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New York state of mind (continued)


VETERAN INVESTIGATIVE reporter Seymour Hersh was the star of a panel discussion held in Washington last Friday at the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). He’d just flown in from the Middle East, reportedly after 28 sleepless hours, and, in his slightly frazzled state ("Don’t hold me to anything I say," he pleaded at one point when asked to defend a comparison he’d made between the Israeli government and Nazi Germany), he occupied a psychic space somewhere between rage and impishness.

His fellow panelists, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News’s David Martin, and moderator Judy Woodruff, of CNN, were diplomatic and full of praise for each other. But not Hersh.

After professing his friendship with and admiration for Woodward, Hersh criticized Woodward’s latest book, Bush at War, for its near-total reliance on access to members of the Bush administration. While calling the book "accurate" and "useful," Hersh added, "I don’t know why he [Woodward] wants to be a fly on the wall. We’ve had that fight for 30 years.... I don’t have as much confidence in some of the people as he does, that’s a fact."

When a member of the audience asked about the "America-centric coverage" of the war in Iraq, Martin disagreed, saying that many of the stories being reported by the media are along the lines of "America, go home." That prompted Hersh to reply, "The reason we’re getting these stories about how bad it is in Iraq is that it’s a complete shit hole. You’d have to be out of your minds" to do any other kind of story.

Hersh’s media criticism didn’t stop there, either. At one point, in the middle of talking about something else, he suddenly blurted out, "We should consider some way to get Fox and CNBC off the air." (I assume he meant MSNBC, which has lately taken to aping the Fox News Channel’s GOP-TV format.)

But Hersh aimed his most telling blow not at the media, but rather at the Democrats. "One of the greatest failures of our time is Congress and the political opposition," he said, to a smattering of applause. (Note to liberal-media-bias conspiracy theorists: I don’t know who was applauding, but there seemed to be a lot of students and non-journalists on hand.)

Later, in a discussion of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Hersh returned to that theme, noting that — without a real political opposition — it is difficult for the media to keep a story alive. "What makes stories possible is ‘Senator So-and-So says this and that,’" Hersh said. But the Democrats, he observed, aren’t saying much of anything.

A legendary reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for unearthing the truth about the My Lai massacre (he was with a small outfit called Dispatch News Service at the time, later working for the New York Times), Hersh has experienced a career rebirth at the New Yorker since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, Hersh — shades of Woodward — has too often appeared to be the captive of his sources, many of whom are top military officers. This was never more true than in the April 7 issue, when Hersh let the generals anonymously vent at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom they apparently loathe, just before what had momentarily seemed like a quagmire was suddenly transformed into a rout.

Wrote Slate’s Jack Shafer on May 6: "At almost every critical turn since the events of 9/11, Hersh has leapt to the front of the editorial pack with a bracing, well-researched, and controversial explication of the war on terror. And almost every time, Hersh’s predictive take on the course of events has been wrong. Boneheaded-dumb wrong."

I asked Hersh about Shafer’s assessment as he was about to leave the IRE event. "He went after me pretty hard on one story, but I’ve known Jack for 30 years," Hersh replied. "Maybe he didn’t take his meds that morning." And then he was off.

It was pretty funny. But it was also a non-answer. As someone who had come to rely on Hersh’s reporting, I was hoping for more.

PAUL LA CAMERA, president and general manager of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), is certainly free to reject a commercial if he thinks his viewers will find it offensive. But it’s kind of odd that he’s chosen to brag about it.

In an editorial that aired this past Sunday and Tuesday, La Camera noted that Channel 5 and other Boston television stations had refused to air an ad submitted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that drew an analogy between the slaughter of animals and the Holocaust.

