Project Censored hits and misses
MEDIA CRITIC'S LIST NEEDS BETTER VETTING
It's a hoary cliche that journalists are writing a "first draft of history," and we'd be better off if the the worn-out claim is scuttled completely. What passes for
newsgathering today could be more accurately called anti-history, where remarkable doings are reported alongside the ephemeral and trivial, and given equal weight. The problem is far deeper than coverage of Michael Jackson and other "junk food" stories; it's that editors and publishers seem to have a job-related myopia that prevents them from
discerning which current events will have lasting importance.
You can see astigmatism in the annual top-10 story list from the Associated Press, selected every December by U.S. editors and news directors. Take a look at the 2003 list shown to the right; less than two years later, what can you recall about these stories? A gold star if you can answer this quiz: Did the economy really improve? How dangerous was SARS? What made the Democratic campaign significant? Who was Elizabeth Smart? (Answers: Not really, not very, Howard Dean, a pretty white girl gone missing.) Other years find AP editors making even worse choices, such as selecting "the weather" as the top news story for 1977, completely ignoring the slaughter of more than a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge -- one of the worst atrocities of the century.
Since 1998 the Albion Monitor has countered with its own annual list, now called the Wayward Press Awards, which picks neglected stories that also illustrate a particular foible of journalism today, such as the "passive press" theme for 2004. But the granddaddy of disaffected media critics is Project Censored, which began documenting such failures of the press 29 years ago. It now follows the academic year, so the current offering is for 2004 - 2005 (although published as "Censored 2006").
Unlike the Wayward Press Awards, Project Censored's list often goes beyond media criticism to point out trends they find disturbing, such as the top story in this year's list, "Bush Administration Moves to Eliminate Open Government." Nothing wrong with casting a net, but it makes the list harder to summarize and
may add to the confusion of those unfamiliar with the Project, along with the perennial error over taking their meaning of "censored" too literally. These may be among the reasons why their list has not enjoyed much attention from the mainstream media in recent years. Maybe the current list will find a broader audience, thanks to a Sept. 20 Molly Ivins column and links from the ballooning ranks of bloggers, always seeking relevance by offering new things to point at.
But as pointed out in past Monitor coverage, some of their items also fail to make a convincing case or have serious accuracy problems. A few such entries on this year's list clearly needed greater scrutiny:
In sum: 4 of the 25 items in this year's Project Censored list are factually wrong and/or overreach to draw conclusions that aren't supported. As criticized here before, their vetting process is failing to catch stories that have troubling, embarrassing flaws -- a problem that has grown worse in recent years.
Item #9, "Iran's New Oil Trade System Challenges U.S. Currency," claims that Iran, like Iraq under Saddam, poses a serious challenge to U.S. hegemony over the global oil market, which will lead to an invasion or serious attack on the country. That in turn could cause a domino effect leading to Iran's trading partner China and other international investors to stop buying U.S. treasury bills -- or worse, dump their stockpiles of t-bills and cause the value of the dollar to plummet.
Based on a single Internet article which mentions China only once and in passing, it's unknown what source was used for the latter half of this Project Censored item, or who is gazing into the crystal ball. The most alarming prediction credited to the author, "a unilateral U.S. military strike on Iran would further isolate the U.S. government, and it is conceivable that such an overt action could provoke other industrialized nations to abandon the dollar en masse," doesn't appear in the cited article at all, so presumably the same author has another piece not mentioned, or the version of the author's article that is currently posted has been edited. (China's oil deals with Iran are mentioned in the author's Project Censored update.)
Part of these slippery-slope predictions were already proven untrue months before Project Censored's list was published. The item warns that if China de-linked the yuan from the U.S. dollar it "could result in an immediate fall in the dollar." But China did exactly that on July 21, and there's been no significant change in the exchange rate between the two currencies in the three months since. Nor has there been any slowdown in international investment in the U.S. since the original article was written a year ago, despite much White House saber-rattling towards Tehran. In July alone, over $100 billion flowed into U.S. treasury coffers from abroad.
It's anyone's guess whether there would be international backlash to
U.S. aggression against Iran, much less a Chinese-led pullout from U.S. investments. Besides buying oil, China has many economic ties to Iran; it's building the Tehran subway system, manufacturing autos, and selling Iran arms. But these deals are peanuts compared to China's holdings in the United States (and by the way, China holds about $243 billion in U.S. treasury bonds, not $600 billion, as stated in the Project Censored item).
