Albion Monitor /Features
 Project Censored: Interview with the Project's founder

"What Journalism is Really About"

by Jeff Elliott

The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review haven't written a word about Project Censored

Albion Monitor: Earlier this month, you were honored by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists [SPJ]. Could you tell us something about that award?

Jensen: It was a lifetime achievement award for freedom of information in America. On the whole, mainstream journalism hasn't been a supporter of Project Censored. The Project has succeeded because of alternative journalism -- newspapers like the Bay Guardian and your paper, [the Albion] Monitor, showing interest in getting the word out and putting us on their agenda. To this day, the New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review, which is the trade book of this industry, haven't written a word about Project Censored. So when I received the award from SPJ, which is a mainstream, professional journalism association, I was very pleased. It showed some recognition of the contribution that Project Censored has made nationally.

Students are learning that censorship is a part of life

Albion Monitor: You've been working with student journalists for decades; how do you see the state of student journalism today?

Jensen: I don't think the word dire would be overblown at all; I'm really concerned about student journalism today.

Ever since the Hazelwood decision by the Supreme Court, which permitted high school principals and administrators to use prior restraint with student publications, I have seen a change in student journalists. And it's not just limited to high schools; it's caught on in junior colleges and colleges. By the time they come to college, they're very susceptible to administrative persuasion.

Pressure also comes from college advisors looking out for their own skin. If you read the trade paper, every week there's some advisor getting the axe because they let something get into the student newspaper. To save themselves, advisors are even exerting influence on what the school newspaper should publish. They're quoting the Hazelwood decision as a means to censor student publications.

Students are learning at the very beginning of their journalism career that censorship is a part of life -- that this is something they have to accept. And that's wrong. When they get out into the real world, they're ready to fall right in step with what the publishers and owners want, what the monopolies want, and all the rest.

If there's anything the Supreme Court has done that's unconstitutional, it's the Hazelwood decision. For the life of me, I can't understand why this isn't a major issue in journalism today -- but for some reason, the professional press has just ignored it. I don't understand why; remember when The Progressive printed "How to Build an H-Bomb?" They tried to use prior restraint there and the whole industry was up in arms. But they're letting the Hazelwood decision stand. That should be on the agenda every year until the Supreme Court is forced to reevaluate that decision. But I'm very pessimistic about the future of journalism because of that.

The other influence, of course, is the centralization of power in the media, which was our top censored story this year. The Telecommunications Act permits increasing monopolization of the press. Along with Hazelwood, I have a very bleak outlook on journalism in the near future. On the other hand, that means the prospects of Project Censored are outstanding. Censorship is going to be a growth industry.

Rarely does SSU paper run Project Censored stories

Albion Monitor: Is this acceptance of censorship why we're seeing a trend towards lighter, blander stories?

Jensen: Absolutely. I was advisor to the [Sonoma State University] Star for a number of years, so I have great interest in that paper specifically; it's my university paper. I feed the Star stories all the time and it's very rare that they follow through on them. The latest story that I gave them was about Charles Hurwitz. He was sued by the federal government recently; also named in that suit was the Chancellor of the state university system. I thought, wow, what a story! The Chancellor is being sued by the federal government for fraud! I clipped that sucker and sent it off to them -- that was two months ago. Nothing. Nobody in the administration wants to see that story published.

There's not enough teaching of what journalism is really all about

Albion Monitor: Are students even being taught how to do investigative journalism?

Jensen: It's difficult for me to comment on what's going on nationally, but my sense of it is no.

I have a couple of basic questions that I ask journalism faculty: I ask them who is the greatest investigative journalist alive today -- and nobody ever has the right answer. It's Gunter Wallraff; he goes undercover, takes on disguises, changes his face, and he'll spend half a year or more working on a single story. He's been jailed, he's been attacked, he's been kidnapped, everything else, and few journalism professors have ever heard of him.

The second question I ask is, who was George Seldes? And nobody knows who George Seldes is!

Albion Monitor: Really? We're planning a tribute to Seldes for our anniversary issue in August, similar to what we did for Jessica Mitford.

Jensen: I'm glad to hear that. He was the greatest; he did the tobacco story before everyone else and they all ignored him -- it was just incredible. But unfortunately, most of my colleagues have never heard of him.

When you ask me about the quality of teaching, I think there's an undue emphasis on teaching the five W's -- which is necessary, but those can be taught simply and easily without great to-do. There's not enough teaching of the morality, the ethics, the excitement of being a journalist, and what journalism is really all about. And that's what's missing in journalism education.

When I went to school, that was my life's goal -- being a journalist was a wonderful thing. Today, a journalist is just another greedy person out there, soaking the public for everything that they can get. Unfortunately, journalists today have a terrible image with the American people.

Lesson in "academic freedom"

Albion Monitor: Speaking of ethics, didn't you take a stand against fingerprinting of teachers in the '70's?

Jensen: Much of my journalism is based on personal experience. When I was in advertising, I learned how the ad men could manipulate the editorial side of the publication. So I came into academia with a fairly cynical perspective on the business world, and was happy to be in academia because finally, here was academic freedom and all the rest -- now I could finally tell it like it is; I could speak out about political issues, ethical issues, all these things.

