April 10, 2001
Have you read the one about corporations planning to charge you hundreds of dollars a month for your tap water? Or the one about military "psychological operations" specialists manipulating viewers of CNN? What about the highly skilled programmers in Silicon Valley who, because they are immigrants, are laboring under sweatshop-like conditions?
If none of these stories rings a bell, it's not because you've missed the latest e-mail hoax. It's because these very real tales -- and many others like them -- weren't reported in the mainstream media.
Instead, they were among this year's "Top Ten Censored Stories," according to Project Censored, a veteran media watchdog group. Every year for the past 25, Project Censored has tracked important stories that are underreported or blacked out by the mainstream press. The articles are honored with an award and then compiled in a book published by Seven Stories Press.
The consistent theme exposed by these articles is that our government routinely fails to protect our rights, health and safety, especially if there's corporate money at stake. While Americans often bad-mouth "big government," we overwhelmingly favor health and environmental regulations, and trust that they keep us safe. Unfortunately, as these stories show, our trust may be misplaced.
The yearly release of the Project's Top Ten list (and 15 runner-ups) is often accompanied by controversy and a pinch of confusion, mostly because of the Project's complicated definition of censorship. Few mainstream news organizations experience overt, top-down censorship -- for example, an editor killing a controversial story or firing a reporter who has dug too deep.
The reality of censorship in American newsrooms is far more subtle and, arguably, far more pervasive. As mainstream media outlets are increasingly dominated by large corporate conglomerates, they become ever more beholden to the bottom line. Stories that don't make money -- either because they don't capture a large audience, are too expensive to research or might offend advertisers and investors -- often end up on the newsroom floor.
Reporters and editors quickly learn to play by the narrow rules of the game, and to keep their stories within a certain range of ideas and topics. On top of this self-censorship, the relentless pace of mainstream news outlets rarely allows for anything more than simplified treatments of complex subjects.
Fortunately, as Project Censored points out year after year, there are other media outlets that do investigate and report on controversial, complicated stories -- the independent press. Ranging from established national magazines (In These Times, The Progressive, Washington Monthly) to web outlets (MotherJones.com, AlterNet.org) to alternative newsweeklies, these publications, as the Project puts it, report "the news that doesn't make the news."
Unfortunately, because their reach is small compared to the massive media giants that dominate print, radio, television and online news, stories in these indy publications often don't get the attention they deserve. That's where Project Censored believes it can help. By honoring the Top Ten Censored Stories, the Project hopes both to provoke mainstream media to cover these issues and to strengthen the independent press.
"We must redevelop news and information systems from the bottom up," writes Peter Phillips, Project Censored's director and a journalism professor at Sonoma State University. "Thousands of alternative news organizations already exist. We just need to connect and put their news on the breakfast tables of millions of working people."
Executing that vision is easier said than done, of course. And while highlighting the top ten underreported stories every year will hardly cause a media revolution, it will keep more people informed about the pressing issues that passed quietly by last year. So without further ado, the Top Ten Censored Stories of 2000 are ...
1. World Bank and Multinational Companies Seek to Privatize Water
Awards to: Jim Shultz, In These Times and This, Maude Barlow, International Forum on Globalization, Vandana Shiva, Canadian Dimension, Daniel Zoll and Pratap Chatterjee, the San Francisco Bay Guardian
The authors of this year's first-place award all started with the same premise: that global water consumption is doubling every 20 years and that by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise to 56 percent more than the amount of water currently available.
This frightens environmentalists. But for officials at international lending institutions and multinational companies, it's a business opportunity. "Water is the last infrastructure frontier for private investors," declared one banking official. Monsanto corporation certainly agrees; it plans to earn revenues of $420 million and a net income of $63 million by 2008 from its water business in India and Mexico.
The Bechtel corporation is also on the case, but has botched its scramble for blue gold. While attempting to privatize the local water system of Cochamba, Bolivia, not only did they provoke mass strikes that injured hundreds and shut down the city of 600,000 for a week, but they sought to pin the blame for the uprising on narcotics traffickers. Nevertheless, this bad PR has not stopped Bechtel -- the company appears to be positioning itself to privatize San Francisco's water system.
2. OSHA Can't -- or Won't -- Help Powerless Workers
Award to: Christopher Cook, The Progressive
Though focused on one particularly egregious scandal, Project Censored's second-place winner is more a broad indictment of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As author Christopher Cook points out, OSHA has only 2,300 inspectors to cover 102 million workers in 6.7 million workplaces. That's one inspector for every 44,348 workers. It would take OSHA 110 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.
Even when OSHA does inspect workplaces that are violating safety rules, the fines they force employers to pay are a joke. In one case at Titan International, the manufacturing company profiled in Cook's article, OSHA only imposed a paltry $10,000 fine after Titan's illegal equipment, which lacked crucial safety features, killed a worker. For a company raking in hundreds of millions a year, a couple grand is laughable.
