There are a handful of freedoms that have almost always been a part of American democracy. Even when they didn't exactly apply to everyone or weren't always protected by the people in charge, a few simple but significant rights have been patently clear in the Constitution: You can't be nabbed by the cops and tossed behind bars without a reason. If you are imprisoned, you can't be incarcerated indefinitely; you have the right to a speedy trial with a judge and jury. When that court date rolls around, you'll be able to see the evidence against you.
The president can't suspend elections, spy without warrants, or dispatch federal troops to trump local cops or quell protests. Nor can the commander in chief commence a witch hunt, deem individuals "enemy combatants," or shunt them into special tribunals outside the purview of our 218-year-old judicial system.
Until now. This year's Project Censored presents a chilling portrait of a newly empowered executive branch signing away civil liberties for the sake of an endless and amorphous war on terror. And for the most part, the major news media weren't paying attention.
"This year it seemed like civil rights just rose to the top," said Peter Phillips, the director of Project Censored, the annual media survey conducted by Sonoma State University researchers and students who spend the year patrolling obscure publications, national and international Web sites, and mainstream news outlets to compile the 25 most significant stories that were inadequately reported or essentially ignored.
While the project usually turns up a range of underreported issues, this year's stories all fall somewhat neatly into two categories the increase of privatization and the decrease of human rights. Some of the stories qualify as both.
"I think they indicate a very real concern about where our democracy is heading," writer and veteran judge Michael Parenti said.
For 31 years Project Censored has been compiling a list of the major stories that the nation's news media have ignored, misreported, or poorly covered.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines censorship as "the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts," which Phillips said is also a fine description of what happens under a dictatorship. When it comes to democracy, the black marker is a bit more nuanced. "We need to broaden our understanding of censorship," he said. After 11 years at the helm of Project Censored, Phillips thinks the most bowdlerizing force is the fourth estate itself: "The corporate media is complicit. There's no excuse for the major media giants to be missing major news stories like this."
As the stories cited in this year's Project Censored selections point out, the federal government continues to provide major news networks with stock footage, which is dutifully broadcast as news. The George W. Bush administration has spent more federal money than any other presidency on public relations. Without a doubt, Parenti said, the government invests in shaping our beliefs. "Every day they're checking out what we think," he said. "The erosion of civil liberties is not happening in one fell swoop but in increments.