Ten big stories the national news media ignored this year
In late July, more than 600 people showed up in Monterey, California, to speak at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on ownership concentration in the news media. The participants were a diverse group -- young and old, activists and workers -- but they had a single, consistent message: The mainstream news media were doing a deplorable job of covering the day's most important stories.
That's no surprise: Consolidation of the media in the hands of a few corporate Goliaths has resulted in fewer people creating more of the content we see, hear and read. One impact has been a narrower range of perspectives. Another is the virtual disappearance of hard-hitting, original, investigative reporting.
"Corporate media has abdicated their responsibility to the First Amendment to keep the American electorate informed about important issues in society and instead serves up a pabulum of junk food news," says Peter Phillips, head of Sonoma State University's Project Censored.
Every year, researchers at Project Censored pick through volumes of print and broadcast news to see which of the year's most important stories aren't receiving the kinds of attention they deserve. Phillips and his team acknowledge that many of these stories weren't "censored" in the traditional sense of the word: No government agency blocked their publication. And some even appeared -- briefly, and without follow-up -- in mainstream journals.
But, according to Project Censored, every one of this year's picks merited prominent placement on the evening news and the dailies' front pages. Instead, they went virtually ignored.
This year's list speaks directly to the point FCC critics have raised: Stories that address fundamental issues of wealth concentration and big-business dominance of the political agenda are almost entirely missing from the national debate. Here are Project Censored's Top-10 stories that have been relegated to the most obscure corners of the media world.
1. Wealth inequality in the 21st century threatens economy and democracy
As the mainstream news media recite the official line about the nation's supposed economic recovery, a key point has been missing: Wealth inequality in the United States has almost doubled over the past 30 years.
In fact, the Federal Reserve Board's most recent Survey of Consumer Finances supplement on high-income families shows that, in 1998, the richest 1 percent of households owned 38 percent of the nation's wealth. The top 5 percent owned almost 60 percent of the wealth.
"We are much more unequal than any other advanced industrial country," New York University economics professor Edward Wolff told Third World Traveler.
But that's just part of the problem. "Most Americans believe we take from people at the top to benefit those below," Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter David Cay Johnston said in a BuzzFlash interview. But our tax system is actually set up such that "People who make $30,000 to $500,000... give relief to those who make millions, or tens and hundreds of millions of dollars a year."
The United States is not alone: Today, almost one-sixth of the world's population -- 940 million people -- "already live in squalid, unhealthy areas, mostly without water, sanitation, public services or legal security," wrote John Vidal in The Guardian. A recent UN report predicted that, absent drastic change to reverse "a form of colonialism that is probably more stringent than the original," one in every three people worldwide will live in slums within 30 years. That's a bigger threat to democracy and global stability than al-Qaeda and international terrorism.
2. Ashcroft vs. the human-rights law that holds corporations accountable
For decades, the United States has trained right-wing insurgents and torturers, toppled democratically elected governments and propped up brutal dictatorships abroad -- all in the interest of corporate profits. But rarely are the agents of repression ever held accountable for the brutal cycles of poverty, subjugation, environmental destruction and violence they leave in their wake. Indeed, many foreign tyrants go on to enjoy plush retirement right here in the United States.
But recently, lawyers have found a way to seek at least a modicum of justice for victims. The Alien Tort Claims Act, a 215-year-old law originally passed to prosecute pirates for crimes committed on the high seas, allows non-citizens to sue any individual or corporation present on U.S. soil.
Human-rights lawyers have pursued 100 cases under ATCA since 1980. Defendants have included former high-ranking government and military officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Paraguay, the Philippines (including ex-president Ferdinand Marcos), Indonesia, Bosnia, Ethiopia and elsewhere. And although the law can be used only to pursue monetary damages rather than prison time, it has often resulted in victims being awarded millions. However, the perpetrators sometimes flee the country rather than pay up.
Ten years ago, victims began using the act to go after corporate profiteers, too: It was thanks to ATCA, for example, that Nazi Holocaust survivors were able to seek redress from the Swiss banks and companies that profited from the slave labor of concentration-camp internees during World War II.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department has set its sights on the act, claiming in a brief last year that the law threatens "important foreign policy interests" associated with the war on terrorism. Yet hardly a word has been written in the mainstream media about the Bush Administration's attack on the one, main legal recourse left in the U.S. for victims to seek redress for human-rights violations.
3. Bush Administration manipulates science and censors scientists
Tampering with data that threatens corporate profits is much more widespread under Bush than we've been led to believe. And the Environmental Protection Agency has emerged as one of the administration's primary targets.
