Every year since 1976, Project Censored has performed an invaluable service – shedding light on the most significant news that’s somehow not fit to print.
Censorship in an authoritarian society is obvious, from a distance, at least. There is a central agent or agency responsible for it and the lines are clearly drawn. That’s not the case in America, yet some stories rarely, if ever, see the light of day. Such as stories about violence against Native American women and girls, even though four out of five of them experience violence at some point in their lives, overwhelmingly at the hands of non-Native perpetrators.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re more vulnerable,” Annita Lucchesi, a Southern Cheyenne descendant and executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, told The Guardian. “I’d say that we’re targeted. It’s not about us being vulnerable victims, it’s about the system being designed to target and marginalize our women.”
The media erasure of their stories is part of that same system of targeting and marginalization. While journalists everyday work hard to expose injustices, they work within a system where some injustices are so deeply baked-in that stories exposing them are rarely told and even more rarely expanded upon to give them their proper due.
That’s where Project Censored comes in.
Due to space limitations, Style Weekly has reprinted the top six stories on the project’s list this year, as well as the No. 10 story because it had to do with journalism. If the stories summarized below leave you hungry for more, check out its website and purchase Project Censored’s book “State of the Free Press | 2021.”
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1. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
“In June 2019 the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report, which received widespread news coverage in the United States,” Project Censored notes. “U.S. corporate news outlets have provided nearly nothing in the way of reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States.”
Four in five Native women experience violence at some time in their lives, according to a 2016 survey by the National Institute of Justice, cited in an August 2019 Think Progress report.
“About nine in 10 Native American rape or sexual-assault victims had assailants who were white or Black,” according to a 1999 Justice Department report.
“Although the number of Native Americans murdered or missing in 2016 exceeded 3,000 — roughly the number of people who died during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack — the Justice Department’s missing persons database logged only 116 cases that year,” Think Progress noted. “The sheer scale of the violence against Native women and the abysmal failure by the government to adequately address it, explains why the issue was given such prominence during this week’s presidential candidates’ forum in Sioux City – the first to focus entirely on Native American issues.”
But even that didn’t grab media attention.
There are multiple complicating factors in reporting, tracking, investigating and prosecuting, which were explored in coverage by The Guardian and Yes! Magazine, as well as Ms. and Think Progress.
“Campaigners, including the Sovereign Bodies Institute, the Brave Heart Society, and the Urban Indian Health Institute, identify aspects of systemic racism – including the indelible legacies of settler colonialism, issues with law enforcement, a lack of reliable and comprehensive data, and flawed policymaking – as deep-rooted sources of the crisis,” Project Censored summed up. “As Yes! Magazine reported, tribal communities in the United States often lack jurisdiction to respond to crimes.”
This was partially remedied in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act but “it left sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence outside tribal jurisdiction, Yes! Magazine reported.”
The House of Representatives voted to expand tribal jurisdiction in such cases in its 2019 reauthorization of the act, but, Ms. reported, “The bill is now languishing in the Senate, where Republicans have so far blocked a vote.”
Another facet of the problem explored by Yes! is the connection between the extractive fossil fuel industry and violence against Native women. The Canadian report “showed a strong link between extraction zones on the missing and murdered women crisis in Canada,” the magazine noted. “It specifically cited rotational shift work, sexual harassment in the workplace, substance abuse, economic insecurity, and a largely transient workforce as contributing to increased violence against Native women in communities near fossil fuel infrastructure.”
“It creates this culture of using and abuse,” said Annita Lucchesi, executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute. “If you can use and abuse the water and land, you can use and abuse the people around you, too.”
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2. Monsanto “Intelligence Center” Targeted Journalists and Activists
In its fight to avoid liability for causing cancer, the agricultural giant Monsanto, now owned by Bayer AG, created an “intelligence fusion center” to “monitor and discredit” journalists and activists, Sam Levin reported for The Guardian in August 2019.
“More than 18,000 people have filed suit against Monsanto, alleging that exposure to Roundup [weedkiller] caused non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that Monsanto covered up the risks by manipulating scientific data and silencing critics,” the Hill summarized. “The company has lost three high-profile cases in the past year and Bayer is reportedly offering $8 billion to settle all outstanding claims.”
“Monsanto adopted a multi-pronged strategy to target Carey Gillam, a Reuters journalist who investigated the company’s weedkiller,” The Guardian reported.
This took place while also targeting Neil Young, who released a 2015 record, “The Monsanto Years,” and creating a massive, multi-million dollar spying and disinformation campaign targeting journalists writing about it, as well as scientists and advocates exposing the risks its product posed. Creating a covert army of seemingly neutral allies to attack its critics was central to Monsanto’s strategy.
