Press Box eats a flock of crow.

Media criticism.
Nov. 12 2003 5:08 PM

Press Box Eats a Flock of Crow

Seymour M. Hersh was right about WMD in Iraq. I was wrong.

On May 6, 2003, I wrote disparagingly of New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh:

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 had the goods on Hersh. For instance, in the Oct. 8, 2001, New Yorker, Hersh portrayed the CIA as a moribund agency and reported that Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was not long for the post. One source told Hersh that "after a decent interval," he would depart. "I've heard three to six months," the source said. Tenet, of course, still has the job.

In a Nov. 12, 2001, feature, Hersh described the ground war in Afghanistan as going nowhere fast. According to Hersh, the bungled attack on Mullah Omar's compound proved that U.S. special operations wouldn't be enough to win. The Taliban fell a month later.

Photograph of Seymour M. Hersh
Sy Hersh: Vindicated!!!!!

Hersh climbed all over Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the April 7, 2003, issue, blaming the faltering invasion of Iraq on the secretary's abandonment of the Pentagon "time-phased forces deployment list" playbook, causing troops to run low on everything from JDAMs and Tomahawks to water and fuel. Baghdad fell just 10 days after Hersh's story came out, proving Rumsfeld right and Hersh wrong.

Hersh's chronic overreaching inspired me to blow raspberries at his May 12, 2003, piece, "Selective Intelligence," which predicted that weapons of mass destruction would not be found in Iraq. Noting Hersh's fallibility as a seer, I titled my May 6 Slate piece "The Leading Indicator That WMD Will Be Found: Seymour M. Hersh says they won't," and wrote:

If Hersh's interpretive/predictive streak holds, we should expect to find proof of WMD and a direct link between Iraq and al-Qaida within the next two weeks.

As even casual news consumers know, U.S. forces have not found WMD in Iraq. As much as I would like to wait another six months before writing a mea culpa in the hopes that somebody discovers an anthrax or sarin depot outside Baghdad, I cannot. The reason I threw a brick at Hersh was that I believe whenever a journalist predicts, projects, or prognosticates and gets it wrong, he owes his readers a blush and a concession.

This column is mine.

******

Send hair shirt e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.