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Media Black-out 

Project Censored presents its annual report on the big stories ignored or overlooked by the mainstream media.

Immediately after Sept. 11, a consensus seemed to emerge among the nation's editors: Now is not the time to ask tough questions. Wrapping themselves in the flag, hordes of journalists shelved their critical-thinking skills, essentially recasting themselves as spokespeople for the U.S. government.

Think that's a little dramatic? The University of Washington communications department studied 210 Time and Newsweek stories published in the weeks after the attacks and found that the majority of the articles "focused on American unity, highlighted the importance of core American values, shifted blame away from the U.S., emphasized the U.S. role as the only superpower on the international stage, and demonized the enemy."

Some media outlets were more blatant than others. Reuters reported that bosses at CNN sent a memo to correspondents covering the war in Afghanistan saying, "We must remain careful not to focus excessively on the casualties and hardships that will inevitably be a part of this war, or to forget that it is the Taliban leadership that is responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in."

That's exactly the sort of editorial cowardice and bias that Project Censored seeks to expose. Now in its 26th year, the project, based at Sonoma State University, issues an annual report on the biggest stories the major U.S. news media have ignored or underreported. The project's researchers comb the journalistic hinterlands searching for significant stories that failed to make a splash in the mainstream media. (Because Project Censored is moving to a new schedule -- the list will now be released every August -- this year's "winners" were actually chosen from an 18-month span running from late 2000 through part of 2002.)

To be sure, no ominous-looking government officials barred the publication or broadcast of these stories. Project Censored takes a wider view of censorship. In this country, project director Peter Phillips points out, the real issue is often self-censorship. "I think individual reporters wanted to ask the questions, but the atmosphere of shock really reduced any critical analysis of the U.S. government," Phillips says.

There's also the problem of resources. "There's been a phenomenal collapse in the coverage of international politics in U.S. news media from the mid-80s into 2001," says Robert McChesney, research professor at the Institute of Communications Research at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "It's expensive to cover foreign affairs. The big companies that own our news media figured they could get rid of all those reporters and make a lot more money. So that's exactly what they did."

Notably, many of the stories on the project's list this year were broken by British outlets, notably the U.K. Guardian and the Ecologist magazine. So here you have it, Project Censored's top 10:

1. FCC Moves to Privatize Airwaves

There was a time, not so long ago, when major news organizations assigned reporters to every semi-significant federal government office. Even into the 1980s, you could find journalists stalking the corridors of regulatory backwaters like the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Maritime Commission. In this belt-tightening era that's no longer the case.

Perhaps that's why the mainstream media missed one of the scariest stories of the year: how big media, backed by 37 prominent economists, is angling to buy up the radio airwaves. If the scheme succeeds, the radio spectrum, now held in common by all of us and licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcasters, will be transformed into chunks of electronic real estate and sold off to the highest bidder. And you think radio is bad now?

The story actually dates back to 1995, when the Freedom and Progress Foundation -- a conservative think tank funded by tech, telecom and media heavies -- began calling for the privatization of the airwaves. At the time, the proposal was considered a tad extreme, even for the deregulation-obsessed Clinton administration.

Now, however, the media titans have found a key ally: FCC chair Michael K. Powell, a Bush appointee and son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. So far in his tenure at the helm of the FCC, Powell has jettisoned its historic mandate to act "in the public interest," greenlighted the expansion of Rupert Murdoch's empire, and moved to relax already weak rules limiting media monopolies. (It's telling that Powell refers to the companies his agency allegedly oversees as "clients.") In this environment, the proposal to gradually privatize the airwaves seems to be gaining traction.

The implications are enormous. "If the flow of human communications is controlled by global media companies, how do we ensure that social and cultural points of view and political expressions that may differ from those of the companies who own the frequencies will be allowed to flow over the spectrum?" wrote Jeremy Rifkin, the author and activist who broke the story for the U.K. Guardian.

Jeremy Rifkin, U.K. Guardian, April 200l, and MediaFile, Autumn 2001; Brendan I. Koerner, Mother Jones, 10/11/01; Dorothy Kidd, MediaFile, 5/6/01.

