Who Will Tell The People?

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You.
By Christine Stavem

GEORGE LUCAS WASN'T the only one banking on a Star Wars revival this year. The Clinton administration has revived its own version of Star Wars by investing $3 billion annually into the Reagan/Bush administrations' controversial space program. As conceived by the U.S. national nuclear laboratories and military, the program has had a large nuclear component.

Hence, it's no surprise NASA is finding virtually no resistance from the administration for the October launch of its Cassini space probe--whose instruments will be powered by 72 pounds of lethal plutonium-238--despite the acute danger of deploying radioactive materials in space. If something goes awry, more than five billion people would be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. While there exists a clear alternative for Cassini--solar power--NASA, the Energy Department's nuclear labs and the corporations involved in producing nuclear hardware for space missions are not budging.

How is it that such important information isn't splashed across the front page of the morning paper? After all, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that it's stupid to put nukes in space," said Karl Grossman, who wrote "Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space," for CovertAction Quarterly.

Why don't Americans learn more about such important social and political issues as the predatory practices of high-interest mortgage lenders, or about how last year's minimum wage bill will affect their pensions? Presumably, the papers they read, the broadcast news they click on at night and the radio commentaries they tune in to each morning would cover that territory.

But what happens when the mainstream media's corporate agenda is more synergistic with the multi-million dollar clients of public relations firms than with consumers battling for poison-proof product packaging? What happens when the news media decide--under pressure from its corporate owners--that it can't afford to take the public interest into consideration? After all, isn't it the job of the media to dig out the facts and root out corruption in order to inform and educate the public?

The dismal reality is that we are suffering from a new kind of censorship, one that doesn't simply keep a handful of unflattering stories from the front page, but one that prevents reports of certain excesses of government and corporate power from being written at all.

Sonoma State University's media watch group "Project Censored" labels this self-censorship. As its team of researchers and judges rediscovers each year, what the mainstream media deem threatening to their own corporate interests--inextricably linked to their advertisers and parent conglomerates--is simply excluded from broad mainstream coverage.

"The mainstream media are so market driven, their sense of priorities is [skewed]," said George Gerbner, a project Censored judge. "They cannot afford to take the public interest into consideration ... There's an implicit, unqualified censorship that screens out less marketable stories."

Founded by Carl Jensen in 1976, Project Censored's distinguished panel of judges culls overlooked or vastly under-reported stories from nationwide media. Their package of marginalized stories reads like a catch-all of topics the mainstream won't touch: stories about bad things happening to poor people, about corporate and government misconduct, about threats to our safety and our livelihood. Here they are:

Top 10 Censored Stories of 1996:

1. NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION IN SPACE ("Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space," CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 1996, and "Don't Send Plutonium Into Space," Progressive Media Project, May 1996, both by Karl Grossman)

This October, NASA plans to launch its Cassini probe to Saturn carrying 72 pounds of lethal plutonium-238, long described by scientists as the most toxic substance known. En route, the probe--which will ride atop a Lockheed Martin-built Titan IV rocket, a model that has undergone a series of mishaps in recent years--will whip around the earth at 42,300 miles an hour just 312 miles above our planet's surface. Any accident occurring during the fly-by would surely be categorized a calamity; roughly five billion people could receive dangerous levels of radiation exposure, Karl Grossman quotes authorities as saying.

What's more: Despite the enormous expense and risk, NASA, the Department of Energy's national nuclear laboratories, and the corporations that have been involved in producing nuclear hardware for space missions have ignored European solar-power technology that would eliminate the risks posed by the Cassini probe.

Why doesn't this get covered? "You have to ask, 'Who owns the media?' " said Grossman, referring to NBC's parent General Electric and CBS's parent Westinghouse. More than 40 percent of the world's nuclear plants use Westinghouse engineering; GE manufactures turbines for nuclear reactors.

"It also has to do with NASA reporters being who they are--boosters of the industry," said Grossman. "It has to do with the average reporter not being skilled enough to dig and fully understand nuclear [issues]...It also has to do with 'nuclear' being a sacred cow, in general."

