The news that didn't make the news in 1997

From carcinogenic toothpaste to world arms sales and lost spaceships of plutonium, Project Censored continues to deliver news the American public had little or no chance of seeing in their daily paper or on the nightly news.

Now in its 22nd year, the Sonoma State University media watch program that picks the 25 most underreported stories of the year reports "continuing and convincing evidence that mainstream media in the United States is failing to provide the public information it needs in order to function in a democracy," says project director and Sonoma State professor Peter Phillips.

"There are a variety of factors that go into censorship in an otherwise democratic society, including the tendency to report entertainment, sex and celebrity news rather than the harder, more serious issues of the day," he says. "Increasingly, we believe the leading factors are the conglomeration of media chains and the ownership and control of media giants like NBC and CBS by corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse."

Phillips received a double-barrel blast for that stance during an interview on National Public Radio last year when Bernard Kalb of CNN and Marshall Loeb of Columbia Journalism Review challenged the suggestion that corporate or commercial considerations affect editorial decisions. But within weeks of that program, Loeb's own CJR criticized the San Francisco Examiner for killing a column critical of Nike lest it offend that corporate sponsor of an Examiner run across the city. And Newsweek published a report outlining how Time Warner unsuccessfully leaned on Steven Brill, founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer, to kill a profile on an Federal Trade Commission official because of concerns it could damage the Time Warner-CNN merger that was then under FTC review.

"Those two examples are not unusual," says Phillips, whose project annually publishes its findings in a yearbook titled "Censored: The News That Didn't Make the News."

The project's top ten underreported stories of 1997:


(Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "Costly Giveaways," October 1996; In These Times, ""Guns ‘R' Us," Aug. 11, 1997.)

Most U.S. weaponry is sold to strife-torn regions such as the Middle East, where these sales fan the flames of war instead of promoting stability. The last five times U.S. troops were sent into conflict, they found themselves facing adversaries that had received U.S. weapons, military technology or training. Meanwhile, the Pentagon uses the presence of U.S. weapons in foreign arsenals to justify increased weapons spending.

On June 7, 1997, the House of Representatives approved the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct. This would prohibit U.S. commercial arms sales or military aid and training to foreign governments that are undemocratic, abuse human rights or engage in aggression against neighboring states. Yet the Clinton administration, along with the Defense, Commerce, and State departments, has continued to aggressively promote the arms industry. With Washington's share of the arms business jumping from 16 percent worldwide in 1988 to 63 percent today, U.S. arms dealers currently sell $10 billion in weapons to non-democratic governments each year. During Clinton's first year in office, U.S. foreign military aid soared to $36 billion, more than double what Bush approved in 1992.

Given that international arms sales exacerbate conflicts and drain scarce resources from developing countries, why does the Clinton administration push them so vigorously? The most plausible motive is the drive for corporate profits. It is no small detail that U.S. global arms market dominance has been accomplished as much through subsidies as sales. In return for arms manufacturers' huge political contributions, much of the U.S. arms exports are paid with government grants, subsidized loans and tax breaks.


(In These Times, "To Die For," Feb. 17, 1997, and "Take a Powder," March 3, 1997.)

Do you use toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, body lotion, body talc, makeup or hair dye? Consumers assume that these products are not harmful because they believe that they are approved for safety by the Food and Drug Administration. But the agency's World Wide Web home page explains that "a cosmetic manufacturer may use any ingredient or raw material and market the final product without government approval." (This is with the exception of seven known toxins, such as hexachlorophene, mercury compounds and chloroform). Should the FDA deem a product dangerous, it has the power to pull it from the shelves, but in many of these cases the FDA has failed to do so while evidence mounts that some of the most common cosmetic ingredients may double as deadly carcinogens. Products with potential carcinogens include Clairol "Nice and Easy" hair color, which releases carcinogenic formaldehyde as well as Cocamide DEA (a substance that can be contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines or react to produce a nitrosamine during storage or use); Vidal Sassoon shampoo (which, like the hair dye, contains Cocamide DEA); Cover Girl makeup, which contains TEA (also associated with carcinogenic nitrosamines); and Crest toothpaste, which contains titanium dioxide, saccharin and FD&C Blue No. 1 (all known carcinogens).

In the 1970s nitrosamine contamination of cooked bacon and other nitrite-treated meats became a public-health issue, and the food industry, which is more strictly regulated than the cosmetic industry, has since drastically lowered the amount of nitrosamines found in these processed meats. But today nitrosamines contaminate cosmetics at significantly higher levels than were once contained in bacon.


(Covert Action Quarterly, "Phi Beta Capitalism," Spring 1997; Dollars and Sense, "Big Money on Campus," March/April 1997.)

Increasingly, industry is creating endowed professorships, funding think tanks and research centers, sponsoring grants and contracting for research. Under this arrangement, students, faculty and universities serve the interests of corporations instead of the public -- in the process selling off academic freedom and intellectual independence.

Although universities often claim that corporate moneys come without strings attached, usually this is not the case. A British pharmaceutical corporation, Boots, gave $250,000 to the University of California at San Francisco for research comparing its hyperthyroid drug, Synthroid, with lower-cost alternatives. The finding that Synthroid and the other drugs were equal could have saved consumers $356 million if they had switched to a cheaper alternative. But Boots took action to protect Synthroid's domination of the $600 million market. The corporation prevented publication of the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and then said the research was badly flawed. The researcher was unable to counter the claim because she was legally precluded from releasing the study.


