Marvin Kalb grilled Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker and Dana Priest of The Washington Post about what investigative journalists owe to society during a sold-out conversation at the National Press Club Monday night.
Hersh and Priest, both Pulitzer prize-winning journalists, spoke about the challenge of deciding what information to disclose in print when those facts could have an averse affect on national security.
“I understand the imperfection of what I write,” Hersh said. “There is so much we don’t know that goes on.”
Investigative reporting can be like “grabbing the tail of an elephant underwater,” Hersh said. For Priest, investigative journalism is like a puzzle.
“No one ever tells you the full story,” she said. “They may only point you in a certain direction. However, if you are patient and when you really listen, you can learn something.”
Priest said that when digging deep for a story, it is necessary to be “a fly on the wall so you can immerse yourself so much that (your subjects) forget about you.”
Hersh and Priest also highlighted the media’s failure to report suspicions about weapons of mass destruction and the United States’ motivation for invading Iraq.
“History will be hard on our profession,” Hersh said. “We let the world down.”
Priest disagreed and said the media was not completely at fault.
“All of the information was classified, which makes it a little harder to get,” she said. “It wasn’t like you could look in one drawer and find the answer. You could maybe find that there was doubt, but it may not have made a difference.”
Hersh recommended that journalists always have something to tell their sources that the sources did not already know.
“You have to be manipulative. You can’t say the next 40 to 50 minutes may be very bad for you,” he said.
The New Yorker journalist received major recognition most recently for his reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and also for his exposure of the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre and subsequent cover-up.
Priest has won many awards for her work on the reporting of CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas. Last week, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her series on the Walter Reed hospital.
“Every reporter should be an investigative reporter,” Hersh said. “The issue is a daily newspaper does not have the time and resources for investigative reporting.”
Priest said in the future, newspapers will need to be devoted to reporting the “richer and deeper truth” as they compete with the Internet and television, which offer news updates 24-hours a day.
“(Investigative reporting) will be what differentiates yourself and your newspaper,” Preist said. “Your competition won’t be looking at exactly the same thing.”
Sophomore Swetha Ramaswamy said she gained a new understanding of journalism during the discussion.
“(This discussions) makes you wonder how much power journalists have,” Ramaswamy said. “They really are the gatekeepers of knowledge.”
This event was the fourth in this year’s series of Kalb Reports and the 60th Kalb Report overall. The series focuses on war and crisis coverage in the media, White House coverage and the role of journalists in American society.