The biggest casualties of the print media crisis over the past decade have been the reporters. Despite the economic advantages of television, reporting in this medium has not been able to achieve the necessary depth and consistency. Now that this could change with the development of mobile phones that take photographs in any conflict, a lack of interest from news executives is seriously limiting the livelihoods of leading journalists. Indeed, despite the misfortunes of the print media, some tenacious reporters are carrying on their work, in many cases risking their lives, without economic incentive or even a guarantee of seeing their work published in any prominent way. American journalist Seymour Hersh rose to fame in the golden age of reporting and has recently published his memoirs. His last great achievement was uncovering the torture and sexual humiliation that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison during the invasion of Iraq by the United States. How he came to learn what went on is compelling, as Hersh has always been a controversial reporter, often receiving leaks from top military personnel, and managing them in a rather Machiavellian style. He can’t really be blamed for this.
But in the case of documented torture, it was fundamental to focus on the mental state in which many veterans returned home from the war – a war endorsed by the economic interests of a small number of families linked to the oil business and their political cronies. Hersh learned of soldiers undergoing psychological treatment, and, in an unexpected turn of events, the mother of a female veteran approached him to tell of the brutal psychological damage with which her daughter had returned from the invasion. The conditions under which some soldiers were working, forced to violate much of their moral code, destroyed them on the inside. That mother was able to get into her daughter’s laptop and find the photos that were corroding her mind and that ultimately destroyed her life. Journalist Hersh knew he had to get to work, find the right path, check all the dates, confront the authorities and get the support of a journalistic linchpin such as The New Yorker to do the rest.
In some ways, he was reliving his exposé from the days of the Vietnam War. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering one of the gratuitous slaughters perpetrated by the U.S. army in the small village of My Lai, infamous throughout the world since. In his memoirs, he recounts the complicated process of dealing with those guilty of the killings, getting their stories and contrasting them with stories coming from different sources inside and outside the army. But more striking is the complex moral position of the journalist. Today, various people in positions of great power are calling for a worldwide renunciation of journalism. It’s being discredited, and people are highlighting the worst examples of its decline to distract from work that remains exacting and necessary. Media moguls didn’t rise to glory during the financial crisis. They were too busy swimming in the murky waters of business and money-making, far from the shores of truth-seeking that nourishes the journalistic profession. But rereading Hersh’s account of conflict and revisiting it from today’s perspective remains thought provoking.
It’s not easy when your country is at war and young soldiers are dying every day to present information on the killing of civilians in the name of your country. False patriots usually avoid this kind of question; everything is a question of taking sides. But truth isn’t negotiable. And for those soldiers who died, the only thing of value in their death is the guarantee that someone back home is telling it exactly as it happened. In doing that, those who accused Hersh of treason at the time for bringing government excesses to light are today portrayed as incapable and opportunistic. Despicable human beings, like some current leaders, impose presumptive patriotic values on the supreme values of justice and truth, which, in the long run, are what guarantee a country’s survival. Forcing these ignoble acts into the light helped to bring an unjust war to a close. Hersh saved lives with his reporting. And journalism contributed some exemplary chapters to a story of haze, hate, opportunistic criticism and evil deeds. It’s important we keep this in mind.