The first semester I was at Sonoma State to teach sociology in 1973 was the same year that Jessica Mitford was invited to be a guest lecturer in sociology at San Jose State. I read that the Chancellor of the university, Glenn Dumke, was persecuting her. They tried to fire her and withheld her salary, all because she refused to be fingerprinted and refused to take the loyalty oath. God bless Decca, she held out and refused to do that.

I thought it would be admirable for her colleagues in sociology to support her. Since I was covered by academic freedom and all the rest I wrote a letter to the Chancellor's office saying, "Dear Chancellor Dumke, this is an outrage what you're doing to my colleague down at San Jose State and my friends and colleagues demand you stop your hoodlums from attacking her." I made my statement, but doubted that I'd ever hear from anyone about it. Within a week, I got a call from the secretary of the department calling me in to the office. She said, "We got a question from the Chancellor's Office -- they want to know if you've been fingerprinted." This is their response to my defense of Jessica Mitford -- to see if I've been fingerprinted? Of course, if I hadn't already been fingerprinted, they'd have been on me. I thought to myself, "so this is academic freedom!"

"There are other ways we can deal with people like you"

Albion Monitor: In the twenty years of Project Censored, has there ever been any pressure or intimidation to not run a story?

Jensen: One event comes to mind. The year before I started Project Censored, I had a class in sociology and we produced a three-hour documentary titled, "Censored: The Great American Media Mystery." I had the students go out and do local, original research on stories that we thought were important but not getting media coverage they deserved.

We found one that had national importance -- in fact it was so important that a couple of students and I took it down to San Francisco to meet with Dan Ellsberg. We showed him a videotape of an interview with a source on this story, the documentation we had, and all the rest. He agreed it was a big story and said he'd heard about it, but hadn't seen as much documentation as we had. He asked me to show it to [New York Times editor] Seymour Hersch. So I ran it by Hersch and he agreed; it was a helluva story. Then we produced our documentary -- and didn't mention it.

One night, a local person met with the students and at gun point took away the story, the video, the video logs, the documentation we had, everything. They immediately called me up and I didn't believe them; I thought they were putting me on. But they were serious -- they'd lost the whole story. I knew the guy, so I called him up and said, "I want you over here at my house, right now." He came over and we had a long conversation. At the end of the conversation we shook hands. We agreed we wouldn't run the story, and he agreed he wouldn't kill us.

I learned two great lessons from that: number one, there are some really big stories out there that even we won't touch. Number two, as a professor at a university, I shouldn't put student's in a position where their lives are in danger doing their homework. [Laughs] That's not a good thing, and is frowned upon by the administration.

Lots of people ask why we don't do original research -- that's why. I cannot put students in jeopardy like that, and we can't risk libel suits. That's why we always use secondary sources for our stories.

Another early story was about Synanon. You might recall when Synanon was under fire for being a cult; Synanon was suing and intimidating the major media through suits. They were suing ABC, Jack Anderson, Hearst Corporation, anyone who was investigating them. And they were winning! That was the story we were going after; nobody knew about it except the students and me. Then I got a call at home from a Synanon attorney in Los Angeles. He said, "We understand you're doing a story on Synanon, and I'm warning you right now that we're going to sue you for libel if you follow through and do it." Also, he said, "There are other ways we can deal with people like you." And he hung up. I thought, well, that was interesting! We kept going on the story and fortunately, it was at the time that Dave Mitchell came out with his book on them, and the tide had turned on Synanon, and I never heard from them again. It ended up being on our list that year.

Also, I got a death threat from someone in Arizona once. Normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to it, but it sounded weird enough that I was a little concerned, so I called my good friends, the FBI. [Laughs] I tell them about it and they ask about the postmark. They came out and took a look at it and asked if they could borrow it to run some tests. They disappeared for about three months and I forgot about the thing. Then one day they brought it back and it was full of powder and all this crap -- obviously, they'd been doing a real number on it. I asked what was it all about; they said, "We can't go into it, but the reason it was very important was because the President received a letter from the same person."

Another time, a guy came to me and identified himself as a former student. He said he really liked me, knew a lot of stuff about me -- that I liked to sail, that I was married. He said, "I know that you don't make much money, I tell you what: I've got a beautiful yacht and do a lot of sailing, I'll take you down to Baja California and be glad to take you along and give you a free vacation." Also, he said, "You used to be in advertising. Well, maybe I could use some marketing and promotion, hype some things I produce." I asked, "What's it all about?" What I was getting was a very thinly-veiled bribe. I checked him out and discovered he'd never taken a class from me and it was all bullshit. The purpose was to set me up.

Updating 20 years of Project Censored

Albion Monitor: So what are you going to do now that you're retiring? Sail in Baja?

Jensen: [Laughs] First, I'm going to do a book: "Twenty Years of Censored News." Starting with our original 1976 stories and then coming up to date. I'm going to have the original synopsis in there and then show what's happened from then to today.

For example, our number-one censored story of 1976 was the Trilateral Commission. There are a lot of people who think the Trilateral Commission is dead and gone, but I just called up the Trilateral Commission in New York the other day and they're alive and well and meeting annually, conducting business as usual. I think the book is going to be an absolutely terrific resource for journalists, people in political science, history, sociology. It's going to summarize the years of Project Censored where there aren't any books available. It'll get those stories out there. Make sure that they're on the record.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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