Media downplay

Project Censored releases its list of the least covered stories last year

Illustration By Matt Wuerker

Most people would agree that our world has changed dramatically over the past year. In the eye of our immediate political tornado are a growing drumbeat for an invasion of Iraq, rampant corporate corruption, the erosion of civil liberties, a crashing stock market, pedophile priests and the anniversary of 9/11, the most traumatic American news event in at least 50 years.

Into this twister drops Project Censored’s picks for news stories most ignored last year. These stories would have seemed more relevant if the juggernaut of recent history had not transformed our political landscape. What seemed undercovered in 2001 is, in many cases, front and center today.

Still, this list released by Project Censored, whose headquarters are on Northern California’s Sonoma State University campus, serves as a fascinating chronicle of recent political history. The stories the students and faculty have put forward, and that were ranked by a team of progressive celebrity judges, certainly have a familiar ring—media ownership concentration, the privatization of water, death squads in Colombia, the Bush family and bin Laden, inhumane sanctions in Iraq, the privatization of education, the negative effects of NAFTA, the housing crisis in the United States and CIA shenanigans in Macedonia.

One might ask, would any well-informed person consider these stories in any way censored? Project director Peter Phillips explained that the group defines censorship as any interference with the free flow of information in American society.

“Corporate media in the United States are interested primarily in entertainment news to feed their bottom-line priorities,” he said. “Very important news stories that should reach the American public often fall on the cutting room floor to be replaced by sex-scandals and celebrity updates.”

Here are Project Censored’s top 10 underreported stories:

No. 1: Corporate takeover of the airwaves

Lately, the media have been energetically covering corporate scandals, the atrocities in Afghanistan and the failures of health care. The corporate media are not monolithic; they swing and sway to myriad pressures, with journalists often trying hard to get their stories out while lobbyists and corporate owners push to shape the story in their interests. Journalism is in many ways a combat zone.

But no matter whether the mainstream media are acting as lapdog or watchdog, one story that virtually never gets any coverage is the massive concentration of media ownership and the effect that media lobbyists like the National Association of Broadcasters have on the Federal Communications Commission and, by extension, what consumers of U.S. media read, watch and listen to.

When President Bush appointed Michael Powell to be head of the FCC, broadcasters must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, seems intent on deregulating the media system as much as humanly possible.

When it comes to monopolizing the radio airwaves, four companies broadcasting nationwide with FCC approval control 90 percent of radio advertising revenue, reported Brendan I. Koerner at Mother Jones. As more information gets distributed on the airwaves, whether it be for wireless broadband Internet or instant messages to your cell phone, demand is increasing for shares of the wireless spectrum. Right now, the airwaves are a publicly controlled commodity. But as Mother Jones’ Koerner and Jeremy Rifkin of the Guardian note in their reports, large corporations are already vying for governments worldwide to begin divesting this control into the hands of, say, AOL-Time Warner or Disney or Clear Channel.

The argument for the private ownership of the airwaves, as explained by a report from one conservative think tank, is that “if the spectrum were converted into private electronic real estate that could be exchanged in the marketplace, the invisible hand of supply and demand would dictate the most innovative uses of those frequencies,” Rifkin, author of The Age of Access, wrote in the Guardian. But, under such a plan, the censorship of social, cultural or political viewpoints that differ from those of the companies that own these frequencies could run rampant.

“Equally ominous,” Rifkin wrote, “when companies like AOL Time-Warner, Disney and Vivendi Universal own the channels of communication as well as much of the ‘content’ that flows through them, will the rich cultural diversity that has traditionally been created and nurtured in civil society dry up? Will we be left with only a few global media companies as the ultimate arbiters of human culture?”

Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy and arguably the nation’s most knowledgeable person on media reform, said that the public needs to grasp the bigger picture.

“It’s not just the proposed privatization of radio [wireless] spectrum,” Chester said. “The FCC is now engaged in several inter-related efforts that will harm communities and our democracy. They include new proposed policies that extend the monopoly power of cable and telephone companies onto the Internet itself. Soon the Net will be operated like any cable system, with the pipe owner determining every Web site’s digital destiny. Proposals to commercially annex wireless spectrum are a part of a corporate strategy to monopolize as much of the digital age as possible.”

Sources: Jeremy Rifkin, London Guardian, April 28, 2001; Brendan Koerner, Mother Jones, September 2001; Dorothy Kidd, Media File, May 2001.

No. 2: Corporate water and health care

The world is under attack, and not in the most conventional modes. A little-known agreement called the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS, a byproduct of the World Trade Organization, threatens to open the world’s public services to corporate takeover. That means community services such as water, health care, education, libraries and museums could turn into lucrative investments in the hands of global corporations.

