If the nervous system of any organism is obstructed, important messages cannot get through and its health suffers. So it is with information in the media of the body politic. Carl Jensen, a Professor of Communications Studies at Sonoma State University, explains how subtle forms of censorship restrict the flow of vital information here in the U.S. He founded Project Censored (Sonoma State U., Rohnert Park, CA 94928) to address this problem, and writes here of the patterns discovered in the project’s 12-year history. Reprinted from On The Issues, a feminist quarterly published by Choices Women’s Medical Center, 9777 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills, NY 11374 ($9.50/year).
The United States has a free press guaranteed by its constitution; it has the world’s most sophisticated communications system; and it has more independent media outlets disseminating more information 24-hours a day than anywhere else in the world. Considering our autonomous press and the quantity of information that daily bombards us, we should be a very knowledgeable populace. Unfortunately, high technology and a free press do not guarantee a well-informed society.
The problem is not the quantity of information that we receive but the quality. For example, when something starts to go wrong in your personal life, there generally are some warning signals that alert you to the problem. A rational person normally would act upon that information in an effort to solve the problem. It is the same with a society. When a problem arises, there should be a warning signal – information – that alerts the citizens that something is going wrong which needs attention and resolution. An aware populace could then influence its leaders to act upon that information in an effort to solve the problem.
Most Americans are aware that the U.S. has problems, serious problems that need to be confronted and resolved if we are to succeed and survive in the future. And yet, how many of our citizens are fully informed about, or even aware of, those issues? The problem is that the issues are not the issue; the press is the issue.
Despite the quantity of "news" being mass produced by the information machine, we, some 245 million Americans, are not being told everything we have a right and need to know. And without full information about the affairs of our society, we cannot function as good citizens.
Joseph Pulitzer once said: "We are a democracy, and there is only one way to get a democracy on its feet in the matter of its individual, its social, its municipal, its state, its national conduct, and that is by keeping the public informed about what is going on. There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy. Get these things out in the open, describe them, attack them, ridicule them in the press, and sooner or later public opinion will sweep them away . . . publicity may not be the only thing that is needed, but it is the one thing without which all other agencies will fail."
The United States today has a host of problems we should know about and be doing something about and yet the publicity and information of which Pulitzer spoke is not readily available to us. To understand how this situation has come about in a society with a free press which mass produces information, we must understand how the flow of information is controlled.
In totalitarian states such as Chile, Russia, and South Africa, we find outright, overt censorship. The state, through its bureaucracy, determines what can or cannot be said or printed and maintains its control of the information flow through a monopoly on the means of production of the information industry.
In societies perceived as free, we find the information output determined by economic pressures to produce corporate profits, by a systematic distribution of "punishment and reward" to workers in the media, and by a less obvious, but nonetheless effective, control of the means of production of the information industry. The latter is well-documented in Ben Bagdikian’s book The Media Monopoly.
In both cases, the efforts to manipulate and control the flow of information are successful – whether by overt censorship or by covert censorship. The crucial difference is that the citizens in a totalitarian society are aware that their information is manipulated and they conduct their lives with that knowledge.
However, the citizens of a free society, such as the United States, believe the mass media provide them with a fair, objective, and uncensored report of what is happening in the world around them and thus are lulled into a false sense of being a well-informed society. It was a media generated image of an affluent America which provided the backdrop for the 1988 election. In fact, the last vote had hardly been cast before the White House announced it was planning to restrict the rights of people to appeal government decisions denying them Social Security or welfare benefits. And that last vote had hardly been counted before the White House told 80,000 American farmers that it may foreclose on their farms. The image of an affluent America started to tarnish less than 24 hours after the election.
BIRTH OF A PROJECT
In 1976, the omissions of vital information in media reportage induced me to launch a national research effort, called Project Censored, to explore whether there really is a systematic censorship of certain issues in our national news media. This was stimulated by personal bewilderment over how the American people could elect Richard Nixon by a landslide after Watergate and one of the most sensational political crimes of the century. A brief review of the press of that period reveals how that happened. While there was substantial information available tying in the administration with the Watergate burglary, the media did not put the issue on the national agenda until after the election in November 1972.
Subsequent comparisons of critical issues with press coverage persuaded me that the media do not provide the public with all the information it needs to make informed decisions in the voting booth or elsewhere. Project Censored is now an international media research project in its 13th year. Through an innovative approach to constructive media criticism, we hope to encourage print and broadcast journalism to devote more time and space to real news and less time and space to what I call junk-food news.
