Decades ago I was like most other young reporters: I wanted to be at the Times. The fact that I had neither the education nor temperament did not hinder my misplaced ambition. I was working at the Wilmington News Journal in the mid-1970s. I was freelancing a magazine piece on how the CIA used the news media as cover, and I called the former U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Edward M. Korry, to see if he knew anything. Korry, an award-winning reporter, told me he did and then suggested I drive up to Briarcliff Manor in New York. When I got there, he said he had a better story for me. That phone call was one of those moments in a lifetime reporters dream about. For the next two years, thanks to Korry, I was uncovering a scandal of perjury and fraud involving International Telephone and Telegraph, former CIA Director Richard Helms, and Henry Kissinger detailing the Nixon administration’s removal of Salvadore Allende from power.
A few weeks after my first story ran, Sy Hersh, then the star of the New York Times, called me. He was abusive and to the point: “Who do you think you are. No one is going to believe you and your crappy little paper. You have no right to do this story… Play it smart and work with me on this story and maybe I can help you get on up here.”
Sy Hersh, along with the late Larry Stern of the Washington Post, participated in a trashing of Korry’s reputation. They both wrote that Korry had been in on the Nixon plot to overthrow Allende. Korry protested his innocence to the Times. Abe Rosenthal and the other top executives at the paper knew Korry had not participated in—in fact, tried to stop—the coup that would lead to the destruction of democracy in Chile. The management of the greatest American newspaper decided to let an old friend twist in the wind from a rope of lies created by the paper’s star reporter. Hersh and Abe Rosenthal destroyed Korry’s considerable reputation as a reporter and diplomat. The New York establishment shunned him. When the brilliant reporter John Burns revisited Korry’s story in 1975 and discovered what his colleague had done, he wrote a new story about Korry. Rosenthal spiked it.
Sy Hersh, fearful that a young reporter might get to the bottom of what he did to Korry tried intimidation on me. Korry’s pursuit of the truth caused Attorney General Edward Levi to open up a grand jury investigation that kept the story going. Richard Helms hired Clark Clifford to threaten the Department of Justice with exposing Henry Kissinger and other high government officials if he was indicted.
Hersh and his colleagues at the Times never apologized to Korry. On the day Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes was shooting my story, Times foreign editor Jimmy Greenfield called to suggest I might be a good hire for the local desk if I agreed to help Hersh pursue the Chile story. I told Greenfield no thanks. Hersh was a powerful enemy for a young reporter to make. Hersh took every opportunity to trash me and my work. I continued reporting national security issues and eventually realized how lucky I was not to work at the Times.
Four years later, on a February morning, I walked into the Wilmington News Journal offices and Bill Boyle (now an editor at the New York Daily News) handed me a cup of coffee and a copy of the Times. “You better sit down before you read it” Boyle said.
Sy Hersh had written a 2,500-word retraction and apology to Korry on the front page of the newspaper. It was a first the paper’s history and came out of nowhere. Hersh, who is not a graceful writer on his best day, wrote a deliberately dense piece. At the very end of the Times’ retraction, Hersh acknowledged that I had correctly reported Korry’s role.
Before you get all weepy-eyed that in the end Hersh did the right thing, you need to know that Hersh only wrote the retraction because he had to get Korry to cooperate in order to write the Chile section of The Price of Power, Hersh’s biography of Kissinger. I went to see Korry when the Kissinger book came out. He pulled out some letters from Hersh offering to give Korry back his reputation if Korry agreed to cooperate with Hersh. Korry’s price was the truth on the front page. Hersh wanted Kissinger more than Korry, and that was when he agreed to report the truth.
After Korry succumbed to cancer earlier this year, the Times’ obituary had a curious omission. The paper never mentioned that it had retracted Sy Hersh’s stories. The obituary did not even mention Hersh.
In an upcoming issue of Columbia Journalism Review, Sy Hersh’s career is going to get a once over. For those who think the Jayson Blair incident was a one of kind mistake at the Times, think again.
A week after the retraction appeared, Hersh invited me to lunch “to bury the hatchet.” We met at a now defunct seafood restaurant. Hersh was full of career advice and said “I fucked Korry, but hell everybody did.” As we waited for the waiter, Hersh reached over to some abandoned dishes at the table next to ours and began taking leftover food. That afternoon, I realized that Ed Korry had been like those half-eaten rum buns that Hersh had picked off.