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The Real Fight Against Fake News:
Project Censored's top 10 underreported stories
 

click to enlarge The news media's quest for clicks has undermined America's trust in journalism. - ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN ILLUSTRATION
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration
  • The news media's quest for clicks has undermined America's trust in journalism.

The free press is under attack — bullied, body-slammed and, in extreme instances, chopped up with a bone saw. It's not surprising why the press is the primary target of every despot and demagogue: A journalist's job is to seek the truth, inform the electorate and, in doing so, empower people to fully participate in a democracy. To those who would prefer to operate under the cover of darkness, that's a scary prospect.

None of which is to suggest the press — or "the media," at large — is above criticism. Too many media outlets are owned by huge conglomerates that prioritize corporate efficiencies over local news. Too many outlets have been seduced by the siren call of social media and produce clickbait stories that drive web traffic but undermine trust. Too many outlets are filling time with disingenuous partisan fights rather than clear-minded, independent journalism. And too many outlets are flailing for answers after watching their business model get strip-mined by Facebook and Google.

Project Censored grew out of the very idea that the news media must do better. Founded in 1976 at Sonoma State University, the project tasks academics, students and media experts with researching the most important national stories that were underreported, ignored or censored by the media. Finally, the work of Project Censored is compiled into an annual list, published into a book and shared in articles like the following one written by Paul Rosenberg.

In the end, journalism is made better by thoughtful criticism, and a media-literate public may indeed be the best protection against those would do harm to the free press and the American ideals it represents.

— JACOB H. FRIES, Inlander editor

ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN ILLUSTRATION
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration

Project Censored's Top 10 list of underreported stories

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DECLINING RULE OF LAW, HUMAN RIGHTS

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017-2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before Trump's election. Fundamental rights — one of eight categories measured — declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries' scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.

Fundamental rights include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association and labor rights.

Constraints on government powers, which measure the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, the World Justice Project stated in a press release. "While all sub-factors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power — based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures — declined most markedly," the press release stated.

The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.

"With scores of .50 for equal treatment and absence of discrimination (on a scale of 0 to 1), .48 for discrimination in the civil justice system, and .37 for discrimination in the criminal justice system, the U.S. finds itself ranked 78 out of 113 countries on all three subfactors," the World Justice Project stated.

"The WJP's 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media," Project Censored noted.

The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on the Guardian's coverage. This pattern of ignoring international comparisons, across all subject matter, is pervasive in the corporate media. It severely cripples our capacity for objective self-reflection and self-improvement as a nation.

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SECRETS SOLD TO THE HIGHEST BIDDERS

In March 2017, WikiLeaks released Vault 7, a trove of 8,761 leaked confidential CIA files about its global hacking programs, which WikiLeaks described as the "largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency." It drew significant media attention. But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out.

"Sure, the CIA has all these tools available," Eliason pointed out. "Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is [that] it's not the CIA that's using them. That's the part that needs to frighten you."

As Eliason went on to explain, the CIA's mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans.

"All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone," Eliason explained. "It makes them not exactly usable for secret agent work. That's what makes it impossible for them to use Vault 7 tools directly."

Drawing heavily on more than a decade of reporting by Tim Shorrock for Mother Jones and the Nation, Eliason's OpEdNews series reported on the explosive growth of private contractors in the intelligence community, which allows the CIA and other agencies to gain access to intelligence gathered by methods they're prohibited from using.

In a 2016 report for the Nation, Shorrock estimated that 80 percent of an estimated 58,000 private intelligence contractors worked for the five largest companies. He concluded that "not only has intelligence been privatized to an unimaginable degree, but an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power inside U.S. intelligence has left the country dangerously dependent on a handful of companies for its spying and surveillance needs."

Eliason reported how private contractors pioneered open-source intelligence by circulating or selling the information they gathered before the agency employing them had reviewed and classified it. Therefore, "no one broke any laws." As a result, according to Eliason's second article, "People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state-sized cyber tools at their disposal, [which they can use] for their own political agendas, private business, and personal vendettas."

Corporate media reporting on Vault 7 sometimes noted, but failed to focus on, the dangerous role of private contractors, Project Censored pointed out — with the notable exception of a Washington Post op-ed in which Shorrock reviewed his previous reporting and concluded that overreliance on private intelligence contractors was "a liability built into our system that intelligence officials have long known about and done nothing to correct."

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RICHEST 1 PERCENT GET RICHER

In November 2017, financial services company Credit Suisse released its eighth annual Global Wealth Report, which the

Guardian reported on under the headline "Richest 1% own half the world's wealth, study finds."

The wealth share of the world's richest people increased "from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140 trillion," the Guardian reported, adding that "The biggest losers ... are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents."

