Last month, two news stories broke the same day, one meaty, one junky. In Detroit, US District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled that the Bush administration's warrantless National Security Agency surveillance program was unconstitutional and must end. Meanwhile, somewhere in Thailand, a weirdo named John Mark Karr claimed he was with six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey when she died in 1996.
Predictably, the mainstream media devoted acres of newsprint and hours of airtime to the self-proclaimed beauty queen killer, including stories on what he ate on the plane ride home, his desire for a sex change, his child-porn fixation, and — when DNA tests proved Karr wasn't the killer — why he confessed to a crime he didn't commit.
During that same time period, hardly a word was written or said in the same outlets about Judge Diggs Taylor's ruling and the question it raises about why Bush and his power-grabbing administration repeatedly lie to the American public.
The mainstream media's fascination with unimportant stories isn't anything new. Professor Carl Jensen, a disenchanted journalist who entered advertising only to walk away in greater disgust and become a sociologist, says the media's preoccupation with "junk food news" inspired him to found a media research project at Sonoma State University about 30 years ago to publicize the top 25 big stories the media had censored, ignored, or underreported the previous year.
That was the beginning of Project Censored, the longest-running media censorship project in the nation — and it drew plenty of criticism from editors and publishers.
"I was taking a lot of flak from editors around Project Censored's annual list of the top stories the mainstream media missed," recalls the now-retired Jensen. "They said the reason they hadn't covered the stories was that they only had a limited amount of time and space, and that I was an academic, sitting there criticizing."
But Jensen had an answer: there was plenty of time and space, but it was just being filled with fluff.
Since 1993, Project Censored has been running not only the stories that didn't get adequate coverage but also the "junk food news" — the stories that were way, way overblown and filled precious pages and airtime that could have been used for real news.
While Jensen would love to be able to claim that Project Censored solved the media's problems with censorship and junk food news, that didn't happen.
"If anything, it's gotten worse," Jensen says, pointing to increased media monopolization.
Project Censored's current director, Peter Phillips, says entertainment news may be addictive, but that's no excuse for the media to push it.
"Massacres, celebrity gossip — we're automatically attracted," Phillips says. "It's like selling drugs. But we don't tolerate the drug dealer on the corner. For the democratic process to happen, we have to have information presented and made available. To just give people entertainment news is an abdication of the First Amendment."
Art Brodsky, a telecommunications expert at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, says some of the problems with censorship are a product of journalistic laziness. Brodsky, who has written extensively on network neutrality, which is the number one issue on this year's list, says the topic hasn't received enough coverage, partly because the debate has largely remained couched in telecommunications jargon.
"Network neutralilty is a crappy term, other than its alliterative value," Brodsky says. "It's one of those Washington issues that gets intense coverage in the field where it happens but can be successfully muddied, and it's technical. So a lot of editors and reporters throw their hands up in the air, a lot like senators.
Following are Project Censored's top 10 stories for the past year.