Opinion

Why Hasn't Seymour Hersh's Syria War Crimes Denial Ended His Career?

The fact that mainstream media outlets dismiss Hersh’s disgraceful apologetics as daft idiosyncrasy rather than what it is – fake news at its worst – is a sign, quite simply, of our utter moral failure on Syria

Aida cries as she recovers from severe injuries after Bashar Assad's Syrian Army shelled her house in Idlib, north Syria, killing her husband and two of her children. March 10, 2012
AP

It’s funny what constitutes a modern day, career-ending faux pas.

Sexual misconduct can be enough to knock former superstars out of polite society, as seen repeatedly as part of the MeToo phenomenon. Out-and-out racism might also do it - witness Roseanne Barr’s epic, if unsurprising, fall from grace.

But strangely enough, bonkers conspiracy theories about the Syrian civil war and blind faith in Russian benevolence don’t make the list.

Then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh talks on the telephone at his New York Times Washington Bureau office. 14 Jun 1972
© Wally McNamee/CORBIS

Seymour Hersh, the multiple award-winning journalist who broke some of the 20th century’s biggest stories – the My Lai massacre, the Abu Ghraib scandal – has just released his memoirs.

It has a suitably bullish title, the lone word "Reporter," and has had almost universal rave reviews.

According to Rolling Stone, Hersh is still "the best of his generation” and remains an “iconoclast and a thorn in the side of officialdom to this day."

Their review ends gushingly, "When it comes time for the next generation of journalists to re-discover what this job is supposed to be about, they can at least read Reporter. It’s all in here."

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The UK's Guardian deemed the "memoir of a giant of journalism" to be their Book of the Day. The worst thing that a Guardian reviewer could find to say about it was that "detail swamps his narrative."

"But you have to say that his instincts are mostly great," she concludes

No, they really aren’t.

Missing from all these mainstream reviews was any mention of what should have been Hersh’s career-ending disaster – the apologetics for Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin which culminated in a supposed expose of the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack

To its credit, an interviewer in the New York Times notes that his reporting on Syria "which questioned whether President Bashar al-Assad had gassed his own people, was derided." But that was it.

Men inspect the damage after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016
ABDALRHMAN ISMAIL/ REUTERS

One of the only places I could find that challenged the adoring Hersh-as-gnarly-hack narrative was in Prospect, a British political magazine (to which I have also contributed.) The interviewer made Syria the focus of his interview. Hersh was not amused. "I don’t feel like explaining this," he says, before heading off to a 30-minute one-on-one interview on Putin propaganda channel RT.

There are two issues here. One is the sad phenomenon, perhaps only interesting to a niche media audience, whereby angry young reporter becomes angry old reporter at the cost of all their critical faculties.

After you become part of the establishment - whether of the right or the left – you’re no longer much interested in questioning it.

One only need look at the likes of John Pilger and Robert Fisk, although neither have done any creditable reporting for decades. No accident that they have also ended up in the Assad apologist camp.

But the other, and far more troubling question, is: why are people who should know better so wilfully myopic over Syria?

As I have written here before, supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are happy to ignore his woeful record on Syria (and Russia, and Iran). 

It’s not just yet another instance of Western disregard for a dreary conflict involving foreigners, far away. Syria did not stay far away – the displacement of many millions has had its own impact far beyond the Middle East.

Great swathes of pro-Palestinian activists have also gone in the Assad apologist direction.

Former Pink Floyd star and self-styled ethical warrior Roger Waters declared on stage this year that the White Helmets, the volunteer rescue service in Syria, were "a fake organisation that exists only to create propaganda for the jihadists and terrorists."

Yet that hasn’t dented his left-wing cachet at all or even featured in the rave reviews of his latest Us +Them tour.

Maybe we can’t expect much more from aging rock stars, and most of the writers that followed the pro-Palestinian to Assadist trajectory, like sloppy polemicist Max Blumenthal, were never great shakes as journalists to begin with.

But the fact that mainstream media outlets dismiss Hersh’s disgraceful war crimes denial as daft idiosyncrasy rather than what it is – fake news at its worst – is a sign, quite simply, of our utter moral failure on Syria.

A Syrian national flag with the picture of the Syrian President Bashar Assad hangs at an army check point, in the town of Douma in eastern Ghouta, near the Syrian capital Damascus. July 15, 2018
Hassan Ammar/AP

If we look at the numbers killed and displaced, of the geopolitical reverberations and the sheer scale of human misery, then Syria should be the defining and most divisive issue of our day. It should have been the early 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War, a rallying cry for journalists and intellectuals at least in the face of the West’s inaction.  

But the trauma of Iraq means that lies about wars being entirely confected by malign foreign powers are all too convincing. The pro-Assad propaganda has worked in convincing far too many members of the public that the real danger lies in the bloodthirsty excesses of the Islamic State.

And yes, finding moral clarity in a muddled, confusing war is easier if you resort to the left’s fallback position of distrusting U.S. imperialism before all other evils.

That has always been Hersh’s default, and now it has led him into a very dark place. It’s a sad indictment how little it seems to bother anyone.