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Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
Kristina Borjesson, ed.
Foreword by Gore Vidal
Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2002.
$26.00, 275 pages, ISBN 1573929727.

Sergio A. Ruano
Long Beach, California

This is a book which should be read by anyone who has an interest in free democracy; in particular is should be required reading in all American high schools. It is an eye-opener. The book contains 18 essays written by investigative journalists who describe the current peril of their profession today, by telling their own first-hand accounts of how news stories they were working on were either censored, slanted, or changed by their own bosses for a variety of reasons. Some of the journalists were even fired for reporting the truth—in essence fired for doing the job they are supposed to do. The intent of the journalists is to warn the public that what they see and hear on the news is very often not quite the whole story. Borjesson notes:

Solid in-depth coverage of the activities that our government and large corporations are engaging in both at home and abroad is necessary to protect the way of life we enjoy here in the United States. It’s been written countless times that the press is our nation’s last line of defense for keeping our leaders honest and our government democratic. If you believe this to be true and are concerned, read on. [p. 14]

Possibly the most important threat facing the free press, according to some of the journalists, is the deregulation of media ownership that makes it possible for a handful of behemoth corporations to own most of the media outlets. For example, CBS is owned by Viacom, NBC is owned by GE, ABC is owned by Disney, FOX is owned by News Corporation, CNN is owned by AOL Time Warner. These same corporations also own most of the TV and radio stations as well as most of the newspapers in the United States, creating in essence an oligopoly of media organizations which sell news as just another commodity. As a result, the news becomes just another source of revenue to boost the value of stock shares, instead of providing the public with accurate information in order to make informed decisions in their everyday lives, for example: was the CIA secretly funding drug dealers in Central and South America to help fight the spread of Communism in the 1970s and 1980s? is the local supermarket changing the expiration date on meat products to clear out old inventory to unwitting customers? is the milk we drink going to give us cancer? is the United States government covering up evidence that confirms the theory that flight TWA 800 was actually shot down by a shoulder fired missile? did the United States government cover up evidence that they are still American POW’s in Vietnam? The bottom line is not the truth, but the balance sheet that determines what news gets reported or not. Maurice Murad states the following in his essay “Shouting at the Crocodile”:

Most people in editorial control nowadays are market-oriented centrists. For the most part, stories are chosen for their general interest and mass appeal. Station managers and news directors routinely define success or failure in ratings, demographics, and winning day parts, not in the importance of a story. That is not lost on young reporters who understand exactly what’s expected of them. [p. 100]

Murad makes the point that since news organizations are owned and thus run by entertainment companies, the idea that these companies have an agenda other than making cash money is a myth (to borrow from the title). He eloquently states:

The concept of the liberal media or the conservative media is so much bushwa. The media is market driven, period. Whatever sells suppositories get on the air or in the newspaper. [p. 99]

Murad makes it wittily clear that if the choice is between the truth regarding an important issue or suppository sales figures, the media corporations will always go with the suppositories. This should make any (American) reader uncomfortably wonder about mainstream American media.

The cross promotion of entertainment on news broadcasts, which was once forbidden, is now so common that we hardly notice it. You can’t turn on a news broadcast, local or national, without seeing some mention of Survivor or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or the latest big television sports event or story based on an original movie running that evening (meet the real twins that were separated at birth) [p. 99].

As a result of news organizations being profit driven, any issue that might threaten the quarterly income statement is shied away from, or avoided completely, especially controversial investigative pieces in which lawyers who represent the targets of the news stories threaten to sue the parent corporation. For example, Jane Akre describes in her essay “The Fox, the Hounds, and the Sacred Cows,” how Fox News covered up her story on a company called Monsanto that manufactures a growth hormone called Posilac (rBGH) which is injected into cows so they can produce more milk. The issue that she wrote about was that the milk produced by the injected cows contains a higher amount of a certain growth hormone (IGF-1) than milk produced from cows that are not injected. She states the following:

But here’s a primary concern of scientists around the world: IGF-1 doesn’t differentiate between “good cells” and “bad cells” and is known to stimulate the growth of cancerous cells as well. So will it promote the growth of cancerous cells in those drinking the supercharged milk? [p. 40]

Jane Akre believed she had an important story on her hands, as I imagine any reader might, in her place. Could the milk a parent buys for his or her child cause cancer is a question I’m sure everyone would want an answer to, naiveté aside. Unfortunately, the threat of litigation prevented discussion, let alone the beginning of an answer to the question Akre was asking.

Friday evening before the scheduled airdate, Steve and I were called to the news directors office. “Read this,” he said, handing us a fax. It was a letter from a New York law firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, addressed to Roger Ailes, president of Fox News in New York. It was written on behalf of the firms client, Monsanto Company, and John Walsh, the lawyer who authorized the letter, minced no words. […] He charged that we had conducted ourselves unethically in the field. And to make sure nobody missed the point, the attorney also reminded Fox News’ chief that our behavior as investigative journalists was particularly dangerous in the “aftermath of the Food Lion vedict.” He was referring, of course, to the then recent case against ABC News that sent a frightening chill through every newsroom in America. The Food Lion verdict showed that even with irrefutable evidence from a hidden camera documenting the doctoring of potentially unsafe food sold to unsuspecting shoppers, a news organization that dares to expose a giant corporation could still lose big in court. [p. 41-42]

Akre goes on to describe her fight with Fox News to prevent the story’s demise by semantic sterilization such as:

'A risk of cancer?' You don’t need to use that word, said company lawyers. Instead, call it 'human health implications.' The credentials of our scientists critical of the Monsanto product? We don’t need their credentials, just call him a 'scientist from Wisconsin.' [p. 47]

In the end, the story was never aired on Fox News and Akre’s contract was not renewed. This is a fairly chilling revelation regardless of whether you watch Fox News or not, at least it was for this reader.

The book provides 18 different perspectives on current investigative journalism. At first glance, some of the news stories that are discussed might feel conspiratorial, but it is only a superficial distraction to the core message the writers are conveying. That what is put out as news is not necessarily the whole story.



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