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Project Censored's Top 5 underreported stories of 2018

The real fight against fake news

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Fake news is not a new thing. With the return of its annual list of censored stories in Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, Project Censored's vivid cover art recalls H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

The situation today may feel as desolate as the cover art suggests.

"But Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news," editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff observe in the book's introduction.

In the end, they argue that "critical media education – rather than censorship, blacklists, privatized fact-checkers, or legislative bans – is the best weapon for fighting the ongoing fake news invasion."

Project Censored's annual list of 25 censored stories, which makes up the book's lengthy first chapter, is one of the best resources one can have for such education. Censorship and fake news are "intertwined issues," they write.

Project Censored has long been engaged in much more than just uncovering and publicizing stories kept down and out of the corporate media. Over the years, it's added new analytical categories: sensationalist and titillating Junk Food News stories.

Through it all, the list of censored stories remains central to Project Censored's mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways: "as a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues."

The cover art theme works at two levels, as the editors explain, which makes things more complex than they might appear at first glance. First, the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" on Oct. 30, 1938, used a number of dramatic devices to present the drama as though it were an actual crisis in progress. It became an example of the potential power of fake news in the radio media era.

"The broadcast became legendary for allegedly leading to widespread panic throughout the United States," the editors of Project Censored note.

That narrative about widespread panic is actually a more long-term form of fake news, as Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have documented in a series of articles over the past decade. Both the audience size and degree of panic have been significantly inflated, they explain. They cite two main factors: newspaper editors, who saw radio as challenging their media dominance, and an influential media study, whose topline conclusions were at odds with some of its data.

ANSON STEVEN-BOLLES
  • Anson Steven-Bolles

1. World's richest 1 percent continue to become wealthier

In November 2017, Credit Suisse released its 8th Annual Global Wealth Report, which The Guardian reported under the headline, "Richest 1 percent own half the world's wealth, study finds."

The wealth share of the world's richest people increased "from 42.5 percent at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1 percent in 2017, or $140 trillion," The Guardian reported, adding that "The biggest losers ... are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents."

"[Despite being more educated], millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, home ownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report," Rohner Credit Suisse chairman Urs Rohner said. "We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the 'millennial disadvantage.'"

"No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments," the report said. "The number of millionaires has increased by 170 percent, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of USD 50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders."

There were 2.3 million new millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.

"At the other end of the spectrum, the world's 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000," The Guardian reported. "Collectively these people, who account for 70 percent of the world's working age population, account for just 2.7 percent of global wealth."

"Tremendous concentration of wealth and the extreme poverty that results from it are problems that affect everyone in the world, but wealth inequalities do not receive nearly as much attention as they should in the establishment press," Project Censored noted. "The few corporate news reports that have addressed this issue – including an August 2017 Bloomberg article and a July 2016 report for CBS's MoneyWatch – focused exclusively on wealth inequality within the United States. As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world's billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty."

2. FBI racially profiling 'black identity extremists'

At the same time that white supremacists were preparing for the "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI's counterterrorism division produced an intelligence assessment warning of a very different – though actually nonexistent – threat "Black Identity Extremists." The report appeared to be the first time the term had been used to identify a movement, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story.

"But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists," Foreign Policy reported.

"The use of terms like 'black identity extremists' is part of a long-standing FBI attempt to define a movement where none exists," said former FBI agent Mike German, who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice. "Basically, it's black people who scare them."

"It's classic Hoover-style labeling with a little bit of maliciousness and euphemism wrapped up together," said William Maxwell, a Washington University professor working on a book about FBI monitoring of black writers. "The language – 'black identity extremist' – strikes me as weird and really a continuation of the worst of Hoover's past."

"There is a long tradition of the FBI targeting black activists and this is not surprising," Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson told Foreign Policy.

A former homeland security official told them that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats. "It's so convoluted – it's compromising officer safety," the former official said.

"The corporate media [has] covered the FBI report on 'black identity extremists' in narrow or misleading ways," Project Censored noted, citing examples from The New York Times, Fox News and NBC News. "Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrives."

ANSON STEVEN-BOLLES
  • Anson Steven-Bolles

3. How big wireless convinced us cell phones and Wi-Fi are safe

Are cell phones and other wireless devices really as safe as we've been led to believe? Don't bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for The Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.

"The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did, it also borrowed from the same public relations playbook those industries pioneered," Hertsgaard and Dowie reported. "Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. ... On the contrary, the industry – in America, Europe and Asia – has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks and that consumers have nothing to fear."

