Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Project Censored's co-directors, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, draw a direct parallel between our world today to that of post-World War I America, "when the United States faced another raging pandemic and economic recession. The United States then had experienced a crackdown on civil liberties and free speech in the form of Espionage and Sedition Acts; racial tensions flared during the Red Summer of 1919 as violence erupted from Chicago to Tulsa; Prohibition was the law of the land; and the first wave of U.S. feminism ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment." At the time, they noted, "People yearned for a return to 'normalcy,' as then-presidential hopeful Warren G. Harding proclaimed."

But it was not to be. "Millions of Americans ultimately had to adjust to an ever- and fast-changing world," they write, including a rapidly changing media landscape, and we should expect much the same. Every major change in the media has brought the promise of expanded horizons and democratic possibility — the potential for a broader, more inclusive public conversation — only to see many of the old patterns of division, exclusion and demonization recur in new ways as well as old.

Project Censored isn't alone in drawing parallels to a century ago, of course. The pandemic above all has expanded journalistic horizons, as a matter of necessity. To a lesser extent, the threat to American democracy has done so as well. But many continue as if little or nothing has fundamentally changed. Day-to-day news stories perpetuate the fantasy that normal has returned. And in one sense they're right: The normal patterns of exclusion and suppression that Project Censored has been tracking for over 40 years continue to dominate.

These patterns are reflected in Project Censored's Top 10 list. Several stories this year deal with topics that have gotten widespread attention — but with aspects that have been virtually or entirely ignored. One story, for example, deals with prescription drug costs, a widely covered story, but with a significant difference in focus: how much those costs translate to in lost lives. Another story deals with police violence against people of color, but with a new focus that's actually quite old: vicious police dog attacks.

The point of Project Censored has never been just to expose significant stories that have been ignored, but rather to expose them as portals to a wider landscape of understanding and action. In that spirit, here is our summary of this year's Top 10 Censored Stories of 2021.

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Prescription Drug Costs Set to Become a Leading Cause of Death for Elderly Americans

"Soaring prescription drug costs have been widely reported by corporate news outlets," Project Censored notes, but they've utterly ignored the staggering resulting cost in human lives. More than 1.1 million seniors enrolled in Medicare programs could die prematurely in the next decade due to unaffordable prescription drugs, according to a November 2020 study reported on by Kenny Stancil for Common Dreams. "As medicines become increasingly expensive, patients skip doses, ration prescriptions, or quit treatment altogether," Project Censored explains, a phenomenon known as "cost-related nonadherence," which will become "a leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, and kidney disease" by 2030, according to the study by the nonprofit West Health Policy Center and Xcenda, the research arm of Amerisource-Bergen, a drug distributor.

"Even with Medicare insurance, what seniors pay is linked to a drug's price," the study explained, which allowed the researchers "to model how cost-related nonadherence would change under policies that would reduce drug prices, such as Medicare negotiation." The study focused on five medical conditions that "significantly affect seniors and for which effective pharmaceutical treatments are available," including three types of heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and type B diabetes.

"The good news is that policy changes can curb the power of Big Pharma, resulting in far fewer avoidable deaths," Stancil reported. "Medicare negotiation is projected to reduce drug prices and seniors' cost-sharing, which could prevent nearly 94,000 seniors' deaths annually and save $475.9 billion," the study stated as one of its key findings. (A plan to lower drug prices for Medicare and the privately insured is part of the pending Build Back Better package of legislation.)

"The public's understanding of the debate surrounding ... proposed legislation designed to control inflation in prescription drug prices ought to be informed by accurate information about the grim repercussions of continuing the status quo," Project Censored noted. "Sadly, the corporate media have failed to provide the public with such information for far too long, and the consequences could turn out to be deadly for millions of seniors."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Journalists Investigating Financial Crimes Threatened by Global Elites

Financial crimes of global elites, involving the flow of dirty money through some of the world's most powerful banks, have made major headlines in recent years, most notably with the Panama Papers in 2016 and the FinSen Files in 2020. But we'd know a great deal more if not for the flood of threats faced by journalists doing this work — a major story that hasn't been told in America's corporate media, despite a detailed report from the British think tank Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), "Unsafe for Scrutiny," released in November 2020.

