This year's annual Project Censored list of the most underreported news stories includes the widening wealth gap, the trial of Bradley Manning and President Obama's war on whistleblowers — all stories that actually received considerable news coverage.
So how exactly were they "censored," and what does that say of this venerable media watchdog project?
Project Censored isn't only about stories that were deliberately buried or ignored. It's also about stories the media covered poorly through a false objectivity that skews the truth. Journalists do cry out against injustice, on occasion, but they don't always do it well.
That's why Project Censored was started back in 1976: to highlight stories the mainstream media missed or gave scant attention to. Although the project began at Sonoma State University, now academics and students from 18 universities and community colleges across the country pore through hundreds of submissions of overlooked and underreported stories. A panel of academics and journalists then picks the top 25 stories annually and curates them into themed clusters. This year's book, Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fearful Times, hit bookstores earlier this month.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts an annual analysis of trends in news, found that amid declining revenues, newsrooms have shed 30 percent of their staff in the last decade. In 2012, the number of reporters in the U.S. dipped to its lowest level since 1978, with fewer than 40,000 reporters nationally. This creates a sense of desperation in the newsroom, and in the end, it's the public that loses.
"What won out is something much more palatable to the advertisers," says Robert McChesney, professor at University of Illinois and host of Media Matters from 2000-2012. Blandness beat out fearless truth-telling.
Even worse than kowtowing to advertisers is the false objectivity the media tries to achieve, McChesney told us. Neutering news to stay "neutral" on a topic handcuffs journalists into not drawing conclusions, even when conclusions are well-supported by the facts.
In reporting, journalists often rely on the words of others to make claims, which limits what they can report.
"You allow people in power to set the range of legitimate debate, and you report on it," McChesney said.
He points out that there's more watchdog journalism in democracies that have more robust and funded media. And they often have something the U.S. doesn't — government subsidies for journalism.
"In all the other democracies in the world, there are huge subsidies for public media and journalism," McChesney said. "They not only rank ahead of us in terms of being democratic; they also rank ahead of us in terms of having a free press."
For American journalism to revive itself, it has to move beyond its corporate ties. It has to become a truly free press. It's time to end the myth that corporate journalism is the only way for media to be objective, monolithic and correct.
The failures of that approach are clear in Project Censored's top 10 stories of the year:
1. Manning and the Failure of Corporate Media
Untold stories of Iraqi civilian deaths by American soldiers, U.S. diplomats pushing aircraft sales on foreign royalty, uninvestigated abuse by Iraqi allies, the perils of the rise in private war contractors — this is what Manning exposed. They were stories that challenge the U.S. political elite, and they were only made possible by a sacrifice.
Manning (who now goes by the first name Chelsea) got a 35-year prison sentence for the revelation of state secrets to WikiLeaks, a story told countless times in corporate media. But as Project Censored posits, the failure of our media was not in the lack of coverage of Manning, but in its focus.
Though The New York Times partnered with WikiLeaks to release stories based on the documents, many published in 2010 through 2011, news from the leaks has since slowed to a trickle — a waste of more than 700,000 pieces of classified intelligence giving unparalleled ground-level views of America's costly wars.
The media quickly took a scathing indictment of U.S. military policy and spun it into a story about Manning's politics and patriotism. As Rolling Stone pointed out ("Did the Media Fail Bradley Manning?"), Manning initially took the trove of leaks to The Washington Post and The New York Times, only to be turned away.
Alexa O'Brien, a former Occupy activist, scooped most of the media by actually attending Manning's trial. She produced tens of thousands of words in transcriptions of the court hearings, one of the only reporters on the beat.
2. Richest Global 1 Percent Hide Billions in Tax Havens
Global corporate fat cats hold $21 trillion to $32 trillion in offshore havens, money hidden from government taxation that would benefit people around the world, according to findings by James S. Henry, the former chief economist of the global management firm McKinsey & Co.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained a leak in April 2013 revealing how widespread the buy-in was to these tax havens. The findings were damning: Government officials in Canada, Russia and other countries have embraced offshore accounts, the world's top banks (including Deutsche Bank) have worked to maintain them, and the tax havens are used in Ponzi schemes.
