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Raking Muck

Carl
Janet Orsi

The godfather: Project Censored director Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen is the recent recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists lifetime achievement award.

Changes carry SSU's Project Censored into its second generation

By Bruce Robinson

Twenty years ago, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I have not been disappointed," says Carl Jensen--the "father" of Project Censored--of his enduring brainchild. Even though the Sonoma State University communications professor is retiring at the end of the school year, he continues to have great expectations for the nationally renowned project, which ranks the year's most underreported news stories. "I don't think we've reached the peak at all."

The new Project Censored director is Peter Phillips, an SSU sociology professor whose thesis focused on Bohemian Grove, and who Jensen says has "two great talents which I didn't have: organization and fundraising." While the benefits of the latter are obvious, the additional organizational capacity is enabling Project Censored to extend its outreach deep into cyberspace. Its network of participating readers identified 700 stories that were reviewed in 1995; with expanded Internet contacts, that number is expected to swell to 2,000 this year, with as many as 500 net surfers contributing suggestions.

The Internet also gives Project Censored access to a broader range of sources, such as the top story on the latest list, which came from an Internet newsletter. The well-known co-author of that story, consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, will be the keynote speaker at the New York announcement of the Top 10 list for 1995, to be held in the same room at Columbia University in which the Pulitzer winners are announced.

While Nader is expected to draw some extra media attention, Jensen says that neither the Columbia Journalism Review nor the New York Times has ever mentioned Project Censored. "It's an embarrassment that they have ignored the nation's oldest ongoing news media research project," he grumbles.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Project Censored was created to combat, adds assistant director Mark Lowenthal, as the underlying intent of their list is to redefine censorship. "Censorship needs to be broadened to include not just overt censorship, but self-censorship as well as underreporting," he explains. "The stories that we cite from the [Washington] Post and the [New York] Times and other mainstream outlets are what we call hit-and-run coverage.

"Just because the story appears in one of these outlets does not mean that it reached the public; any story that is going to embed itself in the public consciousness requires repetition."

But repetition is also cropping up in the annual list of censored stories, says Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Krug is a long-term member of the panel of media judges who choose the Top 10 from a list of 25 finalists that are selected by the Project Censored staff and SSU students. Other judges include UC Berkeley professor emeritus Ben Bagdikian and author Susan Faludi. Krug observes that while the subjects of those stories overall "have become more global," she is seeing less change in the list from year to year, "which means that despite Project Censored, a lot of these stories are not getting out. Which is a concern. A lot of the stories we're dealing with really need to get aired, and we're not getting through."

"Part of the problem," adds Berkeley writer and lecturer Michael Parenti, another Project Censored judge, "is that we become victims of the very censorship we're trying to confront. The project and our findings are routinely ignored by the mainstream multinational media."

There's a good reason for that, Jensen suggests. "These are the kinds of stories that tend to alienate the administration and corporate America, the power elite in our country," he says, "and the power elite is still fighting what we're trying to get out here."

At the same time, Lowenthal notes that the Top 10 Censored Stories list has been used "as a kind of tip sheet" by CNN and other news organizations. That is gratifying, to a degree, he says, "but sometimes too much attention gets placed on the stories, and the more important point is why there is a list, not what's on it."

With that noted, here is the newly released list of underplayed stories from 1995:

  1. Telecommunications Bill. The story most in need of broader exposure this year, the Project Censored judges concluded, was the new federal telecommunications bill, particularly its implications for the further concentration of media ownership, and other consequences of deregulation. Co-written by Ralph Nader, this story originally appeared online, in the Internet newsletter of the Consumer Project on Technology. According to Nader, the bill will permit major media monopolies on both national and local levels.

  2. Balancing the Budget. "Cut Corporate Welfare: Not Medicare" was the title of John Canham-Clyne's piece, which contended that the national budget could be balanced by 2002 without cutting social programs if breaks for business were cut instead. It appeared in the lightly circulated bimonthly Public Citizen.

  3. Child Labor. American children are working in dangerous and unhealthy environments, and the problem is getting worse. This article appeared in Southern Exposure, a regional magazine.

  4. Privatization of the Internet. This report on the transfer of Internet infrastructure from government to private industry, and what that means for free speech in cyberspace, appeared last summer in The Nation.

  5. U.S. Nuke Spending. A Washington Post story detailed the military's plans to fund production of tritium, a gas used to boost the power of nuclear weapons, even as the United States is urging nuclear disarmament elsewhere in the world.

  6. Plans for Radical FDA Cuts. Mother Jones revealed the plans of the Speaker's Progress and Freedom Foundation to privatize many of the Food and Drug Administration's review and approval functions.

  7. Russian Nuclear Waste. The USSR has been pumping billions of gallons of its hazardous nuclear waste underground for more than 30 years, according to this New York Times report.

  8. Medical Fraud Costs Billions. Another Mother Jones article, titled "Medscam," investigated medical fraud claims and discovered they are so extensive, no one even knows how much is lost, nor is there a way to find out.

  9. The Fight Over Methyl Bromide. Although this issue recently has gained a higher profile in California, the cited article about the chemical industry's determination to protect the ongoing use of this toxic, ozone-depleting pesticide appeared last summer in the Bay Area-based Earth Island Journal.

  10. NAFTA's Broken Promises. Two articles on this subject were noted by the Project, one from Mother Jones and the other from Covert/Action Quarterly. Both detailed betrayals of American and Mexican workers by corporate NAFTA members.

An additional 15 stories in the also-ran listing this year included such topics as the Gulf War Syndrome coverup, oil companies' more than $1.5 billion debt to the federal government, our lagging maternal health standards, the continuing dangers of dioxin, a rebirth of slavery in the Sudan, and the carcinogenic dangers of fiberglass.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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