Media Bias and the Most Censored News Stories of 2022, Part One. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 21, 2022 News » Cover Story

Media Bias and the Most Censored News Stories of 2022, Part One. 

Project Censored

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  • Cover design and graphics by Anson Stevens-Bollen

Since its founding in 1976, Project Censored has been focused on stories—like Watergate, before the 1972 election—that aren't censored in the authoritarian government sense, but in a broader, expanded sense reflective of what a functioning democracy should be; censorship defined as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in society."

It is, after all, the reason that journalism enjoys special protection in the First Amendment: Without the free flow of vital information, government based on the consent of the governed is but an illusory dream.

Yet, from the very beginning, as A.J. Liebling put it, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

In their introduction to Project Censore's annual State of the Free Press, which contains its top censored stories and much more, Project Censored's Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth take this condition head-on, under the heading, State of the Free Billionaire, in contrast to the volume's title, State of the Free Press 2023. Following a swift recap of historic media criticism highlights—Upton Sinclair, the aforementioned Liebling, Ben Bagdikian, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky—they dryly observe, "History shows that consolidated media, controlled by a handful of elite owners, seldom serves the public interest," and briefly survey the contemporary landscape before narrowing their gaze to the broadest of influencers:

Despite the promise of boundless access to information, Silicon Valley mirrors legacy media in its consolidated ownership and privileging of elite narratives. This new class of billionaire oligarchs owns or controls the most popular media platforms, including the companies often referred to as the FAANGs—Facebook (Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (Alphabet).

Obviously, this was written before Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter, but it's an apt reminder that his wildly out-of-touch worldview is not just an individual, personal aberration, but also a symptom of wider systemic dysfunction.

"In pursuit of their own interests and investments, media tycoons past and present, again and again, appear to be conveniently oblivious to the main frame through which they filter news—that of class, including class structure and class interests," Huff and Roth write. "Consequently, they often overlook (or ignore) conflicts of interest that implicate media owners, funders, investors and advertisers, not to mention their business clients on Wall Street and in Big Pharma, Big Tech and the military–industrial complex."

This observation perfectly frames the majority of stories in Project Censored's Top 10 list, starting with the first two stories: massive subsidies of the fossil fuel industry and rampant wage theft—concentrated on the most vulnerable workers—that eclipse street crime in the magnitude of losses but is rarely punished, even when offenders are caught dead to rights. It echoes clearly through the stories on Congress members' investments in the fossil fuel industry, the role of corporate consolidation in driving up inflation in food prices, Bill Gates' hidden influence on journalism and major media outlets lobbying against regulation of surreptitious online advertising. And it is only at a slight remove from two other stories having to do with dark money and one about the suppression of Environmental Protection Agency reports on dangerous chemicals.

Indeed, only one story out of this year's top 10 list is somewhat removed from the sphere of corporate corruption concerns: the story of the CIA's plans to kidnap or kill Julian Assange.

Every year, I note that there are multiple patterns to be found in the list of Project Censored's stories and that these different patterns have much to tell us about the forces shaping what remains hidden. That's still true, with three environmental stories (two involving fossil fuels), three involving money in politics (two dark money stories) and two involving illicit surveillance. But the dominance of this one pattern truly is remarkable.

It shows how profoundly the concentration of corporate wealth and power in the hands of so few distorts everything we see—or don't see—in the world around us every day. Here then, is the first half of this year's list of Project Censored's Top 10 censored stories (editor's note: Next week's issue will feature the second half of the list):

Efficient fuel pricing could help lower emissions.
  • Efficient fuel pricing could help lower emissions.

1. Fossil Fuels Subsidized at Rate of $11 Million per Minute
Globally, the fossil fuel industry receives subsidies of roughly $11 million per minute, primarily from lack of liability for the externalized health costs of deadly air pollution (42%), damages caused by extreme weather events (29%) and costs from traffic collisions and congestion (15%). And two-thirds of those subsidies come from just five countries—the United States, Russia, India, China and Japan.

These are key findings from a study of 191 nations published by the International Monetary Fund, or IMF in September 2021, that were reported in the Guardian and Treehugger the next month, but have been ignored in the corporate media.