2. New Trade Treaty Seeks to Privatize Global Social Services

Water may well be the oil of the 21st century. A billion people are in need of potable water, and demand is growing by the second. Corporations, sensing that blue gold is the commodity of the future, are rushing to capitalize on this scarcity. They're eagerly buying up publicly owned water delivery systems, and of course, hiking rates and cutting costs.

When San Francisco-based construction giant Bechtel took over the municipal water service of Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999, the company promptly jacked up rates by 35 percent to guarantee a 16 percent return on its investment. By April 2000 -- after riots, general strikes, several deaths, and almost no coverage in the U.S. press -- Bolivians scored a huge victory for the working class and ran the firm out of the country.

But as Maude Barlow reported in the Ecologist in February 2001, the Bolivians' success may not last. Enter the spawn of the World Trade Organization: the Global Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). GATS is a trade pact designed to speed up and lock in the corporate takeover of public infrastructure and services worldwide. GATS looks at taxpayer-funded services as an unfair business practice. In other words, the decision by Bolivian government officials to keep a foreign corporation from acquiring its water system could be seen as a barrier to free trade and international commerce.

The exact terms of the deal are still being hashed out, but expect it to contain some nasty privatization mandates. The next round of negotiations is set for December 2002.

Maude Barlow, the Ecologist, February 2001.

3. U.S. Policies in Colombia Support Mass Murder

American media has a propensity for downplaying the human rights abuses of U.S. allies. So we hear all about the dirty deeds of the Marxist guerrillas in Colombia but almost nothing about the Colombian government's ties to paramilitary death squads.

It's not like this information is hard to come by. You don't have to spend months nosing around the back alleys of Medellín tailing shadowy, heavily armed characters. All an enterprising reporter has to do is give a call to the folks at Human Rights Watch (HRW). The organization has uncovered what it calls "detailed, abundant and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombian Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations."

The HRW case studies are stomach-churning: the 24 villagers whose skulls were crushed by sledgehammers and heavy stones; the 40 men disappeared from the town of Llorente; the dismembered and mutilated bodies discovered near Tulu; the execution of community leader Noralba Gaviria Piedrahíta. Of the 236 massacres logged during 2000, most were carried out by right-wing paramilitaries, and many were perpetrated with tacit or direct support from the government.

This death-squad government is bankrolled by you. Slated to get $378 million in U.S. aid for 2002, Colombia is the third-highest recipient of American foreign aid, behind only Egypt and Israel. The bulk of that money is earmarked for military hardware and combat training. By all indications, the United States has turned a blind eye to ongoing carnage because the country hosts two of the things Washington claims to hate most: cocaine and communists. Now, with the war on terror widening, Congress has voted to underwrite the Colombian army's ongoing grudge match with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the leftist insurgents. Making matters worse, new president Alvaro Uribe Velez is reputed to be even closer to the death squads than previous leader Andres Pastrana.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch, January 2001; Jim Lobe, Asheville Global Report, October 2001; Dan Kovalik and Gerald Dickey, Steelabor, 5/6/01; Rachel Massey, Rachel's Environment and Health News, December 2001.

4. Bush Administration Hampered FBI Investigation Into Bin Laden Family Before Sept. 11

Muckraker Greg Palast has a penchant for acquiring damning confidential documents from secretive government agencies. Less than two months after Sept. 11, he scored again, getting hold of 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation memos indicating the bureau suspected Abdullah bin Laden, brother of the most infamous terrorist in the world, of funding terrorist activity. Angry agents who spoke to Palast told him the counter-terrorism probe was scuttled by bureau honchos before it could even get off the ground. The feds, Palast reported in the U.K. Guardian, weren't much interested in possible Saudi connections to Islamic terror plots.

"There were always constraints on investigating the Saudis," one source told Palast. "They said the restrictions became worse after the Bush administration took over this year. The intelligence agencies had been told to 'back off' from investigations involving other members of the bin Laden family, the Saudi royals, and possible Saudi links to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan," Palast wrote.

