BY TONY PALMERI
At the start of the digital age, many media critics hoped that the Internet would usher in an era in which it would be almost impossible for news censorship to occur. The hope was rooted in optimism that elite corporate media, if for no other reason than their own survival, would channel their resources towards giving greater visibility to underreported stories stuck in the marginal sphere of political websites, blogs, and social media.
That never happened. Instead, the elites doubled down on their worst pre-digital tendencies: over reliance on mainstream sources, privileging the “official” narrative of major events, handling doubtful partisan claims via lazy “he said, she said” reporting rather than rigorous search for the truth, and an embarrassing fixation on celebrity gossip and minutiae.
Since 1976, long before the digital revolution, Sonoma State University’s Project Censored has challenged the news media to meet their First Amendment responsibilities. Annually, the Project compiles a volume of news stories “underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the United States.” 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.” Ralph Nader agrees: “Project Censored should be affixed to the bulletin boards in every newsroom in America.”
Project Censored defines censorship as “anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to have a free press.” They argue further that censorship may include 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.” Below I’ll summarize Project Censored’s top three most censored national stories of 2014. I’ll close by arguing that in Wisconsin, the race for governor was the most censored story of 2014.
Censored 2015 (Seven Stories Press) identifies “Ocean acidification increasing at unprecedented rate” as the top censored story of 2014. This is a classic example of a story that has life and death consequences but does not yet register on the radar of the mainstream media. But hey, mainstream news has more important priorities. As I write in mid-December, the Oshkosh Northwestern has this item on their website: “Police: Wausau Man Performed Oral Sex on Horse.” Perhaps they were trying to give new meaning to the concept of a news “head” line.
Project Censored identifies “Top 10 US Aid Recipients All Practice Torture” as the second most censored story of 2014. Think about that in the coming weeks as sanctimonious and hypocritical politicians lament the Obama Administration’s opening of relations with Cuba without getting sufficient “human rights concessions” in exchange. Exactly what concessions are we getting from the torture regimes receiving US taxpayer dollars?
The third most censored story was “Wikileaks Revelations on Trans-Pacific Partnership Ignored by Corporate Media.” According to Project Censored: “Eight hundred million people, and one-third of all world trade, stand to be affected by the treaty—and yet only three people from each member nation have access to the entire document. Meanwhile, six hundred ‘corporate advisors,’ representing big oil, pharmaceutical, and entertainment companies, are involved in the writing and negotiations of the treaty.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is currently on the “fast track” and if approved would create the largest “free trade” zone in the world. Writing in the Guardian, John Fullerton of the Capital Institute argues that: “What few seem to realize is that this agreement, if approved as is, could make it virtually impossible for the United States to meet its current and future climate pledges––including those made in its historic climate accord with China last month––without exposing the nation to unprecedented legal and financial risks.” If mainstream media truly were watchdogs, TPP would be as familiar to Americans as Ray Rice.
Now let’s move to Wisconsin. I’ve been in this great state since 1989 and lived through seven gubernatorial elections. Until this year, I didn’t think media [lack of] coverage could get worse than 1998, the year Ed Garvey ran a spirited grassroots campaign against incumbent Tommy Thompson. The Garvey campaign tenaciously kept bringing up Thompson-era follies that would come back to haunt the state: tax and spending policies that created massive structural deficits, the use of accounting tricks to balance the budget, placing major non-budget items in the budget bill, inappropriate use of the line item veto, the introduction of big money special-influence politics to Wisconsin, and the consolidation of too much power in the governor’s office. The mass media just as tenaciously ignored or minimized virtually all of this, though in fairness to the media barons not even the Democratic Party establishment did much to support Garvey.
But 2014 was worse. We’ve now reached the point where, in large part because the state’s mainstream media cannot be counted on to cover campaigns with rigor, challengers have to be independently wealthy to get their message out and respond to smears. But even a wealthy candidate like Mary Burke found that money can’t prevent the scheduling of debates when no one is watching and the publication of unsubstantiated “October Surprise” stories on the pages of the state’s largest newspaper. Meanwhile third party candidates are invisible.
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Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.