Their report comes at the same time as several new developments are bringing the issue to the fore, including a Kaiser Permanente study (published in December 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports) finding much higher risks of miscarriage, a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology finding increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor) and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France that nine out of 10 cell phones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used, next to the human body.

As The Nation reported, George Carlo was a scientist hired by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1993 to research cell-phone safety and allay public fears, heading up the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project. But he was unceremoniously fired and publicly attacked by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1999, after uncovering disturbing evidence of danger:

Carlo sent letters to each of the industry's chieftains on October 7, 1999, reiterating that the Wireless Technology Research project had found the following:

"The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled ... in cell phone users"; there was an apparent "correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head"; and "the ability of radiation from a phone's antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive."

Carlo urged the CEOs to do the right thing and give consumers the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume, especially since some in the industry had repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers, "including children."

The Kaiser Permanente study involved exposure to magnetic field nonionizing radiation associated with wireless devices as well as cell phones and found a 2.72 times higher risk of miscarriage for those with higher versus lower exposure. Lead investigator De-Kun Li warned that the possible effects of this radiation have been controversial because "from a public health point of view, everybody is exposed. If there is any health effect, the potential impact is huge."

"The wireless industry has 'war-gamed' science by playing offense as well as defense, actively sponsoring studies that result in published findings supportive of the industry, while aiming to discredit competing research that raises questions about the safety of cellular devices and other wireless technologies," Project Censored summarized. "When studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage, industry spokespeople have pointed out that the findings are disputed by other researchers."

This is the exact same strategy used by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries described in the 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

While some local media have covered the findings of a few selected studies, Project Censored noted, "the norm for corporate media is to report the telecom industry line – that is, that evidence linking Wi-Fi and cell phone radiation to health issues, including cancer and other medical problems, is either inconclusive or disputed. ... As Hertsgaard and Dowie's Nation report suggested, corporate coverage of this sort is partly how the telecom industry remains successful in avoiding the consequences of [its] actions."

ANSON STEVEN-BOLLES
  • Anson Steven-Bolles

4. Indigenous communities around world helping to win legal rights of nature

In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers their ancestor, as a living entity with rights. The Guardian reported it as "a world-first," although the surrounding Te Urewera National Park had been similarly recognized in a 2014 law, and the U.S. Supreme Court came within one vote of potentially recognizing such a right in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton, expressed in a dissent by Justice William O. Douglas. In addition, the broader idea of 'rights of nature' has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia and some American communities, noted Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation.

The tribe's perspective was explained to The Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.

"We consider the river an ancestor and always have," Albert said. "We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as an indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management."

But that could be just the beginning. "It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world," Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote:

"In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature."

"[If the New Zealand Whanganui River settlement] was able to correct the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government," DeVault wrote.

The same could be done with a wide range of other environmental justice disputes involving Native American tribes.

Tanasescu described the broader sweep of recent developments in the "rights of nature," noting that significant problems have resulted from the lack of specific guardianship provisions, which are integral to the Whanganui River law.

"By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system that still sees oceans, mountains and forests primarily as property, guaranteeing nature its day in court," Tanasescu concluded.

"A few corporate media outlets have covered the New Zealand case and subsequent decisions in India," Project Censored noted. "However, these reports have not provided the depth of coverage found in the independent press or addressed how legal decisions in other countries might provide models for the United States."

5. Global decline in rule of law as basic human rights diminish

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017–2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before Trump's election. Fundamental rights – one of eight categories measured – declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries' scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.

Fundamental rights include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association and labor rights.

"All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement," Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian the day the index was released. "Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalising economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality."

This reflects the thesis of Moyn's most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, World Justice Project stated in a press release. "While all subfactors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power – based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures – declined most markedly," the press release stated.

The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.

"With scores of .50 for equal treatment and absence of discrimination (on a scale of 0 to 1), .48 for discrimination in the civil justice system and .37 for discrimination in the criminal justice system, the U.S. finds itself ranked 78 out of 113 countries on all three subfactors," World Justice Project stated.

The four Nordic countries – Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden – remained in the top four positions. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.

"The WJP's 2017–2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media," Project Censored noted.

The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on The Guardian's coverage. This pattern of ignoring international comparisons, across all subject matter, is pervasive in the corporate media. It severely cripples our capacity for objective self-reflection and self-improvement as a nation.