The 10 big stories the national news media ignore.
By Camille T. Taiara
IN LATE JULY more than 600 people showed up in Monterey to speak at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on ownership concentration in the news media. The participants were a diverse group, young and old, activists and workers, but they had a single consistent message: the mainstream news media have been doing a deplorable job of covering the day's most important stories.
That's no surprise: consolidation of the media in the hands of a few corporate Goliaths has resulted in fewer people creating more of the content we see, hear, and read. One impact has been a narrower range of perspectives. Another is the virtual disappearance of hard-hitting, original, investigative reporting.
"Corporate media has abdicated their responsibility to the First Amendment to keep the American electorate informed about important issues in society and instead serves up a pabulum of junk-food news," says Peter Phillips, head of Sonoma State University's Project Censored.
Every year researchers at Project Censored pick through volumes of print and broadcast news to see which of the past year's most important stories aren't receiving the kind of attention they deserve. Phillips and his team acknowledge that many of these stories weren't "censored" in the traditional sense of the word: No government agency blocked their publication. And some even appeared briefly and without follow-up in mainstream journals.
But every one of this year's picks merited prominent placement on the evening news and the dailies' front pages. Instead they went virtually ignored.
This list speaks directly to the point FCC critics have raised: stories that address fundamental issues of wealth concentration and big-business dominance of the political agenda are almost entirely missing from the national debate. From the dramatic increase in wealth inequality in the United States, to the wholesale giveaway of the nation's natural resources, to the Bush administration's attack on corporate and political accountability, events and trends that ought to be dominating the presidential campaign and the national dialogue are missing from the front pages.
Here are Project Censored's 10 biggest examples of major stories that have been relegated to the most obscure corners of the media world.
1. Wealth inequality in 21st century threatens economy and democracy
As the mainstream news media recite the official line about the nation's supposed economic recovery, a key point has been missing: wealth inequality in the United States has almost doubled over the past 30 years.
In fact, the Federal Reserve Board's most recent "Survey of Consumer Finances" supplement on high-income families shows that in 1998, the richest 1 percent of households owned 38 percent of the nation's wealth. The top 5 percent owned almost 60 percent of the wealth.
"We are much more unequal than any other advanced industrial country," New York University economics professor Edward Wolff told Third World Traveler.
But that's just part of the problem. "Most Americans believe we take from people at the top to benefit those below," Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter David Cay Johnston said in a BuzzFlash.com interview. But our tax system is actually set up such that "people who make $30,000 to $500,000 ... give relief to those who make millions, or tens and hundreds of millions, of dollars a year."
The United States isn't alone: Today, almost one-sixth of the world's population 940 million people "already live in squalid, unhealthy areas, mostly without water, sanitation, public services, or legal security," John Vidal wrote in the U.K. Guardian. A recent United Nations report predicted that, absent drastic change to reverse "a form of colonialism that is probably more stringent than the original," one in every three people worldwide will live in slums within 30 years. That's a bigger threat to democracy and global stability than al-Qaeda and international terrorism.
Sources: "The Wealth Divide" (interview with Edward Wolff), Multinational Monitor, May 2003. "A BuzzFlash Interview, Parts I and II" (with David Cay Johnson), BuzzFlash staff, BuzzFlash.com, March 26 and 29, 2004. "Every Third Person Will Be a Slum Dweller within 30 Years, UN Agency Warns," John Vidal, Guardian (U.K.), Oct. 4, 2003. "Grotesque Inequality," Robert Weissman, Multinational Monitor, July-August 2003.
2. Ashcroft versus human rights law that holds corporations accountable
For decades the United States has trained right-wing insurgents and torturers, toppled democratically elected governments, and propped up brutal dictatorships abroad all in the interest of corporate profits. But rarely are the agents of repression ever held accountable for the tens of thousands of deaths and the brutal cycles of poverty, subjugation, environmental destruction, and violence they leave in their wake. Indeed, many foreign tyrants go on to enjoy plush retirement right here in the United States.
But recently lawyers have found a way to seek at least a modicum of justice for victims. The Alien Tort Claims Act, a 215-year-old law originally passed to prosecute pirates for crimes committed on the high seas, allows noncitizens to sue any individual or corporation present on U.S. soil.
