Up Against the Lap Dogs

“It is possible to fool all the people all the time–when government and press cooperate.” –investigative reporter George Seldes in The Lords of the Press, as cited by Gary Webb

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon quietly opened an Office of Strategic Influence. Purportedly a response to the administration’s concerns about diminishing support for the United States abroad, the office’s intent was to provide news items to foreign media organizations in order to influence public sentiment. The Pentagon called the material “educational”; to others it sounded more like propaganda, especially after officials admitted that the use of disinformation had not been ruled out. Details about the office and its sketchy designs did not begin to leak out until mid-February of last year. By the end of the month, it was closed. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, with characteristic belligerence, attributed its demise to news reports and commentary that unfairly characterized the office. He made no apologies regarding the Pentagon’s proposed activities. “We’ll just do them in a different office,” he told reporters.

At least three parts of this situation are alarming: 1) the fact that this office was not above lying to serve its purposes; 2) the idea that its existence remained relatively unknown for so long; and 3) the way the matter was so cavalierly dismissed by the administration, which seemed to chalk it up as another case of overblown media hype. Much of the reporting was done by CNN and The New York Times, neither exactly known for hysterics. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of both outlets that their reporting shut down a federal office, yet the length of time the Pentagon ran the office without interference, or even much notice, is also alarming–to say nothing of Rumsfeld’s arrogant indifference to the media’s concerns.

The flap over the Office of Strategic Influence illustrates how essential investigative reporting remains. Yet the profession has never been in more danger than it is right now, as the 18 contributors to Into the Buzzsaw convincingly demonstrate. Most of them are journalists with their own stories from the front lines: how to keep from being misled, how to gain access to critical information, how to deal with retaliation for their work, and of course, how to get news to the public. Increasingly, they are battling not only government secrecy, but also their own editors and publishers–and their corporate employers.

Many of the contributors have worked for major networks and newspapers, such as Fox, CBS, CNN, PBS, the AP, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and The New York Observer. Several are now professors. Some have been fired for their diligence. Some have gone to court. A few are quite angry. Editor Kristina Borjesson was fired by CBS in a dispute over her reporting on the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July of 1996. Borjesson wanted to pursue leads she had gathered suggesting the plane was accidentally downed by a missile during a Navy training exercise; her bosses were not interested in that angle. The “buzzsaw” of the book’s title, she writes, is the “powerful system of censorship in this country . . . usually having to do with high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance.” Fighting the system, as Borjesson learned, can occasionally have “a fatal effect on one’s career.”

On paper at least, American journalists enjoy considerable leeway to practice their art. Britain, after all, doesn’t even have the equivalent of a First Amendment explicitly guaranteeing freedom of the press. Federal communications law requires American television stations to broadcast in the public interest, and the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of freedom of the press even in matters of national security.

So why does the book’s subtitle refer to the “myth” of a free press? Government secrecy is partly to blame. Even before September 11, efforts to squelch press access to information were alive and well. Contributor John Kelly, who has specialized in reporting on the FBI and the CIA, documents the 2000 passage of the “Official Secrets Act,” which criminalized leaks of classified information. President Clinton vetoed the act at the last minute, but the passage of the USA Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act have since imposed other burdens on journalists. Equally damaging have been recent trends in the media industry. Concentrated corporate ownership of media inhibits honest and open reporting in a quest for profit. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is a good example of this. Murdoch’s corporation, which owns publishing house HarperCollins, the New York Post, and Twentieth Century Fox films, in addition to the Fox television network and more U.S. television stations than anyone else, has a media reach that extends to Europe, Asia, and Australia as well. Jane Akre, a former Fox investigative reporter in Tampa, Florida, experienced the Murdoch corporation’s heavy-handedness firsthand when Fox teamed up with drug maker Monsanto to squelch her well-researched segment on the harmful effects of the rBGH hormone. Akre describes in detail how Fox, “anxious to avoid a legal challenge or lost advertising revenue, looked for some way to make the whole thing quietly go away.” Akre and her partner filed their own lawsuit against Fox television, and won, after a five-week trial that included the testimony of Ralph Nader and Walter Cronkite. Sadly, however, the story, which had credible information on the link between the rBGH hormone and cancer, never aired.

