Prometheus, 2002, 462 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 1-57392-972-7
(Read in French as Black List, Les Arènes)
Even though I’m a born-and-bred French-Canadian, I rarely discuss French-language books in these reviews. Why should I? It wouldn’t be fair to tease you with books you can’t get or read. The issue of translations seldom comes up: I’m too much of a purist to settle for translations, and the overwhelming truth is that English-language books are usually far more available (and affordable!), even in Canada’s national capital.
Well, usually. Because chances are that Into the Buzzsaw‘s distribution in English-Canada was about as widespread than on the other side of the linguistic barrier. Prometheus Books is a solid and interesting publishing house (see my review of The Truth About Uri Geller), but their distribution network is quasi-confidential; their willingness to tackle controversial issues from a sceptical perspective is seldom a match for the major distributors.
In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Into the Buzzsaw would make it on my reading pile in French form. Silly American “patriots” may have thought themselves clever when they came up with the whole “freedom fries” thing as a way to protest foreign policy self-determination, but all they achieved was to forever make “freedom” a synonym for “French.” Sometimes, it takes an outsider to tell (some of) the truth, or in this case, translate it for us.
Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of fifteen essays written by journalists with stories to tell. Stories of media censorship, of corporate influence, of smear campaigns, of government conspiracies, of dirty little secrets almost too controversial to tell… Most of these journalists have worked at highly-respected media outlets. Almost all of them have lost their jobs due to a story their were covering. This book is what they have to tell about the state of American investigative journalists. It’s not pretty.
Every one of those fifteen stories is another brick in a convincing argument; American journalism has lost its nerve. It is easily cowed in submission by threats of lawsuits and official innuendoes. It has eschewed investigations for meek reporting of official press releases. It is now beholden to the vast corporate empires where the operative directive is to profit and not to serve the public interest. In becoming members of the bourgeoisie, journalists have lost their credentials as members of the public and now identify with the officials they’re supposed to interview.
It’s a damning portrait, and a convincing one. While it’s always possible to dismiss one or two stories, all fifteen of them make up for alarming reading. Into the Buzzsaw is a horror show, a scathing description of how nowadays, the truth will not make you free. The vast majorities of the stories told here have been lauded for their integrity even as governments and corporations were casting doubts on their veracity. The truth will get you fired. It will get you branded as a conspiracy theorist or a politically-driven flake.
But those fifteen journalists are no flakes; despite some occasional spirited prose (Greg Palast’s piece being perhaps the most stinging in attitude), there is no doubt that these are professionals, that they still believe, deep down, that the good guys ought to win and that journalism is a honorable profession. But they’re completely merciless in denouncing the abuses and apathy of the system. The gallery of rogues here exposed will surprise no one: Fox News, Monsanto, Dupont, Food Lion, Democrats, Republicans, the CIA and other assorted federal institutions are all here seen at their worst. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, many of those stories aren’t exactly new, nor the names of the journalists. I’ve got good books by Michael Levine and John Kelly on my bookshelves, and I’ve heard about Greg Palast and Carl Jensen before. This is not a book of crackpots or amateurs: They may be disillusioned, but the quality of their information and the righteousness of their conviction is irreproachable. Even Michael Levine, whom I had previously pegged as a borderline source, comes across as utterly convincing. The story I had most trouble believing was Kristina Borjesson’s own investigation into the TWA Flight 800 disaster, but even that comes across as a piece presenting intriguing allegations that should be investigated in further detail. There is obviously a common self-interest in those fifteen accounts. But that in no way invalidates the central thesis of the book; strong investigative journalism is key to true democracy and there are worrying signs that American newsrooms are shying away from the real stories. Maurice Murad’s description of how the “killer” stories are used to juice up newscasts is, alone, almost worth the (short) time it takes to read the book.
For a layperson, Into the Buzzsaw make for unsettling reading. Sure, we laugh about Fox News as “Faux News”, but Jane Akre’s first-hand account of how they gutted WTVT’s solid newsroom in a bread-and-spectacle provider is gut-wrenching. Gary Webb’s piece on how The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times teamed up with the CIA to discredit his “Dark Alliance” stories on how Contras were allowed to sell crack cocaine to L.A. Gangs is almost beyond belief. One of the best essays is Gerard Colby’s astonishing account of how DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain, his meticulously-researched book on the DuPont empire, was “privished”: buried, gutted and sabotaged by his own publishers. There’s more, of course. Much more. Stories of American deserters being gassed. Stories of civilian massacres in South Korea by American forces. Stories of American POWs being consciously forgotten in Vietnam by their government. Then there are the corporations, happily suing any news organisation that threatens their bottom line, as if the public had no right to know. Infuriating stuff. Dangerous stuff.
From a December 2003 perspective, it’s already regrettable that the book was published in 2002 and translated in early 2003. Certainly, the overall lack of nerve of the American press corp has never been so visible than during the breakneck lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration has, so far, escaped unscathed from serious journalistic inquest, from the Valerie Plame affair to other business. The days of Watergate are long past… and no, the Lewinsky affair doesn’t count. Certainly, there would be another book to write on the subject of troop embedding alone…
Flaws? Some. The book sometimes trades off detached objectivity for personal frustration, a choice that makes the result more readable, but may annoy some readers expecting a more academic work. The mosaic-like structure of a book of essays is, once again, a source of slight frustration as several points are repeated over and over again. In this case, however, those elements serve as useful counter-points to one another, places where we can triangulate the real story from multiple sources. (It also, I guess, allows ever chapter to stand alone, which is useful in an academic setting) More serious is the lack of index, at least in the French version of the
It’s tempting to just throw back the book on the shelves and shrug in “what-can-be-done?” fatalism. But there are bright spots. Nearly all of the stories in the book have achieved some sort of legitimacy; favorable judgements in favor of the journalists (though not usually before they lose all of their money in legal fees), journalism awards, acclaimed publication of the stories, etc. In many cases, the Internet looms large as a source of alternate publication, extra documentation and, ultimately, truth. While the Internet hasn’t yet fulfilled all of its promises as an engine for democratic discourse, there are promising elements emerging from the net’s increased maturity. Blogs, among other things, are keeping stories alive and propagating articles worth reading.
Ultimately, that may lead any contentious reader towards a solution of sort to the problems raised in Into the Buzzsaw. We will get the information we deserve. We will read good journalism only if we support and demand good journalism. Consider Into the Buzzsaw your wake-up call: look for those stories, refuse to settle for cheap alarmist entertainment masquerading as journalism. And keep digging for the truth. Start at http://www.intothebuzzsaw.com/ and follow the links. You shouldn’t have to wait until an improbable series of events makes a French-language edition of the book land on your desk.