Investigating chemical weapons in Syria

In the blue corner, Seymour Hersh, one of America's most famous and highly paid investigative reporters. In the red corner, Eliot Higgins, who sits at home in an English provincial town trawling the internet and tweets and blogs about his findings under the screen name Brown Moses.

On Sunday, in a 5,000-word article for the London Review of Books, Hersh suggested Syrian rebels, rather than the regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21.

On Monday, Higgins responded on the Foreign Policy website, demolishing the core of Hersh's argument in a mere 1,700 words.

While seeking to re-ignite the "whodunnit" debate about chemical weapons, Hersh's article unwittingly revealed a lot about the changing nature of investigative journalism. Hersh is old-school. He operates in a world of hush-hush contacts – often-anonymous well-placed sources passing snippets of information around which he constructs an article that challenges received wisdom.

The Hersh style of journalism certainly has a place, but in the age of the internet it's a diminishing one – as the web-based work of Higgins and others continually shows.

The main problem with Hersh's article is that he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet. The result was that his article posed a number of once-important questions which others had already answered.

This was a serious flaw and it may explain reports that the article was turned down by the New Yorker and the Washington Post before finally appearing in the London Review of Books.

But the interesting question is why Hersh failed to take account of the open-source evidence. Did he dismiss it, or was he unaware of its existence?

A lot of old-style journalists are still very sniffy about social media, if not the internet itself. They view it as somehow inferior to the "real" (formerly printed) media, and perhaps that's only to be expected because their livelihoods are at stake. 

Then there's the argument that the internet contains a lot of rubbish and misinformation. It's true, but only up to a point. There are plenty of valuable nuggets too, and the skill comes in sifting them out. For that, we have to look to the likes of Higgins rather than the likes of Hersh.

There's also the not-so-small matter of journalistic egos and showmanship. Readers, unfortunately, are more likely to be impressed by a reporter who apparently has access to shadowy figures in high places than someone who makes an important discovery from several hours of Googling.

For those interested in the details of Hersh's argument, in addition to Higgins' response, there's a dissection of it at EAWorldView
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 10 December 2013