In the 1998 media world of all-Monica, all-the-time, many important news stories were destined to be invisible or get short shrift. The corporate media, especially the broadcast media, gave us primarily infotainment and celebrity news, pushing more complex stories to the back pages or off the air. At the same time, public-affairs television programming and international news coverage has become less and less visible.
Project Censored's annual list of the Top 10 Censored Stories for 1998 reads like a review of The Dangerous Things That Were Happening While You Fixated on the President's Sex Life. For 23 years, Project Censored -- a Sonoma State University media-watch group -- has shone a spotlight on the important news that didn't make the news. This year's list, selected by a distinguished panel of judges `see judges list`, suggests that many insidious developments in areas of public health and safety are going unreported by the mainstream press.
Stories about the unchecked flexing of corporate muscles and government collusion dominate the 1998 list. Story No. 4, for example, exposes how the Nuclear Regulatory Committee is in bed with the steel industry, and may soon allow millions of tons of radioactive metal to be "recycled" into everything from tables to spoons to eyeglasses. Story No. 2 explains how the pharmaceutical and chemical industries profit from breast cancer by producing both carcinogens and drugs toted as "cancer cures." According to Peter Montague, author of one of the articles cited, this story didn't make it into our newspapers because the solution to the problem would mean a complete reordering of corporate priorities. "It would mean that modern technology and the chemical industry would have to change, and that's not attractive to people who are deeply invested in `those industries`," Montague says.
The growing and complex issues associated with biotechnology and genetically engineered seeds was another theme that received very little coverage in 1998's mainstream media. Story No. 3 reports Monsanto Corp.'s marketing of the "terminator seed," which produces infertile seeds at the end of the farming cycle, forcing farmers to buy new Monsanto seeds each season. As outrageous as this is, the story goes even deeper, according to Leora Broydo, whose MoJo Wire story was cited in this category. The most alarming issue with Monsanto's terminator seed is that it was developed by a USDA scientist and then patented and sold to Monsanto -- making the USDA complicit in an agricultural development that will most likely work against American farmers' best interests.
During Broydo's initial research she interviewed Merlin Oliver, the USDA scientist who developed the seed. But when she called him back she was told he could no longer speak to the press -- likely due to his candor, Broydo surmises.
"He said the technology was developed so that biotech companies could recoup the money they were spending on developing products," Broydo says. "I definitely have questions about how a government agency that regulates an industry can be so entrenched at the same time."
Later, the terminator-seed story produced a more overt type of "censorship." Britain's The Ecologist, one of the publications cited by Project Censored, produced a special Monsanto issue in response to the company's Europe-wide genetic-engineering advertising campaign. However, The Ecologist's printers, fearing legal action from Monsanto, pulped the entire print run just hours before it was due to be released. The U.K. spokesman for Monsanto claimed that the company had nothing to do with the printer's decision.
Overall, the U.S. government doesn't escape the list's withering critique. Project Censored cites gross examples of U.S. hypocrisy in dealings with foreign governments. For example, story No. 5 reports about U.S. sanctions that have contributed to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. However, deeper in the story the news is perhaps more alarming: The chemical and biological material sought by the U.S. in our aggressive search of Iraqi military installments for "weapons of mass destruction" were actually supplied to Iraq by the U.S. in the late 1980s, according to Pacifica Radio reporter Dennis Bernstein.
Furthermore, the No. 6 censored story, "Virtual Nukes -- When Is a Test Not a Test?" argues that the U.S. nuclear program is carrying out tests that subvert the U.N. comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, while at the same time aggressively attacking India for carrying out underground tests.
Project Censored offers a broad definition of censorship, which makes sense given the nature of today's media. No longer is censorship an overt legal breach, easily cited and punished. Rather, censorship often takes place before a story is even written, when editors decide that exposing corporate and government excesses and abuses will result in conflicts with advertisers or corporate owners. The result is called "self-censorship."
Project Censored's definition may explain why some seemingly well-covered stories made the Top 10 list. For example, story No. 1 -- the secret negotiations on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which threatens to undermine the sovereignty of nations -- is a story that received broad coverage in the international press, but much less in domestic media. But even Project Censored missed some of this story: Eventually a worldwide coalition of activists built from NAFTA and GATT campaigns helped to force the collapse of MAI negotiations.
