Did you know that sweatshops on American soil have been sewing uniforms for the U.S. military? Or that the same companies that deliver energy to your home may be supporting brutal dictators in Third World countries? Or that the Pentagon has plans to put weapons in outer space, directly violating international law?
If you did, you were among the few, because these stories -- and seven others like them -- were just named the Top Ten Censored Stories of 1999.
The Top Ten Censored Stories is an annual list compiled by the faculty and students at Sonoma State University's Project Censored program. After 20 years, the Project Censored Award has established itself as the alternative Pulitzer Prize.
The use of the word "censored" has often generated confusion about the awards. While censorship is usually thought to describe some authority -- an editor, a government, a corporation -- clamping down on a journalist or news outlet, preventing them from publishing a story, that's not how Project Censored defines the word.
"We consider censorship any interference with the free flow of information in society," says Peter Phillips, Project Censored's director. "We don't see it as a conspiracy, as something the media is deliberately doing to keep the American public from being informed about certain stories. It's much more complex than that."
Complex indeed. Almost every journalist who received a Project Censored award this year told us that their story was not the victim of overt censorship, but rather suffered from a tangled web of factors that kept important stories out of the news. Those factors included waning resources for investigative reporters, dwindling foreign coverage, newsroom laziness (editors assuming it's too hard to explain complex issues to audiences with short attention spans) and self-censorship (journalists dropping stories in order not to offend sources or to please editors or simply to avoid making waves).
A number of this year's stories suffered from "censorship" primarily because they were reported only on international news. Stories No. 1 (energy companies exploiting developing countries), No. 2 (Third World people dying from curable diseases), No. 5 (Turkey's war on the Kurds), No. 6 (NATO's economic interests in the Balkans) and No. 10 (the Rambouillet peace talks) all surely would have gotten more press if mainstream media outlets devoted more time and resources to covering foreign affairs. Coincidentally (or maybe ironically), story No. 7 is about this very subject -- how downsizing in the corporate media has caused dramatic cutbacks in foreign coverage since the end of Vietnam. Whether this should be considered censorship or just plain profit-mongering is up in the air.
With this wide definition of censorship, many hundreds of stories could be considered censored every year. So Project Censored embarks on a lengthy process to narrow the list down to the top 10. Here's how they describe the process:
"Project Censored students and staff screened several thousand stories for 1999 and selected some 500 for evaluation by faculty and community experts. The top 200 stories were then researched for national mainstream coverage. A final collective vote of all students, staff and faculty occurred in early November, narrowing the pool down to 25. Then the top 25 stories `the top 10 and 15 runner-ups` were ranked by our national judges. We do not have a quota system of selecting stories for certain categories, but rather use a holistic collective process of monitoring, researching and deciding that involves over 175 people. This process, we believe, gives us an annual summary list of the most important under-covered news stories in the United States."
Regardless of this less-than-scientific process, these are the stories that the mainstream media should do a better job of covering:
1 Energy Companies Support Brutal Dictatorships and Human Rights Violations
Arvind Ganesan, "Corporation Crackdowns," Dollars and Sense Magazine, May-June 1999
Ganesan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, gives an overview of the egregious human-rights violations that have occurred when oil and electricity corporations support strong-arm governments in developing nations. In some ways, it's the oldest story of the list: multinational corporations bulldozing over poor Third-World populations to extract valuable natural resources. But the details in this story are so striking -- campaigns of rape, torture and slavery that benefited Unocal in Burma, mass graves dug in Indonesia with Mobil's bulldozers, scores of citizens slaughtered in Chad and Cameroon by forces aligned with Exxon, unarmed villagers in Nigeria shot down by soldiers in Chevron helicopters -- that they should have merited significant media coverage.
The coverage they got was solid -- but only in Europe, Asia, Africa and energy trade publications. The U.S. media picked up a report here and there, but never connected the dots or explained the story's context. Says Ganesan: "The failure of the U.S. mainstream media on this issue is glaring."
