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Beyond Project Censored: It's Time for a New Award

As the media world changes rapidly, especially on the Web, independent journalists need to think outside of the box. Case in point is Project Censored, which not only has a dubious selection process for its annual list of Censored stories, but also reinforces self-marginalizing, defeatist behavior. It's time to honor high-quality alternative journalism with a new award -- this time celebrating independent stories that break out into mainstream consciousness, rather than ones that wallow in obscurity.
 
 
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The media world has changed dramatically over the past decade. The Internet is increasingly delivering more information in new, faster and more efficient ways. As a result, the alternative media has more opportunities to break through the corporate media's traditional stranglehold on information. At no time was this more apparent than at the WTO protests in Seattle, when the alternative media reached international audiences with fresh, dynamic information.

In fundamental ways, we in the progressive, independent media world are stuck in the past, with very little capacity to make effective use of new media. A case in point is Project Censored, which compiles a list of the Top Ten censored stories every year. Flawed in its process to begin with, Project Censored tends to reinforce fundamentally self-marginalizing, defeatist behavior while ignoring the role new media is playing in communicating information. Instead of honoring timely, investigative-oriented, break-out stories that move from the alternative press to mainstream media, Project Censored chooses to recognize only those stories that remain buried. Part of the problem with Project Censored is the procedure by which stories are selected. PC's excellent panel of judges do not select the stories; rather they are asked only to rate a list of 25 picked by students and faculty from Sonoma State University.

I've personally been a supporter of PC over the years. But I finally got shocked into reconsidering a couple of years ago when the then publisher of In These Times, Paul Obst, started calling the PC awards the Alternative Pulitzers. Without overly burnishing the Pulitzers, let's think about this for a moment: Obst was celebrating, as the most important stories our community can produce, an ad hoc collection of articles that weren't rated for their writing quality, their strength of argument or their documentation. And, of course, many were stories that very few people ever read. Yet these stories, year in and year out, receive our highest plaudits. This process -- for the most part the sole recognition for independent journalism -- demeans our standards. We can do better.

Absolutely, there are some very important stories among the PC content every year, written by incredibly good journalists about terribly important subjects. And there are some lame ones as well. But the point is, we should not be celebrating the failure to get those stories out to larger audiences.

We need new awards. Let's call them the Project Big Audience Awards -- recognition for stories dug out, documented, brilliantly rendered and expertly promoted so that they got through the corporate media haze and became part of the public knowledge. That's worth a celebration.

Let's not be naive here -- we're dealing with a mainstream media system that exists to protect a wide range of corporate interests and to make a lot of money. There are more PR agents than journalists writing the news. Billions of dollars are spent to get some messages into the mainstream and keep others out. In this media world the law of the jungle rules, and journalist and editors must fight tooth and nail, organizing, seducing, threatening, haranguing, to get their stories to center stage.

Within these serious constraints, some independent journalists make significant contributions, especially now with the Internet. High traffic on various Web sites has forced numerous stories to the surface. Just look at the success Village Voice investigative reporter Bill Bastone has had with TheSmokingGun.com, a site that posts a new "exclusive document" -- mostly confidential law enforcement and government material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act -- every day. Bastone and his Hollywood colleague Sam Bretzfeld are most famous for uncovering the restraining order taken out against Rick Rockwell, the groom of Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" debacle, a stunt that brought 400,000 people to his site in one day. But Bastone unearths all sorts of interesting political and historical documents, some trivial some with major political ramifications. Maybe he should get the first Project Big Audience Award.

But according to Project Censored culture, the way to get an award is if your story doesn't get advanced or echoed in the mainstream media. Sure, it could have been censorship that stopped or slowed the story. But it also could have been that the article was badly written, had facts wrong, had bad timing or wasn't placed or promoted. None of these causes is really factored in the subjective process of PC choosing its stories. What we need to do is invest time and resources in helping journalists get their important stories more attention, rather than sitting back and offering a Project Censored award as consolation.

Yet PC has its moments. It still can serve a useful purpose. As one of this year's awardees, Ron Nixon, explains, "Yes, they are awards in a way, but they are really a PR effort to expand the story. Once the Project Censored book comes out (a compilation of the Top 25 stories) and articles about the awards appear in a number of alternative papers, the stories get more attention. It gives the stories an extra push."

Fair enough; these stories need all the pushing they can get. But I also agree with Ron's partner, Makani Themba, a well-known author, trainer and organizer, who calls Project Censored "awards for people not reading your stuff."

Journalists may be seeing the light as well. Jason Vest, when asked about the significance of the Censored 2000 List replied: "Hard to say. I think Project Censored has been invaluable over the years, but I have to wonder if some review of it's selection and vetting procedures is in order. Also, I have to wonder if calling it 'Censored' limits its impact on the mainstream that needs to be the most aware of it. In progressive circles, most of us can quote Manufacturing Consent; outside of our circles, most think of censorship in much more conventional terms. Perhaps it should be renamed."

I agree. It's time for a change.