Human rights lawyers have pursued 100 cases under the ATCA since 1980. Defendants have included former high-ranking government and military officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay, the Philippines (including ex-president Ferdinand Marcos), Indonesia, Bosnia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. And although the law can only be used to pursue monetary damages rather than prison time, it has often resulted in victims being awarded millions of dollars and in the perpetrators sometimes fleeing the country rather than paying up.
Ten years ago victims began using the act to go after corporate profiteers too: it was thanks to the ATCA, for example, that Holocaust survivors were able to seek redress from the Swiss banks and companies that profited from the slave labor of concentration camp internees during World War II.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department has set its sights on the act, claiming in a brief last year that the law threatens "important foreign policy interests" associated with the war on terrorism. Yet hardly a word has been written in the mainstream media about the Bush administration's attack on the main legal recourse left in the United States for victims to seek redress for human rights violations carried out abroad.
3. Bush administration manipulates science and censors scientists
Tampering with data that threatens corporate profits is much more widespread under Bush than we've been led to believe. And the Environmental Protection Agency has emerged as one of the administration's primary targets.
One of the first White House moves on the day Bush was inaugurated was to fire engineer Tony Oppegard, the leader of a federal team investigating a 300-million-gallon slurry spill at a coal-mining site in Kentucky. "Black lava-like toxic sludge containing 60 poisonous chemicals choked and sterilized up to 100 miles of rivers and creeks," environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in the Nation. The EPA dubbed it "the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States."
Bush then appointed industry insiders to top EPA posts in charge of mine safety and health.
In another case, a week after the EPA released a study to congressional staff about the toxic effects on groundwater of hydraulic fracturing a process of injecting benzene into the ground to extract oil and gas, used by Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company the agency revised its findings in response to "industry feedback" to indicate that the practice posed no threat after all.
In the days and months following the World Trade Center attack, the EPA released more than a dozen statements claiming the air quality in the surrounding "control zone" was safe despite evidence that asbestos dust was present in quantities well above the 1 percent safety benchmark. The agency opened up the area to the public a mere week after the attack, allowing Wall Street to reopen and cleanup activities to begin. As a result, 88 percent of rescue workers suffered ear, nose, and throat ailments, and 78 percent suffered lung maladies, according to a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine study. Half suffered persistent respiratory problems up to a year later.
In November the EPA arranged for Syngenta, the Swiss manufacturer of Atrazine, to take over federal research of its product, the most widely used weed killer in the United States. This occurred despite evidence that high concentrations of Atrazine in groundwater may be responsible for 50-percent-below-normal semen counts in men in U.S. farming communities, is associated with high incidences of prostate cancer, and has resulted in grotesque deformities in frogs when present "at one-thirtieth the government's 'safe' three parts per billion level," Kennedy wrote.
The administration has also suppressed scientific findings on global warming in a dozen major government studies over the past two years, according to Kennedy.
The problem isn't limited to the EPA. In fact, government interference in scientific research has gotten so bad that 60 of the country's top scientists including 20 Nobel laureates issued a statement in February citing the ways the Bush administration has distorted scientific data "for partisan political ends" and calling for regulatory action.
There have been dozens of scientists willing to blow the whistle normally a reporter's dream come true. But news coverage hasn't come close to reflecting the gravity of the problem.
Sources: "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Nation, March 8, 2004. "Censoring Scientific Information," Censorship News: The National Coalition Against Censorship Newsletter, fall 2003. "Ranking Scientists Warn Bush Science Policy Lacks Integrity," Environmental News Service correspondents, OneWorld.net, Feb. 20, 2004. "Politics and Science in the Bush Administration," Committee on Government Reform minority staff, office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, August 2003 (updated Nov. 13, 2003).
4. High uranium levels found in troops and civilians
Last year Project Censored included the United States' and Great Britain's continued use of depleted-uranium weapons despite ample evidence of their acute health effects among its top 10 underreported stories. Almost 10,000 U.S. troops died within 10 years of serving in the first Gulf War, researchers had found. And more than a third of those still alive had filed Gulf War Syndrome-related claims.