It doesn't follow that China would launch a thermonuclear economic attack against the U.S, no matter how pissed they might be over American bullying of their friends .
Remove the apocalyptic consequences from the item and all that's left to ponder is an arcane question about macroeconomics and fungible currencies -- whether the U.S. would be harmed if China pays its fuel bill to Iran in Euros. That fine point may quicken the pulse of Harvard economists, but it's hard to see it as a pressing issue deserving widespread public attention.
Item #22, "Nanotechnology Offers Exciting Possibilities But Health Effects Need Scrutiny"
(not included in the Monitor feature, but available
here on the Project Censored site) urges caution about the emerging field of nanotechnology, which is making possible new products such as wrinkle- free pants. But despite "the potential to cause harm to people and the environment," only one percent of the federal research money is spent on risk assessment.
This item also relies on a single source, this time a magazine article (unfortunately, not available on the Internet at large), so there's not much traction to begin with. Only the most careful readers may notice that the author mentions only federal funding, ignoring what's spent by private industry and abroad; only industry insiders may note that the problematic article doesn't mention the annual international "NanoTox" conference centered on this very topic.
Spotlighted in that article is an experiment where largemouth bass were exposed to fullerenes (carbon particles which Project Censored inexplicably calls "fullerness"). Although the fish were not killed by the exposure and there was no outward sign of harm, signs of oxidative damage in the brain was discovered,
possibly caused by free radicals linked somehow to the fullerenes in the water. The researcher also noted that those fish tanks was noticeably clearer than normal because the fullerenes apparently also removed beneficial bacteria. Missing from the article or Project item is mention that the researcher had to work hard to get the particles to mix with water, and that it was in a high concentration that we might associate with a toxic spill. After swimming in the muck for two days, the wonder may be that the fish weren't found belly-up. As for the clearer water, a simpler explanation might be that the fullerenes helped particles settle to the bottom. Fullerenes -- also known as "buckminsterfullerenes," or "buckyballs" -- are just carbon, after all, and we rely on charcoal filters to clean water all the time.
The magazine article describes other small-scale studies that might raise similar specific concerns, but Project Censored careens off the road by stating, "studies that have been conducted to determine if nano-molecules are safe paint a grim picture for nanotechnology." The author's actual conclusion is that "people also remain mostly uninformed about [nanotechnology]. That ignorance may come to haunt researchers, as more developers of popular culture start casting nanotechnology as the next übermonster." Unfortunately, Project Censored's alarmist item can only provide ammo for those who want to ignorantly demonize the research.
- Item #3, "Another Year of Distorted Election Coverage," casts doubt on the legitimacy of Bush's 2004 election victory, pointing out the discrepancy between the exit polls and the official returns, along with obstacles put in the way of poor and black voters in some communities. The title is misleading because there's only passing mention of media coverage in the item, although the authors dwell resentfully in the updates that the mainstream U.S. press paid little attention to post-election accusations of voter fraud.
Charges that Bush & Co. had gamed the vote were frequently heard in the weeks after the election, but the fact remains that no significant fraud's been proven, even now almost a year later. No gimmicked electronic voting machines have turned up, no warehouses stuffed with uncounted ballots. And no, exit polls are not a "strong indicator of a corrupted election," even if the results can't be easily and conclusively explained. In short, their premise here is more wind than whistle.
The updates go further out the limb
Project Censored). Writer Greg Palast claims
"more than a million votes in 2004 were cast and not counted" (source, please?) and that the U.S. press shunned the discovery of "caging lists," which he reported on BBC's Newsnight program about a week before the election. In his Project Censored update, Palast wrote the GOP created "rosters of thousands of minority voters targeted to prevent them from voting on election day" by challenging their residency, and discovery of these lists were "big news in Europe and South America." In truth, a single list of 1,886 of predominantly black voters turned up, and news stories about it appeared in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, UPI, and LA Times. The only European mention found in NEXIS was an article written by Palast himself, plus a single paragraph in the Glasgow Herald summarizing Palast's BBC report.
But what really undermines Project Censored is the assumption that there had to be massive fraud in order for Bush to win. While there were certainly cases of election-day shenanigans aimed at disenfranchising voters likely to support Democrats, those lost votes only amounted to icing on Karl Rove's victory cake. The true reason the Republicans still have the White House is because the John Kerry faction of the party fumbled the campaign, as discussed in item #4 of our 2004 Wayward Press awards; Bush may not have fairly won a decisive victory, but Kerry came away with a decisive defeat.
