Journalists eat their own
New book chronicles the demise of reporters who tackle taboo subjects
Between them, the authors of the incendiary new book Into the Buzzsaw, out this month from Prometheus, have won nearly every award journalism has to give: a Pulitzer, several Emmys, a Peabody, a prize from Investigative Reporters and Editors, an Edward R. Murrow and several accolades from the Society of Professional Journalists.
And most of the authors are now considered, at best, marginal by the mainstream media. At worst, they’ve been deemed incompetent and crazy for having the audacity to uncover evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by government agencies and corporate octopi.
Edited by ex-CBS producer Kristina Borjesson, Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of essays, mostly by serious journalists excommunicated from the media establishment for tackling subjects like the CIA’s role in drug smuggling, lies perpetuated by the investigators of TWA Flight 800, POWs rotting in Vietnam, a Korean War massacre, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Bush’s election, bovine growth hormone’s dangers and a host of other unpopular issues.
Borjesson describes “the buzzsaw” as “what can rip through you when you try to investigate or expose anything this country’s large institutions—be they corporate or government—want to keep under wraps. The system fights back with official lies, disinformation, and stonewalling. Your phone starts acting funny. Strange people call you at strange hours to give you strange information. The FBI calls you. Your car is broken into and the thief takes your computer and your reporter’s notebook and leaves everything else behind. … The sense of fear and paranoia is, at times, overwhelming.”
The majority of the 18 pieces in Borjesson’s book are about hard-working mainstream journalists, dedicated to the ideals of their profession, who stumble into the buzzsaw and have their careers and reputations eviscerated. Though the subjects and personalities involved are wildly diverse, the stories echo each other in disturbing ways.
Journalists are sent by their bosses to do their jobs—in the case of Borjesson, to investigate the crash of TWA Flight 800 as a producer for CBS news. Sometimes what they find is impolitic, other times it brings threats of corporate lawsuits. Suddenly, editors kill the story, or demand changes. In some instances, like that of TV reporter Jane Akre, who was investigating the use of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone, reporters are ordered to insert outright lies in their pieces or face firing. Other times, like with Gerard Colby’s book about the Du Pont family and Gary Webb’s San Jose Mercury News series about the CIA’s role in the crack epidemic, the bosses are spooked after the fact and withdraw their support from work already published, hanging reporters out to dry.
In the aftermath of Enron, plenty of journalists came forward to publicly wring their hands about the press’s failure to catch the story before it destroyed the life savings of thousands. Since then, though, there’s been little sign of renewed vigilance toward malfeasance at other companies, even though many have written that Enron’s business practices weren’t particularly unusual. Without addressing Enron directly, Into the Buzzsaw makes it pretty clear why this is by showing how journalists who took on companies like Monsanto and Du Pont were abandoned by their own editors and publishers and embroiled in lawsuits.
When they speak out, buzzsaw victims are usually treated as paranoid conspiracy theorists. Competing outlets valiantly defend the status quo—the New York Times, the Washington Post and the L.A. Times launched concurrent attacks on Gary Webb’s series, eventually derailing his newspaper career and causing his paper to print a retraction (though not of any specific facts mentioned in the story).
Writing of this episode in their book Whiteout, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair said, “From the savage assaults on Webb by other members of his profession, those unfamiliar with the series might have assumed that Webb had made a series of wild and unsubstantiated charges, long on dramatic speculation and short of specific data or sourcing. In fact, Webb’s series was succinct and narrowly focused.”
Borjesson was subject to similar attempts at character assassination by her former peers. After Borjesson was fired from CBS, she was asked to develop a pilot for a new investigative series to be overseen by Oliver Stone. She gathered over 30 eyewitnesses who disputed the official government story on the TWA crash, but before production even started, other journalists started sneering at the project. Newsweek called Stone the “latest conspiracy crank to delve into the mysterious crash.” Time magazine chimed in with an article headlined “The Conspiracy Channel?” The New York Times dismissed Borjesson’s reporting simply because government agencies denied its truth (never mind they were the very agencies Borjesson was investigating).
There’s something of an X-Files feel to a lot of these stories, though not in the way that condescending guardians of official truth think. Rather, their surreal feeling comes from the first-person experiences of people finding the institutions they’ve served all their lives suddenly turning on them. As Borjesson writes, “Walk into the buzzsaw and you’ll cut right to this layer of reality. You will feel a deep sense of loss and betrayal. A shocking shift in paradigm. Anyone who hasn’t experienced it will call you crazy. Those who don’t know the truth, or are covering it up, will call you a conspiracy nut.”
In fact, that’s just what a lot of these writers have been called. Once a journalist has been tossed out of the inner circle, anything they write can be smeared as sour grapes or mere ranting. The media has already branded them unreliable, so their charges are extremely unlikely to be taken seriously.
A similar thing happens to other progressive media critics. It’s not that the media isn’t interested in media stories—see the blanket coverage of Tina Brown’s foibles at Talk. It’s just that few are interested in critiques that challenge the very essence of journalists’ romantic dreams of themselves as Robert Redford playing Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men. Right-wingers like Bias author Bernard Goldberg tend to get much more attention, perhaps because their insights don’t threaten most journalists’ cherished self-conceptions.
While most alternative press readers are familiar with Noam Chomsky’s scrupulous documentation of the way government lies become the media’s conventional wisdom and with Robert McChesney (who wrote Buzzsaw’s conclusion) and Mark Crispin Millers’ analysis of corporate consolidation, they are routinely written off by those policing the perimeters of acceptable debate. They hardly ever appear in major newspapers or on network TV. While not quibbling with their facts, most media people tar them as alarmists or unrealistic utopians.
Indeed, some of the writers in Buzzsaw say that, before their own experiences, they were among the scoffers. Webb writes, “If we had met five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me … I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite?”
But, like most of the contributors to Into the Buzzsaw, he did his job too well and the powers that be hurled him onto the other side of the looking glass. “And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been,” he writes. “The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. … The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.”
The routine marginalizing of media critics is one reason Into the Buzzsaw is so important. It might be possible to discredit one erstwhile insider, but to argue that more than a dozen veterans of organizations like CBS News, CNN, the AP, the BBC and the San Jose Mercury News are all crazy in exactly the same way would be to engage in conspiracy-mongering more far-fetched than anything these authors are accused of. And while plenty of lefty writers have excoriated media monopolies, rarely has the precise way that corporate ownership and intimidation warp newsroom values been made quite so explicit. The value of these testimonies is largely in their minute accumulation of detail (which occasionally makes for tedious reading but enhances credibility). Borjesson is especially systematic, laying out every meeting, every conversation, every contradiction in government statements.
Some contributors aren’t quite so convincing. The book as a whole would have been stronger without April Oliver’s self-serving piece about her involvement in CNN’s Tailwind debacle and subsequent firing. She doesn’t bother to refute the charges made against her or defend the finer points of her work, which makes her essay seem like a self-serving screed. But that’s just one weak spot in an otherwise appallingly convincing book, a book that suggests that the truth about our media-military-industrial complex might go beyond even our paranoid imaginings.
Beyond the specifics of each story, Into the Buzzsaw is about how the elite sector of the media bestows the imprimatur of truth on its own interpretations of the world. In the current landscape, of course, these same outlets largely take it upon themselves to determine which books should be deemed serious. It will be interesting to see if Into the Buzzsaw gets any play in the outlets it exposes.
Don’t count on it.