The report was based on a survey of 63 investigative journalists from 41 countries, which found that 71% had experienced threats or harassment while doing their investigations, with a large portion of those (73%) experiencing legal threats as well. Its findings were described by Spencer Woodman in an article for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

"The report found that legal threats are chief among the types of harassment facing journalists conducting financial investigations, and often seek to exploit a skewed balance of power between often-underfunded reporting enterprises and the legal might of attorneys hired by the world's wealthiest people and corporations," Woodman wrote. "Focusing on frivolous cases known as 'strategic lawsuits against public participation,' or SLAPPs, the report asserts that such actions 'can create a similar chilling effect on media freedom to more overt violence or attack.'" Legal threats are often communicated via private letters, "and, if successful in achieving their aim, the public will never know," the report said.

Physical threats and online harassment were also a grave concern, but they were geographically uneven. "While no journalists surveyed in North America reported physical threats, 60% of respondents working in sub-Saharan Africa, and 50% of respondents from North Africa and the Middle East region reported threats of physical attack," Woodman noted.

Project Censored noted Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia's murder along with that of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, adding that "According to FPC's report, an additional 30 reporters from Brazil, Russia, India, Ukraine, Mexico, and other countries who were researching financial corruption have been murdered since 2017."

The silence about this silencing has been deafening, Project Censored noted. There has been some coverage overseas, but to date "no major commercial newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States has so much as mentioned the FPC's report."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Historic Wave of Wildcat Strikes for Workers' Rights

After millions of people were designated "essential workers" when the U.S. went into lockdown in March 2020, thousands of wildcat strikes erupted to challenge dangerous working conditions and chronic low wages, exacerbated by refusal to protect against COVID-19 and cutting or sharply increasing the cost of medical insurance for those who had coverage. A further strike surge was driven by "Black and Brown workers using digital technologies to organize collective actions as a way to press some of the demands for racial justice raised by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protesters," Project Censored noted. The nation's fourth busiest port, Charleston, S.C., shut down during George Floyd's funeral on June 9, for example.

At the labor news website Payday Report, Mike Elk created a continuously updated COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, which had identified "1,100 wildcat strikes as of March 24, 2021, many of which the corporate media have chosen to ignore," according to Project Censored, including "more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement" in June 2020 alone, according to Elk.

"While local and regional newspapers and broadcast news outlets have reported on particular local actions, corporate news coverage has failed to report the strike wave as a wave, at no time connecting the dots of all the individual, seemingly isolated work stoppages and walkouts to create a picture of the overarching trend," Project Censored reported.

The sole exception where there was national coverage was in August 2020 when highly paid baseball and basketball pro athletes walked out in violation of their contracts to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police. The coverage ended quickly once they returned a few days later.

Wildcat strikes occur when workers simply stop working, often in response to a specific incident, such as employer actions putting lives at risk by skimping on protective gear or attempting to cut workers' health care.

Elk noted that the 600 strikes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement "is likely a severe underestimation as many nonunion Black and Brown workers are now calling out en masse to attend Black Lives Matter protests without it ever being reported in the press or on social media."

Elk also noted that "many Black workers interviewed by Payday Report say that, once again, white labor leaders are failing to understand non-traditional organizing that has developed from viral social media movements."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

"Climate Debtor" Nations Have "Colonized" the Atmosphere

The United States and other developed countries in the global north are responsible for 92% of all the excess carbon dioxide emissions driving global warming, according to a study in the September issue of The Lancet Planetary Health. The U.S. alone was responsible for 40%, followed by Russia and Germany (8% each), the United Kingdom (7%), and Japan (5%).

The study's author, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, told Sarah Lazare of In These Times that his research began from the premises that "the atmosphere is a common resource" and that "all people should have equal access" to a fair share of it. He calculated each nation's fair share of a sustainable global carbon budget, based on population, along with an analysis of "territorial emissions from 1850 to 1969, and consumption-based emissions from 1970 to 2015." In turn, this was used to calculate "the extent to which each country has overshot or undershot its fair share," according to the study. Thus the above list of the largest climate debtors.

The results, he told In These Times, show that "the countries of the Global North have 'stolen' a big chunk of the atmospheric fair shares of poorer countries, and on top of that are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions... [T]hey have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth."

