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Talk of the Town

Is Seymour Hersh credible? Is the New Yorker?

Haaretz has a story by Emmanuel Sivan today taking apart an article Hersh wrote for the New Yorker some months ago with a fantastical—and false—claim that the U.S. was funneling money to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though we allegedly knew some of it was going to the al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam. The New Yorker article in question, Sivan notes, appeared two months before fighting erupted between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.

Lebanese reporters, tracking down Hersh’s source for this sensational finding, found it to be Robert Fisk, another journalist with a less than impeccable record, who in turn had heard it from yet another questionable source. “Thus are reports about the Middle East generated,” sardonically writes Sivan.

This episode brings to mind the New Yorker piece that Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, wrote back in January in which he brazenly pawned off the falsehood that it was the White House that sent Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in February of 2002 to investigate claims that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Of course, it was not the White House, but Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA officer in the agency’s counter-proliferation division, who suggested that her husband undertake the mission. The White House did not learn about Wilson’s mission to Niger until after his return.

Did the New Yorker publish a correction? Not yet. And I am not holding my breath.

Then, of course, there are other allegations leveled by the New Yorker’s national-security correspondent that have not checked out. As was first reported by the New York Observer, and as I noted in the December 2004 issue of COMMENTARY, Seymour Hersh, on the lecture circuit, has offered up gory details of U.S. atrocities in Iraq. Quoting one of his anonymous “sources,” a soldier in the field, Hersh informed one audience that

orders came down from the generals in Baghdad: we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And, as [the soldier] told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, “Stop!” And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. . . . And the company captain said, “No, you don’t understand. That’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents.”

Without a doubt, a massacre so reminiscent of My Lai was a sensational allegation. Without a doubt, it was almost certainly false, a fabrication cavalierly pawned off by Hersh as fact. An army of foreign journalists in Iraq, not exactly diffident when it comes to exposing American abuses, has thus far failed to unearth a single corroborating bit of evidence for this “atrocity,” and the U.S. military has no reports from the field attesting to an incident even faintly resembling it. Is this a journalist whose views, let alone whose facts, are to be trusted on anything?

The New Yorker’s fact-checking department is world renowned. The New Yorker’s fiction department is also world renowned. But one wonders, when it comes to stories bashing the Bush administration and/or the United States: have the two departments merged?


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