In study after study, research pointed to the use of depleted uranium in U.S. and British weaponry as the culprit. But authorities concentrated their efforts into obfuscating the problem downplaying its reach, discrediting scientists and ailing military personnel, and erecting a smoke screen around the root causes of the "syndrome."
More recently, the Uranium Medical Research Center, an independent group of U.S. and Canadian scientists that has conducted studies of Afghan civilians, found overwhelming evidence that the United States is also using nondepleted uranium in its weapons, which is far more radioactive than depleted uranium. "If the use of NDU indicates experimental application of new nuclear weapons, as the UMRC suggests, then it should alert the public that proliferation of small nuclear weaponry, proposed for some future use, has in fact already begun," Stephanie Hiller wrote in Awakened Woman.
At the International Criminal Tribunal for Afghanistan in Tokyo in December, a team of attorneys from Japan, the United States, and Germany indicted Bush on a number of war crimes charges among them the use of depleted-uranium weapons. Leuren Moret, president of Scientists for Indigenous People, testified at the trial and later reported that a U.S. government study conducted on the babies of Gulf War veterans conceived after the soldiers returned home found that a full two-thirds suffered from serious birth defects or illnesses, including being born without eyes or ears, or with missing or malformed organs or limbs. In Iraq, Moret said, the defects are even worse. But those are just some of the images of war we never see on the evening news.
Sources: "UMRC's Preliminary Findings from Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom" and "Afghan Field Trip #2 Report: Precision Destruction, Indiscriminate Effects," Tedd Weyman, UMRC Research Team, Uranium Medical Research Center, January 2003. "Scientists Uncover Radioactive Trail in Afghanistan," Stephanie Hiller, Awakened Woman, January 2004. "There Are No Words ... Radiation in Iraq Equals 250,000 Nagasaki Bombs," Bob Nichols, Dissident Voice, March 2004. "Poisoned?," Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News, April 2004. "International Criminal Tribunal for Afghanistan at Tokyo: The People vs. George Bush," Niloufer Bhagwat J., Information Clearinghouse, March 2004.
5. Wholesale giveaway of our natural resources
Adam Werbach, executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and former Sierra Club president, reviewed the Bush administration's environmental policy record and came to a disturbing conclusion: the record is not only bad it's "akin to an affirmative action program for corporate polluters," he wrote in In These Times.
Cheney's infamous, secretive, industry-laden energy task force produced what can be boiled down to two main recommendations, "lower the environmental bar and pay corporations to jump over it," Werbach wrote.
For example, Congress has promised $3 billion in tax cuts to mining corporations to help them access natural gas embedded in underground coal deposits in Georgia's Powder River Basin. The Bureau of Land Management has calculated that miners will waste a full 700 million gallons of publicly owned water a year in the process thereby sucking the region's underground aquifers dry and decimating local farms and wildlife.
The Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative essentially entails granting logging companies access to old-growth trees and then subsidizing them for brush clearing. And even the giant sequoias former president Bill Clinton sought to protect, by creating a 327,000-acre national monument in the southern Sierra Nevada just four years ago, are at risk for being logged at a rate of 10 million board-feet of lumber a year a higher rate than allowed on surrounding national forest lands in the name of "forest management."
All in all, the administration has launched the greatest giveaway of public natural resources in more than a century. Yet few in the mainstream media have bothered to analyze these plans and uncover the lies behind the administration's rhetorical manipulations.
6. Sale of electoral politics
The Help America Vote Act required that states submit their blueprints for switching over to electronic voting systems by Jan. 1, 2004, and implement those plans in time for the 2006 elections. Some regions are already using the machines. But those who've bothered to look into the new systems are sending up serious warning flares. Critics say that if Americans don't want a repeat of the 2000 Florida election fiasco on a much grander scale the administration's plans must be halted in their tracks.
A switch to electronic voting might seem innocent enough at first until you look at who's implementing it, and how. Indeed, the transfer represents the privatization of the voting process in the hands of a select few fervent GOP supporters who've insisted on keeping their operating systems and codes a trade secret meaning they enjoy absolute control over the entire voting process, including ballot counting and oversight. There's no paper trail.
