Journalist and News Producer Kristina
Examines Mainstream Media...What They Don't Do...and Why?
In the news business...upsetting the government or the public
makes no sense for the bottom line and should be avoided.... Not only
is there no reason to change the status quo, there are actually good
reasons to move more towards entertainment in every possible way because
the more entertaining the program, the more audience it attracts.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Kristina Borjesson is an investigative reporter--almost an oxymoron, these
days. She's also a news producer with a long line of credits from CNN,
CBS, PBS and Pacifica Radio. She garnered an Emmy and a Murrow Award,
among others. She gained particular fame and notoriety for her reports
on the mysterious "disintegration" of TWA Flight 800 off Long
Island on July 17, 1996. Recently she has edited a revised, expanded volume
of essays, Into the
BuzzSaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, which
we proudly offer as a BuzzFlash premium.
"Into the buzzsaw" is journalistic lingo for where "sensitive"
stories go (i.e., stories that the powers-that-be choose to shred). They
are censored, altered, or marginalized as "conspiracy theory"
rather than being allowed to present the unvarnished facts and unsettling
investigative findings. Only the most intrepid journalists take on the
powers that be, because their challenging stories, their very vulnerable
careers (think Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard story), and their
high salaries will suffer the wrath of government and conglomerate ownership
(General Electric, owner of NBC; Viacom, owner of CBS; Disney, owner of
ABC; Time Warner, owner of CNN; or Rupert Murdoch, owner of FOX NEWS).
The same forces affect news writers for papers like the Washington Post
and The New York Times, who have yet to do one serious long-term investigative
piece on the chronic lying of the Bush Administration between them. Basically,
nearly the entire American mainstream media has gone into the buzzsaw.
BuzzFlash interviews Kristina Borjesson--courageous investigative journalist
and herself a survivor of the buzzsaw.
* * *
BuzzFlash: In journalism, how is going into the buzzsaw
different from just "spiking" a story?
Kristina Borjesson: They are two different terms. "Spiking"
a story means to kill it, to not run or air it. "Into the buzzsaw"
is an expression that applies to both journalists and sensitive stories.
With respect to journalists, it describes a series of traumatic and destructive
experiences that those who have reported, or are reporting on sensitive
stories can go through: the loss of one's job or career, long legal entanglements,
financial ruin, being widely and falsely discredited in public, being
attacked by one's colleagues, death threats, etc. With respect to sensitive
stories, the buzzsaw is a sophisticated system consisting of myriad elements,
including self-censoring journalists, reporters who pander to powerful
people and institutions, major media conglomerates with specific business
and political agendas, propaganda machines both inside and outside of
government, etc., which ensure that the American public remains virtually
ignorant about how this nationís--and the world's--arenas of power really
function. The buzzsaw system ensures that stories lifting the veil on
what powerful institutions and people really do, and how their activities
affect the nation and its citizens, never hit the mass public consciousness.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think there is such gullible acceptance
of government explanations and policies among the mainstream press? As
you point out in your essay within the book, many of the government's
explanations of dramatic events amount to conspiracy theories themselves.
Just look at the Bush propaganda campaign before the invasion of Iraq
and how Saddam Hussein was allegedly associated with everything from Al
Qaeda to 9/11 to WMD that were supposed to be on the verge of being launched
against us. But the mainstream media didn't question THAT conspiracy theory,
Kristina Borjesson: The press' acceptance of the government's
explanations had nothing to do with the mainstream press being gullible.
Post 9/11, news executives got the message from the American public that
it was time to rally around the president and that asking tough questions
about 9/11 or the decision to go into Iraq would not play well and would
result in lower ratings. Lower ratings mean lost revenue. It's nothing
personal; it's just business. Most journalists will tell you that a reporter's
job is to tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear,
or what the government wants them to hear. In the news business, however,
upsetting the government or the public makes no sense for the bottom line
and should be avoided. Don't expect to be well informed if you rely on
mainstream media alone. As some of the stories in Buzzsaw clearly
illustrate, mainstream media's limitations are extensive. There's no point
in getting upset at the mainstream media. It's better to just move on
to better news sources--and there are lots of them.
BuzzFlash: Basically, the executive branch, at the current
moment, appears to write a script in advance of and after events. It has,
as they say, a "story line" it follows. It appears that the
news editors in the mainstream press are fearful of undercutting the administration's
script. It's almost as if they don't want to be accused of undermining
the plot line. What's going on here?