By exploring and publicizing stories on important issues that have been overlooked or under-reported by the news media, the project seeks to stimulate journalists and editors to provide more mass media coverage of those issues. It also hopes to encourage the general public to seek out and demand more information on those issues.
Since its start, the research project has generated queries for more information about the project and individual stories cited from journalists and scholars throughout the world. It has variously been described as a tip sheet for investigative television programs like 60 Minutes and 20/20, as a distant early-warning system for society’s problems and even as a "moral force" in American media.
Despite its international impact, however, it largely has been ignored by the major news media in the United States, which are not known for their inclination to accept and evaluate criticism.
Most of the negative criticism of the project is that there is a left-wing, liberal, ideological bias to the stories selected as overlooked or undercovered by the mainstream news media. Stories about nuclear war, the environment, biological/chemical warfare, sexism, civil and human rights, dangerous pesticides, deadly carcinogens, and starving children can’t be considered left-wing. These stories, typical of those highlighted by the research over the years, represent moral and ethical issues that affect all the peoples of the world.
Another criticism of the project is the use of the term "censored". To me, the definition of the term goes beyond the traditional examples of the military censor deleting classified information from documents or the acts of the bookburning barbarians. I define censorship as the suppression of information whether purposeful or not, by any method – including bias, omission, under-reporting, and self-censorship – which results in the systematic omission of information, thereby preventing the public from fully knowing what is happening to its society.
While censorship in totalitarian societies is widely criticized in the U.S., our own form of self-censorship may be even more dangerous because it is so subtle and insidious, little-known and rarely acknowledged or discussed.
Public response to the project confirms there is a genuine suspicion that we are not getting all the information we need about what is really happening. Many people want more information about stories of which they were unaware, while many others send me stories of which they feel other people should be made aware.
In the past 13 years, researchers in the censorship seminar I teach at Sonoma State University have reviewed thousands of stories many Americans have not seen or heard about. The stories are nominated annually by journalists, scholars, librarians, and the general public from throughout the United States and abroad.
We then select the top 25 stories according to a number of criteria, including the amount of coverage the story received, its potential effect, how reliable the source is, and the importance of the issue. Next, the top 25 "censored" nominations are submitted to a panel of judges which select the top 10 overlooked stories of the year.
NEWS THAT WASN’T NEWS
The most under-reported category of ignored subjects deals with political or governmental issues ranging from regulatory agencies to foreign/political military involvements to the presidency. Central American issues have dominated the nominations during the past few years. The second leading category of stories deals with business and economic issues or what some call "corporate crime". The third-ranked subject area concerns dangers to an individual’s health, whether from poisonous pesticides or pharmaceutical malfeasance or low-level radiation. Other leading subjects often undercovered by the mainstream press include civil and human rights, the military and the environment.
Some of the issues raised in the early years of Project Censored subsequently received increased press coverage, including the dangers of nuclear power, acid rain, public utility crimes, illegal aliens, drugs like Depo-Provera and Bendectin, starvation in Africa, South African apartheid, and the homeless.
However, there are many issues that still deserve far more media attention than they have received. Some of these include America’s secret police network, the concentration of wealth, human rights violations in the U.S., threats to the nation’s water supply, hightech health hazards, and the growing media megamonopoly.
Some of the stories cited as among the top overlooked issues of 1987 provide an insight into the sources and techniques of censorship in America.
The top overlooked story of the year revealed one of the underlying causes of "censorship" and issued a warning of what is to come. Media critic Ben Bagdikian revealed that just 29 corporations controlled half or more of all the media business in America in 1987. More disturbing, Wall Street analysts, specializing in the media, predicted that only half a dozen giant firms will control most of our media by the 1990s. The full potential impact of this information cartel on a free society is still ignored by our press.
Another story, "Reagan’s Mania for Secrecy," helps explain some of the post-election surprises in the press. Three major reports published in 1987 detailed how a massive network of executive orders, secret directives, and administrative edicts from the Reagan administration institutionalized secrecy throughout the government and put unprecedented controls on information available to the public. The three groups whose research independently came to the same conclusions were the American Library Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and People for the American Way.
A 165-page report which documented U.S. complicity in the torture of political prisoners in El Salvador was smuggled out of the Mariona men’s prison and eventually arrived at the Marin Interfaith Task Force in northern California. The group assembled the report into a document titled "Torture in El Salvador" and sent it to the nation’s leading newspapers. When nothing appeared, the Task Force asked them why they didn’t report on the document. The only response was from Art Seidenbaum of the Los Angeles Times who wrote "We really have . . . no staff for making a 1,500-word article out of a large series of reports."