One prime example is Diebold, one of the nation's top electronic voting machine manufacturers, whose equipment was responsible for the Florida debacle. Diebold already operates more than 40,000 machines in 37 states across the country. Many of these are in Georgia, which in November became the first state to conduct an election entirely with touch-screen machines. Oddly enough, incumbent Democratic governor Roy Barnes lost to Republican candidate Sonny Perdue, 46 percent to 51 percent "a swing from as much as 16 percentage points from the last opinion polls," Andrew Gumbel wrote in the U.K. Independent. In the same election, incumbent Democratic senator Max Cleland lost to his Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss, thanks to "a last-minute swing of 9 to 12 points." And in and around Atlanta, 77 memory cards went missing or were otherwise temporarily unaccounted for before the votes they'd registered could be counted.
Similar upsets occurred "in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, and New Hampshire all in races that had been flagged as key partisan battlegrounds, and all won by the Republican Party," Gumbel continued.
"It makes it really hard to show their product has been tampered with if it's a felony to inspect it," Rebecca Mercuri, a voting systems specialist and research fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told the Independent.
The other top two electronic voting machine manufacturers, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software, are equally suspect. Several of their executives have troubling track records of corruption and conflict of interest. All three companies are prominent Republican Party donors.
Sources: "Voting Machines Gone Wild," Mark Lewellen-Biddle, In These Times, December 2003. "All the President's Votes?," Andrew Gumbel, Independent (U.K.), Oct. 13, 2003. "Will Bush Backers Manipulate Votes to Deliver G.W. Another Election?," Amy Goodman and the staff of Democracy Now!, Sept. 4, 2003.
7. Conservative organization drives judicial appointments
Ever since the Reagan administration, the neoconservatives have pursued an aggressive campaign to stack the federal courts with right-wing judges. Their main vehicle: the Federalist Society of Law and Public Policy, an organization founded in 1982 by a small group of radically conservative law students at the University of Chicago.
The effort has been a resounding success. With the help of Republicans in Congress, 85 extra federal judgeships were created under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; 9 were created under Clinton. Now 7 out of 12 circuit courts are antiabortion. Seven of the 9 Supreme Court justices are Republican appointees and it's been 11 years since a post has opened up, meaning another right-winger or two could be appointed sometime soon. During Bush Sr.'s tenure, one White House insider boasted that no one who wasn't a Federalist ever received a judicial appointment from the president.
One of George W.'s earliest moves in office was to consolidate the Federalist Society's power even further: he "simply eliminated the long-standing role in the evaluation of prospective judges by the resolutely centrist American Bar Association, whose ratings had long kept extremists and incompetents off the bench," Martin Garbus wrote in the American Prospect. "Today the Federalists have more influence in judicial selection than the ABA ever had."
The Federalist Society now counts Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and prominent members of the conservative American Enterprise Institute among its leadership. Ashcroft, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Solicitor General Theodore Olson, and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez charged with approving judicial nominations before passing them on to Congress are all members.
As one might expect, the Federalists have consistently acted in favor of business deregulation, creationist teachings, property rights over the rights of individuals, and much of the rest of the right-wing agenda. But one of the principal victims has been the democratic process itself: remember, it was the Supreme Court that stopped a hand count of 175,000 uncounted (largely Democratic) ballots in Florida, which could have cost Bush the 2000 presidential election. Conservative jurists have interfered with redistricting efforts to reverse the deliberate segregation of African American and Latino voters and have erected barriers to the participation of third-party candidates in the electoral process.
Unless liberals miraculously bring about a radical turnaround in how federal judges who enjoy lifetime terms are appointed, one of George W.'s most long-standing legacies may very well be a hard-right judiciary that lasts for decades to come.
Sources: "A Hostile Takeover: How the Federalist Society Is Capturing the Federal Courts," Martin Garbus, American Prospect, March 1, 2003. "Courts vs. Citizens," Jamin Raskin, American Prospect, March 1, 2003.
8. Secrets of Cheney's energy task force come to light
As the Bush administration continues to protect the iron wall of secrecy it's erected around Cheney's energy task force, at least two documents confirm long-standing suspicions that the administration's foreign policy is being driven by the dictates of the energy industry.
When Bush took office in January 2001, he said tackling the country's energy crisis would be a top priority. The United States faced nationwide oil and natural gas shortages, and a series of electrical blackouts were rolling across California. The president established the National Energy Policy Development Group and appointed former Halliburton CEO Cheney as its head.
