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December 22, 2021 News » Cover Story

Project Censored, Part 1 

Old media patterns alive and well in the year's most suppressed news stories.

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ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN
  • Anson Stevens-Bollen

Project Censored's co-directors, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, title their introduction to this year's edition of State of the Free Press, "A Return to News Normalcy?" drawing a direct parallel between our world today to that of post-World War I America, "When the United States faced another raging pandemic and economic recession," with other sources of tumult as well.

"The United States then had experienced a crackdown on civil liberties and free speech in the form of Espionage and Sedition Acts; racial tensions flared during the Red Summer of 1919 as violence erupted from Chicago to Tulsa; Prohibition was the law of the land; and the first wave of US feminism ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment." At the time, they noted, "People yearned for a return to 'normalcy,' as then–presidential hopeful Warren G. Harding proclaimed."

But it was not to be. "The desire for simpler times, however, was more a phantom than a reality, as millions of Americans ultimately had to adjust to an ever- and fast-changing world," including a rapidly changing media landscape—most notably the explosion of radio. And today, we should expect much the same.

Every major change in the media landscape has brought with it the promise of expanded horizons and democratic possibility—the potential for a broader, more inclusive public conversation—only to see many of the old patterns of division, exclusion and demonization recur in new ways as well as old, as recent revelations about Facebook vividly remind us.

Project Censored isn't alone in drawing parallels to a century ago, of course. The pandemic above all has expanded journalistic horizons, as a matter of necessity. To a lesser extent, the threat to American democracy—part of a worldwide trend of democratic backsliding—has done so as well. But though some have expanded their horizons, many more continue as if little or nothing has fundamentally changed.

Day-to-day news stories perpetuate the fantasy that normal has already returned. And in one sense they're right: The normal patterns of exclusion and suppression that Project Censored has been tracking for over 40 years continue to dominate, with even the latest wrinkles fitting into well-established, if evolving, broad patterns that are depressingly familiar.

These patterns are reflected in Project Censored's Top 10 list, with two stories each about labor struggles, racism, threats to health, the environment and free speech. Several stories this year deal with topics that have gotten widespread attention—but with aspects that have been virtually, or entirely, ignored. The No. 1 story, for example, deals with prescription drug costs, a widely covered story, but with a significant difference in focus: how much those costs translate to in lost lives. The No. 9 story deals with police violence against people of color, but with a new focus that's actually quite old: vicious police dog attacks. The No. 4 story deals with climate change, again with a different focus: how heavily-industrialized nations like the U.S. "have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth."

The point of Project Censored has never been just to expose significant stories that have been ignored, but rather to expose them as portals to a wider landscape of understanding and action. In that spirit, here is our summary of this year's Top 10 censored stories:

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1. Prescription Drug Costs Set to Become a Leading Cause of Death for Elderly Americans
"Soaring prescription drug costs have been widely reported by corporate news outlets," Project Censored notes, but they've utterly ignored the staggering resulting cost in human lives. More than 1.1 million seniors enrolled in Medicare programs could die prematurely in the next decade due to unaffordable prescription drugs, according to a November 2020 study reported on by Kenny Stancil for Common Dreams.

"As medicines become increasingly expensive, patients skip doses, ration prescriptions, or quit treatment altogether," Project Censored explained, a phenomenon known as "cost-related nonadherence," which will become "a leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of diabetes, influenza, pneumonia, and kidney disease" by 2030, according to the study by the nonprofit West Health Policy Center and Xcenda, the research arm of Amerisource-Bergen, a drug distributor.

"Even with Medicare insurance, what seniors pay is linked to a drug's price," the study explained, which allowed them "to model how cost-related nonadherence would change under policies that would reduce drug prices, such as Medicare negotiation." The study focused on five medical conditions that "significantly affect seniors and for which effective pharmaceutical treatments are available," including three types of heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

"The good news is that policy changes can curb the power of Big Pharma, resulting in far fewer avoidable deaths," Stancil reported. "Medicare negotiation is projected to reduce drug prices and seniors' cost-sharing, which could prevent nearly 94,000 seniors' deaths annually and save $475.9 billion," the study stated as one of its key findings.

"As a model for policymakers, the study pointed specifically to the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3)," which passed the House in December 2019, but died in the Senate, Project Censored noted.

