Interview with KRISTINA BORJESSON:
The Myth of a Free Press

By Alexander M. Dake

 

Kristina Borjesson, a client of Paraview Literary Agency, has been an award-winning independent producer and writer for almost twenty years. She has produced investigative documentaries for CBS, CNN and PBS. She currently produces and co-hosts the “Expert Witness” radio show on WBAI in New York and KPFK in Los Angeles. Recently Borjesson edited almost two dozen essays by leading journalists about the depth and breadth of censorship in American journalism and collected those in the book Into the Buzzsaw.  It includes, among others, stories about POWs left behind in Vietnam, a Korean War massacre by U.S. troops, the CIA involvement in the War on Drugs, disenfranchisement of black votes in the Bush presidential election, and Borjesson’s own essay about the deception of the TWA Flight 800 crash. It paints a bleak picture of the role mainstream media play in American democracy.

Alexander Dake interviewed Borjesson about her views on the role of journalism in a democracy, conflicts of interests in the media, and cover-ups by governments and corporations.

AD: You are an investigative reporter. What is the difference between investigative reporting and more traditional reporting?

KB: Investigative reporting is not just about getting the facts, but also about why, how, and who. It usually is about how a system works and it is often about criminal activity. Successful criminals are among the most creative people. As an investigative journalist you have to be very creative yourself in following the trail of these criminals and that’s quite a challenge. It is an all-consuming activity of doing research and trying to be as creative as the perpetrators in uncovering what actually happened.

AD: How did you get involved in investigative reporting?

KB: First of all, I think that my subjects choose me more than I choose them. But more generally speaking, I am attracted to investigative reporting because of the way my mind works. I always want to get to the bottom of something. The first documentary I worked on was a biography of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. He was a big rebel in the Catholic Church, but also someone who made Catholicism and spirituality accessible to many people. He wrote a lot about what was wrong in our society. This was not typical investigative reporting, but I did go into much detail about Merton’s background and history. Later on I used these same skills for more controversial topics, such as in Legacy of Shame, a report about Mexicans crossing the U.S. border to escape poverty at home to work for low wages and no benefits on U.S. farms.

AD: Which TV programs are doing a good job at investigative reporting nowadays?

KB: I would say 60 Minutes and Frontline. Once in a while HBO does good work although often too much focused on sex and violence. Everybody does some good work sometimes, but Into the Buzzsaw shows that there are certain areas of interest to the American public, where journalists are not allowed to go. This is what I call the “black hole” of reporting. This black hole usually deals with high-level corporate and government malfeasance. Examples of the latter are dealing with institutions such as the army, the FBI and the CIA. Even though most of our tax dollars go to these institutions and their activities in the U.S. or abroad are done on our behalf, they will do their best in denying the American public from knowing what it is they are actually doing.

AD: If what you are saying is true, how do you explain the power of journalism in the Vietnam War, which was essentially halted because of media attention, and in Watergate, which was uncovered by journalists?

KB: Those were different times. On the one hand government has learned its lessons from those days and is better at covering up sensitive issues. On the other hand I think that the major newspapers and TV stations are now more driven by commercial interests than by the public interest. Just look at the ongoing concentration of the major media companies. I don’t think that Katharine Graham of the Washington Post if she were alive today would have made the same decision as in the seventies. The idea of serving the public interest was fairly strong in those days and is now almost completely ignored.

AD: These days many people speak of conflicts of interests in corporate America. Do you see a conflict of interest among journalists?

KB: Yes. You cannot serve a bottom line and the public interest at all times without a conflict. The corporate interest is to serve its stockholders, not a nation, nor its citizens. Also, if you would look at the corporations who own media companies and their news departments, then you would uncover so many areas of conflict of interest that there are hardly any topics left they could report objectively on.

AD: Robert McChesney, a media academic and contributor to Into the Buzzsaw, is highly critical of CNN’s decision to have two different versions of reporting of the war on terrorism, one for a U.S. audience and the other for a presumably more critical international audience. What is your view on having two versions of the same news?

KB: In some way you can present news differently for different audiences. But the fact of the matter in this case is that the bias of reporting in the U.S. on the war on terrorism is tantamount to propaganda. It is not necessarily just because the U.S. is pro-Israel. It is also because a lot of American reporters, even the experienced ones, are pretty provincial. They don’t always have a good sense of history or have cultural sensitivities. That creates a simplified and colored reporting, which can be dangerous.

