Seymour Hersh, Twitter, and a lesson in “off the record”

As a journalist, I’ve occasionally been told things that were “off the record.” But I was astonished to hear those words from legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

I was standing an arm’s length from the Pulitzer-Prize-winner, live-tweeting as he spoke on camera about the state of journalism. About 15 minutes in he said, “This is all off the record.”

My head shot up and I replied, “I’ve been tweeting the whole time, and you’re speaking to camera.” He said the segment being shot was for “internal use” by the conference organizers and went on to say how much he hated Twitter.

The paragraphs above are an excerpt from my latest story for J-Source. You can read the full version here.

Interviewing Hersh was a pleasure because it was a challenge. He does not suffer fools gladly, and is firm in his beliefs–characteristics which always lead to great quotes. Although he bristled at the subject matter, mostly Twitter, when pushed he gave fulsome responses to my questions and added valuable discourse to an important subject: best practice using social media for journalistic storytelling.

Hersh told me he came from an age where what people discussed at a dinner party wasn’t reported on. Anything newsworthy would be followed up in a separate conversation within a professional context. The dinner metaphor stretched to include conversations in public with people who ask him questions after a keynote.  He hasn’t adjusted to a universe where anything you say or see is shared instantaneously to the universe–and likely won’t. He said he was antiquated but didn’t care.

Throughout our conversation I thought how great it would be if I could make interviewing Hersh an assignment for all of my students. Although perhaps in order to really test their mettle, I’d have to be sure to assign a subject he didn’t want to talk about. Automatic A for anyone who could cut through the bluster to the sage.


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