Corporate abuse and environmental harm dominate Project Censored's annual list of the Top 10 suppressed news stories | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 20, 2023 News » Cover Story

Corporate abuse and environmental harm dominate Project Censored's annual list of the Top 10 suppressed news stories 

Project Censored 2023

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COVER DESIGN ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN
  • Cover design Anson Stevens-Bollen

"We have made the planet inhospitable to human life." That's what the lead researcher in Project Censored's No. 1 story this year said. He wasn't talking about the climate catastrophe. He was talking about so-called "forever chemicals," per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer and additional health risks, and the study he led found unsafe levels in rainwater worldwide.

Even though this story received some corporate media attention—in USA Today and the Discovery Channel—the starkly shocking bottom line clearly didn't come through to the general public. Have you heard it before? Has it been the subject of any conversation you've had? No?

Well that, my friend, is the very essence of what Project Censored's signature "Top 10" list is all about: Exposing the suppression (active or passive) of vitally important information from the public, which renders the public unable to act in the way that a healthy democratic public is supposed to. They've been doing it since Carl Jensen began it with a single college class in 1976, inspired in part by the way the Watergate story got this same sort of treatment until well after the election cycle it was part of.

But there's a second story intertwined with the "forever chemicals" pervasive presence: the revelation that companies responsible for them have known about their dangers for decades, but kept those dangers hidden—just like fossil-fuel companies and climate catastrophe. The intersection of environmental/public health and corporate criminality is typical of how certain long-standing patterns of censored news weave together across the years, even decades, and how the spotlight Project Censored shines on them helps to make sense of much more than the individual stories it highlights, as vitally important as they are in themselves.

In previous years, I've highlighted the multiplicity of patterns of censorship that can be seen. In their introduction to the larger 25-story list in their annual book, The State of the Free Press, Andy Lee Roth and Steve Macek describe these patterns at two levels. First, invoking the metaphor that "exemplary reporting is praised for 'shining light' on a subject or 'bringing to light' crucial facts and original perspectives," they say:

The news reports featured in this chapter are rays of light shining through a heavily slatted window. Each of these independent news reports highlights a social issue that has otherwise been dimly lit or altogether obscured by corporate news outlets. The shading slats are built from the corporate media's concentrated ownership, reliance on advertising, relationship to political power and narrow definitions of who and what count as "newsworthy." Censorship, whether overt or subtle, establishes the angle of the slats, admitting more or less light from outside.

But in addition, they say, it's important to see the "list as the latest installment in an ongoing effort to identify systemic gaps in so-called 'mainstream' (i.e., corporate) news coverage." They go on: "Examining public issues that independent journalists and outlets have reported but which fall outside the scope of corporate news coverage makes it possible to document in specific detail how corporate news media leave the public in the dark by marginalizing or blockading crucial issues, limiting political debate, and promoting corporate views and interests."

On the one hand, all that is as true as it's ever been. But on the other hand, the two-story themes in the No. 1 story—environmental harm and corporate abuse—so dominate the Top 10 story list that they send another message as well, a message about the fundamental mismatch between our needs as a species living on a finite planet and a rapacious economic system conceived in ignorance of that fact.

The climate catastrophe is just the most extreme symptom of this mismatch—but it's far from the only one. Corporate abuse figures into every story in the list—though sometimes deep in the background, as with their decades-long efforts to destroy unions in story No. 6. Environmental harms "only" show up in seven of the 10 stories.

There are still other patterns here, to be sure—and I encourage you to look for them yourself because seeing those patterns enriches your understanding of the world as it is, and as it's being hidden from you. But this dominant pattern touches us all. The evidence is right there, in the stories themselves.

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1. 'Forever Chemicals' in Rainwater: A Global Threat to Human Health
Rainwater is "no longer safe to drink anywhere on Earth," Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported in Insider in August 2022, summing up the results of a global study of so-called "forever chemicals," polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Researchers from Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics at ETH Zurich concluded that "in many areas inhabited by humans," PFAS contamination levels in rainwater, surface water and soil "often greatly exceed" the strictest international guidelines for acceptable levels of perfluoroalkyl acids.

They're called "forever chemicals" because they take so long to break down, "allowing them to build up in people, animals and environments," Insider reported. Project Censored notes, "Prior research has linked these chemicals to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer and additional health risks, including developmental delays in children, decreased fertility in women and men, reduced vaccine efficacy and high cholesterol."

"PFAS were now 'so persistent' and ubiquitous that they will never disappear from the planet," Ian Cousins, a professor of environmental chemistry at Sweden's Stockholm University, told Agence France-Presse. "We have made the planet inhospitable to human life by irreversibly contaminating it now so that nothing is clean anymore."