No national government currently prices fossil fuels at what the IMF calls their "efficient price"—covering both their supply and environmental costs. "Instead, an estimated 99 percent of coal, 52 percent of road diesel, 47 percent of natural gas and 18 percent of gasoline are priced at less than half their efficient price," Project Censored noted.

"Efficient fuel pricing in 2025 would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent below baseline levels, which is in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees, while raising revenues worth 3.8 percent of global GDP and preventing 0.9 million local air pollution deaths," the report stated. The G7 nations had previously agreed to scrap fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, but the IMF found that subsidies have increased in recent years and will continue increasing.

"It's critical that governments stop propping up an industry that is in decline," Mike Coffin, a senior analyst at Carbon Tracker, told the Guardian. "The much-needed change could start happening now, if not for the government's entanglement with the fossil fuels industry in so many major economies," added Maria Pastukhova of E3G, a climate change think tank.

"Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could lead to higher energy prices and, ultimately, political protests and social unrest," Project Censored noted. "But, as the Guardian and Treehugger each reported, the IMF recommended a 'comprehensive strategy' to protect consumers—especially low-income households—impacted by rising energy costs and workers in displaced industries."

No corporate news outlets had reported on the IMF as of May 2022, according to Project Censored, though a November 2021 opinion piece did focus on the issue of subsidies, which John Kerry, U.S. special envoy for climate change, called "a definition of insanity." But that was framed as opinion, and made no mention of the indirect subsidies, which represent 86% of the total.

In contrast, "In January 2022, CNN published an article that all but defended fossil fuel subsidies," Project Censored noted. "CNN's coverage emphasized the potential for unrest caused by rollbacks of government subsidies, citing 'protests that occasionally turned violent.'"

Minimum wage violations are estimated to carry a higher societal cost than street crime.
  • Minimum wage violations are estimated to carry a higher societal cost than street crime.

2. Wage Theft: U.S. Businesses Suffer Few Consequences for Stealing Millions from Workers
In 2017, the FBI reported the cost of street crime at about $13.8 billion, the same year that the Economic Policy Institute released a study saying that just one form of wage theft—minimum wage violations—costs U.S. workers even more: an estimated $15 billion annually, impacting an estimated 17% of low-wage workers.

One reason it's so rampant is that companies are seldom punished, as Alexia Fernández Campbell and Joe Yerardi reported for the Center for Public Integrity in May 2021, drawing on 15 years of data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. "The agency fined only about one in four repeat offenders during that period. And it ordered those companies to pay workers cash damages—penalty money in addition to back wages—in just 14 percent of those cases," they wrote.

In addition, "The division often lets businesses avoid repaying their employees all the money they're owed. In all, the agency has let more than 16,000 employers get away with not paying $20.3 million in back wages since 2005."

We're talking about major companies. Halliburton, G4S Wackenhut and Circle K Stores were among "the worst offenders," they reported.

That report kicked off the Center For Public Integrity's "Cheated at Work'' series, which showed that "U.S. employers that illegally underpaid workers face few repercussions, even when they do so repeatedly. This widespread practice perpetuates income inequality, hitting lowest-paid workers hardest."

"Wage theft includes a range of illegal practices, such as paying less than minimum wage, withholding tips, not paying overtime or requiring workers to work through breaks or off the clock. It impacts service workers, low-income workers, immigrant and guest workers, and communities of color the most," Project Censored explained.

Wage theft also includes worker misclassification as independent contractors—long the case with port truckers and, more recently, gig workers. A 2014 study from the National Employment Law Center estimated that "California's port trucking companies are liable to drivers for violations of wage and hour laws for $65 million to $83 million each month, or $787 million to $998 million each year."

Lack of resources is largely to blame for the lax enforcement, Project Censored explained: "As of February 2021, the Wage and Hour Division employed only 787 investigators, a proportion of just one investigator per 182,000 workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, Campbell and Yerardi noted. For comparison, in 1948, the division employed one investigator per 22,600 workers, or eight times the current proportion."

Lax enforcement is "especially problematic" in some 14 states that "lack the capacity to investigate wage theft claims or lack the ability to file lawsuits on behalf of victims," according to a 2017 Economic Policy Institute report. In contrast, the center's report "mentioned local successes in Chicago (2013), Philadelphia (2016) and Minneapolis (2019)," Project Censored noted, but "workers' rights advocates continue to seek federal reforms."