Rather than overt censorship, Ganesan said, it was a combination of cutbacks in international news, the deterioration of investigative reporting, a complex situation to report on and a lack of reader interest that killed the story. "There's no nefarious motive behind the lack of coverage," he said.
Yet Ganesan expressed concern that poor coverage in the U.S. has had negative ramifications. "Because the European press has investigated these issues and raised public awareness, corporations like BP (based in England) and Shell (based in Holland) have taken significant steps to correct these human-rights violations. But companies based in America are lagging behind their European counterparts because they face so little public scrutiny."
2 Drug Companies Put Profits Before Health
Ken Silverstein, "Millions for Viagra, Pennies for the Poor," The Nation, July 19, 1999
Instead of developing cures for life-threatening -- though preventable -- Third World diseases, multinational pharmaceutical companies are focusing their research on "lifestyle drugs" like Viagra that bring in billions of dollars in earnings. Silverstein reported that in 1998 death from malaria, tuberculosis and acute lower-respiratory infections claimed 6.1 million lives -- nearly three times the number of people who died from AIDS. These people died not because drugs could not be created to combat new strains of these diseases, but because, asserts Silverstein, "it doesn't pay to keep them alive."
Meanwhile, in its first year Viagra earned more than $1 billion. Propecia and Rogaine -- anti-balding drugs -- earned $180 million in 1998. To discover other golden mines like these, enormous research funds are being poured into creating anti-wrinkle creams and drugs aimed at curing dysfunctional pets.
"It's obvious that some of the industry's surplus profits could be going into research for tropical diseases," Silverstein quoted a retired drug company executive as saying. "Instead it's going to stockholders."
3 Bloated American Cancer Society Wastes Much, Prevents Few Cancers
Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, "American Cancer Society: The World's Wealthiest 'Non-profit' Institution," International Journal of Health Services, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1999
In what has become his raison d'etre, Dr. Epstein argued that the American Cancer Society (ACS) should redirect its vast resources toward preventing cancer rather than treating it. ACS doesn't do so because many of its influential members benefit financially from treating the disease.
Epstein has been crusading against the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, the two largest organizations devoted to fighting cancer, for decades. As early as 1977, Epstein was writing books and articles blasting these two institutions as reactionary forces that profit from the "cancer epidemic" and have "incestuous conflicts of interest" with the pharmaceutical and medical industries.
Although his point of view is often overlooked by the mainstream press, it would be hard to argue that Epstein is unable to get his message out. Aside from having drafted congressional legislation, frequently giving congressional testimony and serving as a key expert (notably in the banning of the pesticides DDT and Aldrin), Epstein is as media savvy as doctors come. He has appeared on many national TV programs including "60 Minutes," "Face the Nation," "Meet the Press," "The McNeil/Lehrer Newshour" and others.
4 American Sweatshops Sew U.S. Military Uniforms
Mark Boal, "An American Sweatshop," Mother Jones, May/June 1999
Boal's article exposed the billion-dollar relationship between the U.S. Department of Defense and the American garment industry, a relationship that has fostered a wide range of workplace problems. Boal focused on a Lyon Apparel plant in Beattyville, Ky., where government uniforms are sold. The plant has been cited 32 times by OSHA for safety and health violations, pays substandard wages to overworked employees and has exposed workers to formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen that is used to keep fabric stiff for processing.
"About 10,000 American woman are employed sewing government uniforms, often in unsanitary, unsafe conditions," Boal concluded.
After the article came out Boal heard that some workers were harassed and that one woman may have been fired by Lyon Apparel. Lyon also executed a forceful counterattack, demanding that Mother Jones retract the story and that Boal come visit the plant. Mother Jones refused to retract the story, although it made a couple of corrections, and Boal refused to visit the plant, depending instead on his sources from inside.
Also after the article appeared, Boal spoke on 15 or 20 radio shows and said that some local TV stations picked up the story. Asked why the topic had received scant coverage, Boal suggested that labor issues in general were under-reported in the American press and that sweatshop stories in particular "flash across the media landscape intensely, but the coverage tends to be short-lived."