"[Despite being more educated than their parents], millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, home ownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report," Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner said. "We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the 'millennial disadvantage.'"

"No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments," the report said. "The number of millionaires has increased by 170%, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of USD 50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders."

There were 2.3 million new millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.

"At the other end of the spectrum, the world's 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000," the Guardian reported. "Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world's working-age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth."

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WIRELESS COMPANIES AND CELL PHONE SAFETY

Are cell phones and other wireless devices as safe as we've been led to believe? Don't bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for the Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.

"The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did, it also borrowed from the same public relations playbook those industries pioneered," Hertsgaard and Dowie reported. "Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. ... On the contrary, the industry — in America, Europe, and Asia — has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quack, and that consumers have nothing to fear."

click to enlarge Are health hazards being minimized? - ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN ILLUSTRATION
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration
  • Are health hazards being minimized?
Their report comes at the same time as several new developments are bringing the issue to the fore, including a Kaiser Permanente study (published December 2017 in Scientific Reports) finding much higher risks of miscarriage, a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology, finding increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor), and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France that nine out of 10 cell phones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used, next to the human body.

As the the Nation reported, George Carlo was a scientist hired by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1993 to research cell phone safety and allay public fears, heading up the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project. But he was fired and publicly attacked by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1999, after uncovering disturbing evidence of danger:

Carlo sent letters to each of the industry's chieftains on Oct. 7, 1999, reiterating that the Wireless Technology Research project had found the following:

"The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled ... in cell phone users"; there was an apparent "correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head"; and "the ability of radiation from a phone's antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive."

The Kaiser Permanente study involved exposure to magnetic field nonionizing radiation associated with wireless devices as well as cell phones and found a 2.72 times higher risk of miscarriage for those with higher versus lower exposure. Lead investigator De-Kun Li warned that the possible effects of this radiation have been controversial because, "from a public health point of view, everybody is exposed. If there is any health effect, the potential impact is huge."

WASHINGTON PRESS SUPPRESSES EMPLOYEES' CRITICISM

On May 1, 2017, the Washington Post introduced a policy prohibiting its employees from criticizing its advertisers and business partners, and encouraging them to snitch on one another.

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"A new social-media policy at the Washington Post prohibits conduct on social media that 'adversely affects the Post's customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners," Andrew Beaujon reported in the Washingtonian the next month. "In such cases, Post management reserves the right to take disciplinary action 'up to and including termination of employment.'"

Beaujon also cited "A clause that encourages employees to snitch on one another: 'If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of the Post's Social Media Policy ... you should contact the Post's Human Resources Department.'"

At the time, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents the Post's employees, was protesting the policy and was seeking removal of the controversial parts in a new labor agreement.

A follow-up report by Whitney Webb for MintPress News highlighted the broader possible censorship effects, as prohibiting social media criticism could spill over into reporting as well.

"Among the Washington Post's advertisers are corporate giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America and Koch Industries," Webb wrote. "With the new policy, social media posts criticizing GlaxoSmithKline's habit of making false and misleading claims about its products, inflating prices and withholding crucial drug safety information from the government will no longer be made by Post employees."

Beyond that, Webb suggested it could protect the CIA, which has $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Post four months after that contract was signed.

"While criticism of the CIA is not technically prohibited by the new policy, former Post reporters have suggested that making such criticisms could endanger one's career," Webb noted.

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RUSSIAGATE: THE TWO-HEADED MONSTER

Is Russiagate a censored story? Well, not exactly. This entry by Project Censored seems to reflect a well-intentioned effort to critically examine fake news-related issues within a "censored story" framework.

What Project Censored calls attention to is important: "Corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories."

As a frustrated journalist with omnivorous interests, I heartily concur — but what's involved is too complex to simply be labeled "propaganda." On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is a classic, well-defined Project Censored story, which suffers from the attempt to fit both together.

In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported for the Intercept on a quantitative study of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show from Feb. 20 to March 31, 2017, which found that "Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts."

Maté wrote: "Maddow's Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump's escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump's Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent)."

click to enlarge Understanding the influence of Russia is important, but Project Censored argues that coverage shouldn't come at the expense of other important stories. - ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN ILLUSTRATION
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration
  • Understanding the influence of Russia is important, but Project Censored argues that coverage shouldn't come at the expense of other important stories.

Well and good. But is this propaganda?

At Truthdig, Norman Solomon wrote:

"As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia's 'attack on our democracy' that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together."

Also true. But not so much propaganda as Project Censored's broader category of "news abuse," which includes propaganda and spin, among other forms of "distraction to direct our attention away from what we really need to know." To fully grasp what's involved requires a more complex analysis.

On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is far more clear-cut and straightforward.

In a report for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Robin Andersen examined Russiagate-inspired censorship moves by Twitter, Google and others. A key initial target was RT (the television network formerly known as Russia Today).

