Twenty Years of Censored News
by Jeff Elliott
Did you know
about the CIA link to the Savings & Loan Scandal? Or that the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history was near the small town of Church Rock, New Mexico? Or that child labor is worse today than during the Great Depression? Carl Jensen knows about these suppressed news stories and more -- 200 of them, in fact. The founder of Project Censored, Jensen has written a book that updates twenty years of censored news.
Starting in 1976, Jensen led students and colleagues at Sonoma State University in scrutinizing media coverage -- or usually, lack of coverage -- of important news. Now cited in journalism textbooks and by scholars like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, Project Censored and its annual report of the year's top censored stories are widely respected.
Jensen, who retired in 1996, has updated the first two decades of Project Censored stories in a new book ("20 Years of Censored News," Seven Stories Press). Far more than a rehash of old news, Jensen reveals new developments with these important but neglected stories. Recently the Albion Monitor interviewed Jensen in his Northern California office.
Your updates are full of surprises. Although some stories eventually made it into the mainstream press, many are still dangling.
Jensen:I had a lot of fun with this book. Each of the stories turned out to be like a mystery. Tracking it down, seeing what happened, bringing it up to date. It was a marvelous experience. I wanted to do more than just the history of Project Censored; I wanted to go back and find just what kind of impact we've had over these last twenty years. Unfortunately, I discovered three-quarters of the stories are still overlooked, censored stories today -- they still haven't been told completely.
it's hard to understand why these stories are ignored, or take years to make it into the headlines. The human radiation experiments made the Project top ten list in 1986, but the media still ignored it for several years.
I thought that was a fascinating story. It was just incredible that they were using unsuspecting American citizens as guinea pigs for testing radiation poisoning -- but most of the media paid no attention until Eileen Welsome at a small daily, the Albuquerque Tribune, did a series in 1993. Then suddenly it went out on the wire. She won a Pulitzer Prize. When journalists say, "That's an old story, nobody's interested," I disagree -- a lot of these stories are potential Pulitzer Prize winners. With many stories, I also cross reference them to other stories to show their connections.
It's also a great reference tool for journalists because your updates reveal new angles. For example, you take a nondescript 1985 story, "The Reagan Autocracy" and show how it lead to an airline crash.
That's a classic example. Some might say the media can't be expected to cover an obscure executive order like the one Reagan signed in 1985, but a journalist in a small alternative publication noticed that it meant doing cost-benefit analysis on government regulations. Then in 1993, the National Transport Safety Board wanted the FAA require smoke detectors and other safety measures in cargo holds of commercial airliners. But the FAA said no -- it's wasn't cost effective, and according to Reagan's executive order, they didn't have to comply. Then of course, in 1996 the Valujet plane goes down in Florida, losing 110 lives. Investigators discovered that if there had been smoke detectors in cargo holds it wouldn't have happened -- that those people would be alive today.
Project Censored story that's remained controversial is the Contra-Drug case.
We listed that in 1987, and thought it was an important story being overlooked by the mainstream media. The Christic Institute report that year described the whole thing -- the drugs, contra, and CIA connection. What they didn't cover was what was happening with the drugs up here in urban centers like Los Angeles..
Then in 1996, Gary Webb at the San Jose Mercury News looks into that story and does incredible, exhaustive research. What appeared in the newspaper was just the tip of the iceberg, but on the Internet it was all there: The letters, interviews, everything. The background of this entire story. Webb updated the Christic Institute to the present day, showing the impact of that whole conspiracy in terms of drugs in Los Angeles.
When the Christic Institute did the story and we publicized it as one of the censored stories, none of the media was interested. And when Webb did the story, the same thing happened -- few paid attention. But when it went out on the net, it exploded overnight. Everybody was talking about it. Then the three major dailies in the United States had to do something; they couldn't just let it go. Within ten days, all of them came out with articles and editorials lambasting Gary and the Mercury News for having done that story. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all attacked the story savagely, insisting that there was no CIA drug connection, and so on. But those are blatant lies! They know damn well that in the past there have been many connections between the CIA and drugs in Southeast Asia, Central America, and other places, too. There have been Congressional investigations on it.