Moving money offshore has implications that ripped through the world economy. Part of Greece's economic collapse was due to these tax havens, ICIJ reporter Gerard Ryle told Gladstone on her radio show. "It's because people don't want to pay taxes," he said. "You avoid taxes by going offshore and playing by different rules."
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) introduced legislation to combat the practice, SB1533, The Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, but so far the bill has had little play in the media.
Researcher James Henry said the hidden wealth is a "huge black hole" in the world economy that has never been measured, and that could generate income tax revenues between $190 billion and $280 billion a year.
3. Trans-Pacific Partnership
Take 600 corporate advisors, mix in officials from 11 international governments, let them bake for about two years, and out pops an international partnership that threatens to cripple progressive movements worldwide.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership could wind up being the world's largest multinational trade agreement, a document developed behind closed doors with corporate advisors. Leaked text from the 30-chapter document shows that negotiators have already agreed to radical terms that would grant expansive new rights and privileges to foreign investors — and establish enforcement through extrajudicial "investor-state" tribunals.
Through these tribunals, corporations could dispute international laws, regulations and court decisions while extracting untold amounts of taxpayer money in damages. The system could undermine public-interest policies on domestic finance, health, labor, environment, land use, and other laws across the globe, according to the Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
The group investigated the TPP and is the main advocate in opposition of its policies. The AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and other organizations have also had growing concerns about the level of access granted to corporations in these agreements.
But even with the risks of outsized corporate influence, the U.S. has a strong interest in the TPP in order to maintain trade agreements with Asia.
The balancing act between corporate and public interests is at stake, but until the U.S. releases more documents from negotiations, the American people will remain in the dark.
4. Obama's War on Whistleblowers
President Obama has invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 more than every other president combined. Seven times Obama has pursued leakers with the act, targeting Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Bradley Manning, Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and most recently, Edward Snowden. All had ties to the State Department, FBI, CIA or NSA, and all of them leaked to journalists.
"Neither party is raising hell over this. This is the sort of story that sort of slips through the cracks," McChesney said. And when the politicians don't raise a fuss, neither does the media.
ProPublica covered the issue, constructing timelines and mapping out the various arrests and indictments. But where Project Censored points out the lack of coverage is in Obama's hypocrisy — only a year before, he signed The Whistleblower Protection Act.
Later on, Obama said he wouldn't follow every letter of the law in the bill he had just signed.
"Certain provisions in the Act threaten to interfere with my constitutional duty to supervise the executive branch," Obama said. "As my administration previously informed the Congress, I will interpret those sections consistent with my authority."
5. Hate Groups and Antigovernment Groups on Rise across U.S.
Hate groups in the U.S. are on the rise, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are 1,007 known hate groups operating across the country, it wrote, including neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others.
Since 2000, those groups have grown by more than half, the report said, and there was a "powerful resurgence" of patriot groups, the likes of which were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Worst of all, the huge growth in armed militias seems to have conspicuous timing with Obama's election.
"The number of patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813 percent since Obama was elected — from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012," the Southern Poverty Law Center reported.
Though traditionally those groups were race motivated, the report noted that now they are gunning for government. There was a smattering of news coverage when the SPLC released its report, but not much since.
6. Billionaires' Rising Wealth Intensifies Poverty and Inequality
The world's billionaires added $241 billion to their collective net worth in 2012. That's an economic recovery, right?
That gain, coupled with the world's richest peoples' new total worth of $1.9 trillion (more than the GDP of Canada), wasn't reported by some kooky socialist group, but by Bloomberg News. But few journalists are asking the important question: Why?
Project Censored points to journalist George Monbiot, who highlights a reduction of taxes and tax enforcement, the privatization of public assets and the weakening of labor unions.
His conclusions are backed up by the United Nations' Trade and Development Report from 2012, which noted how the trend hurts everyone: "Recent empirical and analytical work reviewed here mostly shows a negative correlation between inequality and growth."