2. SHELL'S OIL, AFRICA'S BLOOD ("Shell's Oil, Africa's Blood," by Ron Nixon and Michael King, Texas Observer, 1/12/96; "Shell Game," by Vince Bielski, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 2/7/96; "Rejected Ad Flap," by M.L. Stein, Editor & Publisher, 3/23/96; "Dying for Oil," by Aaron Sachs, World Watch, May/June 1996)

In the aftermath of Nigeria's execution of nine environmental activists in 1995, evidence has mounted that despite its intimate links to the Nigerian government, Royal Dutch/Shell Group (the parent of Houston-based Shell Oil) not only turned a deaf ear to worldwide pleas that it intervene and help stay the executions, but it likely helped instigate the violence.

Over the last decade, Shell Oil has been targeted by mass protesters, whose ranks boasted acclaimed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and the 300,000-member Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). The group demanded compensation for the farm lands destroyed by Shell's drilling in the Nigeria Delta region.

Despite Shell's insistence that it "had no right to get involved" after Saro-Wiwa and eight others were arrested for the alleged murders of members of a rival activist group, "internal documents uncovered by journalists and human rights groups reveal Shell was more than a passive player in the political affairs of Nigeria and in the death Saro-Wiwa," according to journalists Ron Nixon and Michael King.

The mainstream press, including the Wall Street Journal,New York Times and Washington Post, reported the slaying, albeit peripherally, and no direct connection was made between the human rights abuses and Shell.

Although Shell had lobbied hard to convince the world it had no blood on its hands, "Shell has admitted, since my story was published, to having funded Nigerian military outfits that are engaging in human rights abuses," although Shell claims the forces they paid were not responsible, said journalist Vince Bielski.

3. BIG PERKS FOR THE WEALTHY HIDDEN IN MINIMUM WAGE BILL ("Bare Minimum: Goodies for the Rich Hidden in Wage Bill," by John B. Judis, The New Republic, 10/28/96)

Democrats and Republicans alike were engaging in a lot of self-congratulatory hand-pressing last August after President Clinton signed the minimum wage bill--each party touting bipartisan support for the legislation that raised the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour.

But while the mainstream media largely neglected to dig beneath the "progressive achievement packaging" of the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996, John Judis, senior editor of the New Republic, questioned this tale: "Beneath the carapace of constructive reform lies a legislative record filled with outrages."

In fact, charged Judis, the bill included at least 10 provisions--sought by Republicans for their allies in the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--aimed at neither small business owners nor their employees, all of which may negate whatever good the bill may do. For instance, the bill weakens retirement and pension protection by doing away with a requirement that companies offer the same benefits to lower-wage employees as they do to higher-wage employees.

In essence, welfare reform expands the supply of low-wage job applicants without expanding the supply of jobs, holding down the wages the minimum-wage bill was supposed to raise, wrote Judis. "A cause for celebration for all Americans? I don't think so."

4. THE PR INDUSTRY'S SECRET WAR ON ACTIVISTS ("The Public Relations Industry's Secret War on Activists," CovertAction Quarterly, Winter 1995/1996, and "Public Relations, Private Interests," Earth Island Journal, Winter 1995/1996, both by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton)

The degree to which PR firms manipulate public opinion and policy is almost impossible to determine, wrote journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. But what's indisputable is that the industry--by dipping into the deep pockets of its multi-million-dollar corporate clients--has vast power to direct and control thought and policy. Of late, the preponderance of public relations firms have leveraged that influence against activists and proposed legislation that threaten big business.

The latest deceptive strategy entails creating anti-public-interest--or "astroturf"--campaigns to generate the false impression of public support in the name of citizen activism. The result? At its worst, dissenting voices have been muffled, unhealthy chemicals and practices have been legalized and public opinion has been profoundly influenced.

And how have the media--charged with sifting fact from fiction--responded? "Media have become complicit in the way they deal with PR," Rampton said. So complicit, in fact, that reporters and producers who rely on this type of information for stories--rather than doing their own, independent reporting--are more the norm than the exception.

5. CORPORATE CRIME: WHITEWASH AT THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT ("White-Collar Crime: Whitewash at the Justice Department," by David Burnham, CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 1996)

When you think of crime, what comes to mind? Armed robbery? Homicide? What about the dumping of toxic waste? Would it shock you to learn that in 1987 alone, 50,000 to 70,000 workers died prematurely from on-the-job exposure to toxins--roughly three times the 21,5000 people murdered that same year?

