In an age of blogs, tweets, hacks and piles of beans spilled by WikiLeaks, the notion of media censorship may seem dated.
But the rundown of stories Project Censored calls attention to this year serves as a reminder that mainstream media outlets favoring the superficial over the substantive don’t give us all the information we need.
Since 1976, Project Censored has endeavored to spotlight important news articles that didn’t find their way into mainstream headlines. Originating with a classroom assignment at Sonoma State University, the perennial project has evolved into a book, a radio show, and the Project Censored and Media Freedom International websites, which aggregate underreported independent news stories from around the globe.
Students and professors engaged in unearthing oft-ignored stories, part of a nationwide network of affiliates working under the direction of history professor Mickey Huff, bring a harsh critique to standard mainstream media fare.
“Corporate media is the information control wing of the global power structure,” former Project Censored director Peter Phillips writes in the introduction to Censored 2012: Sourcebook for the Media Revolution. “The corporate media systematically censors the news stories that challenge the propaganda of empire.”
In Huff’s words, “We try to highlight the things that are highly relevant, that seem to be conspicuously absent.”
Huff says the selection process for the top censored stories begins with nominations of independent articles that readers feel warrant greater attention than they’ve received. From there, students comb through LexisNexis or other databases to see whether the stories have been adequately covered. If not, they fact-check the stories with professors or other experts in the field.
Once they’ve been “validated” in this way, they’re posted to Project Censored’s sister site, Media Freedom International. The Top 25 Censored Stories list is the result of a ranked-choice voting process, in which judges and affiliates select from the entire pool of validated news articles posted from April to April.
The end product — an annual book featuring a compilation of the censored stories as well as sociological essays on media censorship and scathing critiques of “junk food news” churned out by the likes of Fox News — can be considered a kind of historical almanac, Huff says.
“Journalism is the rough draft of history,” he notes, “and if you have these mainstream corporate news outlets getting so much of it wrong or missing it, how does that impact historical construction?”
For the most part, Project Censored’s story list offers a sampling of smart, investigative journalism produced by the independent press. They include deep investigative pieces such as “Diet Hard With A Vengeance,” by David Moberg of In These Times, and a heartrending portrayal by Chris Hedges of a marine stationed in a mortuary unit in Iraq.
Yet there are instances when Project Censored seems to wander too far afield. Their claims of “censorship” seem dubious at times, as with the charge that the mainstream media has ignored the real unemployment rate because it hasn’t turned an eye toward the analysis of economist John Williams, who maintains a website called Shadow Government Statistics.
Huff and Phillips regularly discuss questions surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center on their KPFA radio show, and their emphasis on this particular issue, along with a recent tendency to give weight to fringe theories concerning things like suspicious contrails issuing from airplanes, have caused allies of the organization to defect in the past.
The organization’s definition of censorship has evolved, too, to the point where the authors cast it as a form of propaganda that is “intentional by nature ... In essence, this is a conspiracy.”
Nevertheless, the Project Censored team delivers yet another rundown of surprising, alarming, and thought-provoking stories that are worth noting — more so, perhaps, because they received so little attention to begin with. Without further ado, here are the Top 10.
1. More U.S. soldiers committed suicide than died in combat in 2010
Six more, to be exact. That’s the figure reported by Good magazine and spotlighted by Project Censored in an article highlighting the fact that 462 American soldiers were killed in combat in 2010, while 468 soldiers, counting enlisted men and women as well as veterans, took their own lives.
This was the second consecutive year that more soldiers died by their own hands than in combat — in 2009, the 381 suicides of active-duty soldiers recorded by the military also exceeded the number of deaths in battle. The Good report, which references Congressional Quarterly as a source, was published in January 2011, just weeks after military authorities announced that a psychological screening program seemed to be stemming the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers.
“This new data, that American soldiers are now more dangerous to themselves than the insurgents, flies right in the face of any suggestion that things are ‘working,’” Good Senior Editor Cord Jefferson wrote.
Project Censored also spotlighted Chris Hedges’ sobering portrayal of Jess Goodell, a marine who was stationed in the Mortuary Affairs unit in Iraq. Goodell published a memoir titled “Death and After in Iraq,” which is also the name of Hedges’ column.