The Guardian’s report was based on internal documents (primarily from 2015 to 2017) released during trial. They showed that “Monsanto planned a series of actions to attack a book authored by Gillam prior to its release, including writing talking points for third parties to criticize the book and directing ‘industry and farmer customers’ on how to post negative reviews.”
In addition, Monsanto paid Google to skew search results promoting criticism of Gilliam’s work on Monsanto, and they discussed strategies for pressuring Reuters with the goal of getting her reassigned. The company “had a ‘Carey Gillam Book’ spreadsheet, with more than 20 actions dedicated to opposing her book before its publication.” It also “wrote a lengthy report about singer Neil Young’s anti-Monsanto advocacy, monitoring his impact on social media, and at one point considering “legal action.”
The entire pool of journalists covering the third trial was also targeted in a covert influence operation, Paul Thacker reported for The Huffington Post. A purported “freelancer for the BBC” schmoozed other reporters, trying to steer them toward writing stories critical of the plaintiffs suing Monsanto. Their curiosity aroused, they discovered that “her LinkedIn account said she worked for FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm that Monsanto and Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, had engaged for consulting,” and she subsequently went into a digital disappearing act.
“FTI staff have previously attempted to obtain information under the guise of journalism,” Thacker added. “In January, two FTI consultants working for Western Wire – a ‘news and analysis’ website backed by the oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance – attempted to question an attorney who represents communities suing Exxon over climate change.”
Nor was FTI alone.
“Monsanto has also previously employed shadowy networks of consultants, PR firms, and front groups to spy on and influence reporters,” Thacker wrote. “And all of it appears to be part of a pattern at the company of using a variety of tactics to intimidate, mislead and discredit journalists and critics.”
“Monsanto officials were repeatedly worried about the release of documents on their financial relationships with scientists that could support the allegations they were ‘covering up unflattering research,’” The Guardian noted.
At the same time, they tried to attack critics as “anti-science.”
“The internal communications add fuel to the ongoing claims in court that Monsanto has ‘bullied’ critics and scientists and worked to conceal the dangers of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide,” it summed up.
“Monsanto’s campaign to monitor and discredit journalists and other critics has received almost no corporate news coverage,” Project Censored notes.
A rare exception was a June 2019 ABC News report that nonetheless “consistently emphasized the perspective of Monsanto and Bayer.”
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3. U.S. Military — A Massive, Hidden Contributor to Climate Crisis
It’s said that an army travels on its stomach, but the Army itself has said, “Fuel is the ‘blood of the military,’” as quoted in a study, Hidden Carbon Costs of the Everywhere War by Oliver Belcher, Patrick Bigger, Ben Neimark, and Cara Kennelly, who subsequently summarized their findings for The Conversation in June 2019.
The U.S. military is “one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries,” they wrote.
Were it a country, it would rank as “the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.”
Studies of greenhouse gas emissions usually focus on civilian use, but the U.S. military has a larger carbon footprint than any civilian corporation in the world.
“The U.S. military’s climate policy remains fundamentally contradictory,” their study notes.
On the one hand, “The U.S. military sees climate change as a ‘threat multiplier,’ or a condition that will exacerbate other threats, and is fast becoming one of the leading federal agencies in the United States to invest in research and adoption of renewable energy [but] it remains the largest single institutional consumer of hydrocarbons in the world [and] this dependence on fossil fuels is unlikely to change as the USA continues to pursue open‐ended operations around the globe.”
While the military has invested in developing biofuels, “the entire point of these fuels is that they are ‘drop in’ – they can be used in existing military kit – which means that, whenever convenient or cheaper, the infrastructure is already in place to undo whatever marginal gains have been made in decarbonisation.”
Things will only get worse.
“There is no shortage of evidence that the climate is on the brink of irreversible tipping points,” the study notes. “Once past those tipping points, the impacts of climate change will continue to be more intense, prolonged, and widespread, giving cover to even more extensive U.S. military interventions.”
Understanding the military’s climate impact requires a systems approach.
“We argue that to account for the U.S. military as a major climate actor, one must understand the logistical supply chain that makes its acquisition and consumption of hydrocarbon-based fuels possible,” the study says. “We show several ‘path dependencies’ – warfighting paradigms, weapons systems, bureaucratic requirements, and waste – that are put in place by military supply chains and undergird a heavy reliance on carbon-based fuels by the U.S. military for years to come.”
Data for their study was difficult to get.
“A loophole in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol exempted the United States from reporting military emissions,” Project Censored explains. “Although the Paris Accord closed this loophole, Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger noted that, ‘with the Trump administration due to withdraw from the accord in 2020, this gap … will return.’” Researchers only obtained fuel purchase data through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.
