Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored for 13 years, says he's finished with reform. It's impossible, he says, 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 the 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 25 most significant news stories that were largely ignored or underreported 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 ignored by major media.
The term "censored" doesn't mean that some government agent stood over newsrooms with a rubber stamp and forbade 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 at 30 affiliate 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, which summarizes the top stories, provides in-depth media analysis, and includes resources for readers who are hungry for more substantive reporting.
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, he adds, "We're awash in a sea of information. But we have a paucity of understanding about what the truth is."
The top 25 Project Censored stories of 2008-2009 highlight the same theme that Phillips and Huff say has triggered the downslide of mainstream media: the influence of powerful, profit-driven interests. Here's this year's list:
1. Congress sells out to Wall Street
The total tab for the Wall Street bailout, including money spent and promised by the United States 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 has 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'etat," 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.
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 the Civil Rights Project of the University of California Los Angeles. 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 U.S. Yet this racial diversity often isn't reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African American and Latino youth attend schools that Orfield characterizes as "intensely segregated," comprised of 90 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 the ending of desegregation plans in public schools nationwide. Schools that are segregated by race and poverty tend to have much higher dropout rates, higher 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."
3. 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. Even as the pirates' exploits around the Gulf of Aden captured the world's attention, however, very 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 overfishing in their coastal waters.
In the early 1990s, when the government of Somalia 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. 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. The uncontrolled fishing harvests, meanwhile, damaged the economic livelihoods of Somali fishermen and eroded the country's supply of a primary food source. That's when the piracy started.
"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.'"
4. 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 plant, 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.
5. U.S. fails to protect consumers against toxics
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, and the European legislation aimed to gradually phase out these toxic materials and replace them with safer alternatives.
The story that's gone unreported by mainstream American news media, however, is how this game-changing legislation might impact the U.S., 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 is lagging far behind 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.
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, special interests spent a collective $32,523 per legislator, per day, 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 U.S. government shelling out billions in stimulus money, industries wanted to ensure they'd get 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 D.C. 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.
7. Obama's controversial defense appointees
President Barack Obama's appointments to the U.S. Department of Defense have raised questions among critics who've studied their track records. Although the 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 the 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 U.S. provided military aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
8. Big business cheats the IRS
The Cayman Islands and Bermuda are magnets for financial giants such as Bank of America, Citigroup, American International Group, and 11 other beneficiaries of the federal government's 2008 Wall Street bailout: 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. 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 recent years.
In December 2008, banking giant Goldman Sachs reported its first-ever quarterly loss, then 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.
9. U.S. connected to white phosphorus strikes in Gaza
In mid-January, as part of a military campaign, the Israeli Defense Forces fired several shells that hit the headquarters of a United Nations relief agency in Gaza City, destroying provisions for basic aid such as food and medicine. The shells contained white phosphorus (referred to as "Willy Pete" in military slang), a smoke-producing, spontaneously flammable agent that is designed to obscure battle territory but can also ignite buildings or cause grotesque burns if it touches the skin.
The attack on the relief-agency headquarters is but 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 phosphorus shells on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards, and at a UN school in Gaza. Human Rights Watch says that IDF's use of white phosphorus violated international law, which prohibits deliberate, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks that result in civilian casualties.
10. Ecuador says it won't pay illegitimate debt
When Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced the country 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 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 leftover to combat poverty in Ecuador.
Ecuador eventually agreed to a restructuring of its debt at about 35 cents on the dollar, but the move nonetheless served to expose deficiencies in the World Bank system, which provides little recourse for countries to resolve disputes over potentially illegitimate debt.
For an expanded version of this story with sources, visit www.projectcensored.org.
SIDEBAR BOX 1 OF 1
THE REST OF THE TOP 25
11. Private Corporations Profit from the Occupation of Palestine
12. Mysterious Death of Mike Connell — Karl Rove's Election Thief
13. Katrina's Hidden Race War
14. Congress Invested in Defense Contracts
15. World Bank's Carbon Trade Fiasco
16. U.S. Repression of Haiti Continues
17. The ICC Facilitates U.S. Covert War in Sudan
18. Ecuador's Constitutional Rights of Nature
19. Bank Bailout Recipients Spent to Defeat Labor
20. Secret Control of the Presidential Debates
21. Recession Causes States to Cut Welfare
22. Obama's Trilateral Commission Team
23. Activists Slam World Water Forum as a Corporate-Driven Fraud
24. Dollar Glut Finances U.S. Military Expansion
25. Fast Track Oil Exploitation in Western Amazon