2. U.S. military’s “friend” fake-out
Anyone suspicious of “sock puppets,” those online commenters pretending to be someone they’re not, would be unnerved by the U.S. military’s “online persona management service,” a little-known program described in the Guardian U.K., Raw Story and Computerworld stories unearthed and highlighted by Project Censored.
The U.S. Central Command (Centcom) secured a contract with a Los Angeles-based tech company to develop the program, which enables U.S. service workers to use fake online personas on social media sites to influence online chatter. Using up to 10 false identities, they can counter charged political dialogue with pro-military propaganda.
“These ‘personas’ were to have detailed, fictionalized backgrounds, to make them believable to outside observers, and a sophisticated identity protection service was to back them up, preventing suspicious readers from uncovering the real person behind the account,” according to a Raw Story account.
A Centcom spokesperson told the Guardian that the program would only intervene in online conversations in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu or Pashto, and that it wouldn’t initially target Twitter or Facebook. However, critics likened this U.S. endeavor to manipulate social media to China’s attempts to control and restrict free speech on the Internet.
3. Obama’s hit list
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. military have the authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad, outside war zones, if strong evidence exists that they’re involved in terrorist activity, the Washington Post reported in a front page story in January of 2010.
Despite this prominent press treatment of targeted assassinations under the Obama administration, Project Censored deems this an underreported news story, because “a moral, ethical, and legal analysis of the assassinations seems to be significantly lacking inside the corporate media.”
The authors instead point us to coverage in Salon, the Inter Press Service, Common Dreams and several other sources that sharply question the president’s authority to license extrajudicial executions of individuals. In December of 2010, Human Rights Watch asked for clarification of the legal rationale behind this practice after a judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the notion.
Columnist Glenn Greenwald blasts the practice in Salon: “Bush merely imprisoned [Jose Padilla] for years without a trial. If that’s a vicious, tyrannical assault on the Constitution — and it was — what should they be saying about the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s assassination of American citizens without any due process?”
4. Manmade food crisis
David Moberg offers an in-depth breakdown of the global food crisis for In These Times in an article highlighted by Project Censored, touching on the environmental context of worsening droughts and flooding, as well as the economic ramifications of a system in which free-market speculators stand to profit from volatile food prices.
Beyond crop reductions resulting from irregular weather patterns, Moberg places the blame for rising food prices and increasing malnutrition on flawed economic policies. “Hunger is currently a result of poverty and inequality, not lack of food,” he concludes.
The food price index rose to its highest level since 1990 in February 2011, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Since 2010 began, roughly another 44 million people have quietly crossed the threshold into malnutrition, joining 925 million already suffering from lack of food,” Moberg writes. “If prices continue to rise, this food crisis will push the ranks of the hungry toward a billion people.”
5. Prison companies fund anti-immigrant legislation
When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer ran for re-election in 2010, her greatest out-of-state campaign contributions came from high-ranking executives of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the nation’s largest prison companies. Brewer gained notoriety among immigrant-rights advocates after championing Senate Bill 1070, strict anti-illegal-immigration legislation that drew criticism for legitimizing racial profiling.
The bill established new crimes and corresponding prison sentences relating to illegal immigration. CCA profits directly from building and operating prisons and detention centers.
Bringing it closer to home, CCA previously employed two of Brewer’s legislative aides as lobbyists.
In a Counterpunch article titled “Wall Street and the Criminalization of Immigrants” (spotlighted by Project Censored), Peter Cervantes-Gautschi explores Brewer’s links to CCA and goes deeper still, offering an historic account of how investors in CCA and prison giant Geo Group have, for years, actively pushed for legislation that would result in the widespread incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
6. Google spies?
A flurry of stories aired in the spring of 2010 when it became apparent that Google Street View vehicles, in the process of collecting data for its mapping service, also picked up consumer “payload” data on Wi-Fi networks, including email messages, website data, user names and passwords.
The tech giant publicly apologized for what it characterized as a mistake, saying it had “failed badly.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) admonished Google in a letter but declined to pursue it further. From there, Project Censored authors make the leap that the FTC abandoned its inquiry because, a week earlier, President Obama attended a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Palo Alto home of Google executive Marissa Mayer, citing a San Francisco Chronicle article about the $30,000-per-person affair.
