Muffling the Drum
“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
Voltaire, letter 1770
In a November, 1992 expose on illegal practices being carried out by supermarket chains on Prime Time Live, reporters working undercover at Food Lion outlets documented instances of ” . . . employees repackaging and re-dating fish, grinding expired beef with fresh beef, and applying barbeque sauce to old chicken to mask the smell.” Food Lion soon filed suit against ABC News and after a long and costly court battle, won a $1 symbolic settlement from the news organization. Other news divisions, now afraid of broadcasting stories critical of big business began to pull inflammatory stories from their programs for fear that they might lose costly and time-consuming cases defending their right to bring these matters to the public’s attention. In the end, the case stands as a landmark ruling (although the jury actually found ABC News was not libelous in their treatment of the company) in favor of corporations at the expense of the public good.
This is just one of the stories mentioned in editor Kristina Borjesson’s illuminating yet uneven collection of essays, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press. With almost one voice the essays contained here contend that the modern news business—where the emphasis on the bottom line has almost trumped the traditional sanctity of the byline—has become just that: a business. Given the current climate of deregulation, consolidation and rampant mergers which has resulted in corporations folding news departments into their entertainment divisions, news outlets have in effect become just another form of entertainment. This trend is most evident in local television news programs, which have begun to look more and more like slightly less splashy versions of Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood than traditional news programming.
Even newspapers, once the cornerstone of tough investigative reporting have shrunk in importance as their readership declines and many hard-hitting stories are regularly sanitized in order not to offend corporate sponsors who might pull ads or instigate a lawsuit. Given this backdrop, Buzzsaw is a timely, and quite unnerving book. The impetus for the book arose when Borjesson, who is an Emmy and Murrow Award winning investigative reporter, had her own brush with censorship and corruption in 1996 when she found herself in the middle of an investigation of the TWA flight 800 crash off the coast of Long Island.
Assigned to cover the story for CBS, Borjesson quickly stumbled upon a series of red flags that should have tipped off any curious reporter. The fact that the military wouldn’t allow the NYPD dive team access to the area for almost three days after the crash, and when they did, only allowed them to search certain areas for remains. Or the so-called “30-knot clip”—a blip on recorded images of radar screens that shows a large surface vessel moving at a high rate of speed away from the area right after the plane erupted in a ball of flames and crashed. In addition, numerous credible witnesses from the Long Island shore who went un-interviewed (or dismissed when interviewed) claim to have seen something rise from the surface of the ocean and explode just before they saw the plane come apart and plunge into the water. Finally, the bullying tactics, ever-changing stories and outright lies offered by the governments lead investigator Jim Kallstrom (who landed a plum job at CBS right after the investigation) all led her to chase the story of a government cover-up with regard to the possibility that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down flight 800 during a training exercise.
The final straw came one evening when Borjesson and fellow investigator Kelly O’Meara left some crucial evidence pointing to a government cover-up in the trunk of Borjesson’s car overnight in front of the building in which they were staying. What happened next is the stuff of pulp spy-thriller fare: “The next morning, we went to the car, and O’Meara opened the trunk. Everything was there, except for the TWA 800 documents and O’Meara’s computer. The trunk lock itself looked untouched and worked perfectly. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, these things do happen in the United States of America. I would never have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it myself.”
There is almost too much evidence Borjesson produces in favor of a government cover-up for the theory to be ignored, including a whistleblower being taken to court by the government for sneaking seat samples out of the recovery area which contained chemical traces consistent with rocket fuel residue, in direct refutation to the government’s claim that the residue was simply industrial strength glue. The FBI was also active in the investigation, sending agents to the site to take away parts of the plane with no explanation, including a few rows of seats where the explosion was centered and never returning them for further study.
But Borjesson was not alone. Contributing essayist and 35-year journalism veteran David E. Hendrix also tried to track down the facts of what really happened off the coast of Long Island that night, with no more success. In his essay he arrives at the same conclusion Borjesson, O’Meara and a few others who did their homework: In the face of so much evidence showing that it is likely that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down TWA 800, why didn’t more journalists chase down the many leads that supported this contention? Simple: editors didn’t want to hear it and were looking for a quick turnaround on stories dealing with the crash. They simply parroted the government’s version of the story and left it at that. As J. Robert Port says in his essay: “Some of our biggest, most trusted news organizations simply lack the courage, the will or the leadership to consistently do the work necessary to expose the truth about the most controversial subjects in our world?”
The title of the book might make one think that it’s written by what we’ve come to know as “conspiracy nuts”—but nothing could be further from the truth. The essayists are producers, television anchors, editors at major dailies and award-winning columnists who have had stories killed, their contracts cancelled and have resigned in protest at their superiors’ refusal to run factual stories critical of big business and government. There’s no denying that they’re an angry group, but to their credit they each manage to retain an air of professionalism and even-handedness when describing the injustices they and their colleagues have suffered. If there is one fault in the collection, it’s in the number of essays, and the quality of a handful of them. Of the 18 pieces included, at least two or three could have been left out as they basically parrot what some of the more compelling pieces have to say, and as such don’t really stand on their own legs.
Two essays dealing with the all-but-laughable war on drugs stand out as highlights in this collection. Mainstream Media: The Drug War’s Shills by former DEA official and author Michael Levine and The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On by former Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist Gary Webb expose the complicated web of diverted funds and outright lies the CIA has perpetrated by moving narcotics into North America in order to fund its jaunts abroad. Levine was on the ground during the early days of the drug war in the ‘70s and ‘80s and recounts from personal experience instances where he was told he’d gone far enough in an investigation and that he should back off. Webb, who broke open the story about CIA involvement in the crack epidemic of the ‘80s in LA which soon spread around the country was eventually sacked by his newspaper because he refused to retract factual information that was in his story when pressure was put on his publishers.
These essays sure won’t help you sleep at night, rife as they are with stories of cover-ups, lies, murder and little-known government reports detailing their own involvement in major crimes, but they are necessary. They are also very believable. It is next to impossible to know exactly what motivation someone has to write an essay of the sort you will find here, whether it be personal, professional or altruistic is up to each reader to judge for themselves, but there is an underlying thread of sincerity that runs throughout these pieces which give them an air of authority. At a time when our media outlets have “missed” stories such as the massive corporate fraud being perpetrated against Americans by our largest corporations and seem to accept that our war on terror is going precisely as planned (according to Bush, Ridge, Ashcroft, etc), the book comes as a timely wake-up call to people interested in the truth, and just who is fashioning that truth.