Keith Olberman said in a recent interview that, essentially, the market was a great protector of the freedom of the press:
But the protection of money at the center of everything, including news to the degree that it is now, is that as long as you make the money, they don't care what it is you put on the air.About two years ago, one of my sons, George, asked me how I could believe what I read in the press, given that they were owned by big corporations. I repeated, essentially, Olberman's argument: they were market driven, and would respond to those forces, not some external agenda unrelated to that.
Unfortunately, I have found out since that this is untrue. To most of America, and even most in the press, it can seem to be true because it often is. But there are unquestionably limits, and very important ones. And while the situation is no doubt worse now, these limits have been in place for quite some time.
Kristina Borjesson's book, "Into the Buzzsaw", is a collection of stories that describes people who have run across those limits, mostly during the Clinton administration, which by all accounts fostered a more benign atmosphere that the current one.
Here's Borjesson's definition of what she calls "the buzzsaw":
The buzzsaw is a powerful system of censorship in this country that is revealed to those reporting on extremely sensitive stories, usually having to do with high level government or corporate malfeasance. It often has a fatal effect on one's career. ... A journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as "radioactive", which is another word for unemployable.
She would know. She encountered it, when CBS assigned her to cover the explosion of TWA800. Two chapters in her book describe investigations into that event, one by her and one by David Hendrix. The importance of these investigations is not what happened to TWA800, which most likely was inadvertently brought down by a missile fired during a naval exercise (here is a good web site for info on this). What's important are the mechanisms used to repress that story, and promote a false one: eventually the "spark in the main fuel tank" myth was decided upon, evidently after the "bomb on board" story was considered and then rejected.
As a background, the TWA800 incident happened during an election campaign, on July 17, 1996. In addition to the defense department not wanting the embarrassment of accidentally killing hundreds of Americans, you can bet that Clinton was not eager to have this exposed during an election campaign. In fact, Hendrix reports that the Dole people were extremely interested in his findings, though they were never able to capitalize on them. So the censorship is not a partisan practice.
What she found is what I've seen as a pattern in the American press. First, after such an event, a great deal of honest reporting and investigation is done. At some point, however, the fix comes in, and that reporting is suppressed or marginalized while the "official" government version of the story, which is invariably a fabricated cover in these situations, is touted. The evidence discovered in the initial investigation is dismissed as inaccurate. It is a this point that those who persist in attempting to reveal the actual events can run into trouble. Borjesson herself was fired from CBS, as was a congressional aide who attempted to help in the investigation. Another journalist was arrested and convicted of stealing evidence. And, the part that Borjesson most loathes, is that after the official version comes out any journalist who attempts to contradict it encounters a smear campaign that illegitimately attacks them and tarnishes their reputation.
She is not alone. Others in the book have encountered the same process. Even very mainstream figures, such as Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, are not immune, as their experience in exposing Bush's national guard record on 60 minutes showed.
Another example is Greg Palast, who found that American papers would not cover his report on Jeb Bush's felon purging list after the 2000 election. His story on this list has since been verified, and was even mentioned in a New York Times editorial at one point as accepted fact, after the very same newspaper contributed to the suppression of the story three years earlier. Despite this, when he tried to submit a report on vote fraud in the 2004 election to the New York Times, he got an email back with the following questions: "Are you a conspiracy nut? " and "Are you a sore loser? ". Very professional - that's the New York Times showing its true colors. At the same time they put out a number of articles attempting to discredit any claims of vote fraud (here's one example), despite the extensive evidence on the ground that election fraud of many types had taken place (here are some links).
One can see it happening right now, in fact. In this article that came out a few days ago in USA Today, those finding problems with the official story of 9/11 are dismissed as gullible students who fall for "revisionist theories on the 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists". Stories such as these have nothing to do with honest journalism, and in fact are very much a part of the 9/11 operation, whether or not their authors understand that. When those disputing the government version start to be heard, attack stories dismissing them as "wacky conspiracy theorists" start to come out to counter that and the stifling of real investigation is even more rigorously enforced. It was recently reported that "The New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief, Jim Brooks, said that he couldn't attend an official press function about 9/11 or he would be fired". Impossible to verify, of course, but quite believable. Especially as this was on the heels of some reasonable coverage of 9/11 in the Tokyo Journal.
This censorship is getting so bad that it's getting more recognition. Sonoma State University has a media research group called "Project Censored" which has a site and puts out a yearly book outlining the most important unreported and underreported stories of that year. The internet, of course, is a great repository for alternate media outlets; wading through them, with their often accompanying quirks and biases, can be difficult, but at least the information is out there if one makes the effort to find it. But unfortunately, most people who see only mainstream media outlets are under the illusion that they are getting honestly reported journalism, which is far from the truth.
Luckily, those "gullible students" seem to understand this. And I definitely have a better answer for George next time he asks that question.