Time Up For Project Censored?

[Editor's Note: In the following article, I'm quoted extensively about the role Project Censored plays in our media pantheon. I would like to clarify with a couple of points. First, corporate media is worse than ever as evidenced by the terrible job they did leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the preponderance of fake news, and the rampant bias everywhere you look. Second, there is no doubt that various forms of systemic censorship operate all the time in the corporate media system.

But my beef with Project Censored is that it is more important to focus on the specific obstacles to getting information out and overcome them -- to celebrate success, not be victimized by the corporate media. At this point, with the Internet, blogs, and other independent media of all sorts, there is no excuse for not getting millions of eyeballs and ears to see and hear important information that the corporate media ignores ... and they ignore stuff all the time. Lastly, my critique of Project Censored is in no way critical of the many fine journalists whose work has been celebrated by the Project.
-- Don Hazen, Executive editor, AlterNet]

If there has been one fixture in an industry that's on a never-ending quest for the next great idea, it's been Project Censored, the brainchild of a university professor who combined academic research techniques with some standard journalistic practices to dig out stories that Americans didn't hear or read much about in the popular media.

When Professor Carl Jensen started the Project as a 400-level course through Sonoma State University's Sociology Department 30 years ago, alternative newspapers -- many of them in their infancies with young writers wary of institutional authority and hungry to shake up the system -- devoured the muck that Jensen and his team of student researchers raked up and dished out each year.

Tainted baby food and banned pesticides being sold by greedy American corporations to needy Third World countries and the influence of the Trilateral Commission on the Carter administration were hot topics in the early years of Project Censored.

In the Reagan era, exposés on government-backed death squads in El Salvador's bloody civil war, the equally bloody and not-so-secret war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government by the CIA-backed Contras, and US and European countries using African nations as toxic ashtrays were some of the stories people didn't know much about, that is until reading them in alternative papers like The Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the LA Weekly.

Three decades is a long time to survive in any business, and for nearly a quarter-century most of the stories published by Project Censored went mostly unquestioned, if also largely unnoticed by most consumers of mainstream news.

But over the past six years, the playing fields in both journalism and politics have changed dramatically. For starters, mainstream news is now being controlled by giant corporations and the government like never before. For its part, the federal government has been literally buying good press by co-opting real journalists to write and broadcast the equivalent of press releases for Bush administration policies and passing that off as "real" news. And as that is happening, daily mainstream newspapers are being swallowed up by bigger news companies and being transformed into little more than advertising vehicles.

In the alternative journalism world, which some media watchers believe has now become really nothing more than an extension of the mainstream press, both the once staunchly liberal Village Voice and the LA Weekly, along with a host of other papers in major markets across the country, are now owned by the politically ambivalent former New Times chain of papers, a Phoenix-based national publishing company that is now known as Village Voice Media and assumes a largely libertarian political persona in its writing, a hard-knuckled approach to reporting and generally eschews liberal and party-line politics at all of its 17 weekly newspapers.

But more to the point -- and more than partially because of the perceived extreme left-leaning bent that editors with Project Censored have assumed over the years in selecting, writing and publishing its stories -- some in the alternative press, who themselves mostly leaned hard to the political left and once unconditionally supported Project Censored, aren't so sure anymore: sure if the information being offered is really censored, if the information being reported is actually correct, and if Project Censored is still relevant, at least from a journalistic perspective.

Friends and foes

While the Project has attracted its share of criticism over the years, it definitely has its supporters, some from unlikely places, like columnist Molly Ivins, who wrote a rare piece praising the Project that appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune, and Bryce Nelson, a USC journalism professor and former reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Nelson spent most of his career in the mainstream press, but believes Project Censored is actually a "very useful" thing for readers, partially because, as he readily acknowledges, the mainstream press definitely has its share of failures and built-in biases.

Project Censored, Nelson noted in a subsequent email, "provides the reader a reminder (or alert) of stories that the public could have noted. Much of the press has a centrist bias, so any list, whether it's left-wing, right-wing or just far out, can do a useful service in provoking consideration of other stories."

But are Project Censored stories actually censored, as critics of the Project say they are not?

"It may be more a question of not paying sufficient attention," Nelson wrote. "For instance, there were stories questioning the administration's claims on Iraq having WMDs, but they didn't receive the attention they deserved." True enough. But for Project Censored critics, more than anything it has been the Project's perceived long leftward lean that has done the most damage to the its overall credibility, at least in the eyes of some in the journalistic world.