He added, "We have crossed a planetary boundary," a paradigm for evaluating Earth's capacity to absorb harmful impacts of human activity. The "good news" is that PFAS levels aren't increasing in the environment. "What's changed is the guidelines," he said. "They've gone down millions of times since the early 2000s, because we've learned more about the toxicity of these substances."

All the more reason the second strand of this story is important: "The same month," Project Censored writes, "researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published a study in the Annals of Global Health using internal industry documents to show that the companies responsible for 'forever chemicals' have known for decades that these substances pose significant threats to human health and the environment."

There's been limited corporate media coverage that rainwater isn't safe to drink—specifically from USA Today, the Discovery Channel and Medical News Today. But the general public clearly hasn't heard the news. However, there's been more coverage of the series of lawsuits developing in response to PFAS. But the big-picture story surrounding them remains shockingly missing.

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2. Hiring of Former CIA Employees and Ex-Israeli Agents 'Blurs Line' Between Big Tech and Big Brother
"Google—one of the largest and most influential organizations in the modern world—is filled with ex-CIA agents," Alan MacLeod reported for MintPress News in July 2022. "An inordinate number of these recruits work in highly politically sensitive fields, wielding considerable control over how its products work and what the world sees on its screens and in its search results."

"Chief amongst these is the trust and safety department, whose staff, in the words of former Google trust and safety VP Kristie Canegallo, '[d]ecide what content is allowed on our platform'–in other words, setting the rules of the internet, determining what billions see and what they do not see."

And more broadly, "a former CIA employee is working in almost every department at Google," Project Censored noted.

But Google isn't alone. Nor is the CIA. "Former employees of U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies now hold senior positions at Google, Meta, Microsoft and other tech giants," Project Censored wrote.

A second report focused on employees from Israel's Unit 8200, its equivalent of the CIA, which is "infamous for surveilling the indigenous Palestinian population," MacLeod wrote. Using LinkedIn, he identified hundreds of such individuals from both agencies, providing specific information about dozens of them.

"The problem with former CIA agents becoming the arbiters of what is true and what is false and what should be promoted and what should be deleted is that they cut their teeth at a notorious organization whose job it was to inject lies and false information into the public discourse to further the goals of the national security state," MacLeod wrote.

He cited the 1983 testimony of former CIA task force head John Stockwell, author of In Search of Enemies, in which he described the dissemination of propaganda as a "major function" of the agency.

"I had propagandists all over the world," Stockwell wrote, adding: "We pumped dozens of stories about Cuban atrocities, Cuban rapists [to the media] ... We ran [faked] photographs that made almost every newspaper in the country ... We didn't know of one single atrocity committed by the Cubans. It was pure, raw, false propaganda to create an illusion of communists eating babies for breakfast."

MacLeod noted later that "None of this means that all or even any of the individuals are moles—or even anything but model employees today. But the sheer number of them "certainly causes concern."

Reinforcing that concern is big tech's history. "As journalist Nafeez Ahmed's investigation found, the CIA and the NSA were bankrolling Stanford Ph.D. student Sergey Brin's research—work that would later produce Google," MacLeod wrote. "Not only that but, in Ahmed's words, 'senior U.S. intelligence representatives, including a CIA official, oversaw the evolution of Google in this pre-launch phase, all the way until the company was ready to be officially founded.'"

This fits neatly within the larger framework of Silicon Valley's origin as a supplier of defense department technology.

"A May 2022 review found no major newspaper coverage of Big Tech companies hiring former U.S. or Israeli intelligence officers as employees," Project Censored noted. "The most prominent U.S. newspapers have not covered Google, Meta, Microsoft and other Big Tech companies hiring former U.S. and Israeli intelligence officers."

Individual cases may make the news. But the overall systemic pattern remains a story largely censored by mainstream silence.

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3. Toxic Chemicals Continue to Go Unregulated in the United States
The United States is "a global laggard in chemical regulation," ProPublica reported in December 2022, a result of chemical industry influence and acquiescence by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a period of decades, according to reporters Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner and Kathleen McGrory. A headline example: Asbestos, one of the most widely recognized toxic substances, is still legal in the U.S., more than 30 years after the EPA tried to have it banned.