In contrast, the study found that "most countries in the Global South were within their boundary fair shares, including India and China (although China will overshoot soon)." The leading climate creditors to date are India (34% of global "undershoots"), China (11%), Bangladesh and Indonesia (5% each) and Nigeria (4%).

"High-income countries must not only reduce emissions to zero more quickly than other countries, but they must also pay down their climate debts," the study said. "Just as many of these countries have relied on the appropriation of labor and resources from the Global South for their own economic growth, they have also relied on the appropriation of global atmospheric commons, with consequences that harm the Global South disproportionately."

"Although it may be imperative to act 'quickly and together' to reduce carbon emissions, as Vice President Kamala Harris asserted at the April 2021 climate summit, corporate media have failed to cover ... cutting-edge research, which demonstrates that the United States and other would-be leaders in addressing climate change are in fact, as the world's worst climate debtors, disproportionately responsible for climate breakdown," Project Censored notes.

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Microplastics and Toxic Chemicals Increasingly Prevalent in World's Oceans

According to a pair of scientific studies published in the summer of 2020, microplastic particles and a family of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS have become more widespread in the world's oceans than previously realized and have begun to contaminate the global seafood supply. The two problems are related because PFAS — a family of highly stable "forever chemicals" with more than 4,700 known members — can occur as microplastics, can stick to microplastic particles in water, and are involved in the production of plastics.

In July 2020, a German-American study published in the scholarly journal Environmental Science & Technology revealed that PFAS — which are used in a range of products including carpets, furniture, clothing, food packaging and nonstick coatings — have now been found in the Arctic Ocean.

"This discovery worries scientists," Project Censored explains, "because it means that PFAS can reach any body of water anywhere in the world and that such chemicals are likely present in our water supply." This is concerning because, as Daniel Ross reported for Truthout, there are known human health impacts that include "certain cancers, liver damage, thyroid problems and increased risk of asthma. As endocrine disruptors, these chemicals have been linked to increased risk of severe COVID-19."

Ross cited a number of other studies as well, noting that "emerging research suggests that one important pathway [for PFAS spreading] is through the air and in rainwater," and that they had been widely detected in China, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"PFASs are probably detectable in 'all major water supplies' in the U.S.," according to an Environmental Working Group study, Ross reported. "What's more, over 200 million Americans could be drinking water containing PFAS above a level EWG scientists believe is safe, according to the organization's most recent findings."

Aside from the Guardian, "no major news outlet has paid attention to the topic of microplastics in seafood," Project Censored noted, referring to an October 2020 story by Graham Readfearn, reporting on a new Australian study indicating that at least 14 million tons of microplastics are likely sitting on the ocean floor — "more than 30 times as much plastic at the bottom of the world's ocean than there is floating at the surface."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Canary Mission Blacklists Pro-Palestinian Activists, Chilling Free Speech Rights

Before the "critical race theory" moral panic fueled a nationwide uprising to censor discussions of race in education, there was an opposite moral panic decrying "cancel culture" stifling certain people — especially in education. But even at the peak of the "cancel culture" panic, perhaps the most canceled people anywhere in America — pro-Palestinian activists and sympathizers — got virtually no attention. Even though a well-funded, secretly run blacklist website, known as Canary Mission, explicitly targeted thousands of individuals — overwhelmingly students — with dossiers expressly intended to ruin their careers before they even began, and which "have been used in interrogations by Israeli security officials," according to the Forward, a Jewish publication. They've also been used by the FBI, as reported by The Intercept.

The website, established in 2015, "seeks to publicly discredit critics of Israel as 'terrorists' and 'anti-Semites,' Project Censored noted, but its careless style of accusation has caused a backlash, even among pro-Israeli Jews. "While some of those listed on the site are prominent activists, others are students who attended a single event, or even student government representatives suspected of voting for resolutions that are critical of Israel," the Forward reported. More than that, it reported three examples when Canary Mission was apparently retaliating against critics, including Jews.

But by far, its main targets are Palestinians, particularly activists involved with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS movement that works to peacefully pressure Israel — similarly to South Africa in the 1980s — to obey international law and respect Palestinians' human rights. As the Intercept reported in 2018, "While Canary Mission promotes itself as a group working against anti-Semitism, the blacklist's effective goal is to clamp down on growing support for Palestine in the United States by intimidating and tarnishing Palestinian rights advocates with the brush of bigotry."