5 Turkey Uses U.S. Weapons to Wipe Out the Kurds
Kevin McKiernan, "Turkey's War on the Kurds," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 1999
The Turkish government is using U.S. weapons to kill and displace a population of 15 million Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. This civil war represents the single largest use of U.S. weapons anywhere in the world by non-U.S. forces; it has claimed 40,000 lives and has created 2 million refugees. The U.S. continues to coddle and arm the Turkish government (which many observers consider the worst human-rights violator on the globe) because of Turkey's strategic position in the Middle East.
Since publication of McKiernan's story in March 1999, a major shift in Western coverage of the war in Turkey has occurred. Ironically, that shift came about almost by accident, McKiernan said.
"When `Kurdish leader` Abdullah Ocalan was arrested and put on trial in early 1999, hundreds of journalists flocked to Turkey," said McKiernan. "They could only report on the captured rebel leader for so long, so eventually they started digging into the story's context, this massive war against the Kurds."
Part of the reason the story hadn't gotten out before, McKiernan explained, is that "Turkey is a nearly impossible place for a journalist to work, because of the censorship and martial law that blanket most of the country. When I was there, in one week I was stopped and detained by Turkish officials 37 times."
6 NATO Defends Private Economic Interests in the Balkans
Diana Johnstone, "The Role of Caspian Sea Oil in the Balkan Conflict," Women Against Military Madness, November 1998
In November 1998, as NATO threats to bomb Serbia escalated, Johnstone reported that the U.S. government's interests in the Balkans were primarily economic. Basing her analysis on a New York Times story that reported the U.S. was about to lose its campaign to persuade oil companies to build a pipeline from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan (Turkey), Johnstone argued that the solution to this problem was "obvious": an oil pipeline through the Balkans.
"Thus the need for the region to come under a NATO protectorate," wrote Johnstone.
Although this rationale for NATO military intervention in the former Yugoslavia was original -- and indeed was not reported in the mainstream press -- the reasons for its lack of circulation may have more to do with lack of proof than censorship. Johnstone provided no evidence for her analysis. She quoted no oil industry expert who might support the feasibility or worth of such a pipeline, nor any official or analyst who might have gotten wind of it.
Johnstone said she had no "secret sources" for the story, but did "a lot of background reading and research, which most reporters aren't given time to pursue on any given story." Unfortunately, Johnstone did not incorporate this background reading and research into her article, and so her argument remains interesting but weak and unsubstantiated.
7 U.S. Media Reduces Foreign Coverage
Peter Arnett, "Goodbye World," American Journalism Review, November 1998
Since Vietnam, Arnett argues, news outlets have faced regular cutbacks in resources as corporate news machines attempt to wring out the most profits from the least expenses. Foreign correspondents and bureaus -- hard to establish and expensive to maintain -- have always been the first news sources to go.
Arnett, who won a Pulitzer as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, does note that "a few of the big boys -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal -- have stubbornly maintained substantial foreign reporting staffs and produce sterling reports." But television and local dailies, where a great number of people get their news, have all but dropped foreign coverage -- "unless it involves bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity."
Editors usually justify these cutbacks with the mantra that foreign news doesn't sell -- that it is the "newsstand kiss of death." But Arnett points to a Pew Research Center poll, which stated that 15 percent of readers regularly follow international affairs -- only 1 percent less than Washington politics, 1 percent more than consumer news and 2 percent more than celebrity news.
"At a time when Americans need to know more about the world than ever because of globalization and the role of the U.S. in keeping the peace, they know less than ever because we, the media, have stopped telling them," Arnett said.
8 U.S. Plans to Put Weapons in Space, Violating International Law
Karl Grossman, "U.S. Violates World Law to Militarize Space," and Bruce Gagnon, "Pyramids to the Heavens," both in the Earth Island Journal, Winter/Spring 1999
"I must be the most censored writer in America!" said Grossman about his sixth Project Censored award. Grossman has been writing about the nuclearization of space since 1985, when he first learned that NASA was planning to send up space probes with plutonium fuel. Although Grossman has continued to write, teach and raise a general ruckus about the subject, the rest of the nation's press remains somewhat dormant.