Project Censored authors also point to an article by Eric Sommer titled “Google’s Deep CIA Connections,” which appeared on Pravda.ru (a website whose most-read article was “Bermuda Triangle: New Anomalous Phenomenon Discovered”). Sommer claims that “Google is, in fact, a key participant in U.S. military and CIA intelligence operations,” basing his argument on a perplexing set of links between investors in Google and CIA technologies.
7. Stay positive — at all costs
A military training program that Project Censored has deemed “U.S. Army and psychology’s largest experiment — ever” was profiled in a detailed American Psychologist series in early 2011. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is described as a “holistic approach to warrior training,” emphasizing positive psychology as a means to counter mental health problems arising from horrific combat situations.
While the American Psychologist series reads like a puff piece finessed by the professionals who developed CSF, Project Censored spotlighted articles in Truthout and The Psychology of Wellbeing that raised questions about the wisdom of launching a required, untested psychology program for more than 1 million soldiers — one that encourages soldiers to think positive even in the face of traumatizing events.
In an article appearing on OpEdNews.com, authors Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilisuk, and Stephen Soldz write that the CSF “training” program would better be described as a research project. They point out that a hypothesis of the program’s success lies at the very core of CSF, “yet it is merely a hypothesis — a tentative explanation or prediction that can only be confirmed through further research.”
8. The myth of clean nuclear power
The terrifying meltdowns of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors reignited a worldwide debate about the wisdom of relying on nuclear energy as an electricity source. While Germany opted to phase out its nuclear facilities by 2022 in the wake of the tragedy, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) came under scrutiny after a Union of Concerned Scientists report analyzed 14 “near misses” at nuclear power plants in 2010, revealing the shortcomings in NRC inspections.
Project Censored’s critique of mainstream media’s treatment of nuclear power is that the media is too willing to endorse the idea that nuclear power is safe so long as proper safety measures are in place, and that major news publications readily go along with the nuclear industry’s branding of the power source as “clean” and “carbon-free” when it’s really not.
Claiming that “the refrain of the corporate media” is that nuclear power is “perfectly harmless,” the authors spotlight a number of articles and literature from anti-nuclear nonprofit organizations explaining the health hazards of radiation, plus Jeff Goodell’s “America’s Nuclear Nightmare,” an in-depth Rolling Stone article investigating ties between the NRC and the nuclear industry.
9. The government is manipulating the weather
This one stretches credulity, and it’s probably the best example of why Project Censored has gained detractors even on the left in recent years. The authors point us to a Centre for Research on Globalization article titled, “Atmospheric Geoengineering: Weather Manipulation, Contrails and Chemtrails,” by Rady Ananda, who begins by informing readers, “The military-industrial complex stands poised to capitalize on controlling the world’s weather.”
It describes an “international symposium” held in Belgium in May of 2010, during which “scientists asserted that manipulation of climate through modification of cirrus clouds is neither a hoax nor a conspiracy theory,” and is “fully operational.”
That sounds rather serious, but a web video of that symposium easily located online offers a closer look. One speaker begins by showing slides of old paintings to demonstrate “what the sky is supposed to look like,” then offers evidence of a chemtrail cover-up by quoting an unnamed pilot who tells someone in an online comment that he could reveal the truth about chemtrails but is bound by contract to shoot anyone he tells.
Scientific American and other publications have reported that geoengineering — spreading tiny atmospheric particles to reflect sunlight as a method to counter climate change — has actually come under serious consideration in recent years. Yet Project Censored seems to conflate this with a fringe obsession with supposedly suspicious airplane contrails.
10. The “real” unemployment rate
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the “official unemployment rate” by counting everyone who had no job, was available for work, and had actively sought work in the last four weeks, according to the BLS website. But alternative BLS statistics incorporate so-called “discouraged workers,” unemployed individuals who’ve given up on the job hunt.
In the first four months of 2011, the national unemployment rate officially stood at around 9 percent, while a BLS statistic incorporating discouraged workers and the marginally employed bumped that figure up to 15.9 percent.
However, Project Censored highlights an article by Greg Hunter, published on Information Clearinghouse, claiming that the “real” unemployment rate is actually 22.1 percent, or one out of five U.S. residents. Hunter’s claim is based on his interview with San Francisco-based economist John Williams, who maintains a website called Shadow Government Statistics.
By ignoring the claims of this economist, Project Censored argues, the mainstream media is engaging in censorship.
As with several claims in this year’s list, that may be stretching things a bit.
Comments? Write [email protected] This article first appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.