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December 16, 2002
 

Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
A Compilation Edited by Kristina Borjesson

 

Reviewed by ...

... Shira Feldman
 
 

"I shouldn't be surprised that [this story] is not about the news business, but the news business."
-Jane Akre, investigative reporter

If you thought Americans' First Amendment right to a free press secures us informative, reliable, or even newsworthy news--think again. Journalism today, as Kristina Borjesson and other reporters demonstrate in a new compilation, is a weak and ineffectual thing, fluttering wildly in gales of corporate and federal disapproval, buckling limply beneath network greed or apathy or laziness. Though many Americans have long suspected that the networks' nightly offerings represent a communicational junk-fest, caloric and unwholesome, most Americans remain unaware of its worst transgressions: media self-censorship has barred our access to some of the most important, compelling stories of our time (examples to follow); and the criminal fervor with which the media executes this non-disclosure is, itself, a violent transgression against American freedom. Borjesson and other respected journalists carefully delineate instances of this worrisome phenomenon in her exposé, Into the Buzzsaw.

The accounts in this book, authored by eighteen experienced and well-regarded reporters (Pulitzer Prize, Emmy, and Murrow award winners among them), together forge an exhaustive and convincing argument. Each article details the author's personal experience with censorship of a pet story--each news story groundbreaking within its own right, eye-opening and scrupulously researched--and the often-devastating aftermath of network antagonism. Many of these news stories, taken independently, would rattle even the most hardened observer:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These, and the other accounts composing Into the Buzzsaw, fully convey an appreciation of the dark and dull state of mainstream journalism today. Cowed by powerful interests, fawning over official authority, and devoid of intellectual curiosity or questioning spirit, it spawns dissidents and malcontents--journalists who do not believe in its establishment mentality--like offspring. Many of them have published here. And the very existence of their stories, the un-shushed resolution of their voices, stands as a kind of antidote to the book's disheartening theme. The stories prove, in the words of contributor Michael Levine, that "there was some hope in the media. It was not monolithic. While it was, by and large, controlled by easily frightened and manipulated people of little courage, there were editors, producers, and journalists out there who were still willing to risk taking a moral stand against the criminal and/or criminally inept exercise of power."

This is not to say that Into the Buzzsaw is flawless. Because it includes eighteen pieces independently authored by eighteen individuals of varying narrative dexterity and time commitments--there are some duds. Few, but present; roving and unfocused. Even the deserving majority, because embracing a disproportionate contingent of individuals with serious bugs up their butts, serve as the occasion for some major grandstanding and venting. For example, Borjesson's article contains a self-designated "Enquirer segment" in which she "names [the] names" of fellow journalists who are "backbiters." Greg Palast relates that his paper was "ready to throw me to the dogs" and shares an encouraging note from his editors: "We are now going to spend hundreds of thousands on some f---g meaningless point you are trying to make. I hope you are happy." To a certain degree the entire book is informed by a sense of resentment; the volume represents a fellowship of the disenfranchised, therefore, it would naturally offer an "outsider's" perspective. A dominant emotion in Into the Buzzsaw is anger, and denouncing opponents has always been the most satisfying by-product of having one's say. The resulting, inevitably emotional tone detracts somewhat from argumentative balance. But the contributors' personal involvement does lend their accounts an impassioned immediacy that a more academic, disinterested approach would lack. And there is enough solid, provable evidence here to keep even the most disgruntled philippics convincing.

More exasperating than tone, however, is a contextual pitfall: the book is greatly repetitious. Because the authors clearly did not consult one another before snapping open their laptops, they tend to cover the same intellectual territory, making similar points, using similar examples. One almost feels one has to revert to a mental Point A every time one turns the page. For example, the contributors feel they each have to offer a brief history of journalism. They invoke the names of Seymour Hersh (who reported the My Lai Massacre), Woodward and Bernstein (the Watergate investigators), and the Food Lion case (a trial whose verdict boded ill for investigative news), as often as Allah in a morning muezzin. And they decry journalistic complacency so often they could turn it into a marching hymn. (David Hendrix: "Reporting a spokesman's comments is not reporting; it's becoming the spokesman's spokesman." Philip Weiss: "The mainstream media solemnly and stoically report the government's assertions, over and over. They simply cannot entertain the possibility that the government has lied to them." Michael Levine: "Whatever 'credentialed government spokespeople' say (usually some public affairs officer) is the story. [Typical newsies] are assigned to be reporters, not investigative journalists." Greg Palast: "Snoozy editors and reporters are content to munch on, digest, and reprint a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporate public relations operations.")

If the authors had condensed their points, eliminating the repetition--if they had, for example, collaborated in issuing a joint report on media censorship--they would have cut the verbiage by half. Golden nuggets of salience are adrift here in an ocean of blab.

This weakness, however, doubles as one of the book's principal strengths: the same point repeated ad infinitum reveals an undeniable pattern. The same observation made over and over, though clearly lacking any planned prototype, establishes a paradigm. If one believes these authors' narratives, there can remain no question about the disturbing loss of journalistic freedom in America today. The disparate, yet repetitive, voices of the contributors merge into a sort of Greek chorus of admonishment, warning us of the consequences if we continue to lose our precious freedom of speech. The sound is both frightening and, in its clamor, encouraging.


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