"Since May 2021, a handful of corporate news outlets, including CBS News, covered or republished the Center for Public Integrity's report on wage theft," Project Censored noted, but "Corporate coverage tends to focus on specific instances involving individual employers," while ignoring the broader subject "as a systemic social problem" as well as ignoring the "anemic federal enforcement."

That could change, if Congress were to pass the Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act of 2022, which "would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect workers from wage theft, according to Ariana Figueroa of the Virginia Mercury," Project Censored noted, concluding with a quote from Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar: "It is clear more DOL [Department of Labor] funding and additional federal reforms are needed in our localities in order to protect our most vulnerable workers."

Federal disclosures on - harmful chemicals largely vanished from a public - database.
  • Federal disclosures on harmful chemicals largely vanished from a public database.

3. EPA Withheld Reports on Dangerous Chemicals
In January 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, stopped releasing legally required disclosures about chemicals that present a "substantial risk of injury to health or the environment." The disclosures had previously been posted in a searchable public database called ChemView.

In November 2021, as part of news website The Intercept's "EPA Exposed" investigative series, Sharon Lerner reported that EPA had received "at least 1,240 substantial risk reports since January 2019, but only one was publicly available. The suppressed reports documented "the risk of chemicals' serious harms, including eye corrosion, damage to the brain and nervous system, chronic toxicity to honeybees, and cancer in both people and animals," Lerner wrote.

"The reports include notifications about highly toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, chemical compounds that are known as 'forever chemicals' because they build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment," Project Censored noted. "The Environmental Working Group explains that 'very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. For decades, chemical companies covered up evidence of PFAS' health hazards.'" Their spread throughout the world's oceans, along with microplastics, was Project Censored's No. 5 suppressed story last year.

It wasn't just the public that was kept in the dark, Lerner reported. "The substantial risk reports have not been uploaded to the databases used most often by risk assessors searching for information about chemicals, according [to] one of the EPA scientists ... They have been entered only into an internal database that is difficult to access and search. As a result, little—and perhaps none—of the information about these serious risks to health and the environment has been incorporated into the chemical assessments completed during this period."

"Basically, they are just going into a black hole," one whistleblower told Lerner. "We don't look at them. We don't evaluate them. And we don't check to see if they change our understanding of the chemical."

Apart from The Intercept, "only a handful of niche publications have reported on the matter," Project Censored noted.

However, in January 2022 Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to disclose the reports, following up on an earlier public records request which, the National Law Review reported, was "built upon information reported in a November 2021 article in The Intercept."

But just weeks later, EPA announced that it would resume posting the reports in ChemView, Project Censored noted. "Clearly, independent journalism contributed significantly to this outcome," they said. "Had it not been for the work of investigative journalist Sharon Lerner at The Intercept, EPA whistleblowers would not have had a platform to share concerns that ultimately led the agency to resume these critical public disclosures."

West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin is - estimated to own $5.5 million in fossil-fuel assets.
  • West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin is estimated to own $5.5 million in fossil-fuel assets.

4. At Least 128 Members of Congress Invested in Fossil Fuels
At least 100 U.S. representatives and 28 U.S. senators have financial interests in the fossil fuel industry—a major impediment to reaching climate change goals that has gone virtually unmentioned by the corporate media, despite detailed reporting in a series of Sludge articles written by David Moore in November and December of 2021.

Moore found that 74 Republicans, 59 Democrats and 1 independent have fossil fuel industry investments, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in both chambers. The top 10 House investors are all Republicans. But it's quite different in the Senate, where 2 of the top 3 investors are Democrats, and Democrats' total investments—$8,604,000—are more than double the Senate Republicans' total of $3,994,126.

Topping the list is Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, with up to $5.5 million of fossil fuel industry assets, while Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, is third, with up to $1 million. (Most reporting is in ranges.) Many top investors are Texas Republicans, including Rep. Van Taylor, with up to $12.4 million worth of investments.

