It was painful to have to doubt Seymour Hersh’s explosive Substack story1 last month in which he claimed that back in September 2022 it was US Navy divers that had sabotaged the Nord Stream gas pipeline which links Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. Not because the events he reconstructed couldn’t be true but mostly because – on the basis of just the one source he used in his 5,200-word report – they can’t conclusively be proven to be true.
More painful is the thought of what it could mean to his legacy if indeed it actually turns out not to be true; the damage to that elusive super-power that few journalists possess, credibility. Not to mention the erosion of the public’s perception of his other stories over the years – however watertight they had been.
Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) experts swarmed over Hersh’s pipeline story and began to produce detailed technical evidence in an attempt to debunk his claims. It was both infuriating and rather suspicious when some unashamedly chose the ad hominem path to make their point.
Seeing otherwise credible OSINT reporters spitefully ridicule the 85-year old ‘last great American reporter’, came across as crass and stunk of partisanship. He may or may not have got it right but their eagerness to take him down rather than genuinely help to bring journalistic closure seemed inappropriate.
Perhaps it is indicative of the new lone-ranger Twittering journalism. A noisy rebutting of “my journalism against yours” which fuzzes the facts and leaves the many malicious players out there free to continue to sabotage our capacity to get to the truth.
Some of the criticism against Hersh is clearly legitimate. Two source confirmation is basic journalism. Despite their tasteless glee, many experts appear to have correctly exposed plausibility issues in his story.
When news of the explosions first broke the New York Times called them a mystery and, until Hersh’s story, the prevailing, though counter-intuitive narrative, was that this had been the work of the Russians. In recent days OSINT experts such as Oliver Alexander2 put forward new hypotheses, the latest being that a Russian vessel ill-equipped to the task of welding the pipeline back in 2019 could have been responsible for the rupture [though it is accepted that there were two explosions on two separate occasions on two different pipes].
Fiona Hill, former foreign affairs advisor to presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, told Unherd on 22 February that she initially thought it was the Russians3. Now, she said, she was not so sure. She didn’t believe it was the United States adding that some of her colleagues think Ukraine could have done it: “But I just want to make it very clear that I absolutely do not know who carried this out.”
For half a century Hersh broke difficult stories which when he got right changed the course of history and our notion of journalism. He exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam that led to the conviction of the US Army Officer who ordered it. More relevantly he had provided the first comprehensive account of President Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia. Hersh was the reporter Bob Woodward telephoned in 1973 to thank him that he too had begun to report seriously on the Watergate story. Everyone had been doubting it. He and Carl Bernstein could not do it alone, Woodward admitted4.
It is not impossible that on this story Hersh’s one source – however reliable – may have double-crossed him. Detailed and convincingly argued as his catalogue of events is, it is not impossible for almost all of it to be untrue.
Now a Substack lone-reporter, Hersh no longer has Abe Rosenthal or David Remnick, his one-time Editors at the New York Times and the New Yorker to pull him back. His latest investigation is unlikely to have been supported by the painstaking fact-checking teams imperative for quality news reporting to achieve accuracy and sustain credibility. Without an editor he may have been too hasty, too eager. He may have been carried away by President Biden’s remarks over a year ago, weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which he defiantly said “If Russia invades…there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it”5.
Yet, this whole affair is not just about Hersh. It is about journalism more broadly. A journalism in which big stories still require the newsroom’s teamwork, the researchers, the team chasing multiple sources, the fact-checkers, the lawyers, and ultimately, the Editor who will shoulder responsibility.
There are very few experienced Quixotic reporters out there and Hersh is one of them. But, clearly, even he can’t do it alone. A journalism without the backbone offered by teamwork and without higher editorial responsibility tied to codes of conduct will always fall short. It will also fall prey to dubious lone-shooter reporting. Hired, malicious and partisan ‘journalists’ have already infiltrated our information sphere deliberately creating a lot of noise and doubt.
The deeper problem is that a public held in a state of perpetual confusion will become even more distrustful of journalism. It will believe nothing, even when important stories such as Hersh’s are, in the end, conclusively proven to be true.
4 Reporter, A Memoir, Seymour Hersh published by Penguin: https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/31320/seymour-m-hersh
Photo: NYT/Redux from the NYRB