Censored in 2016
When the late Sonoma State University Professor Carl Jensen founded Project Censored in 1976, he probably could not have imagined that 41 years later we would be living in a “post-truth” era featuring absurdities like presidential flacks citing “alternative facts” in a debate about the crowd size at an inauguration. The fact that we even have a national leader who obsesses over crowd size I am quite sure would have disturbed Jensen—as it should disturb any thinking person. The point is that given the troubling character of the times we are living in—and the deeply troubled characters leading the United States—fretting over corporate media censorship almost seems quaint and beside the point. Maybe it’s time for every patriotic citizen to find ways to connect meaningfully with the resistance movement started at the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, a march which I am sure the “size matters duo” of Trump/Bannon were horrified to learn may have been the largest demonstration in US history.
On the other hand, those grassroots activists sparking resistance to the Trump/Bannon regime cannot be successful as long as the body politic continues to distrust the establishment press as much as it distrusts establishment politicians. By pointing fingers at critical issues not be covered adequately—or covered at all—by the establishment media, Project Censored instructs said media on the easiest way to gain public trust: COVER THOSE STORIES! Even better, when covering the stories do not fall into the typical corporate media habit of filling the story with special interest “experts,” partisan hacks,, mainstream politicians, and others detached from the reality of the story being presented.
Annually Project Censored compiles a volume of news stories "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States. New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller writes of the Project that “Most journalists in the United States believe the press here is free. That grand illusion only helps obscure the fact that, by and large, the US corporate press does not report what’s really going on, while tuning out, or laughing off, all those who try to do just that. Americans–now more than ever–need those outlets that do labor to report some truth. Project Censored is not just among the bravest, smartest, and most rigorous of those outlets, but the only one that’s wholly focused on those stories that the corporate press ignores, downplays, and/or distorts.” The legendary Walter Cronkite said that “Project Censored is one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.” Bestselling author and activist Naomi Wolf asserts that, “Project Censored is a lifeline to the world’s most urgent and significant stories.”
Project Censored is famous its nontraditional definition of censorship, referring to it as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue that censorship includes not just stories that were never published, but also “those that get such restricted distribution that few in the public are likely to know about them.” Going forward, I hope the Project includes another, more current form of censorship: those stories that are so contaminated by “alternative reality” frames that discovery of the “truth of the matter” becomes all but impossible. Unless the press finds a way uphold Journalism 101 values in this hostile Trump/Bannon atmosphere, expect many of the latter stories in the next 4 years.
Censored 2017: The Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Seven Stories Press) is dedicated to the late media scholar and critic Ben Bagdikian, who in his seminal work The Media Monopoly wrote that “Media power is political power . . . To give citizens a choice in ideas and information is to give them a choice in politics: if a nation has narrowly controlled information, it will soon have narrowly controlled politics.” Censored 2017 continues the Project’s annual exploration of what a panel of judges determines to be the top 25 most censored stories of the year. The top five are: (5) Corporate exploitation of global refugee crisis masked as humanitarianism, (4) Search engine algorithms and electronic voting machines could swing 2016 election, (3) Rising carbon dioxide levels threaten to permanently disrupt vital ocean bacteria, (2) Crisis in evidence-based medicine, (1) US military forces deployed in 70 percent of world’s nations. Each is thoroughly summarized and explained and provides citations to the independent (and in some cases courageous) works of journalism that made knowledge of the stories possible.
My own personal choice for the most censored story of 2016 is, paradoxically, the one that received the most media coverage: the entire presidential campaign season. We expected third parties and even the Sanders campaign to be treated shoddily by the corporate press, so there was no surprise there. We also expected—and sadly got—the media obsession with horse race journalism featuring months’ worth of covering mostly polls and “insider baseball” interpretations of them. What was somewhat surprising this time was the extent to which the corporate media completely abandoned even a pretense of being concerned with issue coverage. As reported on in many sources, the respected Andrew Tyndall Report found that Since the beginning of 2016 to late October (about two weeks before the election), ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage.
For all his brash talk about hating the media, especially television, Donald Trump exploited it more skillfully than any other candidate in the history of the United States. He did it by recognizing that, above all else, television is an entertainment medium. Back in 1985 Neil Postman in his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death (with the crucial subtitle “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”) wrote that “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” (See Chris Teare's application of the book to Trump here.) That book was widely read in its time, and I thought it presented an ethical challenge to both the media and politicians: since Postman made it clear that the reduction of politics to entertainment always carried the risk of producing terrible public policy, politicians and media had to make the choice whether to inform or to entertain. For politicians and the media, making the choice to inform means risking less popularity and lower ratings. Making the choice to inform also carries the risk that the now informed public will put more pressure on the politicians and media to address serious issues in a meaningful way.
In 2016 Donald Trump and the majority of the establishment media made the choice to go into full-blown entertainment mode. Trump’s tweets, often incomprehensible if not just plain ignorant, were covered as if they were serious campaign documents. The networks repeatedly allowed Trump to call into programs, something that was historically rare for candidates and which was done for no discernible reason. When journalists did try to push back against Trump, he turned them into what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls a “hate object,” (scroll down to the 7th paragraph) something which only increased the entertainment value of the campaign.
It didn’t have to be this way. Major media could have talked less to Trump and his surrogates and talked MORE to the voters who found the campaign attractive. After the election, MSNBC did a town hall forum with Bernie Sanders surrounded by white working class Wisconsinites who voted for Trump. The forum was a fascinating exchange, with Sanders actually persuading a few of the participants to his side by doing nothing more than stating the same views he had espoused for over a year during the campaign. The questions I was left with were, why are the media only NOW talking to these voters? Would it have not made more sense to include people like them as REGULAR features in the news cycle? Do you think the major media will be more willing to talk (and listen) to average, everyday citizens in 2020? No, I don’t think so either.
We’re now at the point where even the Koch brothers think that we are moving dangerously close to authoritarian rule. The irony of that is incredible when you consider the fact that the over the years the Koch’s have coopted andexploited legislative bodies in ways that Trump/Bannon may not have even dreamed of yet. But don’t worry, Trump/Bannon will get there. The question is, can or will the media uphold their responsibility to stop them?