"Through interviews with environmental experts and analysis of a half century's worth of legislation, lawsuits, EPA documents, oral histories, chemical databases and regulatory records, ProPublica uncovered the longstanding institutional failure to protect Americans from toxic chemicals," Project Censored reported. ProPublica identified five main reasons for failure:

1. The Chemical Industry Helped Write the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). A top EPA official "joked the law was 'written by industry' and should have been named after the DuPont executive who went over the text line by line," ProPublica reported. The law "allowed more than 60,000 chemicals to stay on the market without a review of their health risks" and required the EPA to always choose the "least burdensome" regulations. "These two words would doom American chemical regulation for decades."

2. Following Early Failures, the EPA Lost Its Resolve. In 1989, after 10 years of work, the EPA was banning asbestos. But companies that used asbestos sued and won in 1991, based on a court ruling they'd failed to prove it was the "least burdensome" option. However, "the judge did provide a road map for future bans, which would require the agency to do an analysis of other regulatory options ... to prove they wouldn't be adequate," but rather than follow through, the EPA simply gave up.

3. Chemicals Are Considered Innocent Until Proven Guilty. For decades, the U.S. and EU used a "risk-based" approach to regulation, requiring the government to prove a chemical poses unreasonable health risks before restricting it—which can take years. In 2007, the EU switched to a "hazard-based" approach, putting the burden on companies when there's evidence of significant harm. As a result, ProPublica explained, "the EU has successfully banned or restricted more than a thousand chemicals." A similar approach was proposed in the U.S in 2005 by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, but it was soundly defeated.

4. The EPA Mostly Regulates Chemicals One by One. In 2016, a new law amended the TSCA to cut the "least burdensome" language, and created a schedule "where a small list of high-priority chemicals would be reviewed every few years; in 2016, the first 10 were selected, including asbestos," ProPublica reported. "The EPA would then have about three years to assess the chemicals and another two years to finalize regulations on them." But six years later, "the agency is behind on all such rules. So far, it has only proposed one ban, on asbestos, and the agency told ProPublica it would still be almost a year before that is finalized." Industry fights the process at every step. "Meanwhile, the EU has authored a new plan to regulate chemicals even faster by targeting large groups of dangerous substances," which "would lead to bans of another 5,000 chemicals by 2030."

5. The EPA Employs Industry-Friendly Scientists as Regulators. "The EPA has a long history of hiring scientists and top officials from the companies they are supposed to regulate, allowing industry to sway the agency's science from the inside," ProPublica wrote. A prime example is Todd Stedeford. "A lawyer and toxicologist, Stedeford has been hired by the EPA on three separate occasions," ProPublica noted. "During his two most recent periods of employment at the agency—from 2011 to 2017 and from 2019 to 2021—he was hired by corporate employers who use or manufacture chemicals the EPA regulates."

Citing stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times, Project Censored noted: "A handful of corporate outlets have reported on the EPA's slowness to regulate certain toxic chemicals. However, none have highlighted the systemic failures wrought by the EPA and the chemical industry."

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4. Stalkerware Could Be Used to Incriminate People Violating Abortion Bans
Stalkerware—consisting of up to 200 surveillance apps and services that provide secret access to people's phones for a monthly fee—"could become a significant legal threat to people seeking abortions, according to a pair of articles published in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion," Project Censored reports.

"Abortion medication is safe. But now that Roe is overturned, your data isn't," science reporter Rae Hodge wrote for the tech news site CNET just two days after the Dobbs decision. "Already, the digital trails of abortion seekers can become criminal evidence against them in some states where abortion[s] were previously prosecuted. And the legal dangers may extend to abortion seekers in even more states."

The next month, writing for Slate, University of Virginia law professor Danielle Keats Citron warned that "surveillance accomplished by individual privacy invaders will be a gold mine for prosecutors targeting both medical workers and pregnant people seeking abortions."

Invaders only need a few minutes to access phones and passwords. "Once installed, cyberstalking apps silently record and upload phones' activities to their servers," Citron explained. "They enable privacy invaders to see our photos, videos, texts, calls, voice mails, searches, social media activities, locations—nothing is out of reach. From anywhere, individuals can activate a phone's mic to listen to conversations within 15 feet of the phone," even "conversations that pregnant people have with their health care providers—nurses, doctors, and insurance company employees," she warned.

As a result, Hodge cautioned, "Those who aid abortion seekers could be charged as accomplices in some cases," under some state laws.

It's not just abortion, she explained, "Your phone's data, your social media accounts, your browsing and geolocation history, and your ISP's detailed records of your internet activity may all be used as evidence if you face state criminal or civil charges for a miscarriage."

