On the cover of the most recent book produced by Project Censored is a photo of protesting college students in California getting pepper-sprayed by a cop. The shot is framed in such a way that much of the focus is on the spectators holding their cell phone cameras up to capture images of the assault.
In a way, the picture captures something essential about Project Censored: the idea that journalism can be pried from the grip of corporate media and democratized.
That philosophy has driven the project since its launch at California's Sonoma State University in 1976. In the years since, the nonprofit effort has grown to include contributors from around the world who submit stories they believe have been, according to the project's website, "underreported, ignored, misrepresented or censored by the U.S. corporate media."
Gone are the days when people clipped stories from publications found outside the mainstream and mailed them in to Project Censored, where students would research their validity and professors would verify the results. Now, the Internet allows information to be shared instantly.
But discerning what's credible and what's not is perhaps more difficult than ever. So is finding important stories that can be lost in the tidal wave of information found on the web.
It is not a foolproof process. As seen in this year's No. 3 story — about the health threat in the United States associated with fallout from the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan — claims that wither when exposed to greater scrutiny can make it onto the list.
In the end though, says Project Censored associate director Andy Lee Roth, the emphasis remains on promoting wider public awareness of events, issues and actions that would otherwise remain on the margins.
It's up to Project Censored's team of interns and scores of other college students, both at Sonoma State and affiliated campuses across the country, to help narrow the nominations that flood in. The project allows them to develop what Roth calls "media literacy," and in the process, a sharpening of critical thinking skills.
With the publication of the annual Project Censored book each year, the constantly updated website and a weekly show on Pacifica Radio stations, the goal is to move that information from academia to the broader public.
"What we are trying to do is expand the spectrum of legitimate debate," Roth says.
Look at this year's list and then ask yourself when you last saw the mainstream throwing a spotlight on such issues as the expansion of presidential powers and the police state, and the threat that expansion poses to civil liberties. Or the effect global warming is having on the world's oceans, or the macro-economic risks posed by having a relatively small number of multinational corporations controlling much of the world's wealth.
Roth points to a quote from journalist Walter Lippmann (included in this year's edition of the Project Censored book) regarding the importance of substantial journalism in an industry often dominated by fluff and nonsense: "All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. ... No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people."
But it's not always bad news that gets eclipsed. Sometimes it is positive stories that get shunted to the margins, such as this year's story No. 7, about the growing popularity of worker-owned cooperative businesses springing up around the world.
If Project Censored proves anything, it's that no matter how well-informed you may think you are, there's always something new to be learned.
What follows are the Top 10 of this year's Top 25 most censored stories. Much of the info is taken from Project Censored itself. In addition, supplemental coverage has been provided by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and California's North Coast Journal.
1. Signs of a growing police state
Since the passage of the 2001 PATRIOT Act, the United States has become increasingly monitored and militarized at the expense of civil liberties. The 2012 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has allowed the military to detain indefinitely without trial any U.S. citizen that the government labels a terrorist or an accessory to terrorism, while President Barack Obama has signed an executive order authorizing widespread federal and military control of the national economy and resources during "emergency and non-emergency conditions."
Journalist Chris Hedges, along with co-plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, won a case challenging the NDAA's indefinite detention clause on Sept. 1, when a federal judge blocked its enforcement. But her ruling was overturned on Oct. 3, so the clause is back.
Sources: Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman, "Read the FBI Memo: Agents Can 'Suspend the Law,'" Wired, March 28, 2012; James Bamford, "The NSA Is Building the Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)," Wired, March 15, 2012; Chris Hedges, "Why I'm Suing Barack Obama," Truthdig, Jan. 16, 2012.
2. Oceans in peril
We thought the sea was infinite and inexhaustible. It is not. The overall rise in ocean temperature has led to the largest movement of marine species in 2 to 3 million years, according to scientists from the Climate Change and European Marine Ecosystems Research project.
In a haunting article highlighted by Project Censored, reporter Julia Whitty paints a tenuous seascape – overfished, acidified, warming – and describes how the destruction of the ocean's complex ecosystems jeopardizes the entire planet, not just the 70 percent that is water. Whitty compares ocean acidification, caused by global warming, to acidification that was one of the causes of the "Great Dying," a mass extinction that happened 252 million years ago. Life on earth took 30 million years to recover.
A February 2012 study of 14 protected and 18 unprotected ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea demonstrated that this previously healthy sea is now quickly being depleted of resources. On a more hopeful note, the international team of scientists conducting the three-year study found that, in well-enforced marine reserve areas, the fish populations were five to 10 times greater than the fish populations in unprotected areas. The work of these scientists encourages the establishment and maintenance of marine reserves.
Sources: Julia Whitty, "The End of a Myth," OnEarth, Feb. 27, 2012; Richard Gray, "Warming Oceans Cause Largest Movement of Marine Species in Two Million Years," Telegraph (UK), June 26, 2011; David A. Gabel, "Overfishing the Mediterranean," Environmental News Network, March 8, 2012.