Noting that PETA activists last month set up an exhibit on City Hall Plaza linking the two, La Camera — according to a transcript on the Channel 5 Web site, — said, "As can be imagined, members of the Jewish community here and in other parts of the country are rightly outraged. As if what occurred on the plaza wasn’t vile enough, PETA is now trying to take its sordid Holocaust analogy to the television airways in a commercial that manipulates and links the haunted voice and memory [of] a Holocaust victim to animals. Thankfully, the Boston television stations have refused to air this atrocity."

When I asked La Camera whether it might have been better to accept the PETA ad and let viewers decide for themselves how offensive the analogy is, La Camera replied: "Absolutely you could make that argument. It’s not an argument that I agree with, particularly when you’re comparing the plight of animals to the Holocaust. I think there are lines, there are thresholds. And to my mind, we crossed a threshold there."

Really? Let me state for the record that I am a meat-eater, and am no supporter of PETA’s agenda. But if you truly believe that animals are morally equal to humans, as some radical animal-rights activists do, then the Holocaust stands out as an obvious point of comparison.

Matt Prescott, the 21-year-old PETA activist who is behind the campaign, puts it this way: "Survivors make the comparison every day when they say, ‘We were treated as animals.’... I myself am Jewish, and grew up hearing stories of my own family members who had died." (You can see the commercial for yourself at a PETA Web site,

Prescott says the ad was offered to the four major-network affiliates in Boston — WBZ-TV (Channel 4), WCVB, WHDH-TV (Channel 7), and WFXT-TV (Channel 25). All rejected it, he says, even though executives at 7 and 25 initially said they would air it. (Prescott adds that the commercial has been rejected in some other cities as well, including Providence and Hartford.)

Channel 4 spokesman Don Lowery and Channel 7 spokeswoman Ro Dooley essentially confirm Prescott’s account, although Dooley adds that her station’s initial acceptance came before anyone had actually had a chance to review the ad. A call to Channel 25 seeking comment went unanswered.

Yes, TV stations may accept or reject any ad for any reason. But as the holders of broadcast licenses, they have a public responsibility to use that power wisely — and sparingly. The problem with the Boston blackout is that officials at four television stations took it upon themselves to decide their viewers would not be allowed to see a particular political message.

I’ve seen the ad. And it’s not even distasteful, never mind an "atrocity."

Don Lundy, vice-president and general manager of WRTV-TV in Indianapolis, which aired the ad last month, says that running it was an easy call. "We’ve always held the view that we’re not necessarily a gatekeeper for certain points of view unless it’s obscene or absolutely ridiculous," he says. "They [PETA members] have a point of view. They may have expressed it in ways that some people found offensive for whatever reason, but they absolutely had a right to express it."

Interestingly, Lundy says he hasn’t received a single complaint. And he offers this thought about the collective decision made here: "I’m surprised in Boston, which to me is a very open, liberal, open-to-all-points-of-view place, that would be a problem."

Liberal we may be, but "Banned in Boston" is part of our heritage as well.

WHEN WBUR RADIO (90.9 FM) dropped Fresh Air from its weekday line-up to make room for more war-related news from the BBC, some of the shows were moved to the weekend. Those, in turn, bumped On the Media, a weekly, hourlong program produced by WNYC Radio, in New York.

But though ’BUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn has been quoted as saying that Fresh Air will be moved back to the Monday-to-Friday schedule within a few weeks, On the Media has been left in the lurch.

"There are no plans at this time to return On the Media to the weekend line-up. If that changes, I’ll let you know," Stohn told me by e-mail.

Says Dean Cappello, vice-president of programming at WNYC and executive producer of On the Media: "Nobody’s given us a direct answer." But he adds that he first learned ’BUR had dropped the show via "a fair amount of listener mail." Which suggests that there were some people, at least, who liked what they were hearing.

Surely WBUR can drop one of its repeat broadcasts of Car Talk (a great show, but currently heard three times a weekend) or an hour of the BBC to make room for what’s proven to be a smart, witty take on the media.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a] Read his daily Media Log at

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Issue Date: June 13 - 19, 2003
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