Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his expose of the My Lai massacre—he was a 33-year-old freelancer at the time. Since then, he’s won pretty much every other journalism award. He’s worked as a staff writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker. He’s also written a dozen books, most recently Reporter: A Memoir. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: For me, the most powerful of your My Lai stories was one of the follow-ups of the original revelations that American soldiers killed unarmed Vietnamese civilians—504 is the Vietnamese count; the US Army now says 347. You learned that a lot of the shooting had been done by a soldier named Paul Meadlo. With your characteristic doggedness, you found Meadlo’s mother in a small town near Terre Haute, Indiana. What happened when you met her?
Seymour Hersh: First you have to remember that the kids in this unit were mostly from the underclass: a larger percentage of African Americans than in America generally, and the same for Hispanics; among the whites, most of them were rural and not very well educated. Paul Meadlo was from a town called New Goshen. It was a farming community 20 or 30 miles outside of Terra Haute, Indiana. I learned that the day after he’d done a lot of the shooting, he lost a leg. He stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. They were just patrolling like it was any other day, the day after they murdered 500 people. So I call up before I’m coming, got there late the next day. His mother comes out, I tell her, “I’m the guy that called last night.” I asked if it was okay to speak with her son. She said, “You’ll have to ask him. I can’t speak for him.” Then she said to me, “You know, I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.”
I gotta tell you, I just froze. What could you say? So I went into his place. He said, “I knew you were gonna come today. My mom told me.” I said, “I want to talk about what happened.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “But before you do that, do me a favor. Take off your shoe. I want to see what they did to you. What’s your new leg look like?” He was happy to do it. He showed me the prosthetic leg, took it off, told me it took five months in a hospital to recover from that terrible wound.
Then I said, “So tell me what happened.” And he began to tell the story of this shooting. He used seven or eight clips of 17 bullets each and shot people in a ditch, again and again and again. Calley, his lieutenant, kept on saying, “Do it.” Most of the other boys did not shoot—very few of the African-American guys. Most of them just stayed away. Same with the Hispanics. It was a white-boy shoot.
JW: We’re interested in how you got started. Were you the kind of kid in high school who edited the school newspaper and constantly got in trouble with the principal over the stuff you wrote?
SH: No. I never had anything to do with journalism. My father was from Lithuania, my mother was from Poland. They weren’t very educated. I did a lot of sports, it was a perfectly ordinary lower-middle-class life. There was always enough food to eat. My mother baked a lot. She communicated to my brother and me by food. My father just didn’t communicate. I think he was really unhappy at where he was in life, running a small cleaning business in South Chicago. He died at 49 of cancer. He smoked three or four packs of Lucky Strikes a day. So I didn’t have any intellectual role models, except that when I was about 12 or 13 I joined the Book of the Month Club. I paid I think a dollar a month. I always picked the nonfiction as the monthly book. Half the time it was J. Edgar Hoover telling us about communism or somebody else like that. But the other half was stuff that I got into: the Hapsburg Monarchy. The Catholic Church. History about China. So I read a lot as a kid. I was always good in school.
JW: In your book you write about your first job as a journalist at the City News Bureau in Chicago. One of the big lessons came when you were starting as a police reporter, and a call came in that a cop had shot and killed a suspect trying to escape. You rushed to the scene. What did you see and hear, and what story did you write?
SH: Here I am covering the Chicago police midnight to eight. Not much goes on. We had the police radio. Two cops called in and said they have a suspect and he tried to get away and they shot him, and they’re coming in to do a report. Being energetic, I ran down to the basement of the police station to get the cops when they came in. I happened to get there just as the squad car pulled in, and two beefy, obviously Irish, red-faced cops, overweight, got out. One of their buddies said, “So you had a guy try to escape on you.” He said, “No.” He said, “No, you know, I told the [n-word], ‘Get out of here, beat it’, and I plugged him while he was going down an alley.”
I heard it. You know, wow. I immediately disappeared from view. I didn’t want those cops to know that I saw them, I heard that, because this is Chicago, 1960, you did not mess around with the cops. So I called my editors. I had only been at the City News about four months. The night editor said, “Do nothing.” I said, “What area you talking about? The guy said he shot him in the back.” My editor said. “It’s your word against the cop’s.” So I waited a couple days until I got the coroner’s report, and sure enough there were three holes in his back. So then I called the editor again, and I said, “There’s some evidence. This is really important.” The editor said to me, “You don’t understand what you’re doing. Forget about it. It’s not gonna happen. You’re not gonna write that story, we’re never gonna handle it.” I felt very depressed because it was self censorship. We had censored a good story. My editor censored it. I was not powerful enough or smart enough to find a way to get around it. I remember feeling, “this is not a perfect business and, you know what, I’m also not perfect—because I went along with it.”
JW: A lot of people say we are now in a new golden age of investigative journalism. Not since the glory days of Watergate has there been so much to do and so many talented people doing it. I wonder if you agree.
SH: No, not at all. I didn’t vote for Trump, I don’t support his views, I see him as the orange man. But I also understand that he won the election. He’s president. But there are new elements in the game. First is cable news, where you have panel after panel, night after night, panels of journalists and reporters, talking about the latest on Trump. The first two words you hear 90 percent of the time from the panelists are the most lethal words, I think, in the language today: “I think.” I don’t care what somebody thinks. I want to know what they know. So you have this layer of instant gratification, instant news, and this incessant race to produce stories. There’s no checking. It’s just bam, bam, bam. That’s because Trump, whether you like him or not, is catnip for the cable ratings, and catnip for The New York Times.
I don’t like Trump. I think he’s very dangerous. He scares the hell out of me. But you can’t underestimate him. He’ll say yes to going to North Korea, without knowing a goddamn thing about it, because that’s his style. You can criticize him all you want for it. But I think he’s gonna pull troops out of South Korea if they get a deal. And I think they’re gonna get a deal. I think Trump will get a lot of attention for it, without having done that much. I believe he’s playing the press a hell of a lot more than the press wants to think. I think he’s crazy like a fox. I think we’re all misreading him. That’s what I think. It doesn’t mean anything.