FAIR: How would you compare Watergate and Contragate and the role of the media in each scandal?
HERSH: If you consider Nixon’s first term there’s an obvious analogy with the first six years of the Reagan administration. Nixon was able to bomb Cambodia relentlessly for 14 months. He wiretapped 17 American citizens, including Marvin Kalb, Henry Brandon, members of his own administration and some of his own personal aides for as long as 21 months. He was able to sick the CIA on Salvador Allende in Chile and increase the number of CIA operatives involved in domestic spying. The White House “plumbers”—the precursor of the Ollie North operation—mounted illegal activities against Daniel Ellsberg.
If the press had been able to break any of these stories in 1971, we might have saved Nixon from himself. He might have been afraid to do some of the things he did in 1972, and this would have changed the course of history. But the press failed utterly to do anything during Nixon’s first term, thereby making it easy for Nixon to walk into his own trap in Watergate.
Similarly, I think the media have failed to do real penetrating reporting with respect to Reagan. Consequently, Reagan’s people thought they could get away with anything. It took a Beirut newspaper to break the story and crack the teflon.
FAIR: After Reagan’s last press conference many reporters proclaimed that he’s on the rebound, he’s back in charge. Do you see an attempt on the part of some TV commentators to save the president?
HERSH: Reagan’s halfway home on TV because he’s an excellent teleprompter reader. But even some of his speeches during the last six years that people insist were so good—if you read them, they’re nonsensical. We’ve had this insanity where we watch the President on television and how he looks becomes just as important as what he says…. By and large anyone who takes TV news seriously does so at his own peril.
FAIR: When you returned to daily journalism in 1986 after a 7-year hiatus, you commented that things had changed drastically, reporters were less zestful, there was more self-censorship. How do you explain it?
HERSH: I think we’ve all become inured. You’re talking about a country that’s now in the process of putting another whole echelon of senior government officials in jail like we did 15 years ago with the Nixon administration. Two failures like that tells you something about where we are and what we expect. While all of us instinctively insist on honesty from our family members and in our personal relationships, we don’t expect the same honesty from the men running the government anymore.
FAIR: How would you assess the impact of your New York Times Magazine article exposing the Reagan administration’s deception regarding Qaddafi and the bombing of Libya?
HERSH: These are serious issues, yet no one pays much attention to what I wrote. There was manipulation of intelligence at the highest level. There were distortions and lies by the US government about the true intent of the bombing raid. The, Reagan administration claimed they were targeting tents and a house, and they had reason to believe that Qaddafi might be in these places. But they say they weren’t trying to kill him. That’s their position, and it’s accepted by everybody. I’m not the social conscience of America, but I’m troubled by the fact that the Secretary of Defense can get up and make a statement like that and not have the reporters say “come on.”
FAIR: It seems to us that “objective journalism” often means that reporters are obliged to print the government’s lie next to the truth. What does objectivity mean when the government is bent on deception?
HERSH: The press is at a great disadvantage when the president and his aides lie and deceive. The standard is basically if you’re getting a background briefing and you trust the official, you publish it. I’d like to think that reporters won’t simply rely on White House spokespeople anymore, but they will. They’ll always publish something an assistant secretary says. We have to be a lot more discerning about who’s got integrity and who doesn’t. We shouldn’t lower our journalistic standards because White House officials have lowered their ethical standards.