The date of Palast's report was Nov. 7, and the U.S. media, like the FBI, let the lead go. Few American journalists piggybacked on the story -- and after Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia started asking for a real examination of any intelligence blunders that may have set the stage for Sept. 11, she was labeled a conspiratorial loony by the pundits. Months later, when two more FBI agents called press conferences to say they were pulled off the trail of the Sept. 11 hijackers, the American media couldn't ignore the story.

Greg Palast and David Pallister, U.K. Guardian, November 2001; Amanda Luker, Pulse, January 2002; Rashmee Z. Ahmed, Times of India, November 2001.

5. U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water System

When the U.S. military took on Saddam Hussein in 1991, American planes strategically obliterated Iraq's water system. Then, with the war over and the water system in ruins, the United States imposed sanctions barring the importation of water purification equipment. The unsurprising effect of this one-two punch was the slow death of thousands of Iraqis -- the United Nations estimates 500,000 children have died as a result of the sanctions.

Reporting for the Progressive magazine, Thomas J. Nagy unearthed the Defense Intelligence Agency documents detailing all of this. In fact, Nagy's scoop showcases, yet again, the laziness of mainstream media: the now declassified documents are online, at an official government Web site: www.gulflink.osd.mil.

Here's a sample from a January 1991 document titled, "Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities": "Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline. With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations Sanctions to import these vital commodities. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease."

One commodity Iraq was banned from importing was chlorine, a chemical used for both chemical weapons and water sanitization. The Defense Department knew a shortage of chlorine would kill -- and has kept the ban in place for the past decade. "Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur," the brief noted.

Thomas J. Nagy, the Progressive, September 2001.

6. U.S. Government Pushes Nuclear Revival

As the Cold War drew to a close in 1989, the anti-nuclear movement, thinking it had thwarted Mutual Assured Destruction, lost its sense of urgency. But while the peaceniks slacked, a small crew spearheaded by Stephen Younger, the associate director for nuclear weapons research at Los Alamos national lab, was quietly planning the nuke's resurgence. The bomb-backers include weapons designers, Energy Department officials, right-wing foundations and former military chiefs. And boy, do they have some plans.

For starters, they want the citizenry to pony up $8 billion just to maintain our aging stockpile of nuclear warheads. The real hope is a massive reinvestment in weapons production -- which has been stalled for a decade -- and the development of a whole new range of nuclear armaments.

One concept currently in vogue is the "battlefield nuke," or "mini-nuke," a relatively small missile that could be used in conventional combat scenarios -- something that should terrify every U.S. Army grunt -- to penetrate hardened enemy hideouts, a la Tora Bora.

Word of the nuke revival surfaced briefly in the big media in March 2002, when the Los Angeles Times revealed the Bush administration's revamped nuclear battle plans, or "Nuclear Posture Review." The classified, apparently tentative plans include the use of mini-nukes and strategic offensive strikes against enemy countries (a huge shift in strategy) and target China, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, and Russia. But the L.A. Times and other establishment media outlets lost interest in the renewed arms race -- days after the story hit, it fell off the radar.

Stephen I. Schwartz, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 6/7/01.

7. Corporations Promote HMO Model for School Districts

If you loathe your health insurance company, you'll be more than a little concerned about one of the biggest trends in education. Behold the EMO, or Educational Management Organization.

A quartet of for-profit corporations are lining up to further gain control of public elementary and secondary schools. The biggest of the EMOs, New York-based Edison Corp., the brainchild of longtime education corporatizer Chris Whittle, already runs 136 schools serving 75,000 students in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

The EMOs have a fairly standard game plan: they sweep into school districts with terrible test scores and tired teachers, boasting about the overnight improvements they'll make. For parents frustrated by the very real problems with public education, it sounds like a dream.

Oftentimes it is. According to one education expert quoted in Barbara Miner's award-winning Multinational Monitor story, "Edison students spend almost 50 percent more time in class each year than regular public school students. Yet Edison students do not [perform] better than regular public education students. Edison vowed its schools could cost no more than regular public schools, but this promise, too, has been broken."

Indeed, so far the EMOs haven't had much fiscal success. Already plagued by declining share prices, Edison was pilloried in May by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said the company was misrepresenting its revenue to stockholders. Other EMOs have already melted down. Still, it's too early to count the privatizers out.