The net effect is that employers like Titan pay no attention to rules and regulations designed to keep their workers safe. While it would cost them plenty of short-term dollars to install safety guards and properly train workers, it will only cost them relatively small amounts in fines over a long period if they do not. Their workers, of course, are caught in the middle.
3. Army Propaganda Team Worked at CNN
Award to: Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch
The corporate media has long relied on government spinmeisters to produce news during times of war. The army has entire units of men, called "psychological operations" groups, devoted in part to spreading information and propaganda to news organizations. From them, media outlets get insider, official information without having to do much reporting.
But the military took the principle way too far when it actually placed army psy-ops personnel at CNN's TV, radio and satellite bureaus during the Kosovo war.
Through a program called "Training With Industry," the army stationed five psy-ops soldiers as interns at CNN's Southeast bureau. Later, in a closed-door army symposium, a psy-ops Commander said the cooperation with CNN was a textbook example of the kind of ties the American army wants to have with the media.
"The U.S. Army ... confirmed to me that military personnel have been involved in news production at CNN's newsdesks," said Abe De Vried, who first broke the story in a respected Dutch newspaper. "I found it simply astonishing. These kind of close ties with the army are, in my view, completely unacceptable for any serious news organization."
As award-winner Alexander Cockburn speculated, "It could be that CNN was the target of a psy-ops penetration and is still too naive to figure out what was going on."
4. Did the U.S. Deliberately Bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade?
Awards to: Joel Bleifuss and Seth Ackerman, In These Times, Yoichi Shimatsu, Pacific News Service
On May 7, 1999, U.S. figher pilots bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three people. The Clinton administration apologized and called it a "tragic mistake" resulting from an outdated map. Chinese authorities rejected both the explanation and the apology and insisted the bombing was deliberate.
Five months later, reports in the Observer of London and Copenhagen's Politiken alleged that the CIA had coordinated the attack in order to destroy a Yugoslavian army rebroadcast center housed in the embassy. Secretary of State Madeline Albright dismissed the allegations as "balderdash," and both stories were ignored by mainstream news outlets in the U.S.
In response to a campaign by media critic group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the Times finally ran an investigative story in April of last year, claiming it found no conclusive evidence of a deliberate attack -- though the reporter, Times Pentagon correspondent Steven Lee Myers, seemed to have his doubts. But the real issue was the reluctance of the U.S. media to confront a story that was receiving serious attention abroad.
5. U.S. Taxes Underwrite Nuke Plants Overseas
Award to: Ken Silverstein and Ian Urbina, The Progressive
"Here's a story you probably won't see on CBS." So begins Silverstein and Urbina's expose of the U.S. Export-Import Bank's foreign nuclear power plant deals. The writers start smugly for good reason: Westinghouse, which built unsafe and overpriced Ex-Im-backed nuclear power plants, owns the CBS network. And sure enough CBS did not cover the story.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank is a government agency that underwrites exports through tax-payer backed loans. As the writers document, between 1959 and 1993, it spent $7.7 billion to help sell American-made reactors overseas. The reason for this "help," however, was not altruistic. U.S. nuclear contractors like Westinghouse, Bechtel and General Electric have watched their home markets shrink, as nuclear power has become riddled with risks and uncertainties. Thus they have searched for clients abroad. Since most countries can't afford to buy nuclear power facilities, the contractors often provide financing backed by Ex-Im and you.
Often, contractors make windfall profits from such loans. In 1985, Westinghouse built the Bataan nuclear power facility in the Philippines at a cost of $1.2 billion, 150 percent above projections. The plant was situated near an active volcano and never generated a single watt of energy. Nevertheless, the Philippines pays $300,000 a day in interest on the loan that funded the project. Of course, none of this should be a huge surprise -- the leader of the council overseeing Ex-Im loans is also the head honcho at Westinghouse.
6. Our Role in the Genocide in Rwanda
Awards to: David Corn, AlterNet.org; Ellen Ray, Covert Action Quarterly
In censored story #6, AlterNet.org columnist David Corn examines a low point of Bill Clinton's foreign policy: the alleged U.S. collusion in the genocide of more than half a million Tutsi people by the Hutus in Rwanda.
Corn noticed a modest news story in the New York Times which said that the Organization for African Unity had issued a report critical of United States -- especially of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- for handling the Rwandan genocide so poorly. "But the story did not go into details," Corn wrote, "[even though] the report demolished the Clinton assertion that he had not been fully aware of the genocide when it had been under way." Ellen Ray's lengthy article about the Congo in Covert Action Quarterly echoed this condemning assertion.
