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Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, by Kristina Borjesson, Revised and Expanded Edition, Prometheus Books, 2004

reviewed by Brian Trench


 

T

his collection of essays and articles is intriguing and irritating in almost equal measure. The inside stories of life in the news media are revealing: they show how many sectors of the American media are constrained and intimidated by political and commercial pressures. But these stories are also strongly self-serving; they show reporters and investigators as always right, without doubt, and apparently incapable of critical self-reflection.

As an editor, I would hope never to have behaved as many of the editors and other news executives described here did. As an editor, I would hope not to have had to deal with too many of these reporters in the complaining mode they adopt here.

They tell stories of heroes (themselves) and of villains (their bosses). They draw their readers into their own righteous feeling of being victims. They assume readers’ unquestioning acceptance of their versions of the news story they were chasing. They make blanket condemnations of the “mainstream media” that are contradicted directly by the evidence that many of them continue to be gainfully employed in those media. They castigate professional colleagues as sloppy, lazy, or cowardly.

 

All of this is a great shame, a demonstration of editorial misjudgement, as it distracts attention from the important effort to expose how America’s media have increasingly become captives of government, state agency and corporate forces and of the ideology that underpins their operations. The revision and expansion of this collection seeks to take account of the intensification of this long-term process by reference to 9/11 and the “war on terror”. It does this rather unsatisfactorily, through several rather light-weight contributions.

 

To “expose the myth of a free press” requires a more grounded sense of how the press operates in market economies generally. It also requires a more careful presentation of the strength and characteristics of that myth. The notion that freedom is either on or off is just plain silly. Yet, Greg Palast finds it in himself to announce, with emphasis: there is no freedom of the press in Britain. That claim is based on the absence of a First Amendment-type constitutional provision. Logically, that means, because the United States does have the First Amendment, there is freedom of the press in the USA. But that would rather spoil the point of this book.

 

Palast undoubtedly had a tough time getting his stories about the 2000 presidential election into print and on to air in Britain, but, from his own account, he appears to have fared much better there than in America. His allegation against The Guardian newspaper, and Europeans in general, that they somehow blamed 9/11 on Israel is outrageous and unsupported.

 

Much of the material in this collection relates to investigations that were undertaken, and thwarted, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. They concern compromising relations between government and oil industry interests, chemical manufacturers, drugs gangs, right-wing guerrillas and cover-ups of major scandals, including a massacre during the Korean War, the abandonment of US prisoners of war held in Vietnam and the possible downing of TWA800 by a missile. Several contributions overlap, and many are overstretched beyond the point where readers who do not have an obsessive interest in the minutiae of media politics, will want to go.

 

The investigations focus on what one contributor calls “really dirty stuff”, the kind of stuff, when journalists try to dig it up, quickly brings them up against the (always present) limits of press freedom. Yet the journalists’ accounts and the biographical notes indicate that much of the material they sought to get out into the public domain did eventually get there, even if not in the form, or through the medium, that they originally intended.

 

The disappointments the journalists experienced are not without consequence, however. Since this book was published, one contributor, Gary Webb, who investigated corrupt relations between drugs-dealing gangs in California and law enforcement agencies, committed suicide. Webb’s legacy has been honoured by the publication on the web of material that was previously suppressed. The contribution of web publishing to changing the media environment in ways that counter the trend this book emphasises receives only passing reference.

 

Several contributors, while expressing their own individual powerlessness, underline the actual and potential power that journalism represents. Philip Weiss suggests that some of his former classmates are “now more powerful than many senators”, but he also indicates some sympathy for the “burden” that they carry in setting the agenda of public debate. David Hendrix considers journalism “one step below being a minister for God”, and offers sound advice to journalists that I will be happy to pass on to my students.

 

The capacity for critical reflection that these later contributions demonstrate contrasts with the self-congratulation of others. It is a striking characteristic of this book that almost all the contributors are identified as “award-winning”, “prize-winning”, or similar. The star system in journalism has been developed to a far greater extent in America than elsewhere. It makes journalists into competitive individuals more than professional colleagues. It matches perfectly the corporate media practices and principles which are the critical target of this book. The enthusiastic adoption of the star system in Into the Buzzsaw is just one of the unresolved paradoxes at its heart.

 


Logos 5.1 - winter 2006
© Logosonline 2006