Barbara Miner, Multinational Monitor, 1/2/02; Frosty Toy, Progressive Populist, November 2000; Dennis Fox, North Coast Xpress, Winter 2000; Linda Lutton, In These Times, June 2001.

8. NAFTA Destroys Farming Communities in U.S. and Abroad

"In 1993, when the North American Free Trade Agreement came before Congress, farmers were told that it would throw open the gates to the Mexican and Canadian borders, allowing them to export their way to prosperity by selling their surplus corn, chickens, and whatnot in these golden globalized markets," populist pundit Jim Hightower wrote in his Hightower Lowdown newsletter. NAFTA, however, turns out to have been no friend to small-time agrarians.

Hightower based his claim on evidence amassed by watchdog group Public Citizen. The stats, drawn largely from federal records, are jaw-dropping:

· 33,000 small American farms disappeared during the first seven years of NAFTA.

· Annual farm income has dropped from $59 billion before NAFTA to an estimated $41.3 billion for 2001.

· Between the 1994-95 growing season and the 1999-2000 season, the volume of U.S. corn exports dropped by 11 percent, wheat fell 8 percent, and cotton plummeted 28 percent. During that time the overall U.S. trade surplus declined by 71 percent.

Things don't exactly seem to be improving massively south of the border, either. Thanks to a NAFTA-mandated drop in the price of Mexican corn, farm income in Mexico has slid 17 percent, while debt has shot up by 50 percent.

Now here was a potential starting point for endless numbers of engaging articles, especially at a time when corporate-backed trade agreements are prompting riots in cities around world. But no: the only NAFTA-related story in recent memory that's gotten any play was the controversy over Mexican truckers who wanted to drive in the United States.

Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown, September 2001; Anita Martin, Fellowship of Reconciliation, November/December 2000.

9. U.S. Faces National Housing Crisis

Julie Daniels knows all about this country's paucity of affordable housing. A certified nursing assistant in Stamford, Conn., she's got a decent union job, earns $28,000 a year, and still can't find a place to live. You can find Daniels and her three children camped out at a Stamford homeless shelter.

As any working-class urban dweller can attest, Daniels isn't alone. There are literally millions of families in need of a place to live -- six million of them, to be precise.

And as Randy Shaw pointed out in In These Times, things are only getting worse. Recent years have seen the loss of 1.5 million low-cost housing units, corruption and stagnant budgets at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and an utter lack of interest on the part of politicians and the press. Even populist stalwart Ralph Nader spent more time talking about industrial hemp than housing while campaigning for president in 2000. As for the two main parties, the Democrats, under Bill Clinton, managed to scuttle a $1 billion housing construction program, while the GOP wants to solve the crisis with "market solutions" -- while homelessness and misery keep growing.

Randy Shaw, In These Times, November 2000.

10. CIA Double Deals in Macedonia

Rounding out the top 10 is a pair of heavily footnoted essays by Michel Chossudovsky, director of the Centre for Research on Globalisation and an economics professor at the University of Ottawa.

According to Chossudovsky, U.S. spooks are meddling in the affairs of Macedonia by arming an array of guerrilla factions in an attempt to secure control of a still-unbuilt oil pipeline and fill the coffers of American corporations.

Drawing from reports in the European press (including the London Sunday Times and Edinburgh Scotsman) and military trade magazines (Jane's Defence, Defense Daily) the writer laid out a theory that the United States has been covertly seeking to "consolidate America's sphere of interest in southeastern Europe" by installing a Macedonian government friendly to "oil giants including BP-Amoco-Arco, Chevron and Texaco."

Given the Central Intelligence Agency's inglorious history -- "Make the economy scream!" Richard Nixon once barked to agency operatives in Chile -- Chossudovsky's thesis is worth exploring. Still, these two pieces offer more of a starting point than a smoking gun.

Michel Chossudovsky, Globalresearch.ca, August 2001; Emperor's New Clothes, June 2001.

click to enlarge Child in Baghdad hospital on Sept. 5, 2002. - ALI KHALIGH/UPI PHOTO
  • Ali Khaligh/UPI Photo
  • Child in Baghdad hospital on Sept. 5, 2002.
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