What happened to Gary Webb is a good example of what happens when you do these sensitive stories. He was literally shoved out by the Mercury News and the editor ran a column, apologizing and kowtowing to the three major newspapers. To let his own journalist down like that... it was incredible.
story tied the CIA with the Savings and Loan scandals. The Houston Post broke that story and it went nowhere at all.
The writer of that story, Pete Brewton, was the last person you'd expect to be an investigative journalist; he was soft spoken, an all-time nice guy. But he did an extensive investigation and produced this series of stories about the CIA and S&L scandal. The one thing that he wasn't able to do -- and he conceded this -- was produce that smoking gun. But the circumstantial evidence was extensive. Like the case with Gary Webb, the only time it was mentioned in the media was when it was to criticize the story or savage him.
In your introduction, you draw parallels between our situation today and a century ago. Once again we have robber barons, threats to public health -- and media silence on those critical issues.
I was recently asked for my opinion on the future of journalism in America. I said the outlook is very bleak. First, there's the increasing monopolization of the press. Giant conglomerates are taking total control -- ten companies control most of the media in the U.S.
Also, they're starting to teach "IMC" in journalism school --Integrated Marketing Communication. It combines advertising, marketing, public relations and journalism. That's already happening in the media. Last fall, the LA Times merged its advertising and editorial departments -- and they announced gleefully that executives from advertising and marketing and editorial will sit down together to map out the news strategy. This is totally unheard of. The division between editorial and advertising at a responsible newspaper was always sacrosanct. And now the LA Times -- one of the top three newspapers in the country -- is blatantly doing that. Also consider that Chrysler has directed its advertising agencies to get magazine articles before they're printed to see if they want to advertise in those issues. It's chilling.
There are a lot of people out there saying that this is the wave of the future, but I'm not so sure of that, personally. Sooner or later the media moguls are going to have to look at what's happening with their business -- they're losing readers and TV news shows are losing viewers. The losses are in the millions. They even have a name for them: "The Vanished." Maybe they'll discover the problem is we're giving the public what they want, not what they need.
I've debated this with Jim Hightower, who's optimistic because of the alternative news in the United States -- programs like his, NPR, Pacifica radio and the alternative weeklies. But I don't agree. I don't see those media reaching out with the scope and intensity needed to get these stories out to the public.
That's a depressing message.
The fact is, we're losing. ABC reporters went undercover to investigate the Food Lion chain and found conditions appalling. It's an impressive story that makes an impact. But then Food Lion sues ABC -- not for libel, but for the undercover reporters making false statements on their application form. And Food Lion won the case. They sued not because of the truth of the article -- they admitted the conditions were as bad as they were. That's frightening.
The latest example, also about food, is Oprah Winfrey's being sued for saying she would never eat another hamburger. Why? Because in Texas there is a food disparagement law -- if you say anything nasty about meat or apples you can be sued if it causes a loss of a farmer's income. If you can have food disparagement law, how soon will it be before we have automobile disparagement law? We wouldn't have had Ralph Nader writing about the Corvair. Or a book disparagement law, so you can't criticize a book. This is an endless thing.
of sweatshops in recent years was mostly through the hard work of people like Charles Kernaghan and the National Labor Committee, who dogged the press to cover the topic. They did much of the investigative work to get that story out. Will the future have activists bringing investigative stories to journalists?
Absolutely. When the press fails to do its job, groups arise to do the job for them, then embarrassing the press into running those stories and continuing their research. That's a terrific thing.
When I was doing the Project Censored newsletter several years ago, I received a letter from a little veteran's organization in the Northeast. They were hoping to get some media coverage because many of their Gulf War veterans were becoming ill. Nobody knew what was happening, but they wanted somebody to investigate. I wrote that up several times in my newsletter, but nobody picked it up. Of course, it developed into a major story about ongoing health problems. Veterans groups coordinated their efforts to push it -- they literally made that a national issue by hounding the media and politicians to pay attention. If enough people get madder than hell through their own grassroots organizations, they may be able to get their stories out.
My only hope is that we might find ourselves in another golden age of muckraking. And as with the muckrakers in the early part of the century, it will have an impact on the elected representatives and some changes will be made. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote his famous muckraking book, The Jungle, going undercover in Chicago meat packing plants. I've recently been reading his correspondence with Teddy Roosevelt; it's incredible the impact that his book had. It led to the first Pure Food and Drug Act in the nation -- it made a difference.
Albion Monitor Febrary 4, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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