One of the first White House moves -- on the very day Bush was inaugurated -- was to fire engineer Tony Oppegard, the leader of a federal team investigating a 300-million-gallon slurry spill at a coal-mining site in Kentucky. "Black lava-like toxic sludge containing 60 poisonous chemicals choked and sterilized up to 100 miles of rivers and creeks," wrote environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy in The Nation. The EPA dubbed it "the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States."
Bush then appointed industry insiders to top posts at the EPA in charge of mine safety and health.
• A week after the EPA released a study to Congressional staff about the toxic effects on groundwater of hydraulic fracturing -- a process of injecting benzene into the ground to extract oil and gas, used by Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's old company -- the agency revised its findings in response to "industry feedback" to indicate that the practice posed no threat after all.
• In the days and months following the World Trade Center attack, the EPA released more than a dozen statements claiming that the air quality in the surrounding "control zone" was safe -- despite evidence that asbestos dust was present in quantities well above the 1 percent safety benchmark. The agency opened up the area to the public a mere week after the attacks, allowing Wall Street to reopen and cleanup activities to begin. Eighty-eight percent of rescue workers suffered ear, nose and throat ailments, and 78 percent suffered lung maladies as a result, according to a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine study. Half suffered persistent respiratory problems up to a year later.
• Last November, the EPA arranged for Syngenta, the Swiss manufacturer of Atrazine, to take over federal research of its product, the most widely used weed killer in the United States. This occurred despite evidence that high concentrations of Atrazine in groundwater may be associated with all of the following: below-normal semen counts in men in U.S. farming communities, high incidences of prostate cancer and grotesque deformities in frogs when present "at one-thirtieth the government's 'safe' three parts per billion level," wrote Kennedy.
The Administration has also suppressed scientific findings on global warming in a dozen major government studies over the past two years, according to Kennedy.
The problem isn't limited to the EPA. In fact, government interference in scientific research has gotten so bad that 60 of the country's top scientists -- including 20 Nobel laureates -- issued a statement last February citing the ways the Bush Administration has distorted scientific data "for partisan political ends" and calling for regulatory action.
Dozens of scientists have been willing to blow the whistle -- normally, a reporter's dream come true. But news coverage hasn't come close to reflecting the gravity of the problem.
4. High uranium levels found in troops and civilians
Last year, Project Censored included the U.S. and UK's continued use of depleted uranium weapons -- despite ample evidence of its acute health effects -- among its top 10 underreported stories. Almost 10,000 U.S. troops had died within 10 years of serving in the first Gulf War, researchers had found. And more than a third of those still alive had filed Gulf War Syndrome-related claims.
In study after study, research pointed to the use of depleted uranium (DU) in American and British weaponry as the culprit. But authorities concentrated their efforts into obfuscating the problem -- downplaying its reach, discrediting scientists and ailing military personnel and erecting a smoke screen around the "syndrome's" root causes.
More recently, the Uranium Medical Research Center, an independent group of U.S. and Canadian scientists that's conducted studies of Afghan civilians, found overwhelming evidence that the U.S. is also using non-depleted uranium (NDU) in its weapons, which is far more radioactive than DU. "If the use of NDU indicates experimental application of new nuclear weapons, as the UMRC suggests, then it should alert the public that proliferation of small nuclear weaponry, proposed for some future use, has in fact already begun," wrote Stephanie Hiller in Awakened Woman.
At the International Criminal Tribunal for Afghanistan in Tokyo last December, a team of attorneys from Japan, the U.S. and Germany indicted President Bush on a number of war-crimes charges -- among them the use of DU weapons. Leuren Moret, president of Scientists for Indigenous People, testified that a U.S. government study conducted on the babies of Gulf War I veterans conceived after the soldiers returned home found that a full two-thirds suffered from serious birth defects or illnesses, including being born without eyes or ears, or with missing or malformed organs or limbs. In Iraq, Moret said, the defects are even worse -- images of war that we never see on the evening news.
5. The wholesale giveaway of our natural resources
Adam Werbach, executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and former Sierra Club president, reviewed the Bush Administration's environmental policy record and came to a disturbing conclusion: Bush's record is not only bad -- it's "akin to an affirmative-action program for corporate polluters," he wrote in In These Times.
Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous, secretive, industry-laden energy task force produced what can be boiled down to two main recommendations: "Lower the environmental bar, and pay corporations to jump over it," Werbach wrote.
For example, Congress has promised $3 billion in tax cuts to mining corporations to help them access natural gas embedded in underground coal deposits in Georgia's Powder River Basin. The Bureau of Land Management has calculated that miners will waste a full 700 million gallons of publicly owned water a year in the process -- draining the region's underground aquifers to the detriment of local farms and wildlife.