The truth is, while corporate, or white-collar, crime costs America 10 to 50 times more than street crime, the Justice Department shows little interest in tackling the problem. In fact, based on records maintained by the Justice Department, the federal government almost never brings charges against businesses. Of the more than 51,000 federal criminal indictments in 1994, only 250--less than one-half of one percent--involved criminal violations of the nation's environmental, occupational health and safety and consumer product safety laws.

"Armed with a few anecdotal horror stories, the propagandists and lobbyists try to persuade media, politicians and the public that regulations are crippling free enterprise and costing jobs," wrote David Burnham in CovertAction Quarterly. Given the huge number of corporations, and a well-documented record of repeated violations, the minuscule number of federal criminal allegations hardly square with the corporate view of business as the victim of a federal government run amok.

6. NEW MEGA-MERGED BANKING BEHEMOTHS = BIG RISK ("The Making of the Banking Behemoths," by Jake Lewis, Multinational Monitor, June 1996)

Frighteningly similar to the distribution of personal wealth in the United States--where the top 1 percent of households controls almost one-third of the nation's net worth--71.5 percent of U.S. banking assets are now controlled by the 100 largest banking organizations, representing less than 1 percent of the total banks in the nation.

But little has been written about its impact on average Americans--that megabanks are closing out community access and making it harder and harder for small borrowers to obtain loans.

In California, when First Interstate and Wells Fargo merged to become a new giant with more than $100 billion in assets, for instance, the Justice Department ordered Wells Fargo to divest itself of 61 branches to preserve competition for certain types of lending. But the branches the bank divested itself of are being sold to Home Savings & Loan of Los Angeles, which recently decided not to continue affordable housing lending.

7. CASHING IN ON POVERTY ("Cashing in on Poverty," by Michael Hudson, The Nation, 5/20/96 [Excerpted from Merchants of Misery: How Corporate America Profits From Poverty])

Can you imagine paying $1,000 for a $300 TV? How about paying 20 percent interest on a second mortgage? While two-thirds of Americans never face such atrocious exploitation, countless pawn shops, check-cashing outlets, rent-to-own stores, finance companies and high-interest mortgage lenders are getting away with it, largely by preying on the disadvantaged.

And what you won't read in the daily headlines is that companies raking in big money by targeting people on the bottom third of the economic ladder are owned or bankrolled by the biggest names on Wall Street--Ford, Citibank, NationsBank and American Express, to name a few. The "poverty industry" fills a niche for them--at a stiff price, writes Michael Hudson in a piece for The Nation. But where's the outrage?

"There's not a lot of questioning about corporate abuse in this country," Hudson said. "And as a practical matter, it's easier to report on one company than a whole industry...taking on an [entire] industry is much more complicated."

While a handful of media outlets occasionally have singled out individual cases of duplicity, "it's generally done about individual companies and becomes sort of a 'gotcha' story," said Hudson. And when it's about just one company, "other company's come in and take over where the first (one) left off."

8. BIG BROTHER GOES HIGH-TECH ("Big Brother Goes High-Tech," by David Banisar, CovertAction Quarterly, Spring 1996; "Access, Privacy and Power," by Michael Rust and Susan Crabtree, Insight, 8/19/96; "New Surveillance Camera Cheers Police, Worries ACLU," by Joyce Price, Insight, 9/9/1996)

The bank has your social security number; so does the education system. Credit card holders file away your financial history. Your doctors, your insurance company, marketers who sold you magazine subscriptions--all compile bits of personal data and squirrel it away in any number of the thousands of databases that exist worldwide.

Welcome to the information revolution. From bankbook to bedroom, new advanced technologies are gaining on civil liberties, threatening to render privacy vulnerable on a scale never seen before. At the same time, outdated laws and regulations are failing to check an expanding pattern of abuses.

And here's the latest twist: Today's new technologies are not being leveraged by the government alone. While such companies as E- Systems, Electronic Data Systems (founded by Ross Perot) and Texas Instruments are selling advanced computer and surveillance equipment to state and local governments, corporations also are quick to adapt these technologies for commercial use.

"Now, information on almost every person in the developed world is computerized in several hundred databases collected, analyzed and disseminated by governments and corporations," David Banisar wrote in an exposé for CovertAction Quarterly. "And increasingly, these computers are linked up and sharing their cyber-gossip."

What's desperately lacking is accountability for those who may misuse it. "It's not that lawmakers, policy analysts and journalists don't recognize the reality of the information revolution," wrote Michael Rust and Susan Crabtree in an article for Insight. "It's just that--like the vast majority of their countrymen--they don't understand it very well."