"Often marketed as a tool to monitor children's online safety or as device trackers, stalkerware is technically illegal to sell for the purpose of monitoring adults," Project Censored noted, but that's hardly a deterrent. "Stalkerware and other forms of electronic surveillance have been closely associated with domestic violence and sexual assault, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence," Citron noted.

In addition, Hodge explained, "third-party data brokers sell sensitive geolocation data—culled through a vast web of personal tracking tech found in apps, browsers and devices—to law enforcement without oversight." And "bounty hunter" provisions adopted by states like Texas and Oklahoma add a financial incentive. "Given the inexpensive cost of readily available stores of personal data and how easily they can be de-anonymized, savvy informants could use the information to identify abortion seekers and turn a profit," she noted.

"The law's response to intimate privacy violations is inadequate, lacking a clear conception of what intimate privacy is, why its violation is wrongful, and how it inflicts serious harm upon individuals, groups and society," Citron explained. "Until federal regulations and legislation establish a set of digital privacy laws, abortion seekers are caught in the position of having to create their own patchwork of digital defenses, from often complicated and expensive privacy tools," Hodge warned.

While the bipartisan American Data Privacy and Protection Act is still "slowly inching through Congress" it "is widely thought toothless," she wrote. The Joe Biden administration has proposed a new rule protecting "certain health data from being used to prosecute both clinicians and patients," STAT reported in May 2023, but the current draft only applies "in states where abortion is legal."

"Corporate news outlets have paid some attention to the use of digital data in abortion-related prosecutions," Project Censored reports. While there have been stories about post-Roe digital privacy, "none have focused specifically on how stalkerware could potentially be used in criminal investigations of suspected abortions."

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5. Certified Rainforest Carbon Offsets Are Mostly 'Worthless'
"The forest carbon offsets approved by the world's leading certifier and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to a new investigation," The Guardian reported on Jan. 23, as part of joint nine-month reporting project with SourceMaterial and Die Zeit. "The analysis raises questions over the credits bought by a number of internationally renowned companies—some of them have labeled their products 'carbon neutral' or have told their consumers they can fly, buy new clothes or eat certain foods without making the climate crisis worse."

"About 90 percent of rainforest carbon offsets certified by Verra, the world's largest offset certifier, do not reflect real reductions in emissions," Project Censored summed up. Verra, "has issued more than 1 billion metric tons worth of carbon offsets, certifies three-fourths of all voluntary carbon offsets." While "Verra claimed to have certified 94.9 million credits" the actual benefits "amounted to a much more modest 5.5 million credits."

This was based on an analysis of "the only three scientific studies to use robust, scientifically sound methods to assess the impact of carbon offsets on deforestation," Project Censored explained. "The journalists also consulted with Indigenous communities, industry insiders and scientists."

"The studies used different methods and time periods, looked at different ranges of projects, and the researchers said no modeling approach is ever perfect," The Guardian wrote. "However, the data showed broad agreement on the lack of effectiveness of the projects compared with the Verra-approved predictions."

Specifically, "The investigation of 29 Verra rainforest offset projects found that 21 had no climate benefit, seven had significantly less climate benefit than claimed (by margins of 52 to 98 percent less benefit than claimed), while one project yielded 80 percent more climate benefit than claimed. Overall, the study concluded that 94 percent of the credits approved by these projects were 'worthless' and never should have been approved."

"Another study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge found that in 32 of the 40 forest offset projects investigated, the claims concerning forest protection and emission reductions were overstated by an average of 400%," Project Censored reported. "Despite claims that these 32 projects together protected an area of rainforest the size of Italy, they only protected an area the size of Venice."

While Verra criticized the studies' methods and conclusions, an outside expert—Oxford ecoscience professor Yadvinder Singh Malhi—had two Ph.D. students check for errors, and they found none. "I wish it were otherwise, but this report is pretty compelling," he told The Guardian.

"Rainforest protection credits are the most common type on the market at the moment. And it's exploding, so these findings really matter," said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, who's researched carbon credits for 20 years. "But these problems are not just limited to this credit type. These problems exist with nearly every kind of credit," she told The Guardian. "We need an alternative process. The offset market is broken."

"There is simply nobody in the market who has a genuine interest to say when something goes wrong," Lambert Schneider, a researcher at the Öko-Institut in Berlin told SourceMaterial.

"The investigations by The Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial appear to have made a difference. In March 2023, Verra announced that it would phase out its flawed rainforest offset program by mid-2025," Project Censored reported. But they could only find one brief mention of the joint investigation in major U.S. newspapers: a Chicago Tribune op-ed.

Read Part 2 of Project Censored's annual Top 10 list next week, in the Dec. 28th issue of Salt Lake City Weekly.

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