Apr
01
2006

A Record of Journalism in Crisis

Out of the Buzzsaw, into the Fire

BOOK REVIEW

Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11

By Kristina Borjesson

Prometheus Books, 2005

Kristina Borjesson lost her producing job at CBS News as a consequence of her unsuccessful struggle to air a report about the 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800. Many people, including scores of eyewitnesses, still believe that a missile—possibly fired by mistake by our own military—brought the plane down. Borjesson might have been able to confirm their belief, but the FBI seized a piece of the wreckage she intended to have tested for explosives. CBS had been very interested in the story, but after this incident, Borjesson paid the price: CBS did not want to renew her contract.

Looking for a way to get the story out and find a new career path, Borjesson, who has won Emmy and Murrow awards, found she could not even sell a book on the subject. So she hit on a new strategy: She would edit a book in which she and other reporters would each write about stories that had been suppressed, by government agencies or big corporations or both. The result, in 2002, was Into the Buzzsaw, an acclaimed book that shows what happens to journalists who tackle subjects like the danger to human beings of bovine growth hormone and George H.W. Bush’s lobbying for a gold mining company accused of allowing 50 miners to be buried alive. Borjesson has described her strategy as having the reporters “hold hands” to give their stories collective credibility.

Now she has taken that technique a step further to produce Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11 (Prometheus Books, 2005). This time, instead of allowing the journalists to write their own stories, she has interviewed 21 of the most respected journalists and editors America has to offer. In 600-plus heavily footnoted pages, she skillfully probes each journalist, asking questions that are both particular to each one’s situation and common to them all.

Her questions include many that progressive Americans have been urgently asking: Where were the media in the run-up to the Iraq War? Why was the coverage so unquestioning? How is it that the Bush administration has been so successful in getting its message out to the public? Why, ultimately, are we at war in Iraq?

In search of role models

The result is a book that ought to be studied by working journalists in search of role models, as well as by academics and historians looking for a window on this critical period. Here is testimony by media stars, including Ted Koppel, Peter Arnett and Paul Krugman, augmented by the insights and experiences of lesser-known journalists like Harper’s publisher John MacArthur, independent intelligence reporter James Bamford and Knight Ridder’s Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay.

In her introduction, Borjesson calls the journalists’ participation in the project “an act of courage,” noting that their collective testimony is a rare example, “in a time of full-blown crisis,” of leading journalists “allowing the world to walk in their shoes and see events through their eyes.”

What they see is alarming. Like pieces of a puzzle, the interviews fit together to reveal journalism in crisis, its best practitioners maneuvering to overcome both the Bush administration’s massive public relations machine and the surfeit of junk information that is fed to a distracted public.

The book shows that there was good, skeptical reporting in the days after September 11 and leading up to the war. But with rare exceptions, the reporting wasn’t on television, which is roundly criticized by many of the book’s subjects—though not by Nightline’s Ted Koppel—as totally failing in its responsibility to the public. Tom Yellen, formerly the executive producer for ABC’s Peter Jennings, cautiously told Borjesson that some of the people controlling TV aren’t comfortable with the role of the press as a watchdog. Pressed to explain why ABC missed the truth about claimed weapons of mass destruction, he admits to having faith in the Bush team, believing the claims because they said they were true. CBS reporter David Martin, who has a tiny office/studio right inside the Pentagon, and Thomas Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, also admit to similar credulity.

John MacArthur, the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, blames media owners for the largely unquestioning coverage of the run-up to the war. “The owners decide what journalism we get,” he says. “By and large, owners are very conservative, go-along-to-get-along establishment figures,” whose primary responsibility, in the case of public companies, is to their stockholders.

Skeptics in the back pages

On the print side, critical coverage was mostly out of sight of the vast majority of Americans and of their opinion leaders. Several of the award-winning journalists interviewed for the book cited Knight Ridder’s coverage as the best during the pre-war period (see "Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay" in Wrong on Iraq? Not Everyone, by Steve Rendall, Extra!, 3-4/06)—but Knight Ridder has no newspaper in New York or Washington, where elite decision-makers tend to reside.

The key to Knight Ridder’s skeptical coverage was that reporters relied on lower-level sources, the bureaucrats who were actually seeing the intelligence, analyzing it and writing the reports. In contrast, the most prominent reporters relied on top administration officials who had created their own intelligence unit within the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans, and walled it off from the CIA and the State Department. This unit created its own brand of pro-war intelligence, relying, for example, on now-discredited information coming from Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

The mainstream media largely ignored the Knight Ridder stories. An exception was Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Pincus, a veteran Washington Post reporter. But his skeptical stories did not make Page One. In March 2003, for example, he wrote that U.S. intelligence agencies had no specific information about the extent or location of Iraq’s supposed WMDs. All they could really say was that there was no hard proof that the weapons did not exist. His story ran on Page 17. That placement sent a clear message to other reporters, maintains James Bamford, the independent author of A Pretext for War: Question the administration and land on Page 17; swallow the administration line, as did Judith Miller of the New York Times, and see your byline on the front page.

PR efforts

Not only was good reporting unusual and largely out of sight after September 11, it was also overwhelmed by the Bush administration’s public relations effort. This thread runs through many of Borjesson’s interviews. These journalists see themselves fighting an unrelenting public relations machine, whose effectiveness comes in large part from constant message repetition and automatic coverage of the president every day, even when he makes no news.

Several of the book’s subjects cite Judith Miller as a cog in this machine. For example, Miller wrote a Page One story (New York Times, 9/8/02), based on anonymous sources, saying that Iraq had been trying to buy aluminum tubes to enrich uranium, and raising the specter of a nuclear attack. That same day, Cheney and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice went on talkshows to warn about the nuclear threat posed by Iraq. As evidence, they cited Miller’s story.

While it is not news that the Bush PR machine tries to punish reporters who fail to toe the line, the book’s interviews show that some courageous journalists took the heat and went on doing their jobs. They were willing to risk the phone calls to their bosses, the investigations of their methods, the loss of access to high-level sources, and refused to self-censor.

For example, after Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Suskind wrote The Price of Loyalty, which presents a scary portrait of Bush’s decision-making based on gut beliefs rather than verifiable facts, the administration launched an investigation of Suskind’s supposed use of classified documents. The allegation was dropped after it turned out, as Suskind had maintained all along, that the 19,000 documents given to him by former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill were non-secret.

Knight Ridder’s reporters received threatening phone calls. Efforts were made to discredit their work with other reporters. They were barred from traveling with the vice president.

“Collective ignorance”

Borjesson’s subjects also spoke eloquently about the deep ignorance of America’s civilian and military leaders regarding the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular. Our leaders had little if any understanding of the profound changes the war would induce in Iraq, the region and the rest of the world.

Koppel, on the other hand, accused the American public of not paying attention and staying deliberately ignorant. The information people need, asserted Koppel, is available if they make an effort to find it.

On that score, Feet to the Fire can serve as a reading list. The Internet makes it possible for concerned members of the public to find the work of the reporters who had the courage to explain themselves in this book. Far better, of course, would be to have every newspaper and every TV news organization doing a more accurate job of reporting.

But as Suskind points out, if we want democracy’s self-correcting features to work in the current Big Brother environment, the burden is on us. It’s hard not to agree with Borjesson that if we do not take on this challenge, “our continued collective ignorance can only lead to global-scale catastrophe.”