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.
2. De facto segregation deepening in public education
Latinos and African Americans attend more segregated public schools today than they have for four decades, Professor Gary Orfield notes in "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," a study conducted by UCLA's Civil Rights Project. Orfield's report used federal data to highlight deepening segregation in public education by race and poverty.
About 44 percent of students in the nation's public school system are people of color, and this group will soon make up the majority of the population in the United States. Yet this racial diversity often isn't reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African American and Latino youths attend schools Orfield characterizes as "intensely segregated," composed of 90 percent to 100 percent people of color.
For Latinos, the trend reflects growing residential segregation. For African Americans, the study attributes a significant part of the reversal to ending desegregation plans in public schools nationwide. Schools segregated by race and poverty tend to have much higher dropout rates, more teacher turnover and greater exposure to crime and gangs, placing students at a major disadvantage in society. The most severe segregation is in Western states, including California.
Fifty-five years after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Orfield wrote, "Segregation is fast spreading into large sectors of suburbia, and there is little or no assistance for communities wishing to resist the pressures of resegregation and ghetto creation in order to build successfully integrated schools and neighborhoods."
Source: "Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge," Gary Orfield, The Civil Rights Project, UCLA, January 2009.
3. North Carolina’s nuclear nightmare
The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina's Wake County isn't just a power-generating station. The Progress Energy facility, located in a backwoods area, bears the distinction of housing the largest radioactive waste storage pools in the country. Spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants are transported there by rail, then stored beneath circulating cold water to prevent the radioactive waste from heating.
The hidden danger, according to investigative reporter Jeffery St. Clair, is the looming threat of a pool fire. Citing a study by Brookhaven National Laboratory, St. Clair highlighted in Counterpunch the catastrophe that could ensue if a pool were to ignite. A possible 140,000 people could wind up with cancer. Contamination could stretch for thousands of square miles. And damages could reach an estimated $500 billion.
"Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire," Robert Alvarez, a former Department of Energy advisor and Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies noted in a study about safety issues surrounding nuclear waste pools. "The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl."
Shearon Harris' track record is pocked with problems requiring temporary shutdowns of the plant and malfunctions of the facility's emergency-warning system.
When a study was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission highlighting the safety risks and recommending technological fixes to address the problem, St. Clair noted, a pro-nuclear commissioner successfully persuaded the agency to dismiss the concerns.
Source: "Pools of Fire," Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch, Aug. 9, 2008.
4. United States fails to protect against daily toxins
Two years ago, the European Union enacted a bold new environmental policy requiring close scrutiny and restriction of toxic chemicals used in everyday products. Invisible perils such as lead in lipstick, endocrine disruptors in baby toys and mercury in electronics can threaten human health. The European legislation aimed to gradually phase out these toxic materials and replace them with safer alternatives.
The story that has gone unreported by mainstream American news media is how this game-changing legislation might affect the United States, where chemical corporations use lobbying muscle to ensure comparatively lax oversight of toxic substances. As global markets shift to favor safer consumer products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lagging in its own scrutiny of insidious chemicals.
As investigative journalist Mark Schapiro pointed out in Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, the EPA's tendency to behave as if it were beholden to big business could backfire in this case, placing U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage because products manufactured here will be regarded with increasing distrust.
Economics aside, the implications of loose restrictions on toxic products are chilling: just one-third of the 267 chemicals on the EU's watch list have ever been tested by the EPA, and only two are regulated under federal law. Meanwhile, researchers at UC Berkeley estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, and only a fraction have undergone risk assessments. When it comes to meeting the safer, more stringent EU standard, the stakes are high—with consequences including economic impacts as well as public health.
Sources: "European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic," David Biello, Scientific American, Sept. 30, 2008; "How Europe's New Chemical Rules Affect U.S.," Environmental Defense Fund, Sept. 30, 2008; "U.S. Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products," Mark Schapiro, Democracy Now!, Feb. 24, 2009.
5. Somali pirates: The untold story
Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa were like gold for mainstream news outlets this past year. Stories describing surprise attacks on shipping vessels, daring rescues and cadres of ragtag bandits extracting multimillion dollar ransoms were all over the airwaves and front pages.
But even as the pirates' exploits around the Gulf of Aden captured the world's attention, little ink was devoted to factors that made the Somalis desperate enough to resort to piracy in the first place: the dumping of nuclear waste and rampant over-fishing of their coastal waters.