Finally, by way of conclusions, Project Censored said:
“Noting that ‘action on climate change demands shuttering vast sections of the military machine,’ Neimark, Belcher, and Bigger recommended that ‘money spent procuring and distributing fuel across the U.S. empire’ be reinvested as a peace dividend, helping to fund a Green New Deal in whatever form it might take.”
Not surprisingly, the report had received “little to no corporate news coverage” as of May 2020, beyond scattered republication the Conversation piece.
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4. Congressional Investments and Conflicts of Interest
Exposition, political corruption and conflicts of interest are age-old staples of journalism. So, it’s notable that two of the most glaring, far-reaching examples of congressional conflicts of interest in the Trump era have been virtually ignored by corporate media: Republicans’ support for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and bipartisan failure to act on catastrophic climate change.
“The cuts likely saved members of Congress hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes collectively, while the corporate tax cut hiked the value of their holdings,” Peter Cary of the Center for Public Integrity reported for Vox in January 2020.
It was sold as a middle-class tax cut that would benefit everyone.
“Promises that the tax act would boost investment have not panned out,” he noted. “Corporate investment is now at lower levels than before the act passed, according to the Commerce Department.”
Once again, trickle down tax cuts didn’t trickle down.
“The tax law’s centerpiece is its record cut in the corporate tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent,” Cary wrote. “At the time of its passage, most of the bill’s Republican supporters said the cut would result in higher wages, factory expansions, and more jobs. Instead, it was mainly exploited by corporations, which bought back stock and raised dividends.”
Buybacks exceeded $1 trillion for the first time ever, the year after the cuts were passed, and dividends reached a record $1.3 trillion high.
The benefits to congressional Republicans were enormous.
“The 10 richest Republicans in Congress in 2017 who voted for the tax bill held more than $731 million in assets, almost two-thirds of which were in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other instruments,” which benefitted handsomely as a result of their votes that “doled out nearly $150 billion in corporate tax savings in 2018 alone,” Cary noted. “All but one of the 47 Republicans who sat on the three key committees overseeing the drafting of the tax bill own stocks and stock mutual funds.
“Democrats also stood to gain from the tax bill, though not one voted for it,” he wrote. “All but 12 Republicans voted for the tax bill.”
Two special features deserve notice. First is a newly created 20% deduction for income from ‘pass-through’ businesses, or smaller, single-owner corporations.
“At least 22 of the 47 members of the House and Senate tax-writing committees have investments in pass-through businesses,” Project Censored noted.
Second was a provision allowing real estate companies with relatively few employees – like the Trump organization – to take a 20% deduction usually reserved for larger businesses with sizable payrolls.
“Out of the 47 Republicans responsible for drafting the bill, at least 29 held real estate interests at the time of its passage,” Project Censored pointed out.
As to the second major conflict, “members of the U.S. Senate are heavily invested in the fossil fuel companies that drive the current climate crisis, creating a conflict between those senators’ financial interests as investors and their responsibilities as elected representatives,” Project Censored wrote.
“Twenty-nine U.S. senators and their spouses own between $3.5 million and $13.9 million worth of stock in companies that extract, transport, or burn fossil fuels, or provide services to fossil fuel companies,” Donald Shaw reported for Sludge in September 2019.
While unsurprising on the Republican side, this also includes two key Democrats. Sen. Tom Carper, of Delaware, is the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. He has “up to $310,000 invested in more than a dozen oil, gas, and utility companies, as well as mutual funds with holdings in the fossil fuel industry,” Shaw reported.
But his record is not nearly as questionable as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who “owns between $1 million and $5 million worth of non-public stock in a family coal business, Enersystems,” and reported earning “between $100,001 and $1 million” in reported dividends and interest in 2018, plus $470,000 in ‘ordinary business income,’” Shaw reported.
His support for the industry was significant: Manchin was the only Democrat to vote against an amendment to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling in 2017, and he was one of just three Democrats to vote against an amendment to phase out taxpayer subsidies for coal, oil, and gas producers in 2016. Manchin has also voted to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, expedite the approval process for natural gas pipelines, and override an Obama administration rule requiring coal companies to protect groundwater from toxic coal mining waste.
While there has been critical coverage of 2017 tax cuts, this has not included coverage of lawmakers personal profiting, Project Censored noted.
“In addition, despite the significant conflicts of interest exposed by Donald Shaw’s reporting for Sludge, the alarming facts about U.S. senators’ massive investments in the fossil fuel industry appear to have gone completely unreported in the corporate press.”