Think it can’t happen? It already has. In the spring of 2000, the Bolivian government sold off the city of Cochabamba’s public water system to San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. in the name of economic efficiency, writes author Maude Barlow. Several furious protests ensued until finally the government agreed to return the water supply to public control.

If you think the United States is immune to such episodes, you’re mistaken. In New Orleans, negotiations are underway to privatize the city’s water supply. The $1 billion deal would be the largest private water contract in U.S. history. In related instances of corporatization, Barlow writes that Rick Scott, president of Columbia/HCA Healthcare, the world’s largest for-profit hospital corporation, “has publicly vowed to destroy every public hospital in North America,” saying doctors “are not ‘good corporate citizens.’ “ Merrill Lynch has already predicted public education will be privatized.

Source: Maude Barlow, The Ecologist, Feb. 2001.

No. 3: U.S. policy funds human-rights abuses in Colombia

In October 2001, Human Rights Watch released a report revealing the ugly truth about U.S. involvement in Colombia. The report contained evidence that the Colombian military was working closely with rightwing paramilitary death squads such as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In other words, the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid and a close ally in the war on drugs was using American dollars to fund groups known to be responsible for more than 70 percent of human-rights abuses in Colombia’s civil war.

It was a startling revelation that would have made news on most days, especially since the State Department had designated the AUC as a “foreign terrorist organization,” charged with kidnapping, pillaging and the massacre of hundreds of civilians. But few media outlets covered the report at the time. The headlines were focused instead the global war on terror and the imminent war on Afghanistan.

The lack of media attention became less excusable in February, when the Bush administration announced its plans to expand its cooperation with Colombia. The White House requested $98 million in new Pentagon training and equipment for the Colombian military, in a new initiative to recruit Colombia as an ally in the global war on terror.

Jim Lobe, one of the journalists who covered the story, says the war on terrorism has “conspired to substantially reduce attention to paramilitary, as opposed to guerrilla abuses.” FARC and other leftist guerillas are labeled “terrorist” groups within this global us-vs.-them narrative, while crimes committed by government-sponsored death squads are brushed aside. According to Lobe, journalists have bought into this flawed narrative mainly due to their own view of Latin American nations as inherently violent.

Sources: Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch, July 1, 2001; Jim Lobe, Asheville Global Report, Oct. 4, 2001; Dan Kovalik and Gerald Dickey, Steelabor, May 2001; Rachel Massey, Rachel’s Environment & Health News, Dec. 7, 2001.

No. 4: U.S. administration ordered FBI off bin Laden trail

Shielding the Saudi royal family and their friends from bad press is a veritable presidential tradition, as Greg Palast learned when he launched an investigation into why the FBI took its agents off the trail of bin Laden family members residing in the United States. Drawing on information he uncovered in classified FBI documents, Palast reported that Osama bin Laden’s brother, Abdullah bin Laden, who lived in Washington, was a suspect in terrorist activities as long ago as 1996, but high-up intelligence officials pressured the FBI to discontinue surveillance.

“There were always constraints on investigating the Saudis,” an intelligence source told Palast, who broke the story just two months after 9/11. Those restrictions were tightened considerably when George W. Bush took office.

Both the Bush and the bin Laden families have significant holdings in the Carlyle Group, the enormous private investment firm that has grown bloated off U.S. defense contracts. It seems as if the U.S. government is more in the business of protecting the Saudis and its own oil interests than of finding the perpetrators of 9/11. Change is in the wind, however; recent public opinion polls show that Americans are growing increasingly disenchanted with Saudi policy—and perhaps, by extension, Bush’s financial ties to the royal family.

Sources: Greg Palast and David Pallister, The Guardian, Nov. 7, 2001; Rashmee Z. Ahmed, Times of India, Nov. 8, 2001; Amanda Luker, Pulse, Jan. 16, 2002.

No. 5: U.S. destruction of Iraqi water supply

The Persian Gulf War ended more than a decade ago, but for Iraqi citizens the real misery had just begun. Thomas J. Nagy uncovered documents of the Defense Intelligence Agency proving beyond a doubt that the United States government, after destroying the Iraqi water system, sanctioned the country from improving their water with purification equipment and importing chlorine.

The six documents Nagy discovered confirm that the Pentagon and the U.S. government fully understood the consequences of their decision to degrade the water supply. One document plainly states, “conditions in Baghdad remain favorable for communicable disease outbreaks,” and another says, “the main causes of infectious diseases, particularly diarrhea, dysentery and upper respiratory problems, are poor sanitation and unclean water. These diseases primarily afflict the old and young children.” This blatant act of inhumanity is in direction violation of the Geneva Convention, which expressly prohibits destroying the source of a civilian population’s ultimate survival.

