Reporters like to think of themselves as empiricists, but journalism is a soft science. Absent documentation, the grail of national-security reporting, they are only as good as their sources and their deductive reasoning. But what happens when different sources offer different accounts and deductive reasoning can be used to advance any number of contradictory arguments?
Jonathan Mahler poses this good question in a lengthy report on investigative journalism in the New York Times Magazine this week. The headline on the piece is “What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?,” but the piece is essentially an examination of how investigative reporters operate. It follows how they—and others, such as the makers of the Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty—told the story of the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.
Mahler’s piece focuses on the 10,000-word article by celebrated investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, which strongly challenged the narrative of the Bin Laden raid developed by the Obama administration as well as by a number of journalists. To Hersh, famous for his stories on the My Lai Massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse among many others, “the story stunk from Day 1.”
Hersh disputed the official line that Bin Laden was located due to years of methodical intelligence gathering, reporting instead that it was a tip off from a retired Pakistani intelligence officer. Rather than being a daring raid on Abbottabad, Hersh reported, Pakistani authorities were informed about the mission and allowed the U.S. Navy Seals to enter Pakistan airspace to conduct it. Hersh even reported that the Obama administration’s claim that Bin Laden had been given an Islamic burial at sea was a lie; instead, Hersh wrote, the Seals apparently tossed what was left of Bin Laden’s body out of a helicopter. The White House spokesman trashed Hersh’s story, calling it “riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods.”
Although Mahler did not set out to corroborate or challenge Hersh’s account, in the end he cites a number of reports and viewpoints that prompt him to conclude that “many of Hersh’s claims could be proved right”—for example, Times correspondent Carlotta Gall had reported in 2014 on Pakistani complicity in sheltering Bin Laden.
Mahler concludes that we don’t know the whole truth of the Bin Laden raid, and it’s not only because the government is keeping it a secret: “There’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.”
It’s worth noting in this context, as Mahler does, that the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly cooperated with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, who would lay claim to telling the definitive narrative of ‘‘the greatest manhunt in history.’’
Hersh deserves the last word on narrative writing. As he told Mahler: “Of course there is no reason for you or any other journalist to take what was said to me by unnamed sources at face value. But it is my view that there also is no reason for journalists to take at face value what a White House or administration spokesman said on or off the record in the aftermath or during a crisis.”
At age 78, Hersh retains the fierce skepticism about government secrecy and official spin that he has been known for since breaking the My Lai Massacre story in 1969:
I love the notion that the government isn’t riddled with secrecy. Are you kidding me? They keep more secrets than you can possibly think. There’s stuff going on right now that I know about—amazing stuff that’s going on. I’ll write about it when I can. There’s stuff going out right now, amazing stuff in the Middle East. Are you kidding me? Of course there is. Of course there is.
Postscript: For some insights into how Hersh operates as a freelance journalist and investigative reporter, read the interview with him in Slate probing his Bin Laden story in LRB.