3. Fukushima information blackout
A plume of toxic fallout floated from Japan after the tragic Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011. Full information about what descended where has been hard to come by, and fears remain about the extent of health risks. Yet the Project Censored system shows its weaknesses in this Top 10 pick. Spread over more than 20 universities, researched by students and overseen by sometimes-overwhelmed academics, the system can be vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions and rushed edits. In retrospect, says Mickey Huff, the point he really wanted to make with this chapter was that more needs to be learned about Fukushima's aftermath – but, sadly, that's not all the chapter says. It prominently summarizes a study that Huff now acknowledges is "squirrelly at best" and then makes things even worse by exaggerating and misstating the study's claims. What Project Censored does stand by is the claim that Japanese and American officials downplayed or lied about Fukushima fallout, and that the mainstream media has failed to follow up on the story.
Sources: Alex Roslin, "What Are Officials Hiding About Fukushima?" Straight.com (Vancouver), Oct. 20, 2011; Danny Schechter, "Beyond Fukishima: A World in Denial About Nuclear Risks," Common Dreams, March 21, 2011.
4. FBI informants instigate terrorist plots
Here Project Censored is back to one of the things it does best — casting light on well-researched, well-documented explorations of abuses of power.
We know that FBI agents go into communities – especially those with high concentrations of Muslims – both undercover and in the guise of building relationships, quietly gathering information about individuals. This is part of an approach to finding what the FBI now considers the most likely kind of terrorists – "lone wolves." Its strategy: "seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means and the opportunity," writes Mother Jones journalist Trevor Aaronson. The publication, along with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, examined the results of this strategy, 508 cases classified as terrorism-related that have come before the U.S. Department of Justice since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. In 243 of these cases, an informant was involved; in 49 cases, an informant actually led the plot. And "with three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings."
Source: Trevor Aaronson, "The Inform-ants," Mother Jones, September/October 2011; "FBI Organizes Almost All Terror Plots in the US," RT.com, Aug. 23, 2011.
5. First-ever Federal Reserve audit reveals at least 1 trillion in loans and conflicting interests
The Federal Reserve, the United States' quasi-private central bank, was audited for the first time in its history this year. The audit report states, "From late 2007 through mid-2010, Reserve Banks provided more than 1 trillion dollars ... in emergency loans to the financial sector to address strains in credit markets and to avert failures of individual institutions believed to be a threat to the stability of the financial system." These loans had significantly lower interest and fewer conditions than the high-profile TARP bailouts, and were rife with conflicts of interest. Some examples: The CEO of JP Morgan Chase served as a board member of the New York Federal Reserve at the same time that his bank received more than $390 billion in financial assistance from the Fed. William Dudley, who is now the New York Federal Reserve president, was granted a conflict of interest waiver to let him keep investments in AIG and General Electric at the same time the companies were given bailout funds. The audit was restricted to Federal Reserve lending during the financial crisis.
On July 25, 2012, a bill to audit the Fed again, with fewer limitations, authored by Rep. Ron Paul, passed the House of Representatives. HR 459 is expected to die in the Senate, but the movement behind Paul and his calls to hold the Fed accountable, or abolish it altogether, seems to be growing.
Source: Matthew Cardinale, "First Federal Reserve Audit Reveals Trillions in Secret Bailout," Inter Press Service, Common Dreams, Aug. 28, 2011.
6. Small network of corporations controls global economy
A University of Zurich study reported that a small group of companies – mainly banks – wields huge power over the global economy. The study is the first to look at all 43,060 transnational corporations and the web of ownership among them. The researchers' network analysis identified 147 companies that form a "super entity," controlling 40 percent of the global economy's total wealth. The close connections mean that the network could be prone to "systemic risk" and vulnerable to collapse.
Some have criticized the study, saying control of assets doesn't equate to ownership. True, but as we clearly saw in the 2008 financial collapse, corporations are capable of mismanaging assets in their control to the detriment of their actual owners.
Sources: Rob Waugh, "Does One 'Super Corporation' Run the Global Economy? Study Claims It Could Be Terrifyingly Unstable," Daily Mail, Oct. 20, 2011; Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder and Stefano Battiston, "The Network of Global Corporate Control," Public Library of Science, Oct. 26, 2011.
7. The International Year of Cooperatives
According to Project Censored evaluators, the corporate media underreported the U.N. declaring 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives, based on the co-op business model's stunning growth. The U.N. found that, in 2012, 1 billion people worldwide – or one in five adults over the age of 15 – are co-op member-owners. The largest is Spain's Mondragon Corp., with more than 80,000 member-owners. Comprising 256 companies and bodies, the co-op corp is able to successfully compete in an international marketplace while maintaining its core principles of pursuing "democratic methods in its business organization, the creation of jobs, the human and professional development of its workers and a pledge to development with its social environment."