While the FBI told the Intercept that it "only investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security," this didn't match up with its actions. "If the FBI was concerned about criminal activity among the student activists, its agents made no indication of that in the interviews," the Intercept reported. "They did, however, ask questions that echoed far-right propaganda about unproven links between pro-Palestine activist groups and militant groups."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Google's Union-Busting Methods Revealed

In 2018, Google dropped its longtime slogan, "Don't be evil," from its code of conduct. In 2019, Google hired IRI Consultants, a union avoidance firm, "amid a wave of unprecedented worker organizing at the company," as Vice's Motherboard put it in January 2021, while reporting on leaked files from IRI that provided a disturbing picture of how far Google may have strayed in its willingness to sabotage its workers' rights. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for companies to spy on employees and guarantees workers the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. "Nevertheless," Project Censored noted, "companies like Google attempt to circumvent the law by hiring union avoidance firms like IRI Consultants as independent contractors to engage in surveillance and intimidation on their behalf."

"[E]mployers in the United States spend roughly $340 million on union avoidance consultants each year," Lauren Kaori Gurley reported for Motherboard, but their practices are apparently so disreputable that IRI doesn't identify its clients on its website "beyond saying the firm has been hired by universities, renewable energy companies, auto-makers, 'the nation's largest food manufacturers,' and 'several top 10 worldwide retailers,'" she reported.

"[Leaked] documents show that the firm collected incredibly detailed information on 83 Seattle hospital employees, including their 'personality, temperament, motivations, ethnicity, family background, spouses' employment, finances, health issues, work ethic, job performance, disciplinary history, and involvement in union activity in the lead-up to a union election,'" Project Censored noted, "including descriptions of workers as 'lazy,' 'impressionable,' 'money oriented,' and 'a single mother.'"

The documents Motherboard reported on didn't come from Google, but from two Seattle-based hospitals owned by Conifer Health Solutions, who hired IRI on the sly — a common practice.

"Google is not the only Big Tech company to enlist union avoidance consultants in recent years. In fall 2020 and spring 2021, employees at Amazon's massive fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, launched a much-publicized unionization effort," Project Censored noted. "As John Logan detailed in a lengthy article for LaborOnline, Amazon responded to the Bessemer drive by spending at least $3,200 per day on anti-union consultants Russ Brown and Rebecca Smith and by bringing in a second union-busting consulting firm," as well as hiring "one of the largest law firms in the country specializing in union avoidance." Employees voted more than 2-1 against joining the union, but the election was overturned for a set of eight labor law violations — a decision that Amazon is appealing.

"There has been some establishment press coverage of large corporations hiring union-avoidance firms to undermine workplace organizing, mostly focusing on tech giants like Google and Amazon," Project Censored noted. "However, there has been no corporate news coverage whatsoever of the sensational leaks that Motherboard released in January, and there has been very little in-depth corporate media reporting on the use of union-busting consultants in general."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Pfizer Bullies South American Governments over COVID-19 Vaccine

"Pfizer has essentially held Latin American governments to ransom for access to its lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine," Project Censored reports, the latest example of how it's exerted undue influence to enrich itself at the expense of low- and middle-income nations going back to the 1980s, when it helped shape the intellectual property rules it's now taking advantage of.

"Pfizer has been accused of 'bullying' Latin American governments in COVID vaccine negotiations and has asked some countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases," according to reporters at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

It's normal for governments to provide some indemnity. But, "Pfizer asked for additional indemnity from civil cases, meaning that the company would not be held liable for rare adverse effects or for its own acts of negligence, fraud or malice," BIJ reported. "This includes those linked to company practices — say if Pfizer sent the wrong vaccine or made errors during manufacturing."

"Some liability protection is warranted, but certainly not for fraud, gross negligence, mismanagement, failure to follow good manufacturing practices," the World Health Organization's director of the Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, Lawrence Gostin, told BIJ. "Companies have no right to ask for indemnity for these things."

"Pfizer's dealings in South America are not exactly secret," Project Censored noted, but "As of May 2021, there has been no corporate media coverage of Pfizer's actual dealings in South America or how the pharmaceutical giant helped establish the global intellectual property standards it now invokes to protect its control over access to the vaccine."

