WHAT’S CENSORED? Project Censored Fights for Media Freedom, by Peter Phillips

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In medicine, it’s called Managed Care. In media, it’s Managed News. Corporate media today is in the entertainment business. Market shares, advertising dollars, and political self interest drive the news. Stories about the decisions and manipulations of the powerful and news about challenges to power by the powerless are continually ignored or under-reported in mainstream media.

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Every year, Project Censored students and staff screen several thousand stories from hundreds of alternative press publications. We select several hundred news stories for evaluation by our 90 faculty and community experts. These community experts and Ph.D. evaluators use a standardized evaluation form to rate the stories for credibility and national importance. In the fall, national mainstream coverage of the 200 top-ranked stories is researched by students in the Sonoma State Media Censorship class. This research links the most important news stories to those receiving the least coverage. A final collective vote of all students, staff, and faculty (150 people) to select the top 25 stories is held in early November. The top 25 stories are then ranked by our national judges, who in 1999 included Michael Parenti, Juan Gonzalez, Julianne Malveaux, Howard Zinn, and 18 other national journalists, scholars, and writers.

While selection of these stories each year is a subjective judgmental process, we have grown to trust this collective method as the best possible means of fairly sorting and selecting important news stories censored by the mainstream press.

Year by year, certain groups or individuals complain about our not covering particular stories or having too many or too few stories in various categories. We do not have a quota system of selecting stories for certain categories, but rather use a holistic collective process of monitoring, researching, and deciding that involves over 175 people. This process, we believe, gives us an annual summary list of the most important under-covered news stories in the United States. Our list is published yearly as a book, Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News, and released to alternative news sources nationwide. Each year Project Censored’s list is published in alternative news weeklies, magazines, and journals around the world. Millions of people see the stories, often for the first time.

Last year, students and staff from the Project spoke or appeared on 125 radio and TV interview shows covered by some 1,000 stations in the United States. In 1999, the list was translated in Spanish, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Greek, and Danish and reprinted in newspapers internationally. In addition, a publisher in Beijing has just acquired reprint rights for the 1999 book.

Now, after compiling our 24th annual list of the most censored news stories, we find that the number of important under-covered news stories has again increased. The continuation of media-merger mania (Viacom and CBS, America Online and Time Warner) is making the industry singular in action, thought, and purpose. It is singular in action in that its methods of story editing and selection focus on entertainment value instead of newsworthiness. News headlines in 1999 featured Tinky Winky and Jerry Falwell’s theory on this purple character from the children’s TV show Teletubbies, as well as the latest on Pokemon. The media demonstrates singularity of thought through its ideological uniformity, failure to present diversified points of view, and blindly pro-American, free-market-capitalism-can-do-no-wrong approach. The media shows singularity of purpose in its simple-minded profit-maximizing greed. The media industry is no longer a competitive industry, but rather an oligopolic collective of like-minded rich, white, upper-class elites with shared agendas seeking to expanded their power and influence globally.

A major part of the mission of Project Censored’s annual list is exposing and challenging the corporate media’s biases, phony objectivity, and failure to cover important news stories that affect the American public.

Another, perhaps even more important focus of Project Censored is supporting alternative media organizations that give the public “real news”–news that exposes the powerful and gives voice to the powerless.

Because of unmitigated corporate media consolidation, we must engage in grassroots activism in order to build alternative democracy-saving news systems. We must place real news, news that builds the democratic process, on the breakfast tables, radios, and TVs of working people across the country. Labor, race, and gender issues and social activist stories must be core components incorporated into alternative “real news” sources. In that respect we are a long way from effectively bringing real news into the alternative media in the United States. Some of our most widely read liberal alternative magazines give occasional coverage to labor, race, gender, and social-action news stories, but rarely do they continue this coverage and therefore make it a dominant theme with consistent follow-up.