9. U.S. TROOPS EXPOSED TO DEPLETED URANIUM DURING GULF WAR ("Radioactive Battlefields of the 1990s: A Response to the Army's Unreleased Report on Depleted-Uranium Weaponry," Military Toxics Project's Depleted-Uranium Citizens' Network, 1/16/96; "Radioactive Ammo Lays Them to Waste," by Gary Cohen, Multinational Monitor, January/February 1996)

Since the Manhattan Project of World War II, government studies have indicated depleted-uranium weapons--although highly effective when waging war--are extremely toxic. And not only for the enemy.

Nonetheless, five years ago, depleted uranium (DU) was used in warfare for the first time as both armor-piercing bullets and as tank armor by the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Storm. More than 350 tons of DU fragments and particles still lie on the battlefields of the Gulf War, and depleted uranium has been documented in the bodies of some Gulf War veterans and may be present in many more, according to a report to the Army's unreleased report on depleted-uranium weaponry.

Did the U.S. military downplay the hazards? What were the soldiers told? Although Army training manuals were written in the 1980s to warn tank crews and commanders of the dangers associated with DU rounds, the Pentagon failed to specifically warn Gulf War troops of the dangers. Five years later, the effects of depleted-uranium exposure are just beginning to demand attention.

10. FACING FOOD SCARCITY ("Facing Food Scarcity," World Watch, November/December 1995, and "Japanese Government Breaks With World Bank Food Forecast," World Watch, May/June 1996, both by Lester R. Brown)

At the close of the 20th century, 90 million added people each year will need to eat. And while you can pick up the paper each morning and read about the global economy, where is discussion of the world's food economy?

According to World Watch and the World Agricultural Outlook Board, the world's stock of rice, wheat, corn and other grains have fallen to their lowest level in two decades, a daunting prospect considering the trend is predicted to become even more acute, concluded the recent World Food Summit in November 1996. Convened by the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization, the first such summit in 22 years decided poor countries will be responsible for feeding their own people, without the aid of wealthier nations.

"If we are unable to reverse the trends of recent years, food scarcity may well become the defining issue as we exit this century and enter the next," Lester R. Brown wrote in World Watch. "History judges political issues of their time. For today's leaders, the challenge is to achieve a humane balance between food and people on a crowded planet."

Illustrations by Joe Forkan

15 Other Stories of 1996:

• GDP Is Meaningless Economic Measuring Stick

• rBGH--Milking the Public

• Gag Me With a Food Disparagement Law

• Anti-Abortion and Militia Movements Converge

• Teen Drug "Crisis" Is a Myth

• Derivatives: Risky Business

• Union Do's--Smart Solidarity

• PCBs: Importing Poison

• Corporate America Spends Big Bucks on Pro-China PR

• U.S. Alone in Blocking Export Ban of Toxic Waste the Third World

• Inside INS Detention Centers

• Refrigerator Revolution and Repairing the Ozone

• Chemicals and the Brain

• Tuna, Free Trade and Cocaine

• The Truth About "Inert" Chemicals

Project Censored Judges: The judges who selected the top 10 under-reported news stories were: Donna Allen, founding editor of Media Report to Women; Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; Richard Barnet, author/policy analyst; Susan Faludi, journalist/author; George Gerbner, dean emeritus University of Pennsylvania; Carl Jensen, founder and former director of Project Censored; Sut Jhally, executive director, The Media Education Foundation; Nicholas Johnson, professor, University of Iowa; Rhonda H. Karpatkin, president, Consumers Union; Charles L. Klotzer, editor and publisher emeritus, St. Louis Journalism Review; Judith Krug, American Library Association; Frances Moore Lappe, co-founder and co-director, Center for Living Democracy; William Lutz, professor, Rutgers University; Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D., economist and columnist; Jack L. Nelson, professor, Rutgers University; Michael Parenti, Ph.D., author and lecturer; Herbert I. Schiller, professor emeritus, University of California, San Diego; Barbara Seaman, author and lecturer; Holly Sklar, author; Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld, president, D.C. Productions.

CENSORED: The News That Didn't Make the News, the 1997 Censored Yearbook, published by Seven Stories Press, New York, is available in bookstores or by calling 800/596-7437. To receive a free pamphlet listing the top 25 stories, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Project Censored, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 94928-3609. TW

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