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5. Inequality Kills: Gap between Richest and Poorest Americans Largest in 50 Years
“In public health, decades of research are coming to a consensus: Inequality kills,” DePaul University sociologist Fernando De Maio wrote for Truthout in December 2019.
Even before the coronavirus, his research added fine-grained evidence of broad trends highlighted in three prominent governmental reports: The gap between rich and poor Americans had grown larger than ever in half a century, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 annual survey, with dramatic evidence of its lethal impact. People in the poorest quintile die at twice the rate as those in the richest quintile, according to a report by the congressional General Accounting Office. This is partly because job-related deaths are increasingly rooted in the physical and psychological toll of low-wage work, as opposed to on-the-job accidents, as documented by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.
All these conditions were made worse by pandemic, but they could have been seen before it struck – if only the information hadn’t been censored by the corporate media, as Project Censored noted:
“As of May 2020, Project Censored has not been able to identify any corporate news coverage on the GAO or Census Bureau reports on inequality and premature mortality, or on the ILO report about work-related illnesses, accidents, and deaths that take place when workers are off-duty.”
The August 2019 GAO report was based on health and retirement surveys conducted by the Social Security Administration in 1992 and 2014, looking at people between 51 and 61 years old in 1992, and dividing them into five wealth quintiles.
Death rates increased for each quintile as the level of wealth declined.
It’s at the level of cities and communities “that the most striking links between inequality and health can be detected,” De Maio wrote. “At the city level, life expectancy varies from a low of 71.4 years in Gary, Indiana, to a high of 84.7 in Newton, Massachusetts – a gap of more than 13 years.”
And at the community level, “In Chicago, there is a 9-year gap between the life expectancy for Black and white people. This gap amounts to more than 3,000 excess deaths” among Black Chicagoans, due to “heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease. All of these are conditions that an equitable health care system would address,” he concluded.
“The poorest Americans are also more likely than their rich counterparts to face illness or premature death due to the inherent dangers of low-wage work,” Project Censored noted.
“In 2019, you no longer have to hang from scaffolding to risk your life on the job,” María José Carmona wrote for Inequality.org. “Precariousness, stress, and overwork can also make you sick, and even kill you, at a much higher rate than accidents.”
She reported on an International Labor Organization story that found that less than 14% of the 7,500 people who die “due to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions every day” die from workplace accidents.
The greatest risk comes from “increasing pressure, precarious contracts, and working hours incompatible with life, which, bit by bit, continue to feed the invisible accident rate that does not appear in the news,” Carmona wrote. “The most vulnerable workers are those employed on a temporary or casual basis, those subcontracted through agencies and the false self-employed. ILO data shows the rate of accidents for these employees to be much higher than for any others.”
As of May 2020, Project Censored has not been able to identify any corporate news coverage on the GAO or Census Bureau reports on inequality and premature mortality, or on the International Labor Organization report about work-related illnesses, accidents, and deaths that take place when workers are off-duty.
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6. Shadow Network of Conservative Outlets Emerges to Exploit Faith in Local News
In late October 2019, Carol Thompson reported in the Lansing State Journal that “dozens of websites branded as local news outlets launched throughout Michigan this fall … promising local news but also offering political messaging.” The websites’ About us sections “say they are published by Metric Media LLC, a company that aims to fill the “growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media.” Thompson wrote, but it soon emerged that they weren’t filling that void with locally generated news. And the 40 or so sites Thompson found in Michigan were just the tip of the iceberg.
A follow-up investigation by The Michigan Daily reported that “Just this past week, additional statewide networks of these websites have sprung up in Montana and Iowa,” which was followed by a December 2019 report by the Columbia Journalism Review, revealing a network of 450 websites run by five corporate organizations in 12 states that “mimic the appearance and output of traditional news organizations” in order to “manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media.”
All were associated with conservative businessman Brian Timpone.
“In 2012, Timpone’s company Journatic, an outlet known for its low-cost automated story generation, which became known as ‘pink slime journalism,’ attracted national attention and outrage for faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism,” the Review’s Priyanjana Bengani reported. Journatic was later rebranded as Locality Labs, whose content ran on the Metric Media websites.
“The different websites are nearly indistinguishable, sharing identical stories and using regional titles,” Michigan Daily reported. “The only articles with named authors contain politically skewed content. The rest of the articles on the sites are primarily composed of press releases from local organizations and articles written by the Local Labs News Service.”
“Despite the different organization and network names, it is evident these sites are connected,” Bengani wrote. “Other than simply sharing network metadata as described above, they also share bylines (including ‘Metric Media News Service’ and ‘Local Labs News Service’ for templated stories), servers, layouts, and templates.”