"It's fair to say it's predictably left in the same way that the Weekly was in its early years," said Michael Sigman, who served as publisher of the LA Weekly from 1984 to 2002. Sigman is not a critic and didn't really have an opinion on the overall worth of the Project. But, "The thing I remember the most," he said, "is that [Bay Guardian Editor and Publisher] Bruce Brugmann, who is one of the more unquestioning people on the left, would just run it. That pretty much says it all."

Brugmann, a white-haired and bearded bear of a man, started the Bay Guardian 40 years ago and is regarded by many in the industry, such as Sigman, to be a "larger than life" pioneer of the alternative press.

"It's needed now more than ever, with the accelerating concentration of the press, and the one newspaper town turning into the one newspaper region," said Brugmann, a past Project Censored award winner. "The thing that really works for me is very few daily papers ever run it. They are embarrassed to run it. And here we are, in the middle of the Bush administration, with stenographers in the mainstream press working away at top speed to take us into the war and to keep the pressure down... there's even more reason for a Project Censored," Brugmann said. "They ought to do a censored story every week, as far as I'm concerned.

"My problem with Project Censored was a minor one, which they knew about, and that was they did national and international stories rather than domestic or local stories as much as they should. But, to deal with that, when we run Project Censored, we do local censored stories and we check around with various activists in the various categories -- media, environmental, consumer, political, etc. -- then we do the stories that the local media don't properly cover," Brugmann said. "That's makes a much fuller package and covers any of the holes that I've seen."

Author and veteran Los Angeles journalist Marc Cooper, also a past Project Censored award winner, has possessed one of the country's most important voices of the political left over the past 25 years. Now an editor and columnist with the LA Weekly, Cooper has written s and articles for magazines such as The Nation, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly, to name but a few. He's presently writing an article for The Atlantic on left and right influences on the media.

These days, Cooper's own politics have hardened somewhat, and his opinions on many issues that are dear to the left seem to be moving closer and closer to the political center. But be political predilections what they are, for Cooper the fact remains: Project Censored always did and probably always will lean to the left, just as it is a remote possibility that researchers and writers with the Project have really uncovered any information in recent years that was actually censored.

"Really, there are very few stories in American journalism that get censored. There are stories that get underplayed, that don't get the attention that they should, but cases of stories being censored are few and far between," Cooper said.

"Even before the Internet boon, Project Censored celebrated these stories, when in fact there is nothing to celebrate," said Cooper, who, like Nelson, teaches journalism at USC. "It's not great news that the East Bay Express [another Village Voice Media weekly paper in Northern California] or some other publication covered the story. What is more relevant is that the story was not covered" by anyone, alternative or mainstream, he said. "To the degree that these stories are not covered, to the extent that these stories are quote unquote censored, what is there to celebrate about that?"

Plenty, said Peter Phillips, a sociology professor at Sonoma State who took the project's reins after Jensen's retirement a few years back. To say there isn't censorship in American media is denying the reality of our times, which has seen not only an explosion of information availability by virtue of the Internet alone but also increasing corporate and government control of the means of delivering those messages.

"We get accused of liberal bias all the time, but that is simply not the case," Phillips said in a recent phone interview from his campus office in Northern California. "It's certainly not the case relative to the Republicans and Democrats. I think we have a bias in terms of free press, freedom of information and the public's right to know. Yeah, we are very biased in that regard. That's what we advocate for."

Cracks in the armor

Darts and laurels for Project Censored have come from a variety of quarters over the years, with much of the recent criticism emanating from writers with the Village Voice Media (or, as some in the alternative world say, Evil) Empire, among them the particularly acerbic Matt Palmquist of the SF Weekly, bitter business and ideological enemies of Brugmann's very proudly left Bay Guardian.

In a piece that appeared in the SF Weekly in 2002, Palmquist complained that Project Censored had become "a hallowed fixture of the alternative press," as predictable as any mainstream newspaper. And at the former New Times chain, an often-used phrase is, "Be predictably unpredictable,"which they contend Project Censored is not.

Of that year's top 10 under-covered stories, nine, Palmquist wrote, had already received prominent coverage by mainstream institutions like The New York Times. Even Mother Jones magazine, "a bastion of the left," he continued, "has slammed Project Censored."

They were correct about that. Brooke Shelby Biggs two years prior to their column asked in Mother Jones, "Will Project Censored please go away?" Apparently not one to hold back, Biggs called the student-run project a "sacred cow" of the left that has become "predictable and boring," not to mention "irrelevant, laughable, and cheesy."