A May 2021 op-ed in The Hill, co-authored by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont), cited the study's figures on preventable deaths and explained its basic framework. "H.R. 3 would limit the annual out-of-pocket costs for Medicare beneficiaries to no more than $2,000, and would establish a top negotiated price for drugs at no more than 120% of the average of six other wealthy nations," the op-ed stated. "H.R. 3 would [also] support and protect innovation and new drug development by investing some of the expected savings into the world-class research funded through the NIH."

But this op-ed was a rare exception. "The public's understanding of the debate surrounding H.R. 3 and other proposed legislation designed to control inflation in prescription drug prices ought to be informed by accurate information about the grim repercussions of continuing the status quo," Project Censored noted. "Sadly, the corporate media have failed to provide the public with such information for far too long, and the consequences could turn out to be deadly for millions of seniors."

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2. Journalists Investigating Financial Crimes Threatened by Elites
Financial crimes of global elites, involving the flow of dirty money through some of the world's most powerful banks, have made major headlines in recent years, most notably with the Panama Papers in 2016 and the FinSen Files in 2020. But we'd know a great deal more if not for the flood of threats faced by journalists doing this work—a major story that hasn't been told in America's corporate media, despite a detailed report from Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), "Unsafe for Scrutiny," released in November 2020.

The report was based on a survey of 63 investigative journalists from 41 countries, which found that 71% had experienced threats and/or harassment while doing their investigations, with a large portion of those (73%) experiencing legal threats as well. Its findings were described by Spencer Woodman in an article for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

"The report found that legal threats are chief among the types of harassment facing journalists conducting financial investigations, and often seek to exploit a skewed balance of power between often-underfunded reporting enterprises and the legal might of attorneys hired by the world's wealthiest people and corporations," Woodman wrote. "Focusing on frivolous cases known as 'strategic lawsuits against public participation,' or SLAPPs, the report asserts that such actions 'can create a similar chilling effect on media freedom to more overt violence or attack.'" Legal threats are often communicated via private letters, "and, if successful in achieving their aim, the public will never know," the report said.

Physical threats and online harassment were also a grave concern, but they were geographically uneven. "While no journalists surveyed in North America reported physical threats, 60% of respondents working in sub-Saharan Africa, and 50% of respondents from North Africa and the Middle East region, reported threats of physical attack," Woodman noted.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb in Malta in October 2017, but Woodman added, "The report asserts that an assassination is often not a starting point for those seeking to silence reporters but instead a crime committed after a pattern of escalating threats, noting that Caruana Galizia had faced numerous legal threats and actions and that her family is still fighting 25 lawsuits over her reporting."

Project Censored noted Galizia's murder along with that of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, adding that "According to FPC's report, an additional thirty reporters from Brazil, Russia, India, Ukraine, Mexico, and other countries who were researching financial corruption have been murdered since 2017."

As for legal threats, "Unlike Canada, Australia and certain U.S. states, the United Kingdom has not passed anti-SLAPP legislation, making its courts an attractive venue for elites seeking to use the law to bully journalists into silence," Project Censored noted, citing a May 8, 2021, Guardian column by Nick Cohen that described the UK's court system as "the censorship capital of the democratic world." Cohen in turn cited the case of financial reporter Catherine Belton, author of the 2020 book, Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West.

"As Cohen explained, in response, a host of Putin's super-wealthy associates are now bombarding Belton with one lawsuit after another," Project Censored observed.

The silence about this silencing has been deafening, Project Censored noted. There has been some coverage overseas, but "To date, however, no major commercial newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States has so much as mentioned the FPC's report."

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3. Historic Wave of Wildcat Strikes for Workers' Rights
After millions of people were designated "essential workers" when the U.S. went into lockdown in March 2020, thousands of wildcat strikes erupted to challenge dangerous working conditions and chronic low wages, exacerbated by refusal to protect against COVID-19 and cutting or sharply increasing the cost of medical insurance, for those who had it.

A further strike surge was driven by "Black and Brown workers using digital technologies to organize collective actions as a way to press some of the demands for racial justice raised by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protestors," Project Censored noted. The nation's fourth busiest port, Charleston, South Carolina, shut down during George Floyd's funeral on June 9, for example.