Using a suite of investigative tools, Columbia Journalism Review was able to identify at least 189 sites in 10 states run by Metric Media – all created in 2019 – along with 179 run by Franklin Archer, with Timpone’s brother Michael as chief executive.
“We tapped into the RSS feeds of these 189 Metric Media sites,” over a period of two weeks, Bengani wrote, “and found over 15,000 unique stories had been published (over 50,000 when aggregated across the sites), but only about a hundred titles had the bylines of human reporters.” That’s well below 1% with a byline – much less being local. “The rest cited automated services or press releases.”
“Their architecture and strategy is useful to understand the way they co-opt the language, design and structure of news organizations,” Bengani explained.
Automation can make them seem far more prolific than they really are and can help build credibility.
“Potentially adding to the credibility of these sites is their Google search ranking: in the case of some of the websites set up in 2015-2016, we observed that once sites had gained ample authority, they appeared on the first page of Google Search results just below the official government and social media pages.”
So, the sites aim to fool people locally about the source of their “news,” and Google helps fool the world.
Although The New York Times did publish an article in October 2019 that credited the Lansing State Journal with breaking the story about pseudo-local news organizations, Project Censored notes that, “Corporate coverage has been lacking. … The Columbia Journalism Review’s piece expands on the breadth and scope of previous coverage, but its findings do not appear to have been reported by any of the major establishment news outlets.”
10. Revive Journalism with a Stimulus Package and Public Option
In late March, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, including direct payments of $1,200 per adult and more than $500 billion for large corporations. Before passage, Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, argued that a stimulus package for journalism was also urgently needed. “In the face of this pandemic, the public needs good, economically secure journalists more than ever,” separating fact from fiction, and holding politicians and powerful institutions accountable,” Aaron wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Aaron’s organization, Free Press, placed journalism’s needs at $5 billion in immediate emergency funds, “less than half of one percent of a trillion-dollar recovery package” and asked that “Congress put a foundation in place to help sustain journalism over the long term.”
Aaron presented a three-pronged plan: First, “Doubling federal funds for public media,” not for “Downton Abbey” reruns, but “earmarked specifically for emergency support, education, and especially local journalism.” For example, “The Los Angeles Unified School District teamed up with PBS SoCal/KCET to offer instruction over the airwaves while kids are out of school, with separate channels focused on different ages.”
Second, “Direct support for daily and weekly newsrooms,” which have lost tens of thousands of jobs over the past three decades. “Direct, emergency subsidies of say $25,000 per newsgathering position could make sure reporters everywhere stay on the local COVID beat,” he wrote. “Just $625 million would help retain 25,000 newsroom jobs.”
Third, “New investments in the news we need. … for a major investment in services that provide community information [and] to support new positions, outlets, and approaches to newsgathering, [which could] prioritize places and populations that the mainstream outlets have never served well.”
Arguing that a “resilient and community-centered media system” is necessary to get the country through the pandemic, Aaron concluded, “Now is the time to act. We need significant public investments in all corners of the economy, and journalism is no exception.”
In an article in Jacobin, media scholar Victor Pickard advanced a more robust proposal, for $30 billion annually, which would be less than 1.4 % of the coronavirus stimulus package, Project Censored noted.
“On the question of cost, we must first remind ourselves that a viable press system isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity,” he wrote. “Similar to a classic ‘merit good,’ journalism isn’t a ‘want,’ but a ‘need. … Democratic nations around the globe heavily subsidize the media while enjoying democratic benefits that put the U.S. to shame.”
Writing for The Guardian, just after the McClatchy newspaper chain bankruptcy was announced, Pickard noted that, “For many areas across the U.S., there’s simply no commercial option. The market has failed us.” And thus, “With market failure, journalism’s survival requires public options.”
The need was fundamental.
“All foundational democratic theories – including the First Amendment itself – assume a functional press system. The fourth estate’s current collapse is a profound social problem.”
And he suggested a broad range of funding possibilities:
We could raise funds from taxing platforms like Facebook and Google, placing levys on communication devices, and repurposing international broadcasting subsidies. Other sources include spectrum sales and individual tax vouchers. We could leverage already existing public infrastructures such as post offices, libraries, and public broadcasting stations to provide spaces for local news production.
“While corporate news outlets have reported the ongoing demise of newspapers and especially local news sources, they have rarely covered proposals such as Aaron’s and Pickard’s to revitalize journalism through public funding,” Project Censored wrote. S
Paul Rosenberg is an activist turned journalist who has written for the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, Al Jazeera English, Salon.com, and numerous other periodicals. He has worked as an editor at Random Lengths News since 2002.