Kristina Borjesson: I refer you to my answer to the last
question and will add one more thought: mainstream media is big business
and big business and the government are so tightly interwoven that they're
really just two aspects of one system. The mainstream press is the arena
of power's megaphone. People really need to stop expecting it to be more
than that. And happily, as I've already said, there are plenty of other
outlets that cut through all the manipulation and deception in a timely
fashion. For example, if you want to stay abreast of what's really going
on in the Middle East and Iraq, check out Asia Times online. The Center
for Public Integrity's web site is an excellent source of investigative
reporting on this country's arena of power. Check them out.
BuzzFlash: Your book is subtitled "Leading Journalists
Expose the Myth of a Free Press." A devil's advocate would challenge
you and say, "Show us any government censorship. Of course, we have
a free press in America. No government censors review what the American
press writes about or shows on television." How would you respond
to this perspective?
Kristina Borjesson: Here's what Ted Koppel said to me
last summer: "Censorship has the force of law. Censorship involves
the government saying, 'You cannot report what you want to report. You
have to show us everything that you intend to put on the air and we will
then decide whether you can or whether you can't.' That's censorship.
The fact that the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration
before it, like every administration I've known in the thirty-two years
that I've been working in Washington, tries to influence what gets on
the air and what doesn't get on the air--that's not censorship. That's
We had this conversation only a few weeks after Sinclair Broadcasting
refused to air his "Nightline" show honoring American soldiers
who had died in Iraq, which resulted in more than forty percent of the
American viewing public not being able to see the show. Sinclair didn't
run the show because they support the Bush administration. So Koppel limits
the definition of censorship to a legally mandated government activity
only and calls everything else "political influence."
There may not be any laws on the books with respect to government censoring
the news, but government censorship exists and, within some institutions,
even has a name. The CIA refers to its information killing and spinning
machine as "The Mighty Wurlitzer." But the fact that the press
in this country isn't free to report on certain issues doesn't just have
to do with whether or not government censorship exists, or the existence
of political influence. It has to do with the buzzsaw, which I described
earlier. The whole point of Into
the Buzzsaw is to reveal as many cogs and aspects of the buzzsaw
system as possible via first-person accounts. The beauty of the buzzsaw
system for those who think it is a good thing is that it makes censorship
BuzzFlash: Pompous poo-bahs like Tom Brokaw insist that
journalism is still a craft that practices objectivity. How can news be
objective? Isn't what one chooses as news and how one portrays the news
a subjective act in and of itself? Why don't we just admit that news is
subjective and stop pretending that there is some sort of objective standard?
Kristina Borjesson: I think people confuse objectivity
with good standards and practices. I agree that pure objectivity is impossible.
But there are certain rules for good reporting and believe me, they're
broken every day. Verifying a source's comments is one of the most commonly
broken rules. Official sources get away with lying to the public on a
regular basis because reporters don't question what they say.
BuzzFlash: What happened to the concept of investigative
journalism? Is it a victim of the "headline news" syndrome,
the bean counters, the fear of upsetting the status quo--or all of the
Kristina Borjesson: All of the above and more.
BuzzFlash: How did we end up at a time when the members
of the White House press corps, with the exception of Helen Thomas and
a couple of others, basically serve as props and stenographers for the
Kristina Borjesson: You have to keep in mind the fact
that the White House press corps makes its living off of official sources
and depends on them for leaks. Harper's publisher John MacArthur said
it best to me in an interview: "They can't operate without being
part of the system. Or they feel they can't operate without being part
of the governmental system of leaks. And nobody in top management encourages
them to think otherwise. Donald Graham, the publisher of the Washington
Post, is a very conservative man. He doesn't want to upset the apple cart.
He doesn't want to challenge power. He is power. He's part of the system."
Helen Thomas is an example of what can happen to a reporter--even an eminence
grise like Helen--who does upset the apple cart by asking tough questions.
Access is shut off. You don't get called on when you raise your hand.
BuzzFlash: Chapter 7 in your book, "The Mighty Wurlitzer
Plays On," was written by Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San
Jose Mercury News who committed suicide in December of 2004. He details
how he wrote a 1996 series about how LA Street gangs, Nicaraguan Contras,
and the CIA were responsible for bringing crack cocaine, in a big way,
to LA. It ran in the Mercury News, but later, under stinging attack from
the government and the East Coast press, the Mercury News apologized for
the series. Webb left the newspaper, but was vindicated by a CIA and Justice
Department report two years later. He was a victim of "buzzsaw backlash,"
so to speak. It sort of puts a chill on any reporter thinking of taking
on the status quo, doesn't it?
