Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored for 13 years, says he's finished with reform. It's impossible, he says, to try to get major news media outlets to deliver relevant news stories that serve to strengthen democracy.
"I really think we're beyond reforming corporate media," says Phillips, a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored. "We're not going to break up these huge conglomerates. We're just going to make them irrelevant."
Every year since 1976, Project Censored has spotlighted the 25 most significant news stories that were largely ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream press. Now the group is expanding its mission — to promote alternative news sources. But it continues to report the biggest national and international stories that the major media ignored.
The term "censored" doesn't mean some government agent stood over newsrooms with a rubber stamp and forbade the publication of the news, or even that the information was completely out of the public eye. The stories Project Censored highlights may have run in one or two news outlets, but didn't get the type of attention they deserved.
The project staff begins by sifting through hundreds of stories nominated by individuals at Sonoma State University, where the project is based, as well as 30 affiliated universities all over the country.
Articles are verified, fact-checked and selected by a team of students, faculty and evaluators from the wider community, then sent to a panel of national judges to be ranked. The end product is a book, co-edited this year by Phillips and associate director Mickey Huff, that summarizes the top stories, provides in-depth media analysis, and includes resources for readers who are hungry for more substantive reporting.
Phillips is stepping down this year as director of Project Censored and turning his attention to a new endeavor called Media Freedom International. The organization will tap academic affiliates from around the world to verify the content put out by independent news outlets as a way to facilitate trust in these lesser-known sources.
"The biggest question I got asked for 13 years was, who do you trust?" he explains. "So we've really made an effort in the last three years to try to address that question, in a very open way, in a very honest way, and say, these are [the sources] who we can trust."
Benjamin Frymer, a sociology professor at Sonoma State who is stepping into the role of Project Censored director, says he believes the time is ripe for this kind of push.
"The actual amount of time people spend reading online is increasing," Frymer points out. "It's not as if people are just cynically rejecting media — they're reaching out for alternative sources."
The Project Censored stories of 2008 and 2009 highlight the same theme that Phillips and Huff say has triggered the downslide of mainstream media: the overwhelming influence of powerful, profit-driven interests. Here are the Top 5 stories from this year's list; an expanded compilation can be found at sfbg.com/entry.php?entry_id=9212&catid=4, Pikes Peak Library District has copies of the 2010 book, and you can follow the work of Project Censored at projectcensored.org.
1. Congress sells out to Wall Street
The total tab for the Wall Street bailout, including money spent and promised by the U.S. government, works out to an estimated $42,000 for every man, woman and child, according to American Casino, a documentary about sub-prime lending and the financial meltdown. The predatory lending free-for-all, the emergency pumping of taxpayer dollars to prop up mega-banks, and the lavish bonuses handed out to Wall Street executives in the aftermath are all issues that have dominated news headlines.
But another twist in the story received scant attention from the mainstream news media: the unsettling combination of lax oversight from national politicians and high-dollar campaign contributions from financial players.
"The worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état," Matt Taibbi wrote in "The Big Takeover," a March 2009 Rolling Stone article. "They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders who used money to control elections, buy influence, and systematically weaken financial regulations."
In the 10-year period beginning in 1998, the financial sector spent $1.7 billion on federal campaign contributions, and another $3.4 billion on lobbyists. Since 2001, eight of the most troubled firms have donated $64.2 million to congressional candidates, presidential candidates, and the Republican and Democratic parties.
Wall Street's political-contribution spree coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations, which in turn created a recipe for our financial disaster.
Sources: "Lax Oversight? Maybe $64 Million to DC Pols Explains It," Greg Gordon, truthout.org and McClatchy Newspapers, Oct. 2, 2008; "Congressmen Hear from TARP Recipients Who Funded Their Campaigns," Lindsay Renick Mayer, Capitol Eye Blog, Feb. 10, 2009; "The Big Takeover," Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, March 2009.
2. De facto segregation deepening in public education
Latinos and African-Americans attend more segregated public schools today than they have for four decades, professor Gary Orfield notes in "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," a study conducted by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. Orfield's report used federal data to highlight deepening segregation in public education by race and poverty.
About 44 percent of students in the nation's public school system are people of color, and this group will soon make up the majority of the population in the U.S. Yet this racial diversity often isn't reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African-American and Latino youths attend schools Orfield characterizes as "intensely segregated," comprised of 90 percent to 100 percent people of color.
For Latinos, the trend reflects growing residential segregation. For African-Americans, the study attributes a significant part of the reversal to ending desegregation plans in public schools nationwide. Schools segregated by race and poverty tend to have much higher dropout rates, more teacher turnover and greater exposure to crime and gangs, placing students at a major disadvantage in society. The most severe segregation is in Western states.