Source: Thomas J. Nagy, The Progressive, Sept. 2001

No. 6: Renewed threat of nuclear warfare

In the summer of 2001, Stephen Schwartz, founder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, warned his readers that an influential group of right-wing analysts, scientists and members of Congress were “quietly paving the way for a nuclear revival.” Schwartz wrote: “They want to build a variety of new and improved warheads, including a new generation of highly accurate, ground-penetrating, bunker-busting beauties.”

Few reporters paid attention at the time. But the following year, when the Los Angeles Times leaked the details of the Pentagon’s plans to revamp its nuclear policy, it became apparent that the threat of nuclear war was more serious than ever. The Nuclear Posture Review emphasized developing “usable” lower-yield weapons and expanding the number of scenarios under which the United States might use or threaten to use nuclear arms.

Over the past six months, the threat of nuclear warfare has received far greater attention. The mainstream media have paid close attention to the Bush administration’s decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and have attacked the Bush-Putin missile accord as dangerous and ineffective. But as Schwartz points out, this attention has been “episodic” rather than sustained, primarily due to the lack of controversy.

“There has been no sense in the public or Congress that this is wrong,” he says. “What is required is a massive reeducation effort.”

Source: Stephen I. Schwartz, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 2001.

No. 7: Public schools as guinea pigs for HMO model

Public schools ain’t so public anymore. For over a decade, private, for-profit educational management (EMO) companies have billed themselves as the saving grace for America’s failing school systems by promising to cut costs and raise standards. All this while padding shareholders’ wallets.

But EMOs like Edison Schools, Inc., have proved unsuccessful thus far. Studies cited by Barbara Miner in her Multinational Monitor article “Business Goes to School” found that EMO schools are not besting traditional public schools. And return on private investment has been nonexistent.

The business media has followed the ups and downs of EMOs closely over the years. Edison made Wall Street Journal headlines this summer for losing its $39 million contract with the Dallas school board. Some investors have even sued Edison for misreporting revenue. Vanishing hopes of profitability may now be scaring away some investors who once thought EMOs would do for schools what HMOs did for health care.

Sources: Barbara Miner, Multinational Monitor, Jan. 2002; Frosty Troy, Progressive Populist, Nov. 15, 2000; Dennis Fox, North Coast Xpress, Winter 2000; Linda Lutton, In These Times, June 2001.

No. 8: NAFTA impoverishes small family farmers

In June of 2001, Public Citizen released a report graphically illustrating the failure of NAFTA to increase the income of farmers. Not only did American farms lose nearly $18 billion in annual revenue, but Mexican farmers’ income fell 17 percent. Canadian farmers, who were told to expect a $1.4 billion increase in income, found their bank accounts $600 million emptier.

The NAFTA/Farm report perfectly represents the larger goal of NAFTA, the transfer of wealth from small, independent operators to multinational conglomerates. As over 33,000 small American farms went out of business, agribusiness giants such as ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland had significant gains in earnings. From 1993 to 2000, ConAgra’s profits grew 189 percent from $143 million to $413 million, and Midland’s profits nearly tripled from $110 million to $301 million.

Sources: Anita Martin, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dec. 2000; Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown, Sept. 2001.

No. 9: Housing crisis in the United States

Six million Americans have no place to call home, as affordable low-cost housing continues to waste away in a silent, even hostile political climate. In recent years, around 1.5 million units of housing have disappeared—which means millions of children growing up homeless or in housing that is substandard and potentially hazardous.

Randy Shaw, director of Housing America, a San Francisco-based housing rights organization, reported in In These Times that America’s housing situation is dire and only getting worse. Shaw reports that the silence that surrounds the issue in both the political sphere and mass media is confounded by the vast institutional problems of corruption and limited budgets faced by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. With the new downturn in the economy, this is a story that continues to unfold and continues to get little notice in the mainstream press.

Source: Randy Shaw, In These Times, November 2000.

No. 10: CIA Spooks Destabilize Macedonia

Look at the front page of your newspaper any time in the last few months, and you’ve seen a story about the United States protecting its interests abroad, usually in the form of discussions about the once and future war on Iraq. But one story you probably haven’t seen is about the United States using NATO forces and CIA money to promote an alliance with Macedonia, in hopes of controlling that country’s oil supply.

Control and ownership of the AMBO project (Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil), which centers around a proposed pipeline that traverses the three Balkan nations, has been exclusively granted to a consortium of American-led interests, notably Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton Energy.

Michel Chossudovsky, director of the Centre for Research on Globalisation, contends that U.S.-controlled interests in Macedonia are disrupting peace talks in order to justify NATO intervention and to secure an American and British affiliation for the controlling forces. As Bay Guardian reporter A.C. Thompson points out, the hypothesis is credible and merits further exploration, although Chossudovsky’s story is ultimately “more of a starting point than a smoking gun.”

Source: Michel Chossudovsky,, June 14, 2001 and July 26, 2001.