Albion Monitor /Features
 Project Censored: Introduction by Mark Lowenthal

Twenty Years of Unfit-to-Print News

by Mark Lowenthal

Bicentennial birth of a notion

1976 was something of a special year in U.S. history. A strange mix of bicentennial nationalism and post-Watergate skepticism seemed to energize the country in a way that we have not seen since.

With this convergence acting as something of a socio-political catalyst, the themes of this era seemed to shift from "trust" and "conformity" to skepticism and independence -- almost as if the anti-authoritarian buzz of the counter-culture 60's had finally reared its head in mainstream politics and culture.

The result of this convergence was a brief, but significant period of citizen-activism -- perhaps, a fitting bicentennial tribute to the essence of democracy.

It was this era that saw Ralph Nader's consumer movement driving the passage of unprecedented consumer-protection legislation, Senator Church's committee hearings, that for the first time in history, began to unveil the clandestine activities -- and utter lack of public accountability of the intelligence community, and the first tangible, legislative impacts of the emerging environmental and women's movement, among others.

This consciousness was even present in popular culture, with All the President's Men (which depicted the breaking of the Watergate scandal) becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year, and Network, Paddy Chayefsky's biting and prescient indictment of the television news industry, was also doing big box office and garnering four Academy Awards.

It was also during this year that a sociology professor at Sonoma State College in Rohnert Park, California, conceived a research project which would explore the extent to which major mainstream media limit the range of subject matter that is relayed to the general public.

Project Censored has changed the face of journalism

The professor, Dr. Carl Jensen, set about his task by surveying hundreds of smaller-circulation magazines, weekly papers, trade journals and public interest group reports. What he found surprised even him. Indeed, he concluded, a wide range of subject matter and important articles never reach the public due to a complete lack of reportage or under-reportage -- even though such material was available and easily accessible to the mainstream news media. This seemed to suggest one of two things: either mainstream reporters and editors maintained frighteningly narrow reading lists, or even more disturbing, these folks were aware of many of these stories, but simply chose not to cover them.

Jensen was so intrigued by what he discovered, that he decided to publish his research and institutionalize it as an on-going, year-round research project, which he dubbed "Project Censored."

Without question, the Project faced an uphill battle from the start. Aside from the major media hostility that greeted the annual release of "The Top 10 Best Censored Stories of the Year," many of Jensen's colleagues argued that "self-censorship" was not a legitimate form of censorship -- and even friends and supporters fretted about the viability of a project that criticized the press, yet relied on that same press to cover its annual report.

Fast forward to 1996. Project Censored has just released its twentieth annual "Top 10 Best Censored Stories" list and Carl Jensen, set to retire this June after two decades of media watch-dogging, enjoys the proverbial last laugh.

Having myself enjoyed a seven-year affiliation with Project Censored (I am currently the associate director), it has been especially gratifying to share that laugh.

As grand as it may sound, in twenty years Project Censored has changed the way in which journalism is taught, the way the public perceives the news that it consumes, and the way that journalists view the nature of their profession.

Ongoing goal to lead the public to ask why these stories aren't covered

While many in academia initially questioned the legitimacy of "self-censorship" as a meaningful from of censorship, the past twenty years have seen a gradual acceptance of the concept to the point where "self-censorship" -- and the work of Project Censored -- has been widely cited and discussed by major journalism textbooks and by such highly-regarded scholars as Noam Chomsky, Ben Bagdikian and Michael Parenti.

Over its twenty-year life span Project Censored has amassed a huge following among private citizens. Given the limited range of mainstream coverage we receive, a large percentage of our following is the result of "word-of-mouth" endorsement -- which is perhaps the most gratifying aspect of our work.

Each year we receive literally thousands of letters and phone calls from interested private citizens who are looking for information on a specific topic, or simply want to find out what's been missing from the mainstream medias' coverage spectrum. This latter point is worth emphasizing, as one of the Project's ongoing goals is to lead media consumers to question why many of the cited stories haven't received wide mainstream coverage. It is our hope that such broader implied questions might cause the public to question some of their most basic assumptions about the nature of corporate-owned news media.

An increasing awareness that the walls of editorial freedom are closing in

Over the course of these past two decades, the mainstream medias' initial hostility turned to a seemingly willful apathy and more recently into a sheepish interest. Aside from limited, but consistent mainstream coverage of the Project's annual report, the Project has become a regular tip-sheet for the ever-expanding stable of television news-magazine shows such as 60 Minutes and 20/20, the Project regularly receives calls from mainstream newspaper reporters looking for information on stories we've previously cited.

By virtue of its longevity, Project Censored has also become something of an annual "wake-up call" for working journalists. Not only are most mainstream journalists aware of the Project's work, many have become more vocally (albeit privately) appreciative. During the regular conversations that I've had with working journalists over the past several years, it has become clear that the problem of self-censorship -- and overt censorship -- has become very real for many of them. These are, largely speaking, good people caught in a bad system -- and there seems to be an increasing awareness that the walls of editorial freedom are closing in. In a sense, the work of Project Censored seems to validate working reporters' growing feelings of anxiety about their profession.

So with that bit of self-congratulatory historical perspective out of the way, I give you:

The Top 10 Censored Stories of 1995

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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