Today, even the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia acknowledges criticisms of the Project, writing that although it never explicitly takes a political stance, "Almost every story that Project Censored highlights has a leftist political slant, with stories criticizing big business, economic inequality, damage to the environment, war and the armed forces, and evildoing by rightist politicians, among other leftist 'hot-button' issues," the entry states. Further, states Wikipedia, "The group periodically is criticized for shoddy reporting or misrepresentation of facts, the same fallacies the group itself claims to battle. Occasionally these claims come from other leftist publications that are concerned that the Project's alleged misreporting will give an already fragile news development even less credibility. It is also at times criticized for reporting on stories which are arguably not 'under-reported' or 'censored' at all."

These are clearly very well-known perceptions these days. But prior to all that, back in 2000, Project Censored enjoyed an almost unquestioned presence in the alternative news world. That is until Don Hazen, executive director of the AlterNet news Web site, openly criticized the Project Censored awards in an April 1 column -- 10 days prior to the publication of Biggs' screed -- that was anything but funny.

In scathing published responses to Hazen, who is also executive director of the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute, Brugmann strenuously defended the Project and some of its reporters and editors, some of whom were singled out for criticism by Hazen in subsequent posts.

The ensuing series of articles -- more accurately war of words -- opened the door for what little substantive criticism that the project had actually weathered over the years.

At the heart of the issue for Hazen, as Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix explained at the time, was the selection of a story by Diana Johnstone, the former European editor of the leftist magazine In These Times, which argued in less than 1,000 words that the Kosovo crisis had been manufactured by NATO in order to build a pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian Sea through the Balkans.

The article, which Kennedy noted consisted mainly of quotes from the Washington Post and the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, didn't substantiate any of its findings, but nonetheless went on to be chosen for a Project Censored award that year.

To Kennedy, the selection of Johnstone's piece "says something important about why much of the progressive press does, indeed, find itself marginalized, unable to get its message out into the mainstream," as he wrote at the time of a sentiment that Cooper and Hazen couldn't agree with more.

"And the ensuing battle over Project Censored itself," Kennedy went on, "says a lot about the differences between the liberal left, which remains optimistic about the possibility of transforming the culture, and the radical left, which has grown as paranoid and conspiratorial as, say, Pat Buchanan or Alan Keyes."

With entries like Johnstone's winning major kudos, the independent press is moving in the wrong direction; driving mainstream media away from, not toward, the big stories being broken in the independent and alternative press, Hazen argued.

In an interview last week, Hazen, whose AlterNet site no longer sells stories and does not pick up the Project Censored annual list of winners, said he thinks that "the Project Censored notion is stale, because it plays into this victimization thing.

"The corporate media is the only way to communicate, and the corporate media is not going to like our stories, and the reason why they don't like them is because of politics and so they are going to censor them and we are going to take those stories," Hazen said, giving a breathy thumbnail of how he envisions the Project's story selection process. "And, no matter if they are good or mediocre or whatever, we are going to award them and celebrate them," when they should be trying to get those stories out to mainstream audiences, he said. "I mean, that would be a celebration. But to celebrate the ones that nobody ever reads is like a celebration of failure."

In Phillips' opinion, however, if there are any failures in relation to Project Censored they lay in allowing the corporate media to set the parameters of what is and what isn't considered news; opting for easy, lengthy and empty entertainment pieces at the expense of telling real news stories that people should know about, but might pose a threat to a government institution or a corporate interest.

"There's probably bias relative to corporate power versus human rights, but that's the tradition of journalism, that's what journalists have done at least since the Progressive Movement," said Phillips, referring to a time when, he said, reporters "put a mirror up to the rich and powerful."

Today, "As corporate media has become the powerful in themselves, and there is this loss of diversity of news sources around, corporations are interlocked with the corporate media so strongly they are no longer journalists of tradition that look at inequality and are finding their own issues along those lines," Phillips said.

'Very predictable'

Cooper said his beef with Project Censored is somewhat personal. Cooper said he won an award from the group for his coverage of the invasion of Panama in December 1989, during the first Bush administration. But, a few years ago, he became disappointed in how another matter, a management struggle at a Pacifica radio station that Cooper worked at, was covered by the Project and was turned off to it.

