Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored for 13 years, says he's finished with reform. It's impossible, he says in a recent interview, 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 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 forbid 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, 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.
Project Censored doesn't just expose gaping holes in the news brought to you by the likes of Fox, CNN or USA Today—it also shines a light on less prominent but more incisive alternative media sources serving up in-depth investigations and watchdog reports.
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. Project Censored wants to get involved in making those sources visible."
The Project Censored book this year uses the term "truth emergency."
"We call it an emergency because it's a democratic emergency," Huff says. In this media climate, "we're awash in a sea of information," he says. "But we have a paucity of understanding about what the truth is."
The top Project Censored stories of 2008-09 highlight the same theme that Phillips and Huff say has triggered the downslide of mainstream media: the overwhelming influence of powerful, profit-driven interests. The top story details the financial sector's hefty campaign contributions to key members of Congress leading up to the financial crisis, which coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations. Another story points out that even in the financial tumult following the economic downturn, special interests spent more money on Washington lobbyists than ever before.
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 with 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 spending spree on political contributions coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations, which in turn created a recipe for the astronomical financial disaster that sent the global economy reeling.
Sources: "Lax Oversight? Maybe $64 Million to DC Pols Explains It," Greg Gordon, Truthout.org and McClatchey Newspapers, October 2, 2008; "Congressmen Hear from TARP Recipients Who Funded Their Campaigns," Lindsay Renick Mayer, Capitol Eye, February 10, 2009; "The Big Takeover," Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, March 2009.