At the labor news website Payday Report, Mike Elk created a continuously updated COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, which had identified "1,100 wildcat strikes as of March 24, 2021, many of which the corporate media have chosen to ignore," according to Project Censored, including "more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement," in June 2020 alone, according to Elk.

"While local and regional newspapers and broadcast news outlets have reported on particular local actions, corporate news coverage has failed to report the strike wave as a wave, at no time connecting the dots of all the individual, seemingly isolated work stoppages and walkouts to create a picture of the overarching trend," Project Censored reported.

The sole exception where there was national coverage was in August 2020 when highly-paid baseball and basketball pro athletes walked out in violation of their contracts to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police. The coverage ended quickly once they returned a few days later.

Wildcat strikes occur when workers simply stop working, often in response to a specific incident, such as employer actions putting lives at risk by skimping on protective gear or attempting to cut workers' health care. The situation was exacerbated by the Trump administration's failure to issue mandates requiring specific safety measures, as reported by Michael Sainato at the Guardian.

Examples covered by Elk that Project Censored cited include:

—In Santa Rosa, California, 700 health-care workers went on strike because their hospital lacked sufficient personal protective equipment to keep employees safe, and management warned employees that their insurance fees would be doubled if they wanted continued coverage for their families.

—In St. Joseph, Missouri, 120 sheet metal workers went on strike due to management's repeated attempts to cut their health-care benefits during the pandemic.

—In May 2020, workers at 50 McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and other fast food establishments throughout Florida staged a day-long strike for higher pay and better protective equipment.

—In April 2021, employees at Chicago-area Peet's Coffee & Tea locations staged a coordinated work stoppage along with the "Fight for $15" campaign to demand workplace protections and quarantine pay.

Furthermore, Elk noted that the 600 strikes in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement "is likely a severe underestimation, as many non-union Black and Brown workers are now calling out en masse to attend Black Lives Matter protests without it ever being reported in the press or on social media."

Elk also noted that "[M]any Black workers interviewed by Payday Report say that, once again, white labor leaders are failing to understand non-traditional organizing that has developed from viral social media movements. ... Instagram automation and similar automation on Facebook and Twitter help to build a huge following for grassroots movements, so something that had no following a month ago can suddenly go viral and reach millions of people within hours or even minutes."

That threat empowers even solitary individual workers, Tulsa-based Black filmmaker and activist Marq Lewis told Elk: "He says he personally knows of multiple examples of Black workers in Tulsa approaching their bosses without the support of a union and winning changes in their workplace. 'A lot of people may say this is not a strike, well, you tell that to these workers now who are getting their grievances heard,' Lewis says."

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4. 'Climate Debtor' Nations 'Colonized' the Atmosphere
The United States and other developed countries in the global north are responsible for 92% of all the excess carbon dioxide emissions driving global warming, according to a study in the September issue of The Lancet Planetary Health. The U.S. alone was responsible for 40%, followed by Russia and Germany (8% each), the United Kingdom (7%), and Japan (5%).

The study's author, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, told Sarah Lazare of In These Times that his research began from the premises that "the atmosphere is a common resource" and that "all people should have equal access" to a fair share of it.

He calculated each nation's fair share of a sustainable global carbon budget, based on population, along with an analysis of "territorial emissions from 1850 to 1969, and consumption-based emissions from 1970 to 2015." In turn, this was used to calculate "the extent to which each country has overshot or undershot its fair share," according to the study. Out of that came the above list of the largest climate debtors.

The results, he told In These Times, show that "the countries of the Global North have 'stolen' a big chunk of the atmospheric fair-shares of poorer countries, and on top of that are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions ... [T]hey have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth."

In contrast, the study found that "most countries in the Global South were within their boundary fair shares, including India and China (although China will overshoot soon)." The leading climate creditors to date are India (34% of global "undershoots"), China (11%), Bangladesh and Indonesia (5% each) and Nigeria (4%).

"High-income countries must not only reduce emissions to zero more quickly than other countries, but they must also pay down their climate debts," the study said. "Just as many of these countries have relied on the appropriation of labour and resources from the Global South for their own economic growth, they have also relied on the appropriation of global atmospheric commons, with consequences that harm the Global South disproportionately."