Cooper was news and public affairs director of Pacifica Radio's KPFK-FM, 90.7-FM, in the early '80s and went on to host a daily talk show from 1998 to 2001. Cooper quit the show, according to Wikipedia's very abbreviated take on the ongoing and complex controversy, over control issues with the station's parent Pacifica Foundation.

"I stopped paying attention to Project Censored some years ago," Cooper said.

Hazen said he doesn't doubt that censorship is real and at work in the American media. "But in terms of Project Censored, while I'm sure it's done some great things, I think it's kind of a mistake to celebrate as opposed to point out, and when I say celebrate, people treat Project Censored as an award, as a trophy, as a success-marker, when in fact what it is suggesting is that the story, for whatever reasons, has failed to break through to a broad enough audience so that people wouldn't think it so quote unquote censored," he said. "I've observed Project Censored for years, decades, and some of the stories that they cite you probably could make a case they may have been censored in some form. But what you might wonder: Was the story written very well? Does it make the case very well? Is it so obscure that no one really wants it? Could they have done it better? The article is incredibly important and we have to figure out a way to get it out there. So it's kind of a defeatist kind of thing, and over the years people began to think they were really doing well to get a Project Censored award when, in fact, it's all been failure. It's been our inability to get big audiences for important information in those articles."

Not surprisingly, Phillips, who recently returned with members of his class and others involved with the Project from an international investigative journalism conference in Copenhagen, believes just the opposite, and for good reason.

One of three stories profiled by Project Censored, Phillips said, is eventually picked up by the mainstream. Yes, the number of alternative papers running the list has dwindled over the years to just a few dozen, among them Brugmann's Bay Guardian, but there are "between 20,000 and 50,000 hits" on the Project's Web site each day, said Phillips, so it's clear someone is reading the material being posted at this year tops out at 430 pages -- the largest edition ever. The final 25 censored stories are ranked in order of significance by a national panel of members of the media, authors and educators.

Phillips remains convinced that "there is a deliberate effort at the highest levels now of corporate media, and particularly the ideological people on the neoconservative side of the fence. ... They really do want to control media in this country and they really are spending a whole lot of money to spin news stories," Phillips said.

And he bristles when he hears that some believe the Project predictable. "I don't know where they ever get the idea that anything could be predictable with Project Censored. It's just too big," Phillips said. One sign that the Project's reports are finally finding their way into the mainstream is a recent column in the Chicago Tribune by Molly Ivins, who cited the Project's top 10 stories in calling for a Media Accountability Day.

"I have long been persuaded that the news media collectively will be sent to hell not for our sins of commission, but our sins of omission. The real scandal in the media is not bias, it is laziness. Laziness and bad news judgment," Ivins wrote. "Our failure is what we miss, what we fail to cover, what we let slip by, what we don't give enough attention to -- because, after all, we have to cover Jennifer and Brad, and Scott and Laci, and Whosit who disappeared in Aruba without whom the world can scarce carry on," Ivins wrote.

Phillips can attest to that disturbing fact of modern life after recently attending the journalism conference in Denmark, where top editors of mainstream European newspapers said stories about Africa don't sell, unless, of course, they include photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie visiting there, validating Phillips' contention that much of what passes for news these days is really just conscience-numbing entertainment.

"Happily," Ivins continued in her column, one of the few acknowledgements of the Project in major mainstream newspapers, "the perfect news peg, as we say in the biz, for Media Accountability Day already exists -- it's Project Censored's annual release of the 10 biggest stories ignored or under-covered by mainstream media. ... Of course, the stories are not actually 'censored' by any authority, but they do not receive enough attention to enter the public's consciousness, usually because corporate media tend to under-report stories about corporate misdeeds and government abuses."

Said Phillips: "These are stories about corporations and government that have been doing things that affect a lot of people, usually negatively, that the corporate media in the United States hasn't covered. That's what's predictable about it: That the corporate media won't be covering important news stories for the mainstream people in this country," Phillips said. "That is predictable, and that's gotten worse."

Brugmann agreed and offered a suggestion to those editors who may not want to use the Project's annual list of stories.

"There is no doubt that Project Censored is needed, and if anybody doesn't like and they don't think it's needed, they should do their own [list] and run that at the same time. They should do their own stories, in their city, in their region, in their state, or even nationally."

Project Censored, Brugmann said, helps dramatize the fact that "there are enormous problems with media concentration, there are enormous problems with the Washington Beltway press corps, there're enormous problems with the way [mainstream media] handled the Bush administration and the war, there are enormous problems with the media."

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