Other mass killings have occurred during Rwanda's brutal history. However, under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, once a genocide is recognized, the nations of the world are obligated to prevent the killings and to punish the murderers. A story that strongly suggests that our government knew about this horrible rampage and might have been prevented it deserves significant media follow-up.
7. Biotech Industry Censors Critics of Genetically Engineered Food
Awards to: Joel Bleifuss, In These Times; Karen Charman, Extra!; Ben Lilliston, Multinational Monitor
In 1998, Scottish researcher Arpad Pusztai found that genetically engineered (GE) potatoes seemed to be causing sickness and poor brain development in rats. When he went to the press with his preliminary findings, the biotech industry -- poised to make billions from GE foods -- came down on him like a ton of bricks.
Pusztai was quickly fired by his employer, the Rowett Research Institute, while his research team was disbanded and his data seized. It later came out that Rowett had received a $224,000 grant from biotech giant Monsanto prior to Pusztai's firing.
Pusztai pushed his case in the media, creating a firestorm of controversy in the British press. His main point: Why not continue the experiments he had started to determine the health risks of GE potatoes? Eventually, he found an ally in Prince Charles, who wrote a widely publicized article in the Daily Mail questioning the lack of safety testing on GE foods. In a highly unusual move, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- a biotech advocate -- called Charles to advise him to withdraw his opinion and refrain from any further public comments. Just another startling illustration of how effectively industry, in collusion with industry-friendly government officials, can squash opinions or evidence that might threaten profit margins.
8. Drug Companies Influence Doctors and Health Organizations to Push Meds
Awards to: Stephen Pomper, Washington Monthly; Ken Silverstein, MotherJones.com; David Oaks, Dendron; Jacqueline Sparks Miller, Family Therapy Networker
Advertising would seem an effective enough marketing tool for drugs, since research shows that most patients who ask for a drug they saw on TV get the prescription they want. But pharmaceutical companies are hedging their bets, spending billions each year to influence doctors and even bankrolling "patients" groups to advocate on their behalf.
In "Drug Rush," Stephen Pomper describes how an accelerated FDA drug approval process, combined with too few experts to monitor reports of problems with drugs already on the market, leaves patients vulnerable. The risk to public health increases when pharmaceutical companies ply doctors with incentives to turn them into salesmen for the latest medications.
Meanwhile, Ken Silversteins research for Mother Jones revealed that the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a non-profit advocacy group that calls itself "a grassroots organization for individuals with brain disorders, and their family members," received millions from pharmaceutical companies, including a large chunk from Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly.
"Mother Jones cracked the shell," David Oaks concluded in a follow up story for Dendron that connects the dots between the drug companies' largess and a coercive medication monitoring program sponsored by NAMI. "It's up to the grassroots to finish the job."
9. EPA Planned to Dump Toxic Waste into Denver Sewers
Award to: Will Fantle, The Progressive
A year ago, the city of Denver planned to "clean" the nearby Lowry Superfund site by pumping radioactive waste through the city's sewer system and selling the sludge to commercial agribusiness concerns for use as fertilizer on crops grown for human consumption.
The local EPA office said there's no credible evidence of dangerous levels of radioactive waste at the site, but a group headed by local law professor Adrienne Anderson said the plan stinks a mile high. Anderson's research convinced 7,000 citizens to sign a petition that prompted the EPA's inspector general to call for an investigation of the proposed cleanup methods. Since this story was published in The Progressive, the city of Denver started, then stopped accepting liquid waste from Lowry, but the program is slated to resume.
What do the local papers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News (which merged this year) have to say about it? Not much, the story reports -- maybe because for many years, their companies contributed their own toxic waste to Lowry.
10. Silicon Valley Sweatshops
Award to: David Bacon, Labor Notes and the Washington Free Press
There is a silver lining for employers who hire immigrant workers on H1-B visas. They are brought to the U.S. on individual contracts, and therefore, unlike U.S. workers, do not have the legal protection to organize, sue for unfair treatment or even demand the salaries they are promised.
This is particularly true for high-tech workers from India and Pakistan employed by Silicon Valley tech firms. Kim Singh, for example, received an H1-B visa for a software engineer job. Upon arriving from India, he worked for one company that withheld 25 percent of his and other immigrant workers' salaries. At his second Silicon Valley job, he worked seven days a week with no overtime compensation, and discovered only H1-B workers were required to work weekends. His third employer rented him and three other H1-B workers an apartment, charging each $1,450 a month, while holding onto their passports. Complaints about this kind of treatment were met by firings and exportation.
Such abuses have far-ranging effects. Silicon Valley tech companies have lobbied Congress to increase the yearly number of H1-B workers to 300,000 as well as to lift the cap entirely, potentially increasing abuses. And high-tech jobs that have gone to foreigners have prevented firms from training American workers, whom they would have to pay higher wages. "Contract labor boosts corporate bottom lines," David Bacon reported, "but it has a devastating impact on workers."