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Tracking the News that Wasn't

 

Censored: The News That Didn't Make The News-And Why
The 1995 Project Censored Yearbook
Carl Jensen and Project Censored. Introduction by Michael Crichton. Cartoons by Tom Tomorrow.
Four Walls Eight Windows, New York. 332pp. $20.95.

Blindspots in the News? Project Censored Canada: 1995 Yearbook
Edited by Katherine Manson, Robert Hackett, James Winter, Donald Gutstein and Richard Gruneau. Introduction by Bill Doskoch.
Project Censored Canada, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. 62p. $7.00 donation.

Reviewed by Ron Evans

It was the 1972 re-election of Richard Nixon that really tore it, according to Carl Jensen.

Appalled that his countryfolk could landslide Nixon back into the White House more than four months after the Watergate break-in, Jensen determined to find out whether there might be systematic exclusion of certain issues in the news media. Four years later, in 1976, he inaugurated the research study Project Censored at Sonoma State University, California, where he had been teaching media, sociology and journalism courses since 1973 and today is a professor of Communications Studies.

At the heart of Project Censored lies a conviction that the U.S. mass media does shabby service to the citizenry, deliberately or negligently withholding information of vital importance. For the purposes of the Project, censorship was defined as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method - including bias, omission, under-reporting, or self-censorship - which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world."

Each year, Project Censored produces reports citing what are considered the top 10 underpublished stories of the previous year, as Jensen says in the current report "the stories that many Americans have not seen or hear about - but should have."

The main aim, says Jensen, is to stimulate journalists, editors, producers and publishers to support more muckraking investigative journalism, to act as the "irritating grain of sand" that makes oysters produce pearls.

Project Censored Canada was created on the U.S. model in 1993 under the impetus of Regina Leader-Post staffer Bill Doskoch and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Seeking an academic base on the U.S. Project model, they trolled across Canada and hooked both the School of Communication (Bob Hackett and Donald Gutstein) at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and the Department of Communication Studies (Prof. Jim Winter) at the University of Windsor in Ontario.

The basic operation is the same for the parallel projects. In the U.S., students in Jensen's fall seminar do background research and verify the accuracy of nominated stories (about 700 annually) and then a national judging panel (including such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Faludi, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert MacNeil, Michael Parenti, Susan Sontag and Herbert Schiller) rate the stories, choosing a short list 25 and finally the top 10 neglected stories. Students at the Canadian universities do the backgrounding and verification chores on the 150 nominated items and national judges (such as June Callwood, Francois Demers, Peter Desbarats, Maggie Siggins and Sources publisher Barrie Zwicker) make the selection of the key under-exposed stories.

There are some differences, however. The U.S. survey covers all media; in Canada, only the English-language press (though they're planning to extend the net this year to alternate press and recent books). Also, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Project Censorship Canada has its own academic purpose, to conduct a systematic "negative content analysis" (i.e. what isn't news) of national news media eventually producing a book-length report.

Why do the media fail to cover critical issues consistently and comprehensively? Jensen argues it's not a conspiracy on the part of the media elite, though noting that currently fewer than 20 corporations control most of the mass media.

"Nonetheless, the bottom line explanation for much of the censorship that occurs in the mainstream media is the media's own bottom line. Corporate media executives perceive their primary, and often sole responsibility to be the need to maximize profits, not, as some would have it, inform the public. Many of the stories cited by Project Censored are not in the best financial interests of publishers, owner, stockholders, or advertisers.

Equally important, investigative journalism is more expensive than the 'public stenography' school of journalism. And, of course, there is always the 'don't rock the boat' mentality which pervades corporate media boardrooms and filters on down to the newsroom."

Bill Doskoch, in his introduction to Project Censored Canada's first report in 1994, agreed. "There is a growing acceptance of the idea that marketing - what people want to know versus what they need to know - should drive newsroom decision-making. Even worse, the 'wall' between advertising and editorial, once considered an impervious barrier, now appears to be crumbling. This demise is the result of the marketplace's decision that newspapers must be profitable no matter what the economic situation is."

But there are other "filters" to block certain issues from the main media advanced in the PCC yearbook including:
- the culture of journalism, that sees journalists sharing a point of view that is oblivious to the concerns of working people and other socially marginalized persons;
- the economics of news that sees newsroom staffs shrinking and investigative reporting too expensive;
- a reliance on official sources, that sees the powerful and the privileged getting "over-access" to the media while stories that may run against the grain of those sources are excluded;
- pack journalism that sees the media playing it safe with "follow-the-leader" coverage;
- technology that sees, as Neil Postman postulates, television with its "no-picture-no-go" gospel dominating and shaping the very nature of what is news.

(On the other hand, in a reprinted speech that serves as a lively introduction to the U.S. PC Yearbook, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton suggests the mass media may be just another dinosaur ("mediasaurus") on a fast track to extinction thanks to technology. He submits: "Once Al Gore gets the fibre optic highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, then I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress on tape. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly new show, that addresses may interests. I'll have the 12 top stories that want; I'll have short summaries available, and I can double click for more detail. How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?")