"Other studies and analyses have pointed to the disproportionate responsibility of the Global North, and wealthy countries, for driving the climate crisis," Lazare noted. Most dramatically, a 2015 study by Oxfam International "found that the poorest half of the world's population—roughly 3.5 billion people—are to blame for just 10% of 'total global emissions attributed to individual consumption,' yet they 'live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change,'" she reported. "In contrast, the richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for roughly 50% of global emissions."

"Corporate news outlets appear to have entirely ignored the findings of Jason Hickel's Lancet study," Project Censored noted. "Although it may be imperative to act 'quickly and together' to reduce carbon emissions, as Vice President Harris asserted at the April 2021 climate summit, corporate media have failed to cover Hickel's cutting-edge research, which demonstrates that the United States and other would-be leaders in addressing climate change are in fact, as the world's worst climate debtors, disproportionately responsible for climate breakdown."

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5. Microplastics and Toxic Chemicals Increasingly Prevalent in World's Oceans
According to a pair of scientific studies published in the summer of 2020, microplastic particles and a family of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) have become more widespread in the world's oceans than previously realized and have begun to contaminate the global seafood supply.

The two problems are related because PFAS—a family of highly stable "forever chemicals" with more than 4,700 known members—can occur as microplastics, can stick to microplastic particles in water, and are involved in the production of plastics.

In July 2020, a German-American study published in the scholarly journal Environmental Science & Technology revealed that PFAS—which are used in a range of products including carpets, furniture, clothing, food packaging and nonstick coatings—have now been found in the Arctic Ocean.

"This discovery worries scientists," Project Censored explains, "because it means that PFAS can reach any body of water anywhere in the world and that such chemicals are likely present in our water supply." This is concerning because, as Daniel Ross reported for Truthout, there are "Known human health impacts ... includ[ing] certain cancers, liver damage, thyroid problems and increased risk of asthma. As endocrine disruptors, these chemicals have been linked to increased risk of severe COVID-19."

Ross cited a number of other studies as well, noting that, "Emerging research suggests that one important pathway [for PFAS spreading] is through the air and in rainwater," and that they had been widely detected in China, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"PFASs are probably detectable in 'all major water supplies' in the U.S.," according to an Environmental Working Group study, Ross reported. "What's more, over 200 million Americans could be drinking water containing PFAS above a level EWG scientists believe is safe, according to the organization's most recent findings."

The second study, in August 2020, also published in Environmental Science & Technology, came from researchers at the QUEX Institute, a partnership between the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland.

They looked for and found microplastics (pieces of plastic, less than five millimeters in length—about the size of a sesame seed) in five seafood products sold in Australian markets: crabs, oysters, prawns, squid and sardines, which had the highest concentration.

According to the study's lead author, as reported by Robby Berman in Medical News Today, a seafood eater with an average serving "could be exposed to ... up to 30 mg of plastic when eating sardines," about as much as a grain of rice. "We do not fully understand the risks to human health of ingesting plastic, but this new method [they used for detecting selected plastics] will make it easier for us to find out," another co-author said.

"Roughly 17% of the protein humans consume worldwide is seafood," Berman noted. "The findings, therefore, suggest people who regularly eat seafood are also regularly eating plastic."

Aside from the Guardian, "no major news outlet has paid attention to the topic of microplastics in seafood," Project Censored noted. The exception referred to was an October 2020 story in The Guardian by Graham Readfearn, reporting on a new Australian study indicating that at least 14 million tons of microplastics are likely sitting on the ocean floor—"more than 30 times as much plastic at the bottom of the world's ocean than there is floating at the surface."

However, the study's co-author, Dr. Denise Hardesty, "said the amount of plastic on the ocean floor was relatively small compared to all the plastics being released, suggesting the deep-sea sediments were not currently a major resting place for plastics," Readfearn reported.

"Leaders from more than 70 countries signed a voluntary pledge in September to reverse biodiversity loss, which included a goal to stop plastic entering the ocean by 2050," Readfearn noted, but major countries—including the United States, Brazil, China, Russia, India and Australia—had not signed on.

Next week in City Weekly: Part 2 of Project Censored's annual Top 10 stories list.

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