David Morris, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, says global corporations and their lobbyists hoped to quickly and secretly push the MAI. "They failed," says Morris, "and as activists began to spread the word about the aims and implication of that document, the tide began to turn. ... At this moment, the MAI is alive, but in emergency care," Morris says.
Another story with mixed coverage was Project Censored's No. 8 choice, "No Mercy for Women as Catholic Hospital Mergers Threaten Reproductive Rights," which until recently suffered from a lack of national coverage. Jennifer Baumgardner's cover story for The Nation's Jan. 25, 1999, issue reported that the people of Kingston, N.Y. -- who were the focus of the Ms. magazine story cited in this category -- were ultimately successful in resisting such a merger. Baumgardner said: "I don't think this story has been censored because it was covered very intensively by the local press in communities across the country. Groups like Catholics for Free Choice and Merger Watch have been very effective at keeping this story in the news."
An even more subtle type of censorship comes from the drying up of resources for foreign coverage, as consolidated media companies become more bottom-line oriented. These forms of self-censorship, combined with overt censorship tactics -- such as silenced sources or news outlets unwilling to sell controversial publications -- makes for a media diet shrinking in substance. Clearly readers must more aggressively seek out the truth behind the news if they want to remain informed. Media organizations committed to public-interest information may also have to rethink their methods for getting material into the hands of wider audiences.
Susan Faludi, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of Project Censored's 1998 judges, comments that "this past year's censored list is brimming over with uncovered crucial stories which have devastating implications for the world's future health and well-being. I had a very difficult time this year narrowing the list down to the 10 most important. ... Many of them shared an underlying story: the disturbing consequences of the rise of a global economy. It's distressing that at the very time the world is going global, the media have narrowed their sights to an Oval Office broom closet."
Here, then, are Project Censored's Top 10 Censored Stories of 1998.
1. "International Trade Agreement undermines the sovereignty of nations"
The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) would set in place a vast series of protections for international investment and threaten national sovereignty by giving corporations near equal rights to nations. Poor domestic coverage of the ramifications of this agreement led PC judges to name this story the No. 1 unreported story of 1998.
The MAI would thrust the world economy much closer to a system where international corporate capital would hold free reign over the democratic values and socioeconomic needs of people. Fortunately, an international grass-roots effort built from previous struggles over GATT and NAFTA has derailed the MAI's chances of being approved internationally. The possibility of MAI coming before the U.S. Senate are also slim at this point. Sources: In These Times, Joel Bleifuss, Jan. 11, 1998. Democratic Left, Bill Dixon, Spring 1998. Tribune des Driots Humains, April 1998.
2. "Chemical corporations profit off breast cancer"
Perhaps one of the most insidious corporate abuses revealed in 1998 was that chemical and pharmaceutical companies are making huge profits from breast cancer, manufacturing and selling known carcinogens on one hand, and then producing (and profiting from) breast-cancer treatment drugs on the other. Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, among the world's largest manufacturers of pesticides, plastics and pharmaceuticals, is also the controlling sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), so they're able to approve -- or veto -- any promotional or informational materials, posters, advertisements, etc., that BCAM uses. The focus is strictly limited to information regarding early detection and treatment, with an avoidance of the topic of prevention. Critics have begun to question why. Sources: Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, Peter Montague, Dec. 4, 1997. The Green Guide, Allison Sloan and Tracy Baxter, Oct. 1998
3. "Monsanto's genetically modified seeds threaten world production"
It's an invention that goes against the very grain of farming practices. The Monsanto Corp., in conjunction with the USDA, has patented genetically engineered seeds that produce sterile offspring, making the age-old practice of seed saving from season to season impossible, and forcing farmers to return each year to buy more. Dubbed "terminator seeds," they pose a potential threat to farmers in developing countries and to the world's food supply. Sources: MoJo Wire, Leora Broydo, April 7, 1998. Third World Resurgence No. 92, Chakravarthi Raghavan. Earth Island Journal, Hope Shand and Pat Mooney, Fall 1998. The Ecologist, Brian Tokar, Sept./Oct. 1998, Vol. 28, No. 5.