In the early 1990s, when Somalia's government collapsed, foreign interests began swooping into unguarded coastal waters to trawl for food—and venturing into unprotected Somali territories to cheaply dispose of nuclear waste. Those activities continued with impunity for years. The ramifications of toxic dumping hit full force with the 2005 tsunami, when leaking barrels were washed ashore, sickening hundreds and causing birth defects in newborn infants. Meanwhile, the uncontrolled fishing harvests damaged the economic livelihoods of Somali fishermen and eroded the country's supply of a primary food source. That's when the piracy began.
"Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?" asked journalist Johann Hari in a Huffington Post article. "We didn't act on those crimes—but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about 'evil.'"
Sources: "Toxic waste behind Somali piracy," Najad Abdullahi, Al Jazeera English, Oct. 11, 2008; "You are being lied to about pirates," Johann Hari, The Huffington Post, Jan. 4, 2009; "The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other," Mohamed Abshir Waldo, WardheerNews, Jan. 8, 2009.
6. As economy shrinks, D.C. lobbying grows
In 2008, as the economy tumbled and unemployment soared, Washington lobbyists working for special interests were paid $3.2 billion—more than any other year on record. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), special interests spent a collective $32,523 per legislator, per day, for every day Congress was in session.
One event that triggered the lobbying boom, according to CRP director Sheila Krumholz, was the federal bailout—with the federal government ensuring that the lobbyists got a piece of the pie. Ironically, some of the first in line were the same players who helped precipitate the nation's sharp economic downturn by engaging in high-risk, speculative lending practices.
"Even though some financial, insurance and real estate interests pulled back last year, they still managed to spend more than $450 million as a sector to lobby policymakers," Krumholz noted. "That can buy a lot of influence, and it's a fraction of what the financial sector is reaping in return through the government's bailout program."
The list of highest-ranking spenders on Washington lobbying reads like a roster of some of the most powerful interests nationwide. Topping the list was the health sector, which spent $478.5 million lobbying Congress last year. A close runner-up was the finance, insurance and real estate sector, spending $453.5 million. Pharmaceutical companies plunked down $230 million; electric utilities spent $156.7 million; and oil and gas companies paid lobbyists $133.2 million.
Source: "Washington Lobbying Grew to $3.2 Billion Last Year, Despite Economy," Center for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets.org
7. Obama’s controversial defense appointees
President Barack Obama's appointments to the Department of Defense have raised serious questions among critics who've studied their track records. Although the news media haven't paid much attention, the defense appointees bring to the administration controversial histories and conflicts of interest due to close ties to defense contractors.
Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, marks the first time in history that a president has opted to keep a defense secretary of an outgoing opposing party in power.
Gates, a former CIA director, has faced criticism for allegedly spinning intelligence reports for political means. In Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, author and former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman described him as "the chief action officer for the Reagan administration's drive to tailor intelligence reporting to White House political desires." Gates also came under scrutiny for questions surrounding whether he misled Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, and was accused of withholding information from intelligence committees when the United States provided military aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
Critics are also uneasy about the appointment of Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who formerly served as a senior vice president at defense giant Raytheon Company and was a registered lobbyist for Raytheon until July 2008. Lynn, who previously served as Pentagon comptroller under the Clinton administration, came under fire during his confirmation hearing for "questionable accounting practices." The Defense Department failed multiple audits under Lynn's leadership because it was unable to properly account for $3.4 trillion in financial transactions made over the course of several years.
Sources: "The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates," Robert Parry, ConsortiumNews.com, Nov. 13, 2008; "Obama's Defense Department Appointees—The $3.4 Trillion Question," Andrew Hughes, Global Research, Feb. 13, 2009; "Obama Nominee Admiral Dennis Blair Aided Perpetrators of 1999 Church Killings in East Timor," Allan Nairn, Democracy Now!, Jan. 7, 2009; "Ties to Chevron, Boeing Raise Concern on Possible NSA Pick," Roxana Tiron, The Hill, Nov. 24, 2008.
8. Big business cheats the IRS
The Cayman Islands and Bermuda are magnets for Bank of America, Citigroup, American International Group and 11 other financial giants that were the beneficiaries of the federal government's 2008 Wall Street bailout. It's not the balmy weather that inspires some of America's wealthiest companies to open operations in the Caribbean archipelago: The offshore oases provide safe harbors to stash cash out of the reach of Uncle Sam.
According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office, which was largely ignored by the news media, 83 of the top publicly-held U.S. companies, including some receiving substantial portions of federal bailout dollars, have operations in tax havens that allow them to avoid paying their fair share to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The report also spotlighted the activities of Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), which has helped wealthy Americans to use tax schemes to cheat the IRS out of billions.
In December 2008, banking giant Goldman Sachs reported its first quarterly loss, and promptly followed up with a statement that its tax rate would drop from 34.1 percent to 1 percent, citing "changes in geographic earnings mix" as the reason. The difference: Instead of paying $6 billion in total worldwide taxes as it did in 2007, Goldman Sachs would pay a total of $14 million in 2008. In the same year, it received $10 billion and debt guarantees from the U.S. government.
"The problem is larger than Goldman Sachs," U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, told Bloomberg News. "With the right hand out begging for bailout money, the left is hiding it offshore."
Sources: "Goldman Sachs's Tax Rate Drops to 1 percent or $14 Million," Christine Harper, Bloomberg News, Dec. 16, 2008; "Gimme Shelter: Tax Evasion and the Obama Administration," Thomas B. Edsall, The Huffington Post, Feb. 23, 2009
9. United States connected to white phosphorous strikes in Gaza
In mid-January, as part of a military campaign, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired several shells that hit the headquarters of a United Nations relief agency in Gaza City, destroying provisions for basic aid like food and medicine.
The shells contained white phosphorous (referred to as "Willy Pete" in military slang), a smoke-producing, spontaneously flammable agent designed to obscure battle territory that also can ignite buildings or cause grotesque burns if it touches the skin.
The attack on the relief agency headquarters is just one example of a civilian structure that researchers discovered had been hit during the January air strikes. In the aftermath of the attacks, Human Rights Watch volunteers found spent white phosphorous shells on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards and at a U.N. school in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch says the IDF's use of white phosphorous violated international law, which prohibits deliberate, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks that result in civilian casualties. After gathering evidence such as spent shells, the organization issued a report condemning the repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza as a war crime. Amnesty International, another human rights organization, followed suit by calling upon the United States to suspend military aid to Israel—but to no avail.
The United States was a primary source of funding and weaponry for Israel's military campaign. Washington provided F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles and a wide array of munitions, including white phosphorus.
Sources: "White Phosphorus Use Evidence of War Crimes Report: Rain of Fire: Israel's Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza," Fred Abrahams, Human Rights Watch, March 25, 2009; "Suspend Military Aid to Israel, Amnesty Urges Obama after Detailing U.S. Weapons Used in Gaza," Rory McCarthy, Guardian/U.K., Feb. 23, 2009; "U.S. Weaponry Facilitates Killings in Gaza," Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service, Jan. 8, 2009; "U.S. military resupplying Israel with ammunition through Greece," Saed Bannoura, International Middle East Media Center News, Jan. 8, 2009.
10. Ecuador says it won’t pay illegitimate debt
When President Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador would default on its foreign debt last December, he didn't say it was because the Latin American country was unable to pay. Rather, he framed it as a moral stand: "As president, I couldn't allow us to keep paying a debt that was obviously immoral and illegitimate," Correa told an international news agency. The news was mainly reported in financial publications, and the stories tended to quote harsh critics who characterized Correa as an extreme leftist with ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
But there's much more to the story. The announcement came in the wake of an exhaustive audit of Ecuador's debt, conducted under Correa's direction by a newly created debt audit commission. The unprecedented audit documented hundreds of allegations of irregularity and illegality in the decades of debt collection from international lenders. Although Ecuador had made payments exceeding the value of the principal since the time it initially took out loans in the 1970s, its foreign debt had nonetheless swelled to levels three times as high due to extraordinarily high interest rates. With a huge percentage of the country's financial resources devoted to paying the debt, little was left over to combat poverty in Ecuador.
Correa's move to stand up against foreign lenders did not go unnoticed by other impoverished, debt-ridden nations, and the decision could set a precedent for developing countries struggling to get out from under massive debt obligation to first-world lenders.
Ecuador eventually agreed to a restructuring of its debt at about 35 cents on the dollar. Nonetheless, the move served to expose deficiencies in the World Bank system, which provides little recourse for countries to resolve disputes over potentially illegitimate debt.
Sources: "As Crisis Mounts, Ecuador Declares Foreign Debt Illegitimate and Illegal," Daniel Denvir, Alternet, November 26, 2008; "Invalid Loans to Ecuador: Who Owes Who," Committee for the Integral Audit of Public Credit, Utube, Fall 2008; "Ecuador's Debt Default," Neil Watkins and Sarah Anders, Foreign Policy in Focus, Dec. 15, 2008.