ask the impertinent question. I’ve always believed the reporter’s primary job is to make politicians and other leaders feel uncomfortable. I recall reading, years ago, that NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell was marrying Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan. Sure, she was NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent at the time but, still, Greenspan was a Washington titan and, as such, he was on “the other side.” That’s the key — reporters must always view public officials, either elected or appointed, as “others.’ They’re not your friends. And they sure as hell shouldn’t be your bedmates.

If Andrea Mitchell felt so strongly about Alan Greenspan that she had to get hitched up to him, she should have resigned from the NBC News Department and found work elsewhere. Trust me, she’d have found another job in the snap of her fingers.

Anyway, there’s way, way, way too much chumminess between today’s journalists and their subjects. And the line between officialdom and reporter-dom is being chipped away to the point where, well, it pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. As Linda Ellerbee has observed: “When the anchorman is wearing a colonel’s uniform, that tells you something.”

It makes me think of a line in my upcoming Big Talk/Big Mike’s B-town interview1 with radio personality David Brent Johnson. DBJ went to college thinking he might become a reporter. Early on he realized he wasn’t cut out for the gig. “I didn’t like making people feel uncomfortable,” he told me. “As a reporter, you can’t be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to put this bank official on the spot.'”

That’s a smart assessment, both of one’s self and the requirements for the job. And, for pity’s sake, it’s not just a job; it’s a calling.

Hersh was so good at his calling that neocon Richard Perle, one of the architects of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure once said he was, “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.”

Now, that’s a healthy relationship between reporter and subject!

I’m in the process of finishing up Erik Larson’s Dead Wake right now. It’s about the last voyage of the Lusitania, the titanic2 luxury liner that was torpedoed by the Germans in World War I with nearly 1200 people losing their lives. The incident set America on a path to enter World War I, which it did almost precisely two years later. Larson, if you’ve not read him yet, is perhaps the best and most accessible history writer in the English language right now. Everybody raves about his Devil in the White City but I think his best work is In the Garden of Beasts, about the family of the last American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s.

So, soon as I’m finished with Dead Wake, I’ll jump right into Reporter. If I know myself at all, I’ll probably be sneaking peaks at Hersh’s book well before I’m finished with Larson’s.

As I always say, perhaps the fact that gives me the greatest comfort in this life is the knowledge that I’ll never run out of books to read.

[Note 1: My Big Talk episode featuring DBJ will air Thursday, June 14th, at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM. This month’s Big Mike’s B-town column on him will run that same day in the Limestone Post.]

[Note 2: You’ll pardon the pun. In fact, the word works on a couple of levels: the Lusitania was, for a spell, the world’s largest ocean liner, as was the Titanic when it went down. And the Titanic sank a mere three years earlier than the Lusitania did.]

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