"RT's reporting bears striking similarities to alternative and independent media content, and that is why letting the charges against RT stand unexamined is so dangerous," Andersen noted.

In fact, the government's intelligence report on RT included its reporting on the dangers of fracking as part of its suspect activity. Beyond that, the spill-over suppression was dramatic:

"Yet in the battle against fake news, much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches," Anderson said. "The World Socialist Web Site (8/2/17) reported that Google's new search protocol is restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights websites. The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking."

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REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

The world's agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 percent to 66 percent of the historic carbon loss to the atmosphere, according to a 2004 paper in Science, actually reversing the processes driving global warming. A set of practices known as "regenerative agriculture" could play a major role in accomplishing that, while substantially increasing crop yields as well, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, in May 2017.

"For thousands of years we grew food by depleting soil carbon and, in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel as well," food and farming writer Michael Pollan wrote. "But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil."

Cummins, who's also a founding member of Regeneration International, wrote that regenerative agriculture offers a "world-changing paradigm" that can help solve many of today's environmental and public health problems. As the Guardian explained:

"Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, re-mineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff."

In addition to global warming, there are profound economic and social justice concerns involved.

"Out-of-touch and out-of-control governments of the world now take our tax money and spend $500 billion ... a year mainly subsidizing 50 million industrial farmers to do the wrong thing," Cummins wrote. "Meanwhile, 700 million small family farms and herders, comprising the 3 billion people who produce 70% of the world's food on just 25% of the world's acreage, struggle to make ends meet."

If you've never heard of it before, don't be surprised.

"Regenerative agriculture has received limited attention in the establishment press, highlighted by only two recent, substantive reports in the New York Times Magazine and Salon," Project Censored wrote.

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CONGRESS PASSES DATA-SHARING LAW

On March 21, House Republicans released a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. It passed both houses and was signed into law in two days. Attached to the spending provisions that made it urgent "must-pass" legislation was the completely unrelated Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act of 2018, also known as the CLOUD Act.

"The CLOUD Act enables the U.S. government to acquire data across international borders regardless of other nations' data privacy laws and without the need for warrants," Project Censored summarized.

It also significantly weakens protections against foreign government actions.

"It was never reviewed or marked up by any committee in either the House or the Senate," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's David Ruiz wrote. "It never received a hearing. ... It was robbed of a stand-alone floor vote because Congressional leadership decided, behind closed doors, to attach this unvetted, unrelated data bill to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill." Congressional leadership failed to listen to citizen concerns, Ruiz wrote, with devastating consequences:

"Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information, privacy and human rights," concluded Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.

Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil. Greene noted that the CLOUD Act negates protections of two interrelated existing laws. It creates an exception to the Stored Communications Act that allows certified foreign governments to request personal data directly from U.S. companies.

"This exception enables those countries to bypass the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which protects human rights by requiring foreign governments to work with the Department of Justice to obtain warrants from U.S. judges before they can access that data for their criminal investigations," Greene explained.

click to enlarge A tribe in New Zealand successfully argued that a river itself has legal rights. - ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN ILLUSTRATION
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen illustration
  • A tribe in New Zealand successfully argued that a river itself has legal rights.

LEGAL RIGHTS FOR NATURE

In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers its ancestor, as a living entity with rights.

The tribe's perspective was explained to the Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.

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"We consider the river an ancestor and always have," Albert said. "We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it."

But that could be just the beginning. "It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world," Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote:

"In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature."

"[If the New Zealand Whanganui River settlement] was able to correct the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government," DeVault wrote.

FBI'S RACIAL PROFILING

At the same time that white supremacists were preparing for the "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI Counterterrorism Division produced an intelligence assessment warning of a very different, though actually nonexistent, threat: "Black Identity Extremists." The report appeared to be the first time the term had been used to identify a movement, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story.

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"But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists," Foreign Policy reported.

"The use of terms like 'black identity extremists' is part of a long-standing FBI attempt to define a movement where none exists," said former FBI agent Mike German, who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice. "Basically, it's black people who scare them."

"It's classic Hoover-style labeling with a little bit of maliciousness and euphemism wrapped up together," said William Maxwell, a Washington University professor working on a book about FBI monitoring of black writers. "The language — black identity extremist — strikes me as weird and really a continuation of the worst of Hoover's past."

A former homeland security official told Foreign Policy that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats. "It's so convoluted — it's compromising officer safety," the former official said.

"The corporate media [has] covered the FBI report on 'black identity extremists' in narrow or misleading ways," Project Censored noted, citing examples from the New York Times, Fox News and NBC News. "Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrives." ♦

To learn more about Project Censored, visit projectcensored.org. Paul Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Real Fight Against Fake News"

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