"Most significantly, many hold key seats on influential energy-related committees," Project Censored noted. Senators include Manchin, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy; and Tom Carper, D-Delaware, chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. "Manchin cut the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a system that would phase out coal, from President Biden's climate bill," they added.

In the House, "nine of the 22 Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee are invested in the fossil fuel industry. As Project Censored detailed in the No. 4 story on the Top 25 list two years ago, these individuals' personal financial interests as investors often conflict with their obligation as elected legislators to serve the public interest."

Oil and gas lobbying totaled $119.3 million according to OpenSecrets, while 2020 election spending topped $40 million for congressional candidates—$8.7 million to Democrats and $30.8 million to Republicans. This came as the International Energy Agency warned that no new fossil fuel developments can be approved for the world to have a 50/50 chance to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Moore reported.

And yet, "production of oil and gas is projected to grow 50 percent by 2030 without congressional action," Project Censored noted. "The fact that so many lawmakers have invested considerable sums in the fossil fuel industry makes it extremely unlikely that Congress will do much to rein in oil and gas production."

As of May 21, 2022, Sludge's reporting had gotten no corporate coverage, repeating the whiteout of a similar report in 2020. "Corporate news outlets have only reported on the fact that clean energy proposals are stalled in Congress, not the financial conflicts of interest that are the likely cause of this lack of progress," Project Censored concluded.

Conservative organizations funneled money to support election denialism and oppose Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination.
  • Conservative organizations funneled money to support election denialism and oppose Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination.

5. Dark Money Interference in U.S. Politics Undermines Democracy
The same conservative dark money organizations that opposed President Joe Biden's Supreme Court nomination—Judicial Crisis Network, The 85 Fund and affiliated groups—also funded entities that played a role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a report by the watchdog group Accountable.US. The organizations are closely linked to Leonard Leo, co-chair of the Federalist Society, with money from Donors Trust (a dark-money group backed by the Koch network) and the Bradley Foundation.

"These dark money groups not only funded Leo's network of organizations to the sum of over $52 million in 2020, but also funded entities in 2020 that played a role in the insurrection to the sum of over $37 million," Accountable.US reported.

While there has been coverage of dark money spending on Supreme Court nominations, Igor Derysh at Salon was alone in reporting this: the related involvement in Jan. 6.

Just one group, Judicial Crisis Network, spent $2.5 million "before Biden even named his nominee" Ketanji Brown Jackson, Derysh reported, "accusing Biden of caving in to leftists by promising a 'Supreme Court nominee who will be a liberal activist.'" On the other hand, "JCN spent tens of millions helping to confirm justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to Open Secrets, and launched a $25 million effort to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the 2020 election," he reported.

More disturbingly, "Donors Trust has funneled more than $28 million to groups that pushed election lies or in some way funded the rally ahead of the Capitol riot," while "Members of the Federalist Society played key roles in Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the election," including attorney John Eastman, architect of Trump's plan to get Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election, senators Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led objections to the certification of Trump's loss after the riot, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who filed a lawsuit to throw out election results in key states, effectively overturning Biden's victory. In addition, 13 of the 17 other Republican attorneys general who joined Paxton's suit were also Federalist Society members.

"It should worry us all that the groups leading the fight against Biden's historic nomination of Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court are tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, told Salon.

"The influence of dark money—political spending by organizations that are not required to disclose their donors—presents a major challenge to the swift functioning of the judicial nomination and confirmation process, and the U.S. government as a whole," Project Censored noted. "[D]ark money deeply influences political decisions in favor of select individuals' or groups' agendas rather than in support of the public's best interests."

Right-wing dark money's role in fighting Justice Jackson's nomination and confirmation process was highlighted by Business Insider in February 2022, along with op-eds in both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that covered the discussion of dark money during Justice Jackson's confirmation hearings, and a March 2022 Mother Jones report. "However," Project Censored noted, "none of the articles featured in the corporate press covered dark money supporting Trump's Big Lie, the impact such funding had on promoting and reinforcing anti-democratic ideology or the ramifications of how such dark money spending erodes public trust in government and the election process."

Paul Rosenberg is a Los Angeles, California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Salon and Al Jazeera English. Pick up next week's issue of City Weekly for Part 2 of Project Censored's annual list.

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