Flexing the Power of the Press
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Kristina Borjesson never expected to write an exposé of the business she'd devoted her life to. A 20-year veteran of mainstream journalism, she was a successful insider who produced for the country's most well-regarded news shows, including Frontline and 60 Minutes. Working with industry stars including Dan Rather, she'd won one Emmy and had been nominated for others. She said she imagined spending the rest of her life "going around the world, doing the stories, doing documentaries, having a great time and putting out important information."
As she writes in her book "Into the Buzzsaw", "Trust me, never in a million years did I ever imagine that I'd find myself in my current position as some kind of rebel trying to take on America's journalism establishment. I was reared a member of Haiti's Morally Repugnant Elite and educated, for the most part, in private institutions, including Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Not a thing in my frankly elitist background prepared me for this experience."
The experience she's talking about is her excommunication from mainstream journalism for digging too deep on the TWA 800 story, which she'd been assigned to research for CBS. Like the other reporters whose stories she collected in "Into the Buzzsaw," she essentially lost her job for doing it too well.
In Borjesson's case, doing her job meant challenging the government assertion that TWA 800 crashed due to a mechanical malfunction. During her investigation, she found increasingly compelling evidence that the plane had been hit by a missile and that there were military maneuvers happening in its vicinity that were later covered up.
Collaborating with other reporters including The Press Enterprise's David Hendrix, she collected proof of official lies. Scientific tests showed that a residue found inside the cabin had the same ingredients, in the same proportions, as rocket fuel (the National Transportation Safety Board said it was glue). The FBI claimed that traces of explosives found in the cabin resulted from a spill during a bomb-sniffing exercise on the plane, but Hendrix and Borjesson later proved that the exercise had taken place on a different aircraft. The two had documents that were smuggled out of the hangar where the official investigation was taking place, including "a copy of the downed plane's debris field that undercut assertions that the center wing tank was the site of the initiating event that caused the plane the explode." They had dozens of eye-witness interviews disputing the government's story, and experts who said the witnesses' descriptions were consistent with a missile.
Borjesson, who had pushed to present her information on CBS, was fired from the network, as was Paul Ragonese, the law enforcement consultant she had worked with. Astonishingly, Ragonese was replaced by James Kallstrom, the very FBI agent who had consistently tried to thwart Borjesson.
"When I was tromping around the halls of CBS saying, "Why aren't we covering this?'" I had no idea why they didn't want to do a story, because I had received all these documents from a senior investigator inside Calverton [airplane hangar]," she says. But her information was contradicted by "official sources," and, as she says, "the buzzsaw was getting ready to hack me up."
Almost overnight, she became a journalistic pariah -- something that also happened to other reporters whose stories appear in Into the Buzzsaw. Had she known what was to come of her zeal, she says, "I don't know if I would have had the courage to do it. I was just doing my job."
Although initially lots of publications had reported on the possibility that TWA 800 was hit by a missile, after a few months of furious spin by the FBI, Pentagon and NTSB, journalists who refused to dismiss this theory were themselves dismissed as conspiracy kooks. Kallstrom told the AP, "The real facts are glossed over by the likes of [Oliver] Stone and others who spend their life bottom-feeding in those small, dark crevices of doubt and hypocrisy."
After years on the inside, it was both shocking and galvanizing for Borjesson to find herself marginalized in this way. "It causes a shift in paradigm for you. It really rocked my world and changed my reality forever," she says.
Her book examines how such marginalization happens. One important element is other reporters, who often gang up on dissenters like her and Gary Webb, whose exposé about the CIA's role in the crack epidemic was denounced in The New York Times, The LA Times and Washington Post.
Borjesson suggests that reporters who act as arbiters of official truth are driven by defensiveness.
"It's a self-preservation thing, I think. When you decide not to pitch a story because you know that it could cause you trouble and damage your career because it's so controversial, in a way you realize that you have decided not to fully engage in your mission as a public servant, which is what most good journalists consider themselves to be. Deep down you realize that you're chickening out, and it's a hard thing to face. When somebody does take the risk and comes under fire, I think these reporters have mixed feelings. One is, 'See, I was right, if you do this you blow yourself up.' Then there's the other side -- you realize somebody was braver than you are and better than you are and went out there and did it anyway. There's a certain kind of jealously and resentment there."
According to investigative journalist David Hendrix, who collaborated with Borjesson on the TWA investigation and contributed a chapter to Into The Buzzsaw, "Any media organization, once they decide that this is what the picture really looks like, there's almost a commitment to shoot down whatever might come along saying the picture actually looks different." Instead of investigating new developments, Hendrix says, most journalists hold tenaciously to their version of reality.
When someone like Gary Webb appears, he says, powerful journalists are likely to say, "'How can that be? We don't have information about that.' They're asking you to explain the story instead of having them explain." Thus for a dissident journalist to be taken seriously, he has to account for his competitors' failures.
At the same time, Borjesson says that mainstream journalists rarely act with overt cynicism.
"Most of them actually believe they're doing the best possible job given the fact that they're working at a big powerful network. To be a correspondent or producer at a network news organization is a position of enormous power. When you make a phone call to somebody as a producer from any of the networks, you can literally hear the voice on the other end standing up and saluting. There is a tendency to naturally feel affiliated with other figures of power. These are the people who run the world, run the big institutions, and since they hold that much power, they hold your attention. What they say is what you're going to report without question."
Besides, those who challenge the powerful are likely to be denied access in the future, and a journalist without access to top people is at a huge professional disadvantage. Michael Levine, a DEA agent turned drug war critic and best-selling author who now works with Borjesson, recalls "icing out" a CBS executive who challenged the authenticity of a major DEA raid. "He had no access and it hurt his career," says Levine. More often than not, the threat was enough to make news organizations compliant. "Quite frankly, when I was a DEA officer, I was astonished at how easy it was for our public affairs people to put out anything they wanted," Levine says.
But parroting the official line isn't journalism -- at best, says Hendrix, it turns reporters into "spokesmen for the spokesmen, and that's not the media's responsibility. We the United States public need to know when United States officials are lying to us. If it's not important if they're lying to us, we should crumple up all our newspapers and have the biggest bonfire in the world."
Of course, Hendrix still has a burning faith in journalism's mission. So does Borjesson, who now produces and co-hosts the Expert Witness Radio Show on New York City's WBAI with Levine, who describes her as "so good and so smart and so driven to just tell the story, she actually makes me work a lot harder." The two of them focus on stories about official malfeasance, looking into subjects including the CIA's funding of Osama bin Laden, malpractice in the FBI crime lab and the myriad depredations of the drug war.
Financially, says Borjesson, "my career has taken a nosedive," and she no longer gets to travel around the world making high-profile documentaries. Yet she says her career has also been "transformed" by her radical new perspective. Despite what she said about doubting that she'd have the courage to pursue the TWA story had she known the consequences, she insists she has not a single regret.
"I have a clear conscience," she says. "I did what I felt was the right thing."
Michelle Goldberg is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.