Fifty-five years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Orfield writes, "Segregation is fast spreading into large sectors of suburbia, and there is little or no assistance for communities wishing to resist the pressures of resegregation and ghetto creation in order to build successfully integrated schools and neighborhoods."
Source: "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," Gary Orfield, The Civil Rights Project, UCLA, January 2009.
3. Somali pirates: the untold story
Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa were like gold for mainstream news outlets this past year. Stories describing surprise attacks on shipping vessels, daring rescues and cadres of ragtag bandits extracting multimillion-dollar ransoms were all over the airwaves and front pages.
But even as the pirates' exploits around the Gulf of Aden captured the world's attention, little ink was devoted to factors that made the Somalis desperate enough to resort to piracy in the first place: the dumping of nuclear waste and rampant over-fishing of their coastal waters.
In the early 1990s, when Somalia's government collapsed, foreign interests began swooping into unguarded coastal waters to trawl for food — and venturing into unprotected Somali territories to cheaply dispose of nuclear waste. Those activities continued with impunity for years.
The ramifications of toxic dumping hit full force with the 2005 tsunami, when leaking barrels were washed ashore, sickening hundreds and causing birth defects in newborns. Meanwhile, the uncontrolled fishing harvests damaged the economic livelihoods of Somali fishermen and eroded the country's supply of a primary food source. That's when the piracy began.
"Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?" asked journalist Johann Hari in a Huffington Post article. "We didn't act on those crimes — but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about 'evil.'"
Sources: "Toxic waste behind Somali piracy," Najad Abdullahi, Al Jazeera English, Oct. 11, 2008; "You are being lied to about pirates," Johann Hari, The Huffington Post, Jan. 4, 2009; "The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other," Mohamed Abshir Waldo, WardheerNews, Jan. 8, 2009.
4. North Carolina's nuclear nightmare
The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina's Wake County isn't just a power-generating station. The Progress Energy plant, located in a backwoods area, bears the distinction of housing the largest radioactive-waste storage pools in the country. Spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants are transported there by rail, then stored beneath circulating cold water to prevent the radioactive waste from heating.
The hidden danger, according to investigative reporter Jeffery St. Clair, is the looming threat of a pool fire. Citing a study by Brookhaven National Laboratory, St. Clair highlighted in CounterPunch the catastrophe that could ensue if a pool were to ignite. A possible 140,000 people could wind up with cancer. Contamination could stretch for thousands of square miles. And damages could reach an estimated $500 billion.
"Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire," Robert Alvarez, a former Department of Energy adviser and Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, noted in a study about safety issues surrounding nuclear waste pools. "The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl."
Shearon Harris' track record is pocked with problems requiring temporary shutdowns of the plant and malfunctions of the facility's emergency-warning system.
When a study was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission highlighting the safety risks and recommending technological fixes to address the problem, St. Clair noted, a pro-nuclear commissioner successfully persuaded the agency to dismiss the concerns.
Source: "Pools of Fire," Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch, Aug. 9, 2008.
5. U.S. fails to protect customers against toxics
Two years ago, the European Union enacted a bold new environmental policy requiring close scrutiny and restriction of toxic chemicals used in everyday products. Invisible perils such as lead in lipstick, endocrine disruptors in baby toys and mercury in electronics can threaten human health. The European legislation aimed to gradually phase out these toxic materials and replace them with safer alternatives.
What has gone unreported by mainstream American media is how this game-changing legislation might affect the U.S., where chemical corporations use lobbying muscle to ensure comparatively lax oversight of toxic substances. As global markets shift to favor safer consumer products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is lagging in its own scrutiny of insidious chemicals.
As investigative journalist Mark Schapiro pointed out in Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, the EPA's tendency to behave as if it were beholden to big business could backfire in this case, placing U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage because products manufactured here will be regarded with increasing distrust.
Economics aside, the implications of loose restrictions on toxic products are chilling: Just one-third of the 267 chemicals on the E.U.'s watch list have ever been tested by the EPA, and only two are regulated under federal law. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, and only a fraction have undergone risk assessments. When it comes to meeting the E.U. standard, stakes are high — with consequences including economic impacts as well as impaired public health.
Sources: "European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic," David Biello, Scientific American, Sept. 30, 2008; "How Europe's New Chemical Rules Affect U.S.," Environmental Defense Fund, Sept. 30, 2008; "U.S. Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products," Mark Schapiro, Democracy Now!, Feb. 24, 2009.