Nor is this anything new, it concluded: "Big Pharma has a long, underreported track record of leaving developing nations' medical needs unfulfilled, as Project Censored has previously documented."

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Police Use Dogs as Instruments of Violence, Targeting People of Color

The use of vicious dogs to control Black people dates back to slavery, but it's not ancient history, according to an investigative series of 13 linked reports, titled "Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons," coordinated by the Marshall Project in partnership with AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute. They found evidence that the pattern continues to this day, with disproportionate use of police dogs against people of color, often resulting in serious injury, with little or no justification. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a majority-Black city of 220,000, is the dog-bite capital of America, with a bite rate more than double the next-ranked city, Indianapolis. According to Bryn Stole and Grace Toohey's February 2021 report: Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people, records show. Of those, 53 were 17 years old or younger; the youngest were just 13. Almost all of the people bitten were Black, and most were unarmed and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes like driving a stolen vehicle or burglary.

Baton Rouge is hardly alone. Approximately 3,600 Americans annually are sent to the emergency room for severe bite injuries resulting from police dog attacks. These dog bites "can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchers," a team of five reporters wrote in October 2020.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement has significantly raised public awareness of police using disproportionate force against people of color, police "K-9 violence has received strikingly little attention from corporate news media." There were exceptions: In October 2020, USA Today published a Marshall Project story simultaneously with the project, and in November 2020, the Washington Post ran a front-page story citing the Marshall Project's reporting. In addition, NBC News covered Salt Lake City's suspension of its K-9 program, "after a video circulated of a police dog biting a Black man who was kneeling on the ground with his hands held up." But aside from these examples, "coverage appears to have been limited to local news outlets," Project Censored concluded.

click to enlarge Project Censored's 2021 report of America's most underreported stories shows old patterns are alive and well
Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Activists Call Out Legacy of Racism and Sexism in Forced Sterilization

Forced sterilization was deemed constitutional in a 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, after which forced sterilizations increased dramatically, to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations in some 32 states during the 20th Century, predominantly targeting women of color. And while state laws have been changed, it's still constitutional, and still going on today — with at least five cases of women in ICE custody in Georgia in 2019 — while thousands of victims await restitution, as reports from the Conversation and YES! Magazine have documented.

"Organizations such as Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab are actively working to document the extent of this underreported problem — and to bring an end to it." Project Censored noted. But their work is even more underreported than the problem itself.

"During the height of this wave of eugenics by means of sterilization in the U.S., forced hysterectomies were so common in the Deep South that activist Fannie Lou Hamer coined the term 'Mississippi Appendectomy' to describe them," Ray Levy Uyeda wrote in a YES! Magazine article, "How Organizers are Fighting an American Legacy of Forced Sterilization," which begins with the story of Kelli Dillon. Dillon was a California prison inmate in 2001 when she underwent a procedure to remove a potentially cancerous growth — and the surgeon simultaneously performed an unauthorized hysterectomy, one of 148 forced sterilizations that year in California prisons, and one of 1,400 carried out between 1997 and 2010.

Dillon began organizing inside the women's prison, gathering testimonials from other victimized prisoners, "and provided the personal accounts to staff at Justice Now that was laying the groundwork to petition for legislation that would ban the procedures in prisons," Uyeda reported. She eventually sued the state of California for damages and helped to shape legislation to compensate victims (finally passed this year), a story told in the 2020 documentary film Belly of the Beast.

"California Latinas for Reproductive Justice is working to secure legislative change for victims of the state's sterilization efforts between 1909 and 1979," Uyeda wrote. It was recently signed into law, making California the third state with such legislation, following the lead of North Carolina and Virginia, in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

There was some corporate news coverage after ICE was accused of forcibly sterilizing detainees, but generally without "any mention of the activists resisting the practice. ... Some establishment press articles on the topic of forced sterilization include comments from members of these organizations to provide context on the issue, but few spotlight the groups' tireless organizing and record of accomplishments." Two exceptions cited were articles from Marie Claire magazine and Refinery29, "a website targeted at younger women." This only began to change in July 2021, "with the Associated Press and other establishment news outlets reporting that California is preparing to approve reparations of up to $25,000 per person to women who had been sterilized without consent." ♦

Paul Rosenberg is a senior editor for Project Censored, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to media literacy and fighting censorship. Find out more at projectcensored.org

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