Last month, two news stories broke the same day, one meaty, one junky. In Detroit, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled that the Bush administration's warrantless National Security Agency surveillance program was unconstitutional and must end. Meanwhile, somewhere in Thailand, a weirdo named John Mark Karr claimed he was with 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey when she died in 1996.
Predictably, the mainstream media devoted acres of newsprint and hours of airtime to the self-proclaimed beauty-queen killer, including stories on what he ate on the plane ride home, his desire for a sex change, his child-porn fixation, and when DNA tests proved Karr wasn't the killer why he confessed to a crime he didn't commit.
During that same time period, hardly a word was written or said in the same outlets about Judge Diggs Taylor's ruling and the questions it raises about why Bush and his power-grabbing administration repeatedly lie to the American public.
The mainstream media's fascination with unimportant stories isn't anything new. Professor Carl Jensen, a disenchanted journalist who entered advertising only to walk away in greater disgust and become a sociologist, says the media's preoccupation with "junk food news" inspired him to found a media research project at Sonoma State University about 30 years ago to publicize the 25 biggest stories the media had censored, ignored or underreported in the previous year.
That was the beginning of Project Censored, the longest-running media censorship project in the nation. And it drew plenty of criticism from editors and publishers.
"I was taking a lot of flak from editors around Project Censored's annual list of the top stories the mainstream media missed," recalls the now-retired Jensen. "They said the reason they hadn't covered the stories was that they only had a limited amount of time and space, and that I was an academic, sitting there criticizing."
But Jensen had an answer: There was plenty of time and space. It was just being filled with fluff.
Since 1993, Project Censored has been pinpointing not only the stories that didn't get adequate coverage, but also the "junk food news" the stories that were way, way overblown and filled precious pages and airtime that could have been used for real news.
While Jensen would love to be able to claim that Project Censored solved the media's problems with censorship and junk food news, that didn't happen.
"If anything, it's gotten worse," Jensen says, pointing to increased media monopolization.
Project Censored's current director, Peter Phillips, says entertainment news may be addictive, but that's no excuse for the media to push it.
"Massacres, celebrity gossip we're automatically attracted," Phillips says. "It's like selling drugs. But we don't tolerate the drug dealer on the corner. For the democratic process to happen, we have to have information presented and made available. To just give people entertainment news is an abdication of the First Amendment."
Art Brodsky, a telecommunications expert at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., says some of the problems with censorship are products of journalistic laziness. Brodsky, who has written extensively on network neutrality, which is the No. 1 issue on this year's list, says the topic hasn't received enough coverage partly because the debate has largely remained couched in telecommunications jargon.
"Network neutrality is a crappy term, other than its alliterative value," Brodsky says. "It's one of those Washington issues that gets intense coverage in the field where it happens, but can be successfully muddied, and it's technical. So a lot of editors and reporters throw their hands up in the air, a lot like senators."
Following are Project Censored's Top 10 stories for the past year.
1. The Feds and the media muddy the debate over Internet freedom
In its relatively brief life, the Internet has been touted as the greatest vehicle for democracy ever invented by humankind. It's given disillusioned Americans hope that there is a way to get out the truth, even if they don't own airwaves, newspapers or satellite stations. It's forced the mainstream media to talk about issues it previously ignored, such as the Downing Street memo and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.
So when the Supreme Court ruled that giant cable companies aren't required to share their wires with other Internet service providers, it shouldn't have been a surprise that the major media did little in terms of exploring whether this ruling would destroy Internet freedom. As Elliot Cohen reported on BuzzFlash.com, the issue was misleadingly framed as an argument over regulation, when it's really a case of the Federal Communications Commission and Congress talking about giving cable and telephone companies the freedom to control supply and content a decision that could have them playing favorites and forcing consumers to pay to get information and services that currently are free.
The good news? With the Senate still set to debate the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006, as the network neutrality bill is called, it's not too late to write congressional representatives, alert friends and acquaintances, and join grassroots groups to protect Internet freedom and diversity.
Source: "Web of Deceit: How Internet Freedom Got the Federal Ax, and Why Corporate News Censored the Story," Elliot D. Cohen, BuzzFlash.com, July 18, 2005
2. Halliburton charged with selling nuclear technology to Iran
Halliburton, the notorious U.S. energy company, sold key nuclear reactor components to a private Iranian oil company called Oriental Oil Kish as recently as 2005, using offshore subsidiaries to circumvent U.S. sanctions, journalist Jason Leopold reported on GlobalResearch.ca, the Web site of a Canadian research group. He cited sources intimate with the business dealings of Halliburton and Kish.