AD: Your essay in Into the Buzzsaw deals with your experience in reporting the TWA 800 crash in 1996. What were your expectations when starting your investigation into this crash?

KB: Before I started my investigation I had no idea of what had caused Flight 800’s crash. My goal was to find out what had happened. But when I didn’t go in the “right” direction with my investigation, I ran into trouble, at first with the authorities and later on with my colleagues at CBS.

AD: What were your conclusions on TWA Flight 800?

KB: I felt that there was enough evidence to show that something hit that plane at high speed. I don’t have a smoking gun, in the sense that there is no doubt about what exactly did hit the plane. What I do show, however, is a pattern of deception throughout the entire investigation that the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board engaged in. I also show how the press went along with that deception and how certain high-profile members of the press were being used to lie to the public and denigrate journalists who were reporting things that the NTSB did not want to be reported. An example is that when the head of the FBI task force lies to Dan Rather of CBS about key evidence in the investigation, that is news and should be reported. In this case, however, due to the institutions involved, it was not reported.

AD: How do you explain that CBS did not want to continue with your story on this investigation?

KB: My assessment is that CBS’s senior Washington correspondent, Bob Orr, heard from his sources at the Pentagon that a missile theory was ridiculous and that a mechanical failure caused the crash. Bob Orr has then two choices: He can accept what they say, because they are legitimate news sources, or he can take their statements at face value and try to confirm that with other sources. He did the former, and in that way kept access to these top sources. If he had done the latter, his sources could have shut him off and he would be of no use as a Washington correspondent anymore. An institution like the Pentagon can not only shut off an individual correspondent, but even block CBS from having access to government sources.

AD: So who is more powerful, the Pentagon or one of the largest global media companies?

KB: The Pentagon, because there are so many ways for government to force media companies to follow its way. Examples are losing access to news sources, limiting the use of military satellites for broadcasting news, as CNN once almost experienced, and restricting the mobility of correspondents in war zones. In other words, a media company’s bottom line can be hurt severely.

AD: In Into the Buzzsaw you say that your experience with the TWA Flight 800 investigation changed your worldview. In what way?

KB: I was brought up in Haiti in the days of Papa Doc. It was very clear, then, that you followed Papa Doc’s rules or else you and your family would be killed. If you were, however, a member of Papa Doc’s elite you could do almost anything. When you grow up in a nation like that, you come to the U.S. with high expectations of a democracy and civil liberties. The U.S. is a nation of freedoms and liberties. However, since my experiences with TWA 800, I realized that here too there are tendencies which would fit in a dictatorial country. Don’t misunderstand me: For the most part the people working in government and government agencies are doing a good job, but there are abuses. Those abuses have to be looked at if we want to remain a real democracy.

AD: What do you try to achieve with Into the Buzzsaw?

KB: I am trying to show there is something fundamentally wrong with the system. I am trying to expose the black hole of journalism. I am trying to show people what they are not informed about. I am trying to inspire people that there are journalists who do expose at their own peril the things going on in our society. People, whether they are journalists or private citizens, have to work at a democracy. You cannot just sit back and focus only on making money, raising a family, and enjoying life. Every once in a while you need to stand up for your rights as a citizen of a democracy. In my case I just felt that I could not call myself a journalist if I had remained silent about what I found in my investigations. That is my contribution to this society and to democracy. Even though it wasn’t easy, I feel empowered, because even as one person I could make a difference.

AD: Let me quote Robert McChesney again, who claims that the “death of journalism has taken place over the last ten years.” What is your view?

KB: I don’t believe in reforming the current system. I think we should create a new system of truly independent media, where journalism means being non-partisan and trying to get to the truth, however hard it is to accept. Those of us who believe that are already trying to create a system outside of the mainstream. You can find it on the Internet, on the radio, and in some magazines. It is not just about independent-minded journalists, however. Without the involvement and support of private citizens a new kind of journalism will not survive.

Relevant Books:
Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press edited by Kristina Borjesson

Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

Rule By Secrecy by Jim Marrs

Relevant Websites:
Sawbusters, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping journalists who are up against the buzzsaw

Expert Witness Radio, a weekly radio program by Mike Levine and Kristina Borjesson

openDemocracy, a non-profit website responding to a breakdown in decision making and understanding (click on “media” and read about media ownership)

Alternet.org, a site for independent journalism

Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a grassroots non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting

Our Media Voice, a website campaigning for the voice of the public to balance the power of the media conglomerates

Independent Press Association, an antidote to monopoly media.

2002, Alexander M. Dake can be reached at alex@paraview.com

 

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