7. Media Reform and Nuclear Weapons
The report highlighted by Project Censored on the threat of nuclear war is an example not of censorship, strictly, but of a desire for media reform.
Project Censored highlighted a study from the Physicians for Social Responsibility that said 1 billion people could starve in the decade after a nuclear detonation. Corn production in the U.S. would decline by an average of 10 percent for an entire decade and food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world's poorest.
This is not journalism in the classic sense, Gladstone said. In traditional journalism, as it has played out since the early 20th century, news most commonly requires an element of something new in order to garner reporting — not a looming threat or danger.
So in this case, what Project Censored identified was the need for a new kind of journalism, what it calls "solutions journalism."
"Solutions journalism," Sarah van Gelder wrote in the foreword to Censored 2014, "must investigate not only the individual innovations, but also the larger pattern of change — the emerging ethics, institutions and ways of life that are coming into existence."
8. Bank Interests Inflate Global Prices by 35 to 40 Percent
Does 35 percent of everything purchased in the United States go to interest? Professor Margrit Kennedy of the University of Hanover thinks so, and she says it's a major funnel of money from the 99 percent to the rich.
In her 2012 book Occupy Money, Kennedy wrote that tradespeople, suppliers, wholesalers and retailers along the chain of production rely on credit. Her figures were initially drawn from the German economy, but Ellen Brown of the Web of Debt and Global Research said she found similar patterns in the U.S.
This "hidden interest" has sapped industry growth while lining the pockets of the financial sector, she said.
Why would journalists avoid the topic? Few economists have echoed her views, and few experts emerged to back up her assertions. Notably, she's a professor in an architectural school, with no formal credentials in economics.
From her own website, she said she became an "expert" in economics "through her continuous research and scrutiny."
Without people in power pushing the topic, McChesney said that a mainstream journalist would be seen as going out on a limb.
When reporters raise an issue that elites haven't raised, he said, they're seen as ideologues, ax grinders or hacks. "It makes journalism worthless on pretty important issues."
9. Icelanders Vote to Include Commons in Their Constitution
In 2012, Icelandic citizens voted in referendum to change the country's 1944 constitution. When asked, "In the new constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?" its citizens voted 81 percent in favor.
Project Censored says this is important for us to know, but in the end, U.S. journalism is notably American-centric. Even the Nieman Watchdog, a foundation for journalism at Harvard University, issued a report in 2011 citing the lack of reporting on a war the U.S. funneled over $4 trillion into over the past decade, not to mention the cost in human lives.
If we don't pay attention to our own wars, why exactly does Project Censored think we'd pay attention to Iceland?
"The constitutional reforms are a direct response to the nation's 2008 financial crash," Project Censored wrote, "when Iceland's unregulated banks borrowed more than the country's gross domestic product from international wholesale money markets."
Solutions-based journalism rears its head again, and the idea is that the U.S. has much to learn from Iceland. But even Gladstone was dubious.
"Iceland is being undercovered, goddamnit! Where is our Iceland news?" she joked with us. "Certainly I agree with some of this list. Bradley Manning was covered badly; I was sad the tax haven story didn't get more coverage. But when has anyone cared about Iceland?"
10. A "Culture of Cruelty" along Mexico-U.S. Border
The plight of Mexican border crossings usually involves three types of stories in U.S. press: deaths in the stretch of desert beyond the border, the horrors of drug cartels and heroic journeys of border crossings by sympathetic workers. But a report released a year ago by the organization No More Deaths snags the 10th spot for overlooked stories in Project Censored.
The report asserts that people arrested by Border Patrol while crossing were denied water and told to let their sick die. No More Deaths conducted more than 12,000 interviews to form the basis of its study in three Mexican cities: Nacos, Nogales and Agua Prieta. The report cites grossly ineffective oversight from the Department of Homeland Security. This has received some coverage, from Salon showcasing video of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water meant for crossers to a recent New York Times piece citing a lack of oversight for Border Patrol's excessive force.
The ACLU has lobbied the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to call international attention to the plight of these border crossers at the hands of U.S. law enforcement.
If ever an issue flew under the radar, this is it.
This story originally ran in the SF Bay Guardian.