This item also disappoints because it overlooks the very real media failures in 2004 election coverage. Press coverage of both campaigns was passive and lazy, ready to take direction from whichever side barked the loudest -- which, of course, usually allowed the Repubs to control the message. No Rovian conspiracy was required; they only needed the press to continue doing an inadequate job. That was the real "censored" story.
Item #11, "Universal Mental Screening Program Usurps Parental Rights" reports that a Bush-appointed commission recommended "comprehensive screening for mental illnesses for people of all ages, including pre-school age children" and suggested a treatment system based on the Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP), which critics say is a payoff to the big drug companies. Congress appropriated $20 million last year to implement the commission's recommendations nationally, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) failed to get an amendment passed that would require parental consent and notification.
It is hard to imagine how this item could be more inaccurate; Project Censored should retract it entirely, or at least offer an update that corrects the worst misinformation. There is no plan for mandatory screening of children nationally or in any state. The claim was debunked by a widely-available January article in the Christian Science Monitor, as well as in a Dec. 2004 Congressional Research Service memo quoted in that story.
Final word on the subject appeared in the federal "Action Agenda" published in July:
"Neither [the 2003 commission report] nor this 'Action Agenda' recommends mandatory and/or universal screening of children. The Commission recognized that parents are the decision-makers in the care for their children and if screening appears to be an appropriate action, parental consent must be obtained before it occurs."
This is a far more complex issue than Project Censored suggests, with several layers of onion to unpeel:
Advocates are right to fear "mandatory mental health screening," which smacks of Orwell's crimethink or some horror from Mao's Cultural Revolution. If Gallup did a poll, probably 98 percent of the public would oppose mandatory screening -- although they'd want to take the 2 percent who thought it was a good idea and toss them into the booby-hatch, pronto. But it's a non-issue; government agencies are running in the opposite direction as fast as they can.
- Was mandatory mental health screening proposed? The 2003 Bush commission recommended that "in
a transformed mental health system, the
early detection of mental health problems in
children and adults -- through routine and
comprehensive testing and screening -- will
be an expected and typical occurrence...
Quality screening and early intervention will occur
in both readily accessible, low-stigma settings, such
as primary health care facilities and schools, and in
settings in which a high level of risk exists for
mental health problems, such as criminal justice,
juvenile justice, and child welfare systems."
Unfortunately, the report does not include a definition of "screening," which allowed opponents to claim it meant the same as a diagnosis, and even
"could be used to label children whose attitudes, religious beliefs, and political views conflict with the secular orthodoxy that dominates our schools," as Rep. Paul quoted one activist in his article. But the example of a model screening program named in the report was the benign "TeenScreen" computer program developed by Colombia University, which looks for suicidal depression among teenagers graduating from high school. (Development of the program was not affiliated with, or funded by, any pharmaceutical companies, and as noted in the commission report, that questionnaire is only available with parental consent.)
Is a TMAP approach "junk science?"
TMAP was designed when Bush was Texas governor and offers recipe-like directions for treatment of 3 major psychiatric illnesses for adults (schizophrenia, severe depression and bipolar disorder) and 2 for kids (major depression and ADHD). It recommends prescribing particular drugs at specific dosages, and suggests what to try next if the patient doesn't improve. TMAP also specifies how often the doctor should see the patient and what kinds of info should be included in patient records.
TMAP is controversial even in Texas. Only about half of physicians use the guidelines, according to a January 9 feature in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and doctors sometimes follow the drug recommendations but don't see patients more often or keep better records because Texas doesn't cover those costs.
Is TMAP a Trojan Horse for the drug makers? Critics charge TMAP was funded by Big Pill, and a whistleblower in Pennsylvania was fired after revealing that pharmaceutical companies seeking approval of the plan in his state were lobbying officials with perks and benefits.
Texas' medical director for the program Steven Shon told the Fort Worth paper that no
contributions from the drug companies were used to design TMAP, but drug companies certainly have been involved since, underwriting the development of training materials and paying other expenses, including reimbursing Texas for trips by Shon all over the world to promote the program. Shon told the Star Telegram that about a dozen states are using adapted versions of TMAP
and others are evaluating it.
Critics say its drug-oriented approach to treatment primarily benefits the big pharmaceutical companies who have exclusive rights to sell the expensive drugs recommended by TMAP. Supporters say the main objective of the program is to improve the standards of medical care in a field where pills are often handed out like candy, and the newer-generation medications are recommended because they are better and have fewer side-effects.