One of the big issues on the table was oil, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation's energy supply and provided fuel for the vast majority of the country's transportation as well as its expansive war machine. And for the first time in history, the United States had become reliant on foreign imports for more than 50 percent of its oil supply.
But rather than lay the groundwork for converting the economy to alternative, renewable sources, the task force's report, later released by Bush as the "National Energy Policy" report in May 2001, promoted a central goal of "mak[ing] energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy." In other words, Cheney's group wanted to find additional sources of oil overseas and ensure U.S. access to that oil whatever it took.
Documents recently obtained from the task force as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by public interest group Judicial Watch indicate Cheney and his colleagues had their sights on the black gold under the Iraqi desert well before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In July 2003 the Commerce Department finally turned over records that included "a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries, and terminals, as well as two charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts,' " according to Judicial Watch's subsequent press release. There were also similar maps and charts for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The documents were dated March 2001.
"The major news media are beginning to pay much closer attention to the links between political turmoil abroad and the economies of oil at home," Michael Klare wrote in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories. "Still, the media remains reluctant to explain the close link between the energy policies of the Bush Administration and US military strategy."
Sources: "Cheney Energy Task Force Documents Feature Map of Iraqi Oilfields," Judicial Watch staff, Judicial Watch, July 17, 2003. "Bush-Cheney Energy Strategy: Procuring the Rest of the World's Oil," Michael Klare, Foreign Policy in Focus, January 2004.
9. Widow brings RICO case against U.S. government for 9/11
As the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, completed its first year, Ellen Mariani and her attorney held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to announce her own startling conclusions. Mariani, wife of Louis Neil Mariani, who died when terrorists flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center's south tower, had come to believe top American officials including Bush, Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others had foreknowledge of the attacks, purposefully failed to prevent them, and had since taken pains to cover up the truth.
The administration, she argues in a federal lawsuit, allowed 9/11 to happen so Bush and company could launch their seemingly endless, global "war on terror" for their own personal and financial gain. The suit uses the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act a law created to go after the Mafia to charge the nation's leaders with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and wrongful death.
Her lawyer, Philip J. Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, filed a 62-page complaint that included 40 pages of evidence. "Compelling evidence ... will be presented in this case through discovery, subpoena power by this Court, and testimony at trial," he wrote in a press release sent to 3,000 print and broadcast journalists announcing the lawsuit and a press conference on the court steps that day.
At the very least, the case has the potential to uncover and publicize critical documents and testimony about the Bush administration's handling of the al-Qaeda threat and its aftermath. But only Fox News showed up to the press conference, and it never ran anything on the topic.
10. New nuke plants: taxpayers support, industry profits
If you thought nuclear energy was dead, think again: the Bush administration's energy bill yet another product of Cheney's industry-stacked energy task force provides taxpayer cash for companies that build new nukes.
A secretly crafted provision of the bill, released late on a Saturday night in November, offers energy companies as much as $7.5 billion in tax credits to build six nuclear reactors. This is in addition to almost $4 billion set aside for other nuclear energy programs.
"Nuclear power already has had 50 years of subsidy totaling over $140 billion," Nuclear Information and Resource Service's Cindy Folkers reported.
The administration also removed terrorism protection provisions included in the House version of the bill and reversed a previous ban on the export of enriched uranium, which may be used to construct nuclear bombs.
The press has been "woefully silent on the bill's nuclear provisions" Folkers and Michael Mariotte wrote in their update for Project Censored's new book, Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories. And while both Democrats and Republicans managed to defeat the version of the bill NIRS warned about last fall, supporters particularly Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) are still trying to push those provisions through, in some cases as riders on other bills. Estimates on the amount of tax credits being considered have since risen to "as much as $15 or even $19 billion."
Sources: "Nuclear Energy Would Get $7.5 Billion in Tax Subsidies, US Taxpayers Would Fund Nuclear Monitor Relapse If Energy Bill Passes," Cindy Folkers and Michael Mariotte, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nov. 17, 2003. "US Senate Passes Pro-Nuclear Energy Bill," Cindy Folkers and Michael Mariotte, WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor, Aug. 22, 2003.