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With a focus on news, New Yorker redefines itself

Stories by Hersh highlight change

It's not clear who called whom. But reporter Seymour Hersh and The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, both vividly recall that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, they conferred about the need for Hersh to focus single-mindedly on the 9/11 story -- to "be all over this, be on this wherever it takes you," in Remnick's words. "He said, `Well, you're not going anywhere for the next year,' " Hersh said yesterday. "We didn't know it would last as long."

Or that it would come to dominate the pages of The New Yorker as it has. If anyone still thought of The New Yorker as just a stately literary magazine, the past few issues would have disabused them of that notion. For three weeks in a row, the magazine has published stories by Hersh that have brought wide attention to the abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners. His stories have infuriated the Pentagon, inflamed Congress, and been the subject of Sunday-morning talk shows.

"The New Yorker, it seems to me, has risen to an occasion that has presented itself," said Rita Kirk Whillock, a communications professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "There are times when you're on fire. I think they're on fire."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, head of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said: "What The New Yorker may be doing is opening up a space for this kind of journalism . . . long-form, based on original investigative work, not only source work but document work -- a hard kind of work to do."

Then again, noted Bob Garfield of National Public Radio's "On the Media," "There's scarcely a magazine editor in America who, confronted with a story by Sy Hersh, wouldn't at least seriously think about running with it. And I'm including Highlights and American Horseman."

Granted, this is far from the first time The New Yorker has published stories that have had a pronounced impact on the reading public and the political class. In August 1946, an entire issue was given over to John Hersey's "Hiroshima," a harrowing account of the experiences of atom bomb survivors that later became a book. The New Yorker has long made room for nonfiction along with the reviews, fiction, humor pieces, and cartoons that many associate with the magazine.

But to some observers, Hersh's stories underscore the extent to which The New Yorker has remade itself by staying closer to the news, whether it involves coverage of the war in Iraq, dispatches from the presidential campaign, or stories on cultural controversies such as the furor attending Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." In general, Remnick has quickened the magazine's pace in an attempt to make it (to borrow a phrase) the talk of the town.

It seems to be paying off: The New Yorker says its circulation has grown to more than 987,000 readers, up roughly 20 percent from when Remnick took over in 1998.

Remnick, a former Washington Post reporter, said his journalism background figures prominently in his story decisions, though he added: "We're not Time or Newsweek. That's not how we're built." He noted that The New Yorker has a tradition of stories that are "timely and connected to the world," citing A. J. Liebling's dispatches during World War II, Calvin Trillin's civil rights coverage, and Jonathan Schell's reporting in Vietnam. But those pieces, he said, were "not breaking news so much as breaking understanding . . . providing the kind of length and depth" that newspapers can't ordinarily provide.

The current spate of stories by Hersh, he said, are "a different thing." Two weeks ago, Hersh's story about mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, accompanied by disturbing pictures, along with a broadcast by CBS's "60 Minutes II," had an explosive impact on the national discussion. (The abuse had been reported by the Associated Press in November but was not widely covered by the media.)

This week, Hersh reports that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a "highly secret operation" that resulted in the abusive interrogations of Iraqi prisoners. The Pentagon has called the report "outlandish, conspiratorial and filled with error and anonymous conjecture."

Remnick said yesterday: "I'm standing by it as firmly as any editor can stand by any story. . . . I have absolute confidence in Sy Hersh and these stories."

He added that Hersh, who is 67, "has busted his hump for The New Yorker. He's not a kid anymore, but he reports with the kind of animal energy and insatiable curiosity of Sy Hersh at age 35."

To some outside observers, the magazine itself has regained its old energy and curiosity as well.

"It's bringing the tradition back," said Samir Husni, head of the magazine program in the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. "We spent so much time talking about the demise of The New Yorker as we know it, but what really happened is the genie was caged. And now it has burst out of the bottle."

Under Tina Brown, who presided over the magazine from 1992 to 1998, The New Yorker was criticized by some for an excessive focus on celebrity. However, Hersh also wrote for The New Yorker during the Brown years; in fact, he pointed out yesterday, Hersh began writing for the magazine in the early 1970s, when William Shawn was the editor.

Still, it is clear that Hersh and Remnick, 45, have forged a strong working relationship. Hersh said that Remnick's newspaper background makes him flexible and that the Iraq stories were "driven as much by David as by me."

"You've got me saying nice things about my boss," he added with gruff humor. "I'm going to lose my Guild membership. I'm out of here. Goodbye."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. 

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