News & Politics

Project Censored, the Movie

A new documentary called "Project Censored: Is the Press Really Free?" will air on PBS stations across the country on May 9. The hour-long film boldly confronts the censorship and shoddy reporting that plague the mainstream press, while intelligently exploring the definition of censorship itself.
Opening shot: the U.S. Capital building in Washington, D.C. The words "Arms Transfer Code of Conduct" appear at the bottom of the screen. An off-camera voice narrates: "In June of 1997, the United States House of Representatives unanimously approved the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct."(Cut to interior of the Capital; Representatives fill the chamber's seats, applauding as the Code is signed into law.)"This Code prohibits arms sales or military aid to foreign governments that: are undemocratic; abuse human rights; or engage in aggression against neighboring states."(Cut to exterior of the White House; Bill Clinton exiting the building, flocked by men in military uniforms.)"Unfortunately, this Code has been virtually ignored by Congress and the Clinton administrationŠ As a result, dozens of foreign governments have been able to obtain so-called 'surplus' weapons at bargain prices -- or even free of charge -- from the U.S. government... In fact, in each of the last five U.S. military conflicts, American ttroops faced opponents who were armed by 'surplus' arms deals from the United States."Are we watching a 60 Minutes expose? Headlines from the 11 o'clock news? A CNN investigative report? Unfortunately, no, because this story about our government's illegal arms deals didn't break in the mainstream news. Rather, we're watching the lead story of a new documentary called "Project Censored: Is the Press Really Free?" The well-crafted film boldly confronts the censorship and shoddy reporting that plagues the mainstream press. Packed with controversial stories such as the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct, the documentary will surely raise some eyebrows when it is aired by PBS on May 9."Is the Press Really Free?" documents and celebrates Project Censored, a media watchdog organization based at California's Sonoma State University. Every year, Project Censored makes a list of the top 25 news stories that didn't make the news -- stories either censored, ignored or underreported by the mainstream press. Project Censored aims to both expose the frequenncy of censorship in the mainstream media and to keep the public informed about the censored stories. "Is the Press Really Free?" is the first television feature to concentrate on Project Censored since a Bill Moyers special in 1991.The hour-long documentary focuses on five stories that Project Censored chose for its top 25 list in 1998. Interspersed between these stories are interviews with people affiliated with the Project. Peter Phillips, Project Censored's director, gets the most screen time, and for good reason. He speaks eloquently about the censored stories, about the Project itself and about "censorship" in general."We consider censorship any interference with the free flow of information in society," Phillips tells the off-screen interviewer. "We don't see it as a conspiracy, as something the media is deliberately doing to keep the American public from being informed about certain stories. It's much more complex than that."Exploring this complex definition of censorship turns out to be the film's primary strength. Steve Keller, the film's director/producer, does a good job of splicing together the various talking heads to flesh out this complexity. For example, Keller includes footage of Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, explaining the subtleties of newsroom self-censorship."Reporters come very quickly to understand the culture of a particular newsroom. And in general, reporters don't bother doing [controversial] stories they know won't appear or will be buried in obscurity. After all, the payoff for a reporter is to be read..."Phillips introduces a number of other forms of censorship. "P.R. censorship," for example, happens when reporters -- who, because of corporate cutbacks, no longer have the resources to go out and collect news -- become dependent on public rrelations departments. "Literally half to two-thirds of the news today has been pre-spun or pre-written by a P.R. professional who works for a corporation or the government," Phillips explains. He also talks about "marketplace censorship," the self-censorship editors engage in to avoid offending their major advertisers. "We see marketplace censorship all the time," says Phillips, "whether its with cosmetics, or milk, or beer, or tobacco..."Then, of course, are the cases of overt, top-down censorship. The film includes an intriguing interview with Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, the reporters fired from a Fox TV station for filing an expose about the controversial Monsanto drug, rBGH. Viewers are also treated to an excellent conversation with Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who blew the lid off the connection between the CIA and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s -- and lost his job because of it.The documentary is the brainchild of Steven Keller, an independent director/producers whose mission is to "create films that encourage social engagement and activism.""I saw Peter Phillips [Project Censored's director] speak at a local bookstore," said Keller, speaking from his production studio in Santa Rosa, California. "What he described about the project was so compelling that I knew a film had to be made about it."Despite the excellent footage Keller has collected, the documentary sometimes feels like more of a 56 minute infomercial for Project Censored than an independent film. It lacks any criticism of the Project and has little or no original reporting on the five censored stories it highlights. Instead, it treats those stories topically and sensationally. The film punctuates its segment about chemicals in cosmetics with the line, "After her daily cosmetic routine, an average woman will have absorbed into her body at least five chemical compounds that are known carcinogens." Describing the potential hazards of NASA's Cassini space probe, the narrator gravely intones, "Some scientists suggest that as many as 40 million people would be killed" if something goes wrong during the probe's flight.Inflammatory statements like these are exactly the type of reporting to which Project Censored objects. As Phillips remarks, "The whole media system is filled up with stories that are meant to attract viewers. Very often they have an element of fear in them: crime, or fear of cancer or disaster... This will draw viewers in, because it's kind of exciting, but it leaves them very empty."Despite this internal contradiction, "Project Censored: Is the Press Really Free?" is an informative and entertaining hour of television. That's a combination you don't often get anymore -- even on PBS -- and makes the film well worth watching.(Check local listings for show times. Contact Steve Keller for more information at Off the Couch Productions, 707.578.8898.)

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