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Project Censored

The stories mainstream media doesn't report



People who get their information exclusively from mainstream-media sources might’ve been surprised at the lack of enthusiasm on the left for President Barack Obama in the recent election. But that’s probably because they weren’t exposed to the full online furor sparked by Obama’s continuation of his predecessor’s overreaching approach to national security, such as signing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the indefinite detention of those accused of supporting terrorism, even U.S. citizens.

We’ll never know if this year’s election might’ve been different if the corporate media adequately covered the NDAA’s indefinite-detention clause and many other recent attacks on civil liberties. What we can do is spread the word and support independent-media sources that do cover these stories. That’s where Project Censored comes in.

Project Censored has been documenting inadequate media coverage of crucial stories since it began in 1967 at Sonoma State University. Each year, the group considers hundreds of news stories submitted by readers, evaluating their merits. Students search Lexis Nexis and other databases to see if the stories were underreported, and if so, the stories are fact-checked by professors and experts in relevant fields.

A panel of academics and journalists chooses the top 25 stories and rates their significance. The project maintains a vast online database of underreported news stories that it has “validated” and published in an annual book: Censored 2013: Dispatches from the Media Revolution, which was released Oct. 30.

For the second year in a row, Project Censored has grouped the top 25 list into topical “clusters.” This year, categories include “human cost of war and violence” and “environment and health.” Project Censored director Mickey Huff says the idea was to show how various undercovered stories fit together into an alternative narrative, not to say that one story was more censored than another.

“The problem when we had just the list was that it did imply a ranking,” Huff says. “It takes away from how there tends to be a pattern to the types of stories they don’t cover, or underreport.”

In May, while Project Censored was working on the list, another 2012 list was issued: the Fortune 500 list of the biggest corporations, whose influence peppers the Project Censored list in a variety of ways.

Consider this year’s top Fortune 500 company: ExxonMobil. The oil company pollutes everywhere it goes, yet most stories about its environmental devastation go underreported. Weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin (58 on the Fortune list), General Dynamics (92) and Raytheon (117) are tied into stories about U.S. prisoners in slavery conditions manufacturing parts for their weapons, and the underreported war crimes in Afghanistan and Libya.

These powerful corporations work together more than most people think. In the chapter exploring the “global 1 percent,” writers Peter Phillips and Kimberly Soeiro explain how a small number of well-connected people control the majority of the world’s wealth. In it, they use Censored story No. 6, “Small network of corporations runs the global economy,” to describe how a network of transnational corporations are deeply interconnected, with 147 of them controlling 40 percent of the global economy’s total wealth.

For example, Philips and Soeiro write that in one such company, BlackRock Inc., “The 18 members of the board of directors are connected to a significant part of the world’s core financial assets. Their decisions can change empires, destroy currencies and impoverish millions.”

Another cluster of stories, “women and gender, race and ethnicity,” notes a pattern of underreporting stories that affect a range of marginalized groups. This broad category includes only three articles, and none are listed in the top 10. The stories reveal mistreatment of Palestinian women in Israeli prisons, including them being denied medical care and shackled during childbirth, and the rape and sexual assault of female soldiers in the U.S. military. The third story in the category concerns an Alabama anti-immigration bill, House Bill 56, that caused immigrants to flee Alabama in such numbers that farmers felt a dire need to “help farms fill the gap and find sufficient labor.” So, the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries approached the state’s Department of Corrections about making a deal where prisoners would replace the fleeing farm workers.

But with revolutionary unrest around the world, and the rise of a mass movement that connects disparate issues together into a simple, powerful class analysis—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent paradigm popularized by Occupy Wall Street—this year’s Project Censored offers an element of hope.

It’s not easy to succeed at projects that resist corporate dominance, and when it does happen, the corporate media is sometimes reluctant to cover it. No. 7 on the top 25 list is the story of how the United Nations designated 2012 the International Year of the Cooperative, recognizing the rapid growth of co-op businesses, organizations that are part-owned by all members and whose revenue is shared equitably among members. One billion people worldwide now work in co-ops.

The Year of the Cooperative is not the only good-news story discussed by Project Censored this year. In Chapter 4, Yes! Magazine’s Sarah Van Gelder lists 12 ways the Occupy Movement and other major trends have “offered a foundation for a transformative future.” They include a renewed sense of “political self-respect” and fervor to organize in the United States, debunking of economic myths such as the “American dream,” and the blossoming of economic alternatives such as community land trusts, time banking and micro-energy installations.

They also include results achieved from pressure on government, like the delay of the Keystone Pipeline project, widespread efforts to override the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the removal of dams in Washington state after decades of campaigning by American Indians and environmental activists, and the enactment of single-payer health care in Vermont.

As Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, an independent think tank, writes in the book’s foreword, “The majority of people now hold views about Western governments and the nature of power that would have made them social pariahs 10 or 20 years ago.”

Citing polls from the corporate media, Ahmed writes: “The majority are now skeptical of the Iraq War; the majority want an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan; the majority resent the banks and financial sector and blames them for the financial crisis; most people are now aware of environmental issues, more than ever before, and despite denialist confusion promulgated by fossil-fuel industries, the majority in the United States and Britain are deeply concerned about global warming; most people are wary of conventional party politics and disillusioned with the mainstream parliamentary system.”

“In other words,” he writes, “there has been a massive popular shift in public opinion toward a progressive critique of the current political economic system.”

And, ultimately, it’s the public—not the president and not the corporations—who will determine the future. There may be hope after all. Here’s Project Censored’s Top 10 list for 2012 (along with a few highlighted Utah connections):


1. Signs of an emerging police state
President George W. Bush is remembered largely for his role in curbing civil liberties in the name of his War on Terror. But it’s President Obama who signed the 2012 NDAA, including its clause allowing for indefinite detention without trial for terrorism suspects. Obama promised that “my administration will interpret [restrictions on the executive branch] to avoid the constitutional conflict”—leaving the United States adrift if and when the next administration chooses to interpret them otherwise. Another law of concern is the National Defense Resources Preparedness Executive Order that Obama issued in March 2012. That order authorizes the president, “in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements.” The president is to be advised on this course of action by “the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council, in conjunction with the National Economic Council.” Journalist Chris Hedges, along with co-plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, won a case challenging the NDAA’s indefinite detention clause Sept. 1, when a federal judge blocked its enforcement, but her ruling was overturned Oct. 3, so the clause is back.

Utah Connection: Utah is mighty fearful of big guv’ment cracking down on Utahns’ right to own guns, ride ATVs and drill where we darn well please. But when it comes to National Security Agency spy centers and data-sharing fusion centers, Utah rolls out the futon and lets the feds encroach away. While the NSA center has been well reported, there are undoubtedly more secrets out in the desert to be uncovered. Meanwhile, the implications of “fusion centers” like the one in Salt Lake City haven’t gotten much press.

The biggest indication of that is Utah’s welcoming of the NSA’s Utah Data Center, a center that will gather, filter and analyze vast amounts of data—meaning, critics worry, phone calls, e-mails, electronic receipts and other digital records of citizens. Construction began in 2009 at Bluffdale’s Camp Williams, and the Utah Data Center is expected to be completed sometime in 2013, covering nearly 1 million square feet. Once it’s operational, the center will be a central data warehouse of sorts for NSA intelligence, satellite nodes and other secret receiving centers, being able to process, some say, as much as a yottabyte (take 1 byte and times it by a 1 with 24 zeros behind it.)

Closer to home, the Salt Lake City Police Department houses one of the nation’s many “fusion centers”: collaborative information-sharing programs that swap information between regional fusion centers run in city police departments and federal partners like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and even private businesses may provide video footage or other information to fusion centers. While the partnership provides local cop shops with better tools for going after everyday criminals, the mandate with their federal partners also means counterterrorism monitoring of suspicious activity by citizens in their jurisdictions.

City Weekly broke the story of the SLCPD’s planned Statewide Information & Analysis Center fusion center in 2009 as a project funded at that time by stimulus dollars. While information on the Utah fusion center’s current activities are hard to come by, a 2012 survey of the nation’s 72 fusion centers, conducted by the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, provides some interesting details on the centers’ work nationally. One of the survey authors was Cpl. Keith Squires, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety, who helped design and set up Utah’s fusion center.

A few statistics are enough to cause most civil libertarians’ heads to explode. For example, 41.7 percent of fusion centers provided information to federal partners (FBI, DHS) on a daily basis. When asked what groups pose the greatest threats, 65 percent of the center respondents said, “homegrown Jihadi organizations and individuals,” while 11.7 percent reported greatest threats as “non-Jihadi groups & organizations” and another 10 percent worried most about “multiple groups/unclassified.” For the paranoid, ordinary citizens being monitored in that gray area of hard-to-categorize and “unclassified” threats is what’s most worrisome.

“If people are comfortable with passive-invasive technology, so be it,” says Steve Erickson, an activist quoted in CW’s May 21, 2009, cover story “They’re Watching You.” “But some of us old-school boys remember the government dossiers on us during the Vietnam protests.” (Eric S. Peterson)


2. Oceans in peril
Big banks aren’t the only entities that our country has deemed “too big to fail.” But our oceans won’t be getting a bailout anytime soon, and their collapse could compromise life itself. In a haunting article highlighted by Project Censored, Mother Jones reporter Julia Whitty paints a tenuous seascape—overfished, acidified, warming—and describes how the destruction of the oceans’ complex ecosystems jeopardizes the entire planet, not just the 70 percent that is water. Whitty compares ocean acidification, caused by global warming, to acidification that was one of the causes of the “Great Dying,” a mass extinction 252 million years ago. Life on Earth took 30 million years to recover. In a more hopeful story, a study of 14 protected and 18 nonprotected ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea showed dangerous levels of biomass depletion. But it also showed that the marine reserves were well-enforced, with five to 10 times larger fish populations than in unprotected areas. This encourages establishment and maintenance of more reserves.