- Who opposes screening? While Project Censored decries the endorsement of the mental health recommendations by Big Pill, no mention is made of the
gladiators on the other side of the arena. Against the program and drumming up for support of Rep. Paul's bill was an array of
Christian extremists, right-wing PACs (including Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Gun Owners of America, and Concerned Women of America) and parental groups seeking to impose ultra-conservative curricula on schools. This comes as no surprise; there has been a growing wingnut movement that views mental healthcare as a personal virtue, like fuel efficient cars and trigger locks on guns. In their view, the entire public health system is another example of wasteful bureaucracy that's been obsolete since the eradication of smallpox and polio. And that's just the beginning; read "For Your Own Good" by Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum for even more unorthodox views.
The Project Censored item devotes considerable space to Rep. Paul's amendment to require parential consent, but his bill -- reintroduced the bill this session as HR 181 -- deserves scrutiny. The very first claim in the bill is false -- that the
United States Preventive Services Task Force (an independent panel of experts that reviews clinical research for the HHS Dept.) made a "recommendation against screening for suicide."
In truth, the panel's
takes no position on whether screening is helpful or not in detecting suicide risk, saying there's not enough info available to decide.
The bill also blocks mental health screening programs for adults as well as minors, and in both cases "without regard to whether there was a prior indication of a need for mental health treatment." (Paul originally called his bill the "Let Parents Raise Their Kids Act," but maybe it should have been named the "Let's Ignore Suicide Threats Act.")
Paul's proposed law goes even farther and seeks to block the modest $20 million annual budget for "state incentive grants for transformation." The grants -- which states not only had to request, but had to compete against other states -- are intended to significantly change mental health care in the public health system into a recovery-oriented model. Ironically, HR 181 thus
advocates leaving the current system as it is, complete with routine overuse of prescription drugs.
With that off the table, a more thoughtful and pragmatic look at the issues is possible. There's nothing contradictory with disliking TMAP's didactical approach to medical diagnostics, while at the same time appreciating that it's probably improving overall care by keeping bad doctors from prescribing the wrong pills in the wrong doses. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing, considering there's a generation of kids that have been over-medicated with Ritalin, Prozac, and the rest of the abused pharmacopeia.
Yes, of course the pharmaceutical companies are unethical, money-grubbing swine that will benefit from more national attention on mental health, but that's a separate issue from suicide prevention questionnaires and the rest.
About a third of our troops overseas are expected to return home with full-blown cases of PTSD, and over one million Americans are now homeless and suffering trauma from hurricane Katrina -- and
that's on top of the millions of other hapless Americans who were already not being helped by the current fractured, dysfunctional public health system.
It's clear that we need to do something, and do it quickly. If anything, a nationwide mental health outreach is probably in order, and a compassionate, thoughtful public should press Bush to appoint a mental health czar to lead it. (But please, don't let him nominate Tom Cruise, no matter how loudly the Scientologists demand it.)
These clinkers undermine the rest of the high-quality items, placing Project Censored's offering on the same wobbly footing as that list from the Associated Press.
Suggesting that exit poll
discrepancies rank next to alleged war crimes by U.S. troops
is just as ridiculous as the AP listing Elizabeth Smart's 2003 abduction alongside the Iraq war as a top story. It drags down the Project's credibility on other items; are those hundreds of civilians killed in Falluja just speculation as well?
It's also worrisome that all of these troublesome items share
traits of modern urban legends. "Mandatory mental health screening" appears to be an update of the "fluoride in the drinking water" hysteria;
at least since the Civil War, doomsayers have warned of that foreign investors were about to jump ship and cause an imminent U.S. economic disaster; nanotechnology fits the familiar Frankenstein story, and "the election stolen behind closed doors" story is probably as old as elections themselves (or for that matter, doors). Myths of these types are so easily believable because they reinforce our bias and fears -- which is why any stories that neatly fits such a mold should be subject to extra skepticism. Isn't Sonoma State University, the home of Project Censored, teaching this in Critical Thinking 101?
Project Censored began in 1976 as a much-needed antidote to the mainstream press, providing a thoughtful list of meaty news items that people needed to know about, but probably didn't. Then,
TV and print news media promoted stories not always because of newsworthiness, but because the story had a sensational appeal, endorsed their own business and political interests,
or fit comfortably with popular assumptions.
Other stories were similarly downplayed because they were too complex, didn't mesh with conventional wisdom, or ran contrary to editorial bias. Now 29 years later, the mainstream media hasn't changed one bit.
Sadly, Project Censored has.
(October 17, 2005)
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