4. "Recycled radioactive metals may be in your home"
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the steel industry have joined forces to relax regulations that currently keep recycled radioactive metal out of our homes. The relaxed standards would allow companies to convert millions of tons of low-level radioactive metal into household items such as tables, utensils and even eyeglasses. Source: The Progressive, Anne-Marie Cusac, October 1998.
5. "U.S. weapons of mass destruction linked to the deaths of half a million children"
For more than six years the United States has strongly supported sanctions against Iraq -- punishing the country's citizens for their leader's failure to allow U.N. inspectors to search every structure for "weapons of mass destruction." The sanctions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Perhaps even more startling is the allegation that many of the weapons being sought were supplied to Iraq by the U.S. in the 1980s. Sources: San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dennis Bernstein, Feb. 25, 1998. I.F. Magazine, Bill Blum, March/ April 1998. Space and Security News, the Most Rev. Dr. Robert M. Bowman, Lt. Col., USAF (retired), May 1998.
6. "United States nuclear program subverts U.N.'s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty"
When scientists in India conducted a deep underground nuclear test on May 11, 1998, it was seen as a violation of the United Nations' Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), even though that country did not sign the document. But two months earlier, when the United States carried out an underground test at the Department of Energy's underground test site in Nevada, it went largely unnoticed by the American media, though it was perceived as threatening to the Test Ban Treaty by other countries. The U.S. insisted that it was a sub-critical test -- no nuclear reaction maintained -- and consistent with the CTBT. Source: The Nation, Bill Mesler, June 15,1998.
7. "Gene transfers linked to dangerous new diseases"
A major public-health crisis may be on the horizon, as both emergent and recurring diseases reach new heights of antibiotic resistance. At least 30 new diseases have emerged over the past 20 years, and familiar infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and malaria are returning with vigor. By 1990 nearly every common bacterial species had developed some degree of resistance to drug treatment, many to multiple antibiotics. A major contributing factor, in addition to antibiotic overuse, might be the transfer of genes between unrelated species of animals and plants that takes place with genetic engineering. And to makes things worse, regulators are considering a further relaxation of the safety rules for this unpredictable and hazardous field. There currently is no independent investigation into the relationship between genetic engineering and the emergent and recurrent diseases. Sources: Third World Resurgence, No. 92, Mae-Wan Ho and Terje Traavik. The Ecologist, Mae-Wan Ho, Hartmut Meyer and Joe Cummins, May/June 1998, Vol. 28, No. 3.
8. "Catholic hospital mergers threaten reproductive rights"
In 1996, more than 600 hospitals merged with Catholic institutions in 19 states. This data reflects a trend, according to PC, that threatens women's access to abortions, sterilization, birth control, in vitro fertilization and fetal tissue experimentation, resulting in the impairment of reproductive health-care rights across the nation, since Catholic institutions will not allow these services. Although this story has received intense local coverage and activists have gained victories in protecting women's health-care rights, there has been little coverage given to the issue at the national level. Source: Ms. magazine, Christine Dinsmore, July/August 1998.
9. "U.S. tax dollars support death squads in Chiapas"
Mexican paramilitary soldiers, infamous for slaughtering villagers in the Chiapas region of Mexico, are charged with being trained to torture and kill with U.S. tax dollars. Their ostensible ongoing mission is to fight the "war on drugs," but peasant activists in Chiapas say the real motive driving the U.S.-supported war is the protection of foreign investment rights in Mexico. Sources: Slingshot, the Slingshot collective, Summer 1998. Dark Night Field Notes/ Zapatismo, Darrin Wood.
10. "What price, cheap oil? Student activists gunned down on Chevron Oil facility in Nigeria"
Nigerian activists have stepped up the struggle against the multinational oil companies who, in conjunction with Nigeria's brutal dictatorship, have turned the Niger Delta into an environmental and economic wasteland. On May 28, 1998, Chevron Oil retaliated by using its helicopters to fly in squads of Nigerian paramilitary troops who attacked and killed Nigerian activists at an off-shore Chevron rig. Sources: ERA Environmental Testimonies, Environ-mental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, July 10, 1998. Pacifica Radio, Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, September 1998.