From Abracadabra to Zombies
by Kristina Borjesson
(Editor), Gore Vidal (Foreword)
(Prometheus Books, 2002)
Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of essays by journalists that, in one way or another, aims at promoting freedom of speech. Most of the essayists have found freedom of speech in American journalism to be more myth than reality. For some, discovering this has been the hardest civics lesson they've ever had.
Publisher's Weekly says of Buzzsaw that "if members of the general public read this book, or even portions of it, they will be appalled. To the uninitiated reader, the accounts of what goes on behind the scenes at major news organizations are shocking. Executives regularly squelch legitimate stories that will lower their ratings, upset their advertisers or miff their investors. Unfortunately, this dirt is unlikely to reach unknowing news audiences, as this volume's likely readership is already familiar with the current state of journalism."
Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press might well have been subtitled The Worst of ProjectCensored.org. There were several disturbing stories about stories that were self-censored by owners and publishers of newspapers and television stations. One involved the roadblocks set up to prevent investigating and reporting on the possibility that a missile from the surface of the sea may have blown TWA flight 800 out of the sky, killing 230 people. The official "accident" report was done by the FBI, with the help of the CIA, and it says that a fuel tank exploded due to a wiring problem. Why the National Transportation Safety Board didn't control the investigation, since the explosion was supposedly due to something within their purview, remains unanswered. Why 116 of 134 eyewitnesses say they saw something fiery going from the sea to the sky and then the explosion, which contradicts the CIA animation (based on what?) created to show fiery debris going from the sky toward the sea, remains unexplained? Most important, why was it so hard for critics of the FBI investigation to get taken seriously by those who control the media? The Internet fills some of the gaps, but it is easy to dismiss the Internet sites as conspiracy kooks, since hardly anybody in the mainstream bothers to take this missile theory seriously, especially since Pierre Salinger has been widely depicted as basing his missile report on the uninformed speculations of some crackpot with a computer who created the theory out of whole cloth for the Internet. Even if you don't like conspiracy stories, but do like examples of how we and the press are manipulated by disinformation, you should find the essays on this topic worth the read.
Another disturbing case involved stifling a story about the use of hormones to get cows to produce more milk. Monsanto created rBGH, the largest-selling dairy animal drug in the U.S. It claims it is safe and so does the FDA. So, where's the problem? Stories about problems with the drug, such as cows on it being more prone to disease and needing more antibiotics, are stifled. Why? Is there any reason why no other country in the world approves of the drug? The milk from these cows has higher amounts of IGF-1, a growth factor hormone. This doesn't seem to worry the FDA, but it has scientists in other countries concerned. Why isn't this story being pursued by the American media? And why did lawyers for the Fox Network want to kill a story about rBGH?
We still haven't figured out where to draw the line on free speech when it comes to criticisms that might have serious economic impact. The issue is complex, I know. Oprah wants to badmouth beef on her extremely popular TV show. Beef producers fear a big loss of sales. She says it's just her opinion and this is America. Right, but millions listen to that opinion and might act on it. What if she's wrong? Remember Ed Bradley and Meryl Streep badmouthing Alar? There was a call to boycott apples that were sprayed with the stuff to keep them on the trees longer. The fear was unfounded and family growers in Washington went bankrupt because their main buyers (like California public schools) quit buying apples. Think of the economic impact if a significant number of Americans quit buying dairy products because of fears that the products might be contributing to some serious health problems. The issue has come up before, e.g., the possible connection between milk products and Chron's disease (because of the inability of pasteurization to eliminate the bacterium Mycobacterium Paratuberculosis).* However, in the case of the story about rBGH, the only economic impact that seems to have bothered WVTV-13 Channel 13 in Tampa (which killed the story by their own investigators) was the potential loss of advertising income to Fox should Monsanto (producers of Roundup and Nutrasweet, among other items) pull its ads from the twenty-three stations it owns (p. 51) and the threat of a lawsuit from Fox should the station run the story. Jane Akre sued Fox over the business of stifling her story and trying to ruin her reputation and was awarded $450,000 from a jury. When it was revealed that a major media outlet had slanted the news and ordered reporters to go on TV and say things they knew were false, the rest of the media mostly stood by in silence. I suppose we should be thankful that at least so far we don't have any shills for the dairy industry in Congress trying to pass legislation making it illegal to criticize cheese.
Another disturbing story is an account by Gerald Colby concerning the powerful du Pont family and their ability to manage the news and control what gets published about them. This essay also introduced me to a new word: privashing. Apparently, the word has been around since the 1970s, yet I could find nothing of interest regarding the practice on the Internet. Privashing--a portmanteau of private and publish-- is how publishers quash their own books without the authors' awareness or consent. Publishers may reduce the initial run so the book can't make a profit. A book that doesn't make a profit can't justifiably be reprinted. Publishers may cut the advertising budget to zero or cancel promotional tours. Why? According to Colby, fear of being sued or blackballed or financially ruined by boycotting plays a major factor. Who would make such threats? Families like the du Ponts who, says Colby, caused his book about them to be privashed. (Surely, you remember the du Ponts from history class? The ones who cornered the gunpowder market during the Civil War. The ones who poison the environment and then poison the well regarding "environmentalists." The ones called a "species of outlaws" by our Secretary of War during WWI for overcharging the government for munitions. The ones who undermined the 1924 Geneva Disarmament Conference. The ones who smuggled munitions to the Nazis. What? Those weren't mentioned in your history books? Hmm.) The book, Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain (Prentice-Hall), is out-of-print, but a used copy might be available from Amazon.com. Another attempt at publishing the story--Du Pont Dynasty (Carol Publishing Group)--is also out-of-print.