Project Censored believes that the top alternative newspapers, magazines, and Internet news services tend not to see their audience as the working people of the United States. Rather, the alternative press tends to focus on the 250,000 to 500,000 left-wing intellectuals in the United States, who may or may not be social activists in any real fashion. The 200 million of us who own zero voting stock in the Corporate 1000 and the bottom 100 million of us who after selling all our assets and paying our bills would have a zero net worth are not the focus of the alternative press in any systematic fashion. This focus has to change if we are going to bring about media democracy and campaign finance reform and build social movements that address discrimination, inequality, globalization, and corporate power. In order to be effective, a progressive alternative media system needs to reach several million working people on a daily basis. Several million people–or three to five percent of the population–could be the foundation of a progressive social movement in the United States. Seattle gave us an inkling of our power, but without a network of information and real news this movement will not materialize.

In this respect, Project Censored remains an activist organization. We have included an alternative media guide–for working-class access to real news stories–in our annual publications since the early ’90s. Also, we just published Project Censored’s Progressive Guide to Alternative Media and Activism (1999, Seven Stories Press), listing contact information and websites for 800 alternative media sources and activist groups in the United States. We are hard at work updating this guide for a second edition in fall 2000.

Project Censored regularly organizes or cosponsors seminars, teach-ins, and protests in the North Bay on labor, race, gender, and environmental issues. We were one of the co-founding organizations for the North Bay Labor and Social Action Summer School–now in its third year. Just this past fall, Project Censored organized a protest in front of Zeneca in Richmond to expose the company’s hypocritical sponsorship of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Project Censored students and faculty members were on the front lines of the battle to save KPFA last summer, and continue to take an activist role in that issue. Our students and staff have marched with Earth First! in the California redwoods, across the Golden Gate Bridge with Jesse Jackson, in the Mission in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, in the streets of Seattle against the World Trade Organization, and against the war in Kosovo.

David Bacon has an important point in his article about alternative media and Project Censored. The alternative press does not cover race, labor, and social-action issues anywhere near often enough or consistently enough. However, Project Censored does find these stories, and recognizes them within the scope of our capabilities.

The following is a list of labor, race, and social-action stories highlighted by Project Censored from 1994 to 1999:

1999: American Sweatshops Sew U.S. Military Uniforms

Louisiana Promotes Toxic Racism

Media Distorts Debate on Affirmative Action

Lakota Occupy Island

Sociologist Depicts the New Global Slavery

KPFA’s Free Speech Movement

The Media Battle of Seattle/WTO

1998: Multilateral Agreement on Investment

SWAT Teams Target Minorities Communities

ABC Broadcasts Slanted Report on Mumia Abu-Jamal

How GM Screws Its Black Dealers

Deaths of Immigrants Along the Border With Mexico

The Micro-radio Movement

1997: Death Behind Bars

U.S. Paper Companies Conspire to Squash Zapatistas

Black Elected Officials Targeted By Law

Food Not Bombs Activists Try to Feed Homeless People

1996: The PR Industry’s Secret War Against Activists

Unions Do’s: Labor Unions Sue Under the RICO Act

Racism and Abuse Inside INS Detention Centers

1995: Broken Promises of NAFTA

Child labor in the U.S. Is Worse Today Than in the 1930s

1994: Deadly Secrets of the Occupational Safety Agency

While Project Censored has historically only recognized important under-covered news stories but once a year, we have just initiated a new Censored Alert listserv that covers one or two censored stories weekly. Interested readers can sign up through our website at www.sonoma.edu/ProjectCensored.

David Bacon’s call for participatory journalism is right on target. We absolutely need investigative journalists engaged in writing real news stories and we need to find ways to reach the masses of working people in the United States. Project Censored remains dedicated and willing to work and use our resources to this end.

Only a strong alternative media system challenging mainstream media at every level will protect working people’s interests and their rights to know. A strong alternative press, diversity of news sources (both foreign and domestic), ombudsmen, and reporters with tenure rights are needed to counterbalance the media elite’s self interests. Anything less than this means a continued deterioration of informational freedom in the United States.

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