But is the story really censored? "Well, the military is quite brazen about what it's doing -- they want to deploy lasers and other weapons in space to dominate earth from above," said Grossman. "The information is out there -- it's in their press releases, it's all on the web.
"But nuclear power has been a taboo subject or sacred cow from the outset," said Grossman. "It has everything to do with who owns the media -- for example, GE owning NBC -- and the manipulation of the media by the public-relations departments of the major corporations involved."
"I'm honored to get the award, of course, but I'm also ashamed to be part of a media industry too timid or corrupt to ferret out taboo information and inform the American public," Grossman said. "I would really prefer to see this story in the New York Times or on "60 Minutes" than get the award."
9 Louisiana Promotes Toxic Racism
Ron Nixon, "Toxic Gumbo," Southern Exposure, Summer/Fall 1998
Nixon, a veteran reporter and three-time Project Censored recipient, is known for his detailed, big picture presentation of complex stories. "Toxic Gumbo" -- a deconstruction of why "Cancer Alley" (the 100-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans) has suffered from an over-concentration of oil refineries and industrial plants -- is a fine example of his work.
Cancer Alley is one of the worst examples of "environmental racism" in the U.S. Companies have located dangerous and polluting facilities near poor communities of color, resulting in severe health consequences. The state of Louisiana aggressively seeks out chemical companies, providing major incentives and promotional campaigns, to get them to locate there.
"No one was very interested in the story when I started digging it up," Nixon said. "But after 'Toxic Gumbo' came out, the issue was picked up pretty well, including by ABC News. Life magazine even ran a cover story about a woman who went to Japan to protest the Shintech corporation's plans to build a PVC plant in Cancer Alley. Following all this coverage, Shintech actually abandoned those plans.
"Although it got picked up elsewhere," Nixon said, "what separated our story from some of the other coverage is that we looked at local politics, the culture of the area and even traced the issue back to the days of slavery. The fact that many Cancer Alley victims had ancestors who were slaves -- that wasn't lost on the folks there."
10 The U.S. and NATO Deliberately Started the War in Yugoslavia
Jason Vest, "The Real Rambouillet," Village Voice, May 12, 1999; Seth Ackerman, "Redefining Diplomacy," Extra! July/August 1999; Diana Johnstone, "Hawks and Eagles: ‘Greater NATO' Flies to Aid of ‘Greater Albania,'" Covert Action Quarterly, Spring/Summer 1999; and Amy Goodman, Democracy Now/Pacifica Radio Network, April 23, 1999
The Rambouillet talks -- the negotiations between Yugoslavia, Kosovo and the five-nation Contact Group that preceded NATO's bombing of Serbia -- were a sham of diplomacy meant to provoke war. A clause of the Rambouillet Accords, Appendix B, written by U.S. State Department lawyers, made it impossible for Milosevic to comply with NATO's proposed peace process, because it allowed for a NATO military occupation of not just Kosovo, but all of Yugoslavia.
Ackerman, media analyst at FAIR, reported that the mainstream press portrayed Milosevic as being "hard line," when in fact his negotiators had said they would consider most of NATO's demands. In the end, Milosevic refused to sign the Rambouillet Accords because the plan granted NATO extraordinary powers, superseded the U.N. and presented no room for compromise.
"We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply," Ackerman quoted a high-level State Department official at Rambouillet as saying. "They need some bombing, and that's what they're going to get."
"There's no reason to believe reporters from the mainstream press did not have access to the most buried parts of the story," Ackerman said, noting that some reporters may not have quoted this official out of respect for "deep background rules," which ensure their access to important information sources.
Vest agreed that this form of self-censorship was pervasive in coverage of the war in Kosovo. Vest pointed out, however, that a number of other news outlets did pick up the story.
"I believe Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy, as well as columnist Norman Solomon, Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League, whoever compiles the ‘For the Record' column on the editorial page of the Washington Post, and Newsweek's Michael Hirsh should also be sharing in this award," said Vest.
This article was reported and written by Carrie Ching, Tate Hausman, Don Hazen and Tamara Straus of the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute.