The missing stories—and the patterns connecting what you didn't see 

In America, we commonly think of press freedom and censorship in terms of the First Amendment, which focuses attention on the press itself and limits on the power of government to restrict it. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of World War II, presents a broader framework. Article 19 reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

By highlighting the right to receive information and ideas, Article 19 makes it clear that press freedom is about everyone in society, not just the press, and that government censorship is only one potential way of thwarting that right. That's the perspective that has informed Project Censored from the beginning, more than 40 years ago.

Even though Project Censored's annual list focuses on specific censored stories, the underlying issue has never been isolated examples. It serves to highlight how far short we fall of the fully informed public that a healthy democracy requires—and that we all require in order to live healthy, safe, productive, satisfying lives. It's the larger patterns of missing information, hidden problems and threats that should really concern us. Each Project Censored story provides some of that information, but the annual list also helps shed light on these broader patterns of what's missing.

click to enlarge COVER AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN
  • cover and illustrations by Anson Stevens-Bollen

During the 1972 election, Woodward and Bernstein were reporting on the earliest developments in the Watergate scandal, but their work was largely isolated, despite running in the Washington Post. They were covering Watergate as a developing criminal case; it didn't become a political story until after the election. That's a striking example of a story gone missing, and it helped contribute to the founding of Project Censored by Carl Jensen, who defined censorship as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society."

In the current edition's introduction, Andy Lee Roth writes, "Finding common themes across news stories helps to contextualize each item as a part of the larger narratives shaping our times." He goes on to cite several examples spanning the top 25 list: four stories on climate change, six involving racial inequalities, four involving courts, three on health issues, "at least two stories" involving the Pentagon, three on government surveillance and two involving documentary films produced by the Shell Oil Co.

Roth goes on to say, "There are more connections to be identified. As we have noted in previous Censored volumes, the task of identifying common topical themes within each year's story list and across multiple years transforms the reader from a passive recipient of information into an active, engaged interpreter. We invite you to engage with this year's story list in this way."

That's excellent advice. But to get things started on the top 10 stories, three main themes are clearly evident: first, threats to public health; second, threats to democracy, both at home and abroad; and third, an out-of-control military.

But don't let these patterns blind you to other patterns you may see for yourself. Even individual stories often involve different overlapping patterns—environmental destruction and an out-of-control military, for example, or public health and infrastructure concerns. These patterns don't just connect problems and issues, they connect people, communities and potential solutions as well. A shared understanding of the patterns that hold us down and divide us is the key to developing better patterns to live by together. With that thought in mind, here is Project Censored's Top 10 List for 2016-17.




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1. Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children's Health and Could Triple Household Water Bills

After President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Mich., based on lead contamination of the city's water supply in January 2016, Reuters reporters M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer began an investigation of lead contamination nationwide, with shocking results. In June 2016, they reported that although many states and Medicaid rules require blood lead tests for young children, millions of children were not being tested. In December 2016, they reported on the highly decentralized data they had been able to assemble from 21 states, showing that 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip codes across the United States had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint at the peak of its contamination crisis. Of those, 1,100 communities had lead contamination rates "at least four times higher" than Flint.

In Flint, 5 percent of children screened high blood lead levels. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2.5 percent of all U.S. children younger than 6—about 500,000 children—have elevated blood lead levels.

Pell and Schneyer's neighborhood focus allowed them to identify local hotspots "whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys," such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates. They found the problems in communities that "stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania, ... where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to ... Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning." What's more, "In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent."

In January 2017, Schneyer and Pell reported that, based on their previous investigation, "From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs."

But there's a deeper infrastructure problem involved, as Farron Cousins reported for DeSmogBlog in January 2017. "Lead pipes are time bombs" and water contamination is to be expected, Cousins wrote. The U.S. relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its lifespan.

In 2012, the American Water Works Association estimated that a complete overhaul of the nation's aging water systems would require an investment of $1 trillion over the next 25 years, which could triple household water bills. As Cousins reported, a January 2017 Michigan State University study found that, "while water rates are currently unaffordable for an estimated 11.9 percent of households, the conservative estimates of rising rates used in this study highlight that this number could grow to 35.6 percent in the next five years."

Cousins concluded, "While the water contamination crisis will occasionally steal a headline or two, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that we're pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market."




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2. More Than Six Trillion Dollars in Unaccountable Army Spending

In 1996, Congress passed legislation requiring all government agencies to undergo annual audits, but a July 2016 report by the Defense Department's inspector general found that the Army alone has accumulated $6.5 trillion in expenditures that can't be accounted for over the past two decades.

As Dave Lindorff reported for This Can't Be Happening!, the DoD "has not been tracking or recording or auditing all of the taxpayer money allocated by Congress—what it was spent on, how well it was spent, or where the money actually ended up." The Army wasn't alone. "Things aren't any better at the Navy, Air Force and Marines," he added.

The report appeared at a time when "politicians of both major political parties are demanding accountability for every penny spent on welfare. ... Ditto for people receiving unemployment compensation," Lindorff wrote. Politicians have also engaged in pervasive efforts "to make teachers accountable for student 'performance,'" he added. Yet, he observed, "the military doesn't have to account for any of its trillions of dollars of spending ... even though Congress fully a generation ago passed a law requiring such accountability."

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