Kristina Borjesson: Gary went into the buzzsaw after
his story came out. His story wasn't killed in the making; on the contrary,
he had his editor's full support while he was putting it together. There's
a damage control component of the buzzsaw system that kicks in after a
story is out. This component engages people, including other journalists,
as well as resources, to discredit the story and the journalist who reported
it, and gets the executives at the media outlet that released the story
to turn around and disown it. In Gary's case, the buzzsaw was brutal and
has lasted up to now, which gives you an idea of how big his story actually
What happened to Gary would definitely put a chill on average reporters
thinking of doing these types of stories, but they usually avoid them
anyway. Big, sensitive stories are done by a small elite group of journalists
who will always go for them because that's what they live to do, even
though the work can become a terrible, even deadly, burden. The good news
is that with the Internet, we have access to the work of a wider talent
pool of these master investigative reporters.
BuzzFlash: To be honest, I occasionally watch the nightly
national news, and I am left dumbfounded each time. I keep thinking, is
this what we call "news"? It's just headlines and filler and
PR spin interspersed with commercials. You worked in television news and
you know that in Britain they call news anchors, "news readers."
In America, why do these people earn so much money, and why are they considered
to be wise pundits?
Kristina Borjesson: Part of the entertainment factor
of news--which is very important for audience draw and for ratings--is
the star system. Tom Brokaw was paid big bucks to be the "star"
of NBC's nightly news show. Tom, like the other anchors, was part of what
drew the audience to watch NBC News instead of the other news programs.
And that was worth a lot of money to NBC, which in turn paid him well
to stay. American TV is fiercely competitive and big money is involved
in each ratings point, so these guys were considered to be well worth
As for the pundit aspect, Brokaw, like Rather and Jennings, has had a
long, distinguished career in mainstream TV journalism. That's why these
guys are considered pundits of the mainstream TV news business, and legitimately
so, I think. They've all been around the block and then some. Believe
me, they know more than anyone how far down the tubes television journalism
has gone. Read Dan Rather's chapter in Into
the Buzzsaw. It's clear that he knows the mainstream news business
very, very well.
BuzzFlash: Is media conglomeration a double curse? It
appears to us that because most media outlets are now owned by big companies,
they think and act like conservative businesses and don't want to rock
the boat. But, in addition, many of the media empires include large entertainment
divisions, and the news and entertainment worlds appear to have merged
into infotainment. News is now often judged on its entertainment value.
We think of, for example, how television covered the "shock and awe"
bombing of Baghdad as if it were a fireworks display.
Kristina Borjesson: They are conservative businesses
that don't want to rock the boat. And they are very, very successful.
Not only is there no reason to change the status quo, there are actually
good reasons to move more towards entertainment in every possible way
because the more entertaining the program, the more audience it attracts.
Again, for entertainment, American cable and network TV offer some great
stuff. But as I said earlier, look elsewhere for real news.
BuzzFlash: Okay, a question out of the blue. Why is it
okay for the American media to ostentatiously show the bodies of the victims
of the recent tsunami, but not of dead Iraqi civilians or American soldiers
killed in Iraq?
Kristina Borjesson: There would be negative political
and financial repercussions to showing dead Iraqi civilians and American
soldiers killed in Iraq. Even if network executives wanted to do so--which
I don't think they do, particularly in the current political climate--the
Bush administration would react right away, and this administration knows
how to punish its detractors. Showing the bodies of the victims of the
recent tidal waves is part of conveying a dramatic human disaster. There
are no negative political or financial consequences to doing it.
BuzzFlash: Finally, is there any hope that the tacit
coupling of our media and our national government can be derailed by the
truth seeping out through new media outlets? Is there a chance of resurrecting
a free media, the kind which our founding fathers used to foment the ideas
for the American Revolution? Today, who would give Tom Paine a second
on one of the news talk shows? Bill O'Reilly would tell him to just shut
Kristina Borjesson: Sure there's hope. A new news paradigm
is being created as I write this. First of all, you have to appreciate
how revolutionary the Internet has been as a development that is giving
the mainstream media a real run for its money. Lots of great reporters,
bloggers and otherwise average citizens are taking full advantage of the
Internet as a place to exchange information. The Internet is also raising
awareness and serving as a powerful antidote against American provincialism,
which can only help to create large-scale demand for real, unvarnished
reporting. Network and cable news programs today have a fraction of the
audience that each network used to have, and they're fighting to hang
on to that.
Another good thing is that citizens all over the country, including those
at big companies and government agencies like the CIA and the Pentagon--are
stepping forward and exposing situations and revealing information that
the public needs to know and that the mainstream press would never otherwise
report on. And with the success of "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael
Moore has shown that there is a huge demand for veil-lifting looks at
what the members of the arena of power are up to. These are all very positive
developments. There are more to come.
BuzzFlash: Thank you for your insights.
Kristina Borjesson: You're very welcome.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Into the Buzzsaw:
Center for Public Integrity: http://www.publicintegrity.org/default.aspx