The tenth-ranked story of 1987 was about a shuttle flight scheduled to carry lethal plutonium on it and was a repeat from the 1986 list. The story noted that NASA, despite serious scientific warnings of a possible disaster, was still planning to launch the Project Galileo shuttle space probe with 49 pounds of plutonium on it. Theoretically, one pound of plutonium, uniformly distributed, has the potential to give everyone on the planet a fatal case of lung cancer. Intrigued by the censorship of this issue, freelance journalist Dennis Bernstein wrote a cover article about censorship in television news focussing on the shuttle’s flight for Newsday’s weekly TV magazine. In turn, the article itself was killed by Newsday in August, 1988, but did appear in the September, 1988, issue of Extra!, the newsletter of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a national media watchdog group.
THE SUBTLE SOURCES OF CENSORSHIP
One of the questions often asked is why the press doesn’t cover the issues raised by Project Censored. The failure of the news media to cover critical and sometimes controversial issues consistently and in depth is not, as some believe, a conspiracy on the part of the media elite. News is too diverse, fastbreaking, and unpredictable to be controlled by some sinister conservative establishment media cabal.
However, there are many factors operating that, when combined, lead to the failure of the news media to fully inform the public. While it is not as overt a form of censorship as the kind we can observe in some other societies, it is nonetheless real and often equally effective.
Sometimes a source for a story isn’t considered to be reliable; other times the story doesn’t have an easily identifiable "beginning, middle, and end"; some stories may not be in the best financial interests of the publisher, owner, stockholders, or advertisers; investigative journalism is more expensive than the traditional public stenographer school of journalism; some stories are considered to be too complex for the general public.
On occasion, stories are ignored because they haven’t been "blessed" by The New York Times or the Washington Post. Reporters and editors at most of the other 1,650 daily newspapers know their news judgment isn’t going to be challenged when they produce and publish fashionable "follow-the-leader" stories.
Another major factor contributing to media self-censorship is when the story is considered potentially libelous. Long and costly jury trials, and sometimes large judgments against the media, have produced a massive chilling effect on the press and replaced copy editors with copy attorneys.
Jonathan Alter, media columnist for Newsweek, offers some additional reasons why important stories aren’t covered. He said they may be so boring or so forgettable that nobody noticed them; they may be awkward or threatening to readers and viewers; they may be alien to the personal interests or experiences of reporters and editors or they may be too familiar to them. Alter also said some stories are not covered because they do not fit conventional definitions of news. I suggest it is time for journalism to rethink its traditional definitions of news. In a time of nuclear terrorism, environmental disaster, and economic doom, it is not news when a man bites a dog.
Real news is objective and reliable information about important events happening in society. The widespread dissemination of such information will help people become better informed, and a better informed citizenry will demand, obtain, and benefit from an administration more concerned with substance than with image.
DOES COVERAGE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Would it really make any difference if the press were to provide more coverage for the kinds of stories cited by Project Censored?
The answer is very simple: yes.
Hunger in Africa was consistently nominated as a "censored" subject during the early years of this decade. When I would ask journalists why they did not cover the tragedy unfolding there, they would say: "It is not news," or, "Everyone already knows about starving Africans," or "Nothing can be done about it anyway."
Early in 1984, an ABC TV News correspondent in Rome came upon information that led him to believe that millions of lives were being threatened by drought and famine in Africa. He asked the home office in New York for permission to take his crew to Africa to get the story. The answer was no.
Later, as we all now know, a BBC television crew, traveling through Ethiopia, captured the stark reality of children starving to death. Overnight, it sparked a world-wide reaction that reportedly saved the lives of seven million Ethiopians.
Indeed the media can make a difference if they want to. They have the power to stimulate the people to clean up the environment; to prevent nuclear proliferation; to force crooked politicians out of office; to reduce poverty; to create a truly equitable society; and, as we have seen, to literally save the lives of millions of human beings.
And this is why we must look to, prod, and support a free, open, and aggressive press. This is the real, bottom line issue. For it is the press which determines which issues go on the national agenda for discussion and thought and which don’t.
We have a constitutionally guaranteed free press in the United States and we have the best communications technology in the world; let us seek a more responsible press, a press that earns its First Amendment rights.