In the matter of Seymour Hersh

November 18, 1997|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary puts us in our place. The definition of ''journalism'' begins: ''The occupation of reporting, writing, editing . . . '' The sample sentence there reads: ''He calls himself a historian, but his books are mere journalism.''

If they had asked me, I would have said that journalism is a self-created tribe. The best thing about my business is that you become a reporter by saying you are one. This is no profession; there are no licenses, no entrance examination, no written standards, no review boards, no required education. Journalism is, at most, experience and values, beginning with fairness and accuracy. At its least, it is just a habit or a lifestyle.

The value added to ''information products'' by journalism, as economists calculate these things, is recognizable order and, most of all, earned credibility.

So my tribe -- they say there are 120,000 journalists in the United States -- can be a pretty edgy and insecure bunch. We quote the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press, pulling it warmly around us a like a cloak. But we fear a day when the public or the government might turn on us with the obvious question: ''Who gives you the right to . . . ?''

I have always been amazed by how much we get away with. In my heart, I believe something Ithiel de Sola Pool, a political scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said a few years ago: ''No nation will indefinitely tolerate a free press that serves to divide the country and to open the floodgates of criticism against the freely chosen government that leads it. . . . If the press is the government's enemy, it is the free press that will end up being destroyed.''

A shaken scribe

That fundamental insecurity, and the fact that we are so often our own worst enemy, is why the current drama (or skit) involving Seymour Hersh and his book ''The Dark Side of Camelot'' has shaken me as much as anything I remember in my professional life. This is a terrible hit for journalism. It tells too much about us.

First, it is shocking that a tribal elder as admired as Mr. Hersh could do a book so ''shoddy'' -- the word used by a professor of history, Alan Brinkley, in a review in Time magazine. Some of it is just embarrassing, in a class with the phony John Kennedy-Marilyn Monroe documents that drummed up interest in this mess. In the tribe, Mr. Hersh's work is seen as a kind of betrayal of whatever standards we do have.

Second, the feeding frenzy of press attention makes it uncommonly clear that what we love, maybe even prefer, is bottom-feeding. The same issue of Time in which Mr. Brinkley trashed Mr. Hersh put the book on the cover and ran eight pages on it inside -- all the while saying it was not worth much. The ''Today'' show put Mr. Hersh on two days running, then called other journalists, me among them, to come on and ''rebut him.'' The booker who called me said, ''We've already asked him some tough questions.'' In declining, I offered the opinion that it doesn't matter what the questions and answers were; what ''Today'' was actually doing was telling viewers that this book is ''Important!''

But it is not important at all in terms of history. Suspect old stuff on Kennedy is clumsily rewritten, and the new stuff, such as it is, is even more suspect. In terms of journalism, and this is the killer, if Mr. Hersh had done good work, which he certainly has in the past, he would have been largely ignored by Time, ''Today'' and all the rest of us.

We have not come very far, our tribe. Anthony Trollope caught some of that a while ago, in his 1855 novel ''The Warden.'' He describes a character named Tom Towers, a newspaper editor:

''He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must respond if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible to? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him . . . Ministers courted him, though perhaps they tTC knew not his name . . . ''

So, another journalist flatters himself that he made history because he wrote news -- and did not even get that right.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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