Utah Connection: What’s missing in media coverage of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the problems it faces, environmental activists say, is the bigger picture.

“Its wetlands are the largest ecosystem in the West,” says Utah Rivers Council’s Zach Frankel. But that simple statement rarely if ever appears in print, he continues, “largely because people are unaware of it.”

In Utah, a state sadly renowned for its anti-environmentalism, even a tussle over land rights can make the local press, but the big picture is missing from coverage, activists argue. They point to the significance and uniqueness of the lake in the United States—if not the western hemisphere, when it comes to bird migratory routes—and the threats that are aligned against it

The issues facing the Great Salt Lake range from concerns over very high levels of mercury discovered in 2005—the sources of which have yet to be identified—to the shrinking levels of water to even the lack of a “a clear collective vision of protecting the lake,” Frankel says.

Mercury contamination, in particular, argues Great Salt Lake Keeper Jeff Salt, is “a huge story that doesn’t have enough coverage.” The lack of legislative interest leads to lack of funding for the Division of Water Quality to investigate the contamination, which means the issue is revived in the media only when mercury is detected in other parts of Utah’s river system.

“By the time I die, we’ll probably know something,” Salt says. (Stephen Dark)

3. U.S. deaths from Fukushima
A plume of toxic fallout floated to the United States after Japan’s tragic Fukushima nuclear disaster March 11, 2011. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found radiation levels in air, water, and milk that were hundreds of times higher than normal across the United States. One month later, the EPA announced that radiation levels had declined, and they would cease testing. But after making a Freedom of Information Act request, journalist Lucas Hixson published e-mails revealing that on March 24, 2011, the task of collecting nuclear data had been handed off from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear-industry lobbying group. And in one study that received little attention, scientists Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman found that in the period following the Fukushima meltdowns, 14,000 more deaths than average were reported in the United States, mostly among infants. Later, Mangano and Sherman updated the number to 22,000.

4. FBI agents responsible for terrorist plots
We know that FBI agents go into communities such as mosques, both undercover and in the guise of building relationships, quietly gathering information about individuals. This is part of an approach to finding what the FBI now considers the most likely kind of terrorists: “lone wolves.” Its strategy: “Seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means and the opportunity,” writes Mother Jones journalist Trevor Aaronson. The publication, along with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, examined the results of this strategy, 508 cases classified as terrorism-related that have come before the U.S. Department of Justice since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. In 243 of these cases, an informant was involved; in 49 cases, an informant actually led the plot. And “with three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic-terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.”

5. Federal Reserve loaned trillions to major banks
The Federal Reserve, the United States’ quasi-private central bank, was audited for the first time in its history this year. The audit report states, “From late 2007 through mid-2010, Reserve Banks provided more than a trillion dollars ... in emergency loans to the financial sector to address strains in credit markets and to avert failures of individual institutions believed to be a threat to the stability of the financial system.” These loans had significantly less interest and fewer conditions than the high-profile TARP bailouts, and were rife with conflicts of interest. Some examples: The CEO of JP Morgan Chase served as a board member of the New York Federal Reserve at the same time that his bank received more than $390 billion in financial assistance from the Federal Reserve. William Dudley, who is now the New York Federal Reserve president, was granted a conflict-of-interest waiver to let him keep investments in AIG and General Electric at the same time the companies were given bailout funds. The audit was restricted to Federal Reserve lending during the financial crisis. On July 25, 2012, a bill to audit the Federal Reserve again, with fewer limitations, authored by Rep. Ron Paul, passed the House of Representatives. House Resolution 459 was expected to quickly die in the Senate, but the movement behind Paul and his calls to hold the Federal Reserve accountable, or abolish it altogether, may be growing.

6. Small network of corporations runs the global economy
Reporting on a study by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich didn’t make the rounds nearly enough, according to Project Censored 2013. They found that, of 43,060 transnational companies, 147 control 40 percent of total global wealth. The researchers also built a model visually demonstrating how the connections between companies—what it calls the “super entity”—work. Some have criticized the study, saying control of assets doesn’t equate to ownership. True, but as we clearly saw in the 2008 financial collapse, corporations are capable of mismanaging assets in their control to the detriment of their actual owners. And a largely unregulated super entity like this is vulnerable to global collapse.

