“As a journalist you have to always remember that you are a public servant. If you back down, if you don’t try to find the truth, then you aren’t doing your job. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Kristina Borjesson spent most of her childhood in Haiti in the 1950s and ’60s during the rule of the brutal dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Her father, a U.S. military attaché posted to the island, fell in love with a woman whose family formed part of the country’s privileged, business elite. As a young child in what is often described as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Borjesson’s early sensitivity to the vast divide between Haiti’s elite and its poor came from the illiterate household staff who loved and cared for her. Those servants helped shape her value system, teaching her that honesty, striving for excellence, and service to others were the keys to a meaningful life.
As an adult, Borjesson’s core identity became that of a public servant. An investigative reporter by training, she believes that journalists are public servants no matter who employs them and that by adhering to the highest standards and practices of reporting, they play a critical role in the function of democracy and civil society. Since receiving her journalism degree from Columbia University in 1982, Borjesson has spent much of her time examining censorship and corruption in American journalism. Unfortunately, her tireless pursuit of these stories would cost her a mainstream television career.
Early success came to Borjesson as she built her career. She employed her investigative skills and fluency in Haitian Creole to field produce the PBS Frontline’s documentary, “Showdown in Haiti,” which was Emmy-nominated. She won an Emmy for her investigative reporting on CBS’s “Legacy of Shame,” a piece that updated Edward R. Murrow’s film “Harvest of Shame” about migrant farmworkers. Another Emmy nomination followed for a biographical film about Cuba’s Fidel Castro titled “The Last Revolutionary.”
Then, in 1996, Borjesson “walked into a buzz saw,” as she describes it, when Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 exploded in mid-air shortly after taking off from JFK Airport. For a short, but terrifying time, she thought that her ten-year-old son had died in the crash. The despair she felt in that moment would, once she began investigating the explosion, help her empathize with the victims and their families, who, she believed, deserved to know the truth about what had caused the tragedy.
As she tracked down the cause of the explosion, what had happened became very clear: The physical evidence as well as hundreds of eyewitness accounts indicated that the plane had been struck by a missile. Members of several U.S. government agencies, Borjesson decided, orchestrated a cover-up while unquestioning journalists reported as fact the untenable official claims that a mechanical failure in Flight 800’s center wing fuel tank had caused the crash. The evidence of what she identifies as “high level, multi-agency collusion” led her to a startling revelation: “It was just as in Orwell’s 1984, an immediate rewriting of history occurred. I realized how terrifyingly easy it is to do.”
Powerful forces including the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as well as other journalists aligned themselves against Borjesson. Despite this, she has spent the better part of two decades digging for the truth about TWA Flight 800 and speaking out against corruption in journalism.
Back in 1996, Borjesson’s boss at CBS Network assigned her to cover the crash. However, shortly after Borjesson received a piece of physical evidence from inside the official crash investigation, the FBI demanded it back, inaccurately claiming it had been stolen. CBS returned the evidence and terminated Borjesson. Then Borjesson was hired to produce a segment about problems within the official crash investigation for a series pilot commissioned by ABC. Mainstream press reports claiming Borjesson’s segment would examine whether or not a missile had downed flight 800 appeared suddenly, prompting ABC to cancel the entire series.
Borjesson responded by publishing her first book, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press (2004), a landmark anthology of essays written by experienced reporters (including Borjesson) detailing experiences with censorship while covering major stories. The book, which won both the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism and the Independent Book Publisher’s Gold Medal Award, established Borjesson as an important whistleblower in the journalism community.
In 2005, Borjesson further cemented her status as a whistleblowing journalist with her book, Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9 11 — Top Journalists Speak Out. An anthology of interviews with news executives and journalists (some of them household names), this book explains why these media professionals and most of the U.S. press missed the fact that Pentagon and White House officials had fabricated their justification for invading Iraq when they claimed, falsely, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Feet to the Fire won Borjesson a second Independent Book Publisher’s Gold Medal Award.
In her work, Borjesson says that not only institutions should be held accountable for their wrongdoings, but so should the individuals within those institutions who are directly responsible for betrayals of the public trust. Particularly troubling to Borjesson is the fact that so many people are capable of putting aside the ethical values of honesty and integrity when they go to work.
In 2013, seventeen years after TWA Flight 800 blew up in the air, Borjesson released the documentary TWA Flight 800. The film features six whistleblowers — all members of the original crash investigation — who review the physical evidence they personally handled, interview eyewitnesses, and explain what really happened to the airplane. The film reveals how several U.S. Government agencies, particularly the FBI, CIA and NTSB, colluded to undermine the official investigation. Borjesson and Dr. Tom Stalcup (the co-producer and senior science advisor for the documentary) display persistence and tenacity in their quest to understand the relevant science and make it comprehensible for the public.
While Borjesson wrote, produced, and directed the documentary, the work is a team effort, underscoring her appreciation for teams of experts, first-hand sources and journalists “holding hands and working together” on complicated, controversial stories.
Borjesson has joined other whistleblowers and advocates at the Government Accountability Project (GAP) to speak publicly about the importance of unfettered, professional and honest journalists who reject official source reporting as insufficient. Borjesson exhorts journalists to verify the statements of official sources no matter how powerful they are, even if it means, as happened with her, paying a price.
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