Chopped out of the news

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 33, April 2003, pp. 6-7.

Brian Martin

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Do you remember TWA Flight 800, the passenger jet that exploded off New York on 17 July 1996? I remember reading about it at time. Initially the cause of the disaster was unknown, but before long all official bodies agreed that the explosion was due to a mechanical failure.

Kristina Borjesson, a journalist for CBS television, was one of many journalists assigned to the story. She followed up some leads that caused her to doubt the official explanation. For example, there were numerous eyewitnesses who reported seeing a streak of light go towards the plane, followed by its explosion. Government officials claimed that there were no military craft anywhere near Flight 800, but Borjesson discovered that they were lying: there was solid evidence of military exercises nearby and of one ship leaving the scene at full speed.

Some insiders said that Flight 800 had been accidentally shot down by a missile and that the government was doing everything possible to cover this up. Borjesson didn't have the evidence to prove this but wanted to broadcast a story raising the issues. This is where she ran into a "buzzsaw" that chopped up dissent.

Several months after the disaster, network correspondent Pierre Salinger claimed that he had documents from French intelligence showing that a US Navy missile had accidentally hit Flight 800. Jim Kallstrom of the FBI called a press conference to rebut the Salinger's claim. At question time, Borjesson reports,

A man raised his hand and asked what I thought was a pertinent - and impertinent - question. He wanted to know why the navy was involved in the recovery and investigation while a possible suspect. Kallstrom's response was immediate: 'Remove him!' he yelled. Two men leapt over to the questioner and grabbed him by the arms. There was a momentary chill in the air after the guy had been dragged out of the room. (pp. 110-111)

Borjesson continued to pursue the story, but CBS producers seemed just as hostile to the missile theory as the FBI. She ended up losing her job at CBS. She became cynical about journalism that relied on statements by officials.

What I have to say to a reporter or correspondent who accepts at face value anything an 'official' source or a 'legitimate news guest' has to say about a sensitive issue or an explosive event like TWA 800 is simple: Don't do it. (p. 146)

Her encounter with high-level government deception and media censorship led Borjesson to seek out other US journalists with similar experiences and to edit a book titled Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002). Borjesson describes her experiences - and those of other contributors to the book - as "walking into the buzzsaw":

The buzzsaw is a powerful system of censorship in this country [the US] that is revealed to those reporting on extremely sensitive stories, usually having to do with high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance. It often has a fatal effect on one's career. I don't want to mix metaphors here, but a journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as 'radioactive,' which is another word for unemployable. (p. 12)

The stories in this book are extraordinary. Gerard Colby wrote a book exposing the unsavoury side of the powerful Du Pont family industrial empire. It was published but the publisher undermined the impact of the book, a process called "privishing":

The mechanism used is simple: cut off the book's life-support system by reducing the initial print run so that the book 'cannot price profitably according to any conceivable formula,' refuse to do reprints, drastically slash the book's advertising budget, and all but cancel the promotional tour. The publisher's purpose is to kill off a book that, for one reason or another, is considered 'troublesome' or potentially so. (pp. 15-16)

Colby's experiences with this process are astounding and certainly show that a publisher's desire for profit can be overridden by political factors.

Several of the contributors to Into the Buzzsaw deal with drug running by the CIA. There is a chapter by Gary Webb, the journalist for the San Jose Mercury News who broke the story, titled "Dark Alliance," about how the CIA supported drug-running by the "Contras," the armed force - terrorists, really - opposing the Nicaraguan government. The CIA was thus implicated in the dramatic increase in use of crack cocaine in US black communities. The pressure of the mainstream press against the story was so great that the editor of the San Jose Mercury News printed a retraction and Webb lost his job, though all the subsequent evidence he obtained only made the original story even stronger.

Webb says, "If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me" (p. 295). For 17 years, he had no career repercussions from his investigations. After his experience with "Dark Alliance," he changed his view about the freedom of the press: "The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough [to] suppress." (p. 297)

There is plenty here to challenge most readers, whatever their views. Monika Jensen-Stevenson argues that the US government was lying when it declared in 1973 that all US soldiers captured during the Vietnam war had been returned. She tells how Marine Robert Garwood was held prisoner for 14 years and escaped only to find that the Marine Corps then did everything possible to discredit him. According to Jensen-Stevenson, the US and Vietnamese governments have both covered up the truth about US prisoners held in Vietnam.

The contributors are mainly concerned about telling their own stories, but along the way they comment about the causes of media cover-ups and discouragement of investigative reporting. Some of the causes include journalists' dependence on official sources, concentration of media ownership, and cutbacks on news coverage as part of an increased profit orientation and reduced public service orientation. Many contributors feel that support for investigative journalism in the US has declined. One of the few optimistic notes is struck by Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, who says that he worries like the rest, but:

Then I see the latest investigative story done at a small news organization, and I start realizing that investigative reporting is a light that will never be put out. There is a generation of journalists who won't stop asking why, and there will be another generation following them no matter what the legal ramifications or corporate controls. (p. 361)

I have long thought that journalists - especially investigative journalists - see more suppression of dissent than any other occupational group. They probe contentious issues where powerful people have a strong interest in keeping the lid on. Yet despite the amount of censorship within the media, there are few systematic accounts of it. Into the Buzzsaw is a rarity. It would be difficult for such a book to be published in Australia, because of defamation laws.

One lesson from Into the Buzzsaw is not to treat the news as if it tells the full story. It's hard to keep in mind that this applies to foreign policy, wars, terrorism, crime and business news - wherever powerful groups have something at stake.

Whistleblowers and journalists often are natural allies: whistleblowers provide information that is essential for journalists to expose unsavoury secrets, and journalists expose the story to a wider audience in an accessible fashion. As well, media reports on attacks on whistleblowers are one of the most effective supports a whistleblower can receive.

It is worth keeping in mind that journalists can be in the firing line too. Many of them have learned just how far they can push their editors and producers. They will not want to go to the wall for every worthwhile story. But sometimes they will, at the risk of walking into the buzzsaw.