7. The International Year of The Cooperative
Can something really be censored when it’s straight from the United Nations? According to Project Censored evaluators, the corporate media underreported the U.N. declaring 2012 to be the International Year of the Cooperative, based on the co-op business model’s stunning growth. The U.N. found that, in 2012, 1 billion people worldwide are co-op member-owners, or one in five adults over the age of 15. The largest is Spain’s Mondragon Corporation, with more than 80,000 member-owners. The U.N. predicts that by 2025, worker-owned co-ops will be the world’s fastest growing business model. Worker-owned cooperatives provide for equitable distribution of wealth, genuine connection to the workplace, and, just maybe, a brighter future for our planet.

Utah Connection: But as with music or fashion, Utah picks up on trends like these a little slower than the rest of the world. The Wasatch Cooperative Market has been in the works since 2009, but has yet to attract enough member-owners to open a true co-op, a market selling “local, high-quality products at fair trade prices.” The group was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from national nonprofit Food Co-op Initiative, which it must match and use within 10 months. Half of those funds are earmarked for a feasibility study on specific potential store sites, so the co-op is campaigning to reach at least 400 member-owners to bring the co-op to the point of being financially able to look at store sites. (Rachel Piper)

8. NATO war crimes in Libya
In January 2012, the BBC “revealed” how British Special Forces agents joined and “blended in” with rebels in Libya to help topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a story that alternative media sources had reported a year earlier. NATO admits to bombing a pipe factory in the Libyan city of Brega that was key to the water supply system that brought tap water to 70 percent of Libyans, saying that Gaddafi was storing weapons in the factory. In Project Censored 2013, writer James F. Tracy makes the point that historical relations between the United States and Libya were left out of mainstream news coverage of the NATO campaign; “background knowledge and historical context confirming al-Qaida and Western involvement in the destabilization of the Gaddafi regime are also essential for making sense of corporate news narratives depicting the Libyan operation as a popular ‘uprising.’ ”

9. Prison slavery in the United States
On its website, the UNICOR manufacturing corporation proudly proclaims that its products are “made in America.” That’s true, but they’re made in places in the United States where labor laws don’t apply, with workers often paid just 23 cents an hour to be exposed to toxic materials, with no legal recourse. These places are U.S. prisons. Slavery conditions in prisons aren’t exactly news. It’s literally written into the Constitution: The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, outlaws “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” But the article highlighted by Project Censored this year reveals the current state of prison slavery industries and their ties to war. The majority of products manufactured by inmates are contracted to the Department of Defense. Inmates make complex parts for missile systems, battleship anti-aircraft guns and landmine sweepers, as well as night-vision goggles, body army and camouflage uniforms. Of course, this is happening in the context of record-high imprisonment in the United States, where grossly disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Latinos are imprisoned, and can’t vote even after they’re freed. As psychologist Elliot D. Cohen puts it in this year’s book: “This system of slavery, like that which existed in this country before the Civil War, is also racist, as more than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color.”

10. HR347 criminalizes protest
House Resolution 347, sometimes called the “criminalizing protest” or “anti-Occupy” bill, made some headlines. But concerned lawyers and other citizens worry that it could have disastrous effects for the First Amendment right to protest. Officially called the Federal Restricted Grounds Improvement Act, the law makes it a felony to “knowingly” enter a zone restricted under the law, or engage in “disorderly or disruptive” conduct in or near the zones. The restricted zones include anywhere the Secret Service may be—places such as the White House, areas hosting events deemed “National Special Security Events,” or anywhere visited by the president, vice president and their immediate families; former presidents, vice presidents and certain family members; certain foreign dignitaries; major presidential and vice presidential candidates (within 120 days of an election); and other individuals as designated by a presidential executive order. These people could be anywhere, and NSSEs have notoriously included the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards. So far, it seems the only time HR347 has kicked in is with George Clooney’s high-profile arrest outside the Sudanese embassy. Clooney ultimately was not detained without trial—information that would be almost impossible to censor—but what about the rest of us who exist outside of the mainstream media’s spotlight?

Utah Connection: While it’s not exactly a form of protest, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the “ag-gag” bill, which criminalizes unauthorized photography or videotaping of agricultural operations. Animal-rights activists are fighting the bill, which they say protects animal abusers at the expense of animals and whistleblowers. It wasn’t the first time animal protesters found themselves the reason behind a new rule: In 2008, a Salt Lake City ordinance was passed making “targeted picketing” of residences unlawful, after animal-rights groups protested outside of animal researchers’ homes. A lawsuit was filed to overturn the ordinance for restricting free speech—it would also prevent protests in front of the Governor’s Mansion—but the ordinance remains on the books. (Rachel Piper) 

Yael Chanoff is a San Francisco writer who covers politics and culture.