The story is particularly juicy because Vice President Dick Cheney, who now claims to want to stop Iran from getting nukes, was president of Halliburton in the mid-1990s, at which time he may have advocated business dealings with Iran, in violation of U.S. law.
Leopold contended that the Halliburton-Kish deals have helped Iran become capable of enriching weapons-grade uranium.
He filed his report in 2005, when Iran's new hard-line government was rounding up relatives and business associates of former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, amid accusations of widespread corruption in Iran's oil industry.
Leopold also reported that in 2004 and 2005, Halliburton had a close business relationship with Cyrus Nasseri, an Oriental Oil Kish official whom the Iranian government subsequently accused of receiving up to $1 million from Halliburton for giving them Iran's nuclear secrets.
Source: "Halliburton Secretly Doing Business with Key Member of Iran's Nuclear Team," Jason Leopold, GlobalResearch.ca, Aug. 5, 2005
3. World oceans in extreme danger
Rising sea levels. A melting Arctic. Governments denying global warming is happening as they rush to map the ocean floor in the hopes of claiming rights to oil, gas, gold, diamonds, copper, zinc and the planet's last pristine fishing grounds. This is the sobering picture author Julia Whitty painted in a beautifully crafted piece that makes the point that "there is only one ocean on Earth ... a Mobiuslike ribbon winding through all the ocean basins, rising and falling, and stirring the waters of the world."
If this world ocean, which encompasses 70.78 percent of our planet, is in peril, then we're all screwed. As Whitty reported in Mother Jones magazine, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2005 found "the first clear evidence that the world ocean is growing warmer," including the discovery "that the top half-mile of the ocean has warmed dramatically in the past 40 years as the result of human-induced greenhouse gases." But while a Scripps researcher recommended that "the Bush administration convene a Manhattan-style project" to see if mitigations are still possible, the U.S. government has yet to lift a finger toward addressing the problem.
Source: "The Fate of the Ocean," Julia Whitty, Mother Jones, March-April 2006
4. Hunger and homelessness increasing in the United States
As hunger and homelessness rise in the United States, the Bush administration plans to get rid of a data source that supports this embarrassing reality a survey that's been used to improve state and federal programs for retired and low-income Americans.
President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2007 includes an effort to eliminate the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation. Founded in 1984, the survey tracks American families' use of Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, child care and temporary assistance.
With legislators and researchers trying to prevent the cut, author Abid Aslam argued that this isn't just an isolated budget matter: It's the Bush administration's fourth recent attempt to remove funding for politically embarrassing research. In 2003, it tried to whack the Bureau of Labor Statistics report on mass layoffs, and in 2004 and 2005 attempted to drop the bureau's questions on the hiring and firing of women from its employment data.
Sources: "New Report Shows Increase in Urban Hunger, Homelessness," Brendan Coyne, New Standard, December 2005; "US Plan to Eliminate Survey of Needy Families Draws Fire," Abid Aslam, OneWorld.net, March 2, 2006
5. High-tech genocide in Congo
If you believe the corporate media, then the ongoing genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is all just a case of ugly tribal warfare. But that, according to stories published in Z Magazine and the Earth First! Journal and heard on "The Taylor Report," is a superficial, simplistic explanation that fails to connect this terrible suffering with the immense fortunes that stand to be made from manufacturing cell phones, laptop computers and other high-tech equipment.
What's really at stake in this bloodbath is control of natural resources such as diamonds, tin and copper, as well as cobalt which is essential for the nuclear, chemical, aerospace, and defense industries and coltan and niobium, which is most important for the high-tech industries. These disturbing reports concluded that a meaningful analysis of Congolese geopolitics requires a knowledge and understanding of the organized crime perpetuated by multinationals.
Sources: "The World's Most Neglected Emergency: Phil Taylor talks to Keith Harmon Snow," "The Taylor Report," March 28, 2005; "High-Tech Genocide," Sprocket, Earth First! Journal, August 2005; "Behind the Numbers: Untold Suffering in the Congo," Keith Harmon Snow and David Barouski, Z Magazine, March 1, 2006
6. Federal whistleblower protection in jeopardy
Though record numbers of federal workers have been sounding the alarm on waste, fraud and other financial abuse since George W. Bush became president, the agency charged with defending government whistleblowers has reportedly been throwing out hundreds of cases and advancing almost none. Statistics released at the end of 2005 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility led to claims that special counsel Scott Bloch, who was appointed by Bush in 2004, is overseeing the systematic elimination of whistleblower rights.
What makes this development particularly troubling is that, thanks to a decline in congressional oversight and hard-hitting investigative journalism, the role of the Office of Special Counsel in advancing governmental transparency is more vital than ever. As a result, employees within the OSC have filed a whistleblower complaint against Bloch himself.