(Covert Action Quarterly,"Secret Power: Exposing the Global Surveillance System," Winter 1996/1997)

For over 40 years, New Zealand's largest intelligence agency has been helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region. Neither the public nor the majority of New Zealand's top elected officials had knowledge of these activities, which have operated since 1948 under a secret, Cold War-era intelligence alliance between the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But in the late 1980s, the U.S. prompted New Zealand to join a new and highly secret global intelligence system. The investigation into this system revealed one of the world's biggest, most closely held intelligence projects -- one which allows spy agencies to monitor most of the phone, e-mail and telex communications carried by the world's telecommunication networks. It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.

The system, designed and coordinated by the U.S. National Security Agency, was exposed after more than 50 people who work or have worked in intelligence and related fields -- concerned that the activities had been secret too long and were going too far -- agreed to be interviewed. In one example, a group from the British Government Communications Headquarters came forward protesting what they regarded as "gross malpractice and negligence," involving interception of messages by charitable organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.


(The Progressive, "Shock Value: U.S. Stun Devices Pose Human-Rights Risk," September 1997.)

In its March 1997 report entitled "Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment," Amnesty International lists 100 companies that produce and sell instruments of torture. Forty-two are in the United States, making the U.S. the leader in the manufacture of stun guns, stun belts, cattle probe-like devices and other equipment that can cause devastating pain in the hands of torturers.

These weapons -- some of which leave little physical evidence of their use, increasing the likelihood of sadistic but hard-to-prove misuse -- are being exported all over the world. Manufacturers continue to denounce allegations that use of their devices may constitute a gross violation of human rights. Instead, they are making more advanced innovations. A new stun weapon soon may be added to police arsenals -- the electroshock razor wire, designed for surrounding demonstrators who get out of hand.


(Covert Action Quarterly, "Space Probe Explodes," Spring 1997.)

On Nov. 16, 1996, Russia's Mars 96 space probe broke up and burned while descending over Chile and Bolivia, scattering its remains across a 10,000-square-mile area. It carried about a half pound of deadly plutonium divided into four battery canisters. No one seems to know where they went.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, says, "One pound `of plutonium`, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth." Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California, confirms the increased hazard of cancer that would occur if the probe burned up and formed plutonium oxide particles.

On Nov. 17, the U.S. Space Command announced a predicted impact point in Australia. They later reported the probe had dropped into the Pacific. Not until Nov. 29 did they revise and correct the account.

The New York Times mentioned the incident under "World Briefs" on Dec. 14, 1996. The Russian government has been uncooperative, refusing to give Chile a description of the canisters to aid in their retrieval.


(Washington Free Press, "Norplant and the Dark Side of the Law," March/April 1997; Human Events, "BBC Documentary Claims that U.S. Foreign Aid Funded Norplant Testing on Uninformed Third-World Women," May 16, 1997.)

Low-income women in the United States, and in the Third World, have been the unwitting targets of a U.S. policy to control birth-rates. The BBC documentary accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of acting in conjunction with the Population Council of New York City to use uninformed women in Bangladesh, Haiti and the Philippines for tests of Norplant, which is a set of six plastic cylinders containing a synthetic version of a female hormone that is intended to prevent pregnancy for five years. Surgery is required for removal. Many women used in the trials have suffered eyesight disorders, strokes, persistent bleeding and other side effects.

Now Norplant devices are figuring in reproductive-rights policies in the U.S. A bill under consideration in the state of Washington would require "involuntary use of long-term pharmaceutical birth control (Norplant) for women who give birth to drug-addicted babies." This, even as Norplant removals are being rejected by state Medicaid agencies, which often cover the cost of insertion but don't pay for removal before the full five years are up.


(Witwigo, "National I.D. Card is Now Federal Law and Georgia Wants to Help Lead the Way," May/June 1997.)

In September 1996, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996. Buried within was a section that creates a framework for establishing a driver's license as national I.D. card, with the government maintaining files on all American citizens' names, dates and places of birth, mothers' maiden names, Social Security numbers, gender, race, driving records, child support payments, divorce status, hair and eye color, height, weight and anything else they may dream up in the future.

The law also provides $5 million-per-year grants to any state that wants to participate in one of three pilot programs. The author of the law, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), said she hoped to see Congress immediately implement an I.D. system whereby every American would be required to carry a card with a "magnetic strip on it on which the bearer's unique voice, retina pattern or fingerprint is digitally encoded."


(The Nation, "Barbie's Betrayal: The Toy Industry's Broken Workers," Dec. 30, 1996; The Humanist, "Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Their World Labor," January/February 1997.)

In the past decade Mattel, the makers of "Barbie," bought out six major competitors, making it the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Employing 25,000 people worldwide, Mattel now employs only 6,000 in the U.S. The North American Free Trade Agreement has freed Mattel to further reduce its U.S. work force and take advantage of repressive labor laws in countries where workers lack basic rights. Under pressure, the industry adopted a code of conduct, which conveniently calls upon companies to monitor themselves. There's little evidence, however, of any changes in the abusive labor practices.


(Earth First, "Army Plan to Burn Surplus Nerve Gas Stockpile," March 1997.

Despite evidence that incineration is the worst option for destroying the nation's obsolete chemical weapons stockpile at the Umatilla Army Depot, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission gave the green light to the Army and Raytheon Corp. to spend $1.3 billion of taxpayer money to construct five chemical-weapons incinerators.

The chemicals include nerve gas and mustard agent; bioaccumulative organochlorines such as dioxins and PCBs; metals such as lead, mercury, copper and nickel; and toxins such as arsenic, all of which will potentially be emitted throughout the Columbia River watershed and from the toxic ash and effluents that pose a health threat via entrance to the aquifer.

A 1994 General Accounting Office report estimates that the actual number of years for safe storage is 120 rather than the 17.7 years originally estimated by the National Research Council. Thus, the timeline for action could conceivably be lengthened until all the alternatives -- such as chemical neutralization -- are considered.


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