Most people are familiar with the quote made famous by Mark Twain about truth being stranger than fiction. You may not have heard the second half of the sentence. “It is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Seymour Hersh has decided to sway from possibilities lately, however. That doesn’t necessarily mean his speculation should be taken as truth. There are so many holes in his theories and very little support to back up the claims that the Pulitzer Prize winner couldn’t even get a respectable news outlet to publish his latest work. The biggest shame is that the Osama bin Laden tale he spun is not even original. He appears to have borrowed quite a bit of storytelling from R J Hillhouse, a blogger and former college professor. She stated that Hersh’s story is “either plagiarism or unoriginal” since it seems to have closely followed her story which she wrote in August 2011 on her blog, “The Spy Who Billed Me”.
The unoriginality of Hersh’s Bin Laden claims is insulting to readers as well as his once prestigious career. This foray into journalistic fiction is dangerous when applied to writing about international issues and The New Yorker, a magazine he’s been contributing to since the 1990s, was right not to print Hersh’s claims. A high standard needs to apply to such accusations before they ever see wide circulation. Enough lives have already been lost due to careless or intentionally misleading words published by once-respected names.
A fine example of what can go wrong when fiction mingles with news came from Jeffrey Goldberg in his 2002 piece titled “The Great Terror”. Ironically, printed in 2002 by The New Yorker, the article compiled a large amount of unfounded claims in one place to bolster support for the Iraq war. In hindsight, Goldberg’s unsupported claims of close ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, as well as impending acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iraq were completely wrong. How many thousands of people died and are still suffering in part due to that journalist’s laziness or ill-intention?
Iraq was no great terror and it is just as likely that the Hersh account is also a creative fabrication or is plain wrong. We can blame the authors and publishers all we want, but readers are just as culpable for this continuing pattern and its consequences. We need to demand higher standards before reacting to and sharing unsupported claims. Much fewer of such stories would see the light of day if they were met with questioning rather than our free promotion as fact among friends and family. Is it our desire to be entertained that feeds the ever-outrageous headlines? It would certainly be amusing if Pakistan did somehow secretly hold Bin Laden captive for five years before agreeing to let the US conduct an independent raid on his compound in exchange for some sort of compensation. Yet, it only takes a little bit of critical thought before the whole story falls apart. Then again, maybe Pakistan’s super secret plan was to double-cross the US and sell their stealth helicopter technology to China.