The Bush Administration's Healthy Forests Initiative essentially entails granting logging companies access to old-growth trees -- and then subsidizing them for brush clearing. And even the giant sequoias that former president Bill Clinton sought to protect by creating a 327,000-acre national monument in the Southern Sierra Nevada just four years ago are at risk of being logged at a rate of 10 million board-feet of lumber per year -- a higher rate than allowed on surrounding national forest lands -- in the name of "forest management."
All in all, the Bush Administration has launched the greatest giveaway of public natural resources in more than a century. Yet few in the mainstream media have bothered to analyze these plans and put the lie to the Administration's rhetorical manipulations.
6. The sale of electoral politics
The Help America Vote Act required that states submit their blueprints for switching over to electronic voting systems by last Jan. 1, and implement those plans in time for the 2006 elections. Some regions are already using the new machines. But those who've bothered to look into the new systems are sending up serious warning flares. Critics say that if Americans don't want a repeat of the 2000 Florida elections fiasco -- on a much grander scale -- the administration's plans must be halted.
A switch to electronic voting might seem innocent enough -- until you look at who's implementing it, and how. Indeed, the transfer represents the privatization of the voting process into the hands of a select few fervent GOP supporters who've insisted on keeping their operating systems and codes a trade secret -- meaning that they enjoy absolute control over the entire voting process, including ballot counting and oversight. There is no paper trail.
A prime example is Diebold Inc., one of the nation's top e-voting machine manufacturers, whose equipment was responsible for the Florida debacle. Diebold already operates more than 40,000 machines in 37 states across the country. Many of these are in Georgia, which last November became the first state to conduct an election entirely with touch-screen machines. Oddly enough, incumbent Democratic governor Roy Barnes lost to Republican candidate Sonny Perdue, 46 percent to 51 percent -- "a swing from as much as 16 percentage points from the last opinion polls," wrote Andrew Gumbel in the Independent.
In the same election, incumbent Democratic Senator Max Cleland likewise lost to his Republican challenger, Saxby Chamb-liss, thanks to "a last-minute swing of nine to 12 points." And in and around Atlanta, 77 memory cards went missing or were otherwise temporarily unaccounted for before the votes they'd registered could be counted.
Similar upsets occurred "in Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and New Hampshire -- all in races that had been flagged as key partisan battlegrounds, and all won by the Republican Party," Gumbel continued.
The Independent also quoted Rebecca Mercuri, a voting systems specialist and research fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "It makes it really hard to show their product has been tampered with if it's a felony to inspect it," she said.
The other top two e-voting machine manufacturers, Sequoia and Election Systems and Software, are equally suspect. Several of their executives have troubling track records of corruption and conflict of interest. All three companies are prominent Republican Party donors.
7. Conservative organization drives judicial appointments
Ever since the Reagan Administration, the neocons have pursued an aggressive campaign to stack the federal courts with right-wing judges. Their main vehicle: the Federalist Society of Law and Public Policy, an organization founded in 1982 by a small group of radically conservative law students at the University of Chicago.
The effort has been a resounding success. With the help of Republicans in Congress, 85 extra federal judgeships were created under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Bill Clinton got nine. Now, seven out of 12 circuit courts are anti-abortion. Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Repub-lican appointees -- and it's been 11 years since a post has opened up, meaning another right-winger or two could be appointed sometime soon. During Bush Sr.'s tenure, one White House insider boasted that no one who wasn't a Federalist ever received a judicial appointment from the president.
One of George W.'s earliest moves in office was to further consolidate the Federalist Society's power: He "simply eliminated the longstanding role in the evaluation of prospective judges by the resolutely centrist American Bar Association, whose ratings had long kept extremists and incompetents off the bench," wrote Martin Garbus in American Prospect. "Today the Federalists have more influence in judicial-selection than the ABA ever had."
The Society now counts Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and prominent members of the conservative American Enterprise Institute among its leadership. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Solicitor General Theodore Olson and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez -- charged with approving all judicial nominations before passing them onto Congress -- are all members.
As one might expect, the Federalists have consistently acted in favor of property rights over rights of the individual, and of business deregulation, creationist teachings and much of the rest of the right-wing agenda. But one of the principal victims has been the democratic process itself: Remember, it was the Supreme Court that stopped a hand count of 175,000 uncounted (largely Democratic) ballots in Florida, which could have cost Bush the 2000 presidential election. Conservative jurists have interfered with redistricting efforts to reverse the deliberate segregation of black and Latino voters, and have erected barriers to the participation of third-party candidates in