Ironically, Bloch has now decided not to disclose the number of whistleblower complaints in which an employee obtained a favorable outcome, such as reinstatement or reversal of a disciplinary action, making it hard to tell who, if anyone, is being helped by the agency.
Sources: "Whistleblowers Get Help from Bush Administration," Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) Web site, Dec. 5, 2005; "Long-Delayed Investigation of Special Counsel Finally Begins," PEER Web site, Oct. 18, 2005; "Back Door Rollback of Federal Whistleblower Protections," PEER Web site, Sept. 22, 2005
7. U.S. operatives torture detainees to death in Afghanistan and Iraq
Hooded. Gagged. Strangled. Asphyxiated. Beaten with blunt objects. Subjected to sleep deprivation and hot and cold environmental conditions. These are just some of the forms of torture that the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan inflicted on detainees, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis of autopsy and death reports that were made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
While reports of torture aren't new, the documents are evidence of using torture as a policy, raising a whole bunch of uncomfortable questions, such as: Who authorized such techniques? And why have the resulting deaths been covered up?
Of the 44 death reports released under ACLU's FOIA request, 21 were homicides and eight appear to have been the result of these abusive torture techniques.
Sources: "US Operatives Killed Detainees During Interrogations in Afghanistan and Iraq," American Civil Liberties Union Web site, Oct. 24, 2005; "Tracing the Trail of Torture: Embedding Torture as Policy from Guantnamo to Iraq," Dahr Jamail, TomDispatch.com, March 5, 2006
8. Pentagon exempt from Freedom of Information Act
In 2005, the Department of Defense pushed for and was granted exemption from Freedom of Information Act requests, a crucial law that allows journalists and watchdogs access to federal documents. The stated reason for this dramatic and dangerous move? FOIA is a hindrance to protecting national security. The ruling could hamper the efforts of groups like the ACLU, which relied on FOIA to uncover more than 30,000 documents on the U.S. military's torture of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantnamo Bay, including the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
With ACLU lawyers predicting that this ruling will likely result in more abuse, and with Americans becoming increasingly concerned about the federal government's illegal intelligence-gathering activities, Congress has imposed a two-year sunset on this FOIA exemption, ending December 2007 which is cold comfort right now to anyone rotting in a U.S. overseas military facility or a secret CIA prison.
Sources: "Pentagon Seeks Greater Immunity from Freedom of Information," Michelle Chen, New Standard, May 6, 2005; "FOIA Exemption Granted to Federal Agency," Newspaper Association of America Web site, posted December 2005
9. World Bank funds Israel-Palestine wall
In 2004, the International Court of Justice, the U.N.'s foremost judicial organ, ruled that the wall Israel is building deep into Palestinian territory should be torn down. Instead, construction of this cement barrier, which annexes Israeli settlements and breaks the continuity of Palestinian territory, has accelerated. In the interim, the World Bank has come up with a framework for a Middle Eastern Free Trade Area, which would be financed by the World Bank and built on Palestinian land around the wall to encourage export-oriented economic development. But with Israel ineligible for World Bank loans, the plan seems to translate into Palestinians paying for the modernization of checkpoints around a wall that they've always opposed, a wall that will help lock in and exploit their labor.
Sources: "Cementing Israeli Apartheid: The Role of World Bank," Jamal Juma', Left Turn, Issue 18; "US Free Trade Agreements Split Arab Opinion," Linda Heard, Al-Jazeera, March 9, 2005
10. Expanded air war in Iraq kills more civilians
At the end of 2005, U.S. Central Command Air Force statistics showed an increase in American air missions, a trend that was accompanied by a rise in civilian deaths thanks to increased bombing of Iraqi cities. But with U.S. bombings and the killing of innocent civilians acting as a highly effective recruiting tool among Iraqi militants, the U.S. war on Iraq seemed to increasingly be following the path of the war in Vietnam. As Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker at the end of 2005, a key component in the federal government's troop-reduction plan was the replacement of departing U.S. troops with U.S. air power.
Meanwhile, Hersh's sources within the military have expressed fears that if Iraqis are allowed to call in the targets of these aerial strikes, they could abuse that power to settle old scores. With Iraq devolving into a full-blown Sunni-Shiite civil war and the United States increasingly drawn into the sectarian violence, reporters like Hersh and Dahr Jamail fear that the only exit strategy for the United States is to increase the air power even more as the troops pull out, causing the cycle of sectarian violence to escalate further.
Sources: "Up in the Air," Seymour M. Hersh, New Yorker, December 2005; "An Increasingly Aerial Occupation," Dahr Jamail, TomDispatch.com, December 2005
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. To see the next 15 of Project Censored's Top 25 stories, type "Project Censored" into the search function at sfbg.com.