Many readers will find the stories about the CIA running drugs to pay for their covert operations (i.e., illegal activities of the type supported by Ronald Reagan's underground foreign policy regarding Nicaraguan Contras (terrorists? freedom fighters?) that Oliver North called a "neat idea"). The story about how the stories on illegal and immoral CIA activities (I think murder still counts as immoral, even if done by a member of our CIA) don't get printed is even more interesting. One of the tellers of this tale is Michael Levine, a 25-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Levine was an idealist who feels he's been suckered by his government. He wanted to put away anybody anywhere who was producing illegal drugs, but when he was positioned to put away the biggest producer in the world (at the time), he was told by his superiors to leave it alone. You can find out why without buying Buzzsaw, since he has posted an unedited version of his story on the Internet.
Levine has also posted another article: IS ANYONE APOLOGIZING TO GARY WEBB? Remember Gary Webb, the reporter dissed by his editor at the San Jose Mercury News for his work on drugs, the CIA, Los Angeles black gangs, the Contras, etc.? Levine writes that Webb is
the journalist who, in a well researched, understated article entitled "The Dark Alliance," linked the CIA supported Contras to cocaine and weapons being sold to a California street gang and ended up literally being hounded out of journalism by every mainstream news peddling organization in the Yellow Pages. Even his own employer The San Jose Mercury piled on for the kill.
Webb is another former investigative reporter who states his case in Buzzsaw. Did publishers of stalwarts like the New York Times and Washington Post (as well as the major TV networks) cave in to a government disinformation campaign against Webb? Decide for yourself by reading his and Levine's essays. (Or read Webb's book about the experience. So far it hasn't been privashed.) It is interesting though, that while our Congress didn't get too upset about the CIA's drug running, the government of Costa Rica did. Oscar Arias Sanchez barred "North and his gang--Poindexter, Secord, Joseph Fernandez and former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis Tambs--from ever again setting foot in Costa Rica. The Associated Press reported this action in a lengthy press wire (7/22/90), but according to "Extra" (the Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting newsletter), the New York Times and all three national networks--perhaps following Congress's example of complacency--failed to carry the story."*
One recurring theme in Buzzsaw is the claim that the leading lights of television and print journalism are sheep when it comes to relying on government sources, even though these sources are often interested parties in the stories. If a top reporter's source in the White House, CIA, Pentagon, etc., denies a story, that seems to satisfy most of our major media outlets. I don't know how true this actually is, but one would have to be very inattentive not to notice that too often the mass media follows up a charge of wrongdoing on the part of government or business with a denial from a spokesperson for the one charged. And that's that. No investigation, no hint at who might have it wrong. And seemingly no interest in getting at the truth, as long as both sides have been given a fair hearing.
Buzzsaw also features an essay by Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, which for years has been covering news media self-censorship, as well as an article by Robert McChesney. The latter, in the concluding essay in the book, says that a lot of things have led to the demise of professional journalism, but all of them center around two items: the media is no longer a watchdog protecting the citizenry from the criminals in government and business, and the media is no longer a very reliable source of credible information about things that matter. McChesney also reminds us that a democracy depends upon an informed electorate, which requires journalists who are biased. What kind of watchdog is afraid to bite anybody for fear of being criticized for being biased? I have to admit that I have been on the bandwagon calling for unbiased reporting when what I really want is fairness. Too often the call for no bias is little more than the call for spin from both sides.
Buzzsaw also makes many claims about the media that are rather common, e.g., that the media kowtows to its advertisers, that most of what it reports is undigested material provided by interested parties, that investigative journalism is considered too expensive by today's bottom-line oriented managers, that ratings are all that matter, that news is now considered a branch of the entertainment division, that non-news (called "soft news") dominates local news media, and that what is reported as news is stuff that gives the most bang for the buck (cheap to produce but attracts the largest audience) so there is no connection between what is reported and what life is really like (e.g., serious crimes goes down significantly for ten straight years but reporting on such crimes goes up significantly during the same time frame). Furthermore, there is rarely an investigation of serious issues until the horse has been let out of the barn (witness the reporting on Enron, WorldCom, Xerox, Lucent, Vivendi, Tyco, Arthur Andersen, Adelphia, Global Crossing, Stanley Works, Qwest). Journalists are no better than the CIA at predicting such things as the end of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the dot-coms. But if the CIA and the FBI can't find their way out of a paper bag with all the money and resources at their disposal, I suppose it is wishful thinking to expect journalists to do any better.
On the other hand, Buzzsaw is obviously only one side of the story. There are courageous journalists and publishers around the world, some of whom have given their lives (like Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others) in the pursuit of truth and the quest to keep the public informed about wrongdoing by criminals in and out of government and business. There are also those (like Barry Bearak of the New York Times) who report from wretched places about such things as UNICEF's disastrous attempt to provide clean water to the people of Bangladesh. We should be as grateful to these courageous people as we are disappointed with those who would censor unpleasant stories for whatever reason.