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Tracking the News that Wasn't
Censored: The News That Didn't Make The News-And Why
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 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
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:
(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:
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
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
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)