The PCC 1995 Yearbook includes an overview of what might be called "state censorship" in Canada in 1994, with references to such disparate events as:
- Canada Customs detention and occasional destruction of books going to the Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium in Vancouver and Glad Day Books in Toronto;
- child pornography charges against artist Eli Langer and the director of Mercer Union Gallery in Toronto;
- the publication ban on details of Karla Homolka's manslaughter conviction to insure a fair trial later for ex-husband Paul Bernardo;
- the refusal of five Ontario dailies to run an ad for an automobile consumer hotline;
- and major media mergers, first of Rogers Communications Inc. takeover of Maclean-Hunter and then Telemedia Inc. and RadioMutuel Inc. in and out of Quebec.

The U.S. Yearbook includes a useful "eclectic chronology of Censorship from 605 B.C. (. . . Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, burned Jeremiah's book of prophecies . . .) to 1995 ( . . .Random House announced it would publish A Long Fatal Love Chase, a novel by Louisa May Alcott that had been censored more than a century earlier for being too sensational.)"

Also listed with summaries in each case are 1994's 20 top censored books (all published but with little notice) and the top 10 "junk food" news stories, topped, of course, by the O. J. Simpson case and including among other showbusy items "the British royals."

Both the U.S. and Canadian Yearbooks include synopses of all the selected shortlist stories (25 and 17 respectively) and in the U.S. edition the top stories are printed in full, as originally published.

Alternative media resource guides are included as appendices in both Yearbooks. The U.S. volume offers 25 pages of listings including broacast and film, electronic new services, periodicals, libraries, columnists and news services; the Canadian lists 87 periodicals.

The Top 10 U. S. Censored Stories of 1995
1. Unfinished Business -- Occupational Safety Agency keeps 170,000 exposed workers in the dark about health risks incurred on the job. Source: Health Letter.
2. Right-Wing Confidential -- The Council for National Policy (CNP), a powerful, virtually-secret organization of 150 ultra-conservative leaders is seen responsible for a sharp right turn in U.S. politics. Source: In These Times.
3. Flak for Defense Merger -- A secret Pentagon plan to subsidize mergers among defense contractors. Source: Newsday.
4. Poisoning Ourselves -- The impact of incineration on food and human health. Source: Government Accountability Project.
5. Full of Holes -- Clinton's retreat on the ozone crisis. Source: In These Times.
6. Protecting Government Against the Public -- 1947 AEC memo reveals what human radiation experiments were censored. Source: Secrecy and Government Bulletin.
7. Special Report: A Farewell to Fish? -- 60 billion pounds of fish wasted annually. Source: Mother Jones.
8. Why Don't We Stop Tuberculosis? -- TB has surged back and now kills more people than any other infectious or communicable disease in the world. Source: World Watch.
9. Project HAARP -- The Military's plan to alter the ionosphere. Source: Earth Island Journal.
10. Crimes Against Women -- Media part of problem for masking violence in the "language of love." Source: USA Today.


The Top 10 Canadian Censored Stories of 1995
1. Cleaning Up After AECL -- Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. will need a $300 million bailout to cleanup toxic hazards at old nuclear facilities. Sources: Canadian Press.
2. Canada's Own Free-Trade Deal -- Internal trade draft ignites labour's fears. Sources: The Globe and Mail, Pacific Current, The Vancouver Sun.
3. Third World Battles GATT Over Plant Patenting -- Intellectual property and livelihood of vast numbers of indigenous peoples put at risk by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Sources: Alternatives, The Ecologist.
4. White-Collar and Corporate Crime Overlooked -- Public and political preoccupation with violent offences. Sources: The Calgary Herald, The Toronto Star.
5. Tobacco Manufacturers and Cigarette Sm
uggling -- Huge profits for tobacco firms. Sources: This Magazine, The Toronto Star, The Montreal Gazette.
6. Reducing Interest Rates -- An alternative for debt reduction. Sources: The London Free Press, The Windsor Star, Canadian Forum.
7. The Canadian Wildlife Federation -- Hiding its hunting connections. Source: Canadian Forum.
8. The World Bank -- Funding forced resettlement in developing nations. Sources: Alternatives, The Montreal Gazette.
9. Fish Farming -- The environmental impact of salmon farming. Sources: The New Catalyst, Pacific Current.
10. The Chiapas Crisis and NAFTA -- The Zapatista versus the spin doctors. Sources: The Georgia Straight, Canadian Forum.


Related:

The Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)
Top Ten Censored Stories of 1988
Top Ten Censored Stories of 1989
News and Dissent: The Press and Politics of Peace in Canada
The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, and the Gulf War
News Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
"Objectivity" and Democracy are not Compatible
Yesterday's News
Looking at the impact of investigative journalism
All the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Duping the Public

 



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