Is the corporate media missing an important trend, or is it worried that promoting news about massively successful co-ops might not be in its best interests?
Either way, the story got virtually no attention.
But it's not going away.
The U.N. predicts that by 2025, worker-owned co-ops will be the world's fastest growing business model. Worker-owned cooperatives provide for equitable distribution of wealth, genuine connection to the workplace and, just maybe, a brighter future for our planet.
Sources: Jessica Reeder, "The Year of the Cooperative," Yes! Magazine, Feb. 1, 2012; Monique Hairston, "American Dream 2.0: Can Worker-Owned Coops End Poverty?" Rebuild the Dream, March 9, 2012.
8. NATO war crimes in Libya
In January 2012, the BBC "revealed" how British Special Forces agents had joined and "blended in" with rebels in Libya to help topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a story that alternative media sources had reported a year earlier. NATO admits to bombing a pipe factory in the Libyan city of Brega that was key to the water supply system that brought tap water to 70 percent of Libyans, saying that Gaddafi was storing weapons in the factory. In Censored 2013, writer James F. Tracy makes the point that historical relations between the U.S. and Libya were left out of mainstream news coverage of the NATO campaign. Tracy adds, "Background knowledge and historical context confirming al-Qaida and Western involvement in the destabilization of the Gaddafi regime are also essential for making sense of corporate news narratives depicting the Libyan operation as a popular 'uprising.'"
Sources: Michael Collins, "Smoking Guns: War Crimes in Libya," The Daily Censored (blog), Nov. 2, 2011; Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, "NATO's Ultimate War Crime: Destroying Libya's Water Supply," Global Research, Aug. 1; Franklin Lamb, "Where Have Libya's Children Gone?" Counterpunch, Aug. 8, 2011.
9. Prison slavery in the U.S.
The United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet U.S. prisons hold more than 25 percent of all people imprisoned globally. Many of these prisoners labor at 23 cents per hour, or similar wages, in federal prisons contracted by the Bureau of Prisons' UNICOR, a quasi-public, for-profit corporation, which is the U.S. government's 39th largest contractor. The UNICOR manufacturing corporation proudly proclaims that its products are "made in America." That's true, but they're made in places where standard labor laws don't apply. Prison workers exposed to toxic materials, for instance, have no legal recourse.
One article highlighted by Project Censored this year reveals the current state of the ties between prison industries and war. The majority of products manufactured by inmates are contracted to the Department of Defense. Inmates make complex parts for missile systems, battleship anti-aircraft guns and landmine sweepers, as well as night-vision goggles, body armor and camouflage uniforms. Of course, this is happening in the context of record high imprisonment in the United States, where grossly disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Latinos are imprisoned and, in some states, can't vote even after they're freed. As psychologist Elliot D. Cohen puts it in this year's book: "This system of slavery, like that which existed in this country before the Civil War, is also racist, as more than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color."
Another part of the story is that, as incarceration rates explode in the United States, thousands are placed in solitary confinement, often for having committed minor disciplinary infractions within prison.
Sources: Sara Flounders, "The Pentagon and Slave Labor in U.S. Prisons," Workers World, June 6, 2011; James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, "Cruel and Usual: U.S. Solitary Confinement," Al Jazeera English, March 19, 2011.
10. HR 347 criminalizes protest
In March 2012, President Obama signed into law HR 347, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. The law specifies as criminal offenses the acts of entering or remaining in areas defined as "restricted." Although pundits have debated to what extent the new law restricts First Amendment rights or criminalizes Occupy protests, it does make it easier for the Secret Service to overuse – or misuse – existing laws to arrest lawful protesters by lowering the requirement of intent in the prosecution of criminal activity.
The law makes it a felony to "knowingly" enter a zone restricted under the law, or engage in "disorderly or disruptive" conduct in or near the zones. The restricted zones include anywhere the Secret Service may be – places such as the White House, areas hosting events deemed "National Special Security Events," or anywhere visited by the president, vice president and their immediate families; former presidents, vice presidents and certain family members; certain foreign dignitaries; major presidential and vice presidential candidates (within 120 days of an election); and other individuals as designated by a presidential executive order. These people could be anywhere, and NSSEs have notoriously included the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, Super Bowls and the Academy Awards.
Sources: Danny Weil, "Many Forms of Occupy Protests Subjected to New Bill Making Protests Illegal," The Daily Censored (blog), March 5, 2012; Oskar Mosquito, "Enacting the NDAA: Limiting Protesters' Rights," Media Roots, March 5, 2012; Brian Doherty, "Bill Passes House: Protests Near Secret Service Protected Folk Effectively Outlawed," Reason (blog), March 1, 2012.
Curt Guyette is the news editor of Detroit's Metro Times.