The constant threat of lawsuits, whether meritorious or not, has a chilling effect on good investigative reporting. Memorable examples include Philip Morris’ $10 billion lawsuit against ABC news in 1995 for reporting that tobacco companies manipulate levels of nicotine, for which ABC eventually apologized. ABC also was sued by Food Lion in 1992, over an undercover investigation revealing unhealthy working conditions and mishandling of food in the chain’s stores. Interestingly, Food Lion’s claims didn’t challenge the truth of the reports, but rather focused on the issue of the clandestine gathering of information by reporters without permission.

Contributor Greg Palast, a reporter for London’s The Guardian, writes about the litigation-happy Barrick Gold mining firm, which was implicated in the cover-up of a disaster in which at least fifty miners were buried alive in one of their mines in Tanzania. (George H.W. Bush, incidentally, sat on the company’s International Advisory Board following his presidency.) “The firm has sued or threatens to sue, any paper or person who reports on them in ways they find less than flattering,” Palast said.

Perhaps the most common theme in Into the Buzzsaw is the lap-dog obedience of the press to the government. Several contributors document how government agencies, particularly the CIA, depend on the media to keep quiet about certain issues. Contributor Michael Levine, who has written extensively about the drug war (and is himself a former DEA agent) describes the mainstream media’s M.O. when it comes to drug war stories: “first, to keep quiet about the gush of drugs that was allowed to flow unimpeded into the U.S.; second, to divert the public’s attention by shilling them into believing the drug war was legitimate by falsely presenting the few trickles we were permitted to indict as though they were major ‘victories’.” The result of this, Levine says, is an endless series of “stories with headlines like ‘New Threat in Drug Supply Discovered in (fill in nation of your choice)’; ‘New Link in Opium Trail Discovered in (fill in location of your choice)’; ‘The Hunt for (fill in name), New Leader of the (fill in name) Cartel’; ‘Government Sources Alarmed by Increase in Flow of (fill in drug of your choice)’.”

There is a sense of urgency in many of these essays, a feeling that the writers are trying to cram in as much information as they can, as if this might be their only chance to get it out to the public. The collection seems a little diffuse, too, mixing cautionary tales of struggle against censorship with advice to citizens and fellow journalists, along with a few mini-diatribes on the importance of the free press. (Perhaps understandably, some of the diatribes are flavored by the bitterness of the recently divorced. One piece by a former CBS producer uses a traditional African saying as its title: “Don’t shout at the crocodile until after you’ve crossed the river.”) Previous books have alerted us to the existence of censorship; this collection impresses us with its breadth and depth.

What to do with all this then? Contributor Gerard Colby, who struggled for years to publish his reporting on the Du Pont family, recommends skin magazines, which he cites as “the best funders of freelance investigative journalism in the United States.” Others see hope for a renaissance in mainstream journalism. Contributor Karl Idsvoog, a former vice president at APBnews.com and founder of the company 1st Amendment Investigations, still has hope for investigative journalism, even though many media outlets consider it too risky, time-consuming, and costly to justify. But it has to be done right, Idsvoog warns. If publishers and station executives try to skimp on their investigative stories–as many now do–by cutting budgets and hiring inexperienced reporters or producers, they will get burned. “How many stations are currently Ford Pintos just waiting to get rear-ended?” he says. Good journalism, Idsvoog suggests, is a prudent business choice that many will end up following.

Reading this book made me wonder just how it could have gotten published at all. Didn’t the publisher bump up against the same constraints that kept these stories from reaching the public in the first place? In most cases, the answer was no, in part because of the nature of censorship in America. Often it was the journalist’s own editor, or the parent company that employed both the journalist and the editor, that killed a story. In other cases, so much time has passed that all parties involved feel less threatened by the stories. Such physical distance from the events may place them in the safe haven of history, stripping them of their immediacy and in a way, their reality. If we can’t get good investigative journalism when it’s fresh, is it really good journalism anymore? And how many other good stories are growing stale right now, stymied by lawsuits, government stonewalling, or overly-cautious editors and publishers? It seems entirely possible that this collection may provide just a shadow of the reality of the U.S. press’s struggle to be truly free.

Observer intern Jessica Chapman is a graduate journalism student at UT-Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST