A “source with direct knowledge” of the sabotage is the unwitting and anonymous protagonist of the latest controversial article by journalist Seymour Hersh about the alleged US role in blowing up three of the four Nord Stream gas pipelines in September 2022. Hersh claims the explosives were planted in June by US divers during NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea, and the Norwegian Navy detonated them three months later. Hersh, the 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner for revealing the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, used a single source for a report that some call a conspiracy theory. The controversy has ignited an internecine war within the news media.
The White House rejected Hersh’s allegations that the US was behind the sabotage: “It is utterly false and complete fiction.” But Hersh argues that the pipeline represented a “political threat of cheap Russian natural gas” for Germany and Western Europe and competition for US gas exports. For the most critical readers, Hersh’s story lies somewhere between disinformation and a hoax.
The veteran investigative journalist, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the father of another reporter, made the allegations in early February on his website. Hersh has worked for prestigious publications like The New York Times, the newspaper for which he covered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. He broke the story on the 2004 investigation on torture in the CIA’s secret prison in Abu Ghraib (Iraq) for The New Yorker magazine, and no one challenged a single word.
The Nord Stream report is not the first time Seymour Hersh has stirred controversy. In 2013, he refuted Western government accusations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the chemical weapon attack on Ghuta, a suburb of Damascus. Hersh placed the blame on Syrian rebels. “I wrote a story full of reasons why [the Syrian Army] may not have been responsible [for the attack], but the story wasn’t picked up in the US,” Hersh said in a 2019 interview with EL PAÍS. Two years later, he wrote in the London Review of Books that the US and Pakistan had lied about the circumstances leading to Osama Bin Laden’s death. Hersh’s use of anonymous and indirect sources in that report raised suspicions and marked a turning point in his career – he became an outsider. No longer the objective, impartial reporter, Hersh began to take sides. Two significant articles – the Syrian chemical attack and Bin Laden’s death – were rejected by The New Yorker, a notoriously scrupulous fact-checker.
Challenging official statements with credible information from anonymous sources, especially in sensitive cases, has long been Hersh’s stock in trade and a relevant investigative exercise. While many today consider this borderline disinformation, Hersh hasn’t given an inch. “I will gladly allow history to judge my recent work,” he wrote in Reporter: A Memoir (2018).
Hersh writes about his childhood and working in the family laundry business in his memoir. He attributes his inquisitive nature to his parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, and passed that on to his investigative journalist son. He describes himself in Reporter as a “survivor of a golden age in journalism.” It was a time when “we did not have to compete with 24-hour news channels, newspapers were awash with advertising revenue, and I was free to travel as much as I wanted,” he said. Journalists could focus on revealing “important and inconvenient truths,” said Hersch, who has taken pride in doing just that for 60 years.
His main regrets are the stories he never reported, like Richard Nixon’s 1974 beating of his wife, Pat, after the Watergate scandal forced him to resign the presidency. According to Hersh, it wasn’t the first time. Hersh had direct information from the hospital where Pat Nixon was treated, but at the time, he believed the president’s private conduct had not affected his public service. Hersh has always regretted the mistake.
Hersh is not the only renowned journalist who has seen his reputation tarnished. Consider the challenges to Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s veracity as a reporter, British journalist Robert Fisk’s purported favoritism toward the Syrian government, or Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci’s personal relationship with a Lebanese warlord while reporting on the country’s civil strife. But all of these reporters have died, and only a few representatives of the golden age of American journalism are still alive – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, and Hersh. They are the chroniclers of the arcana of official and unofficial history and stories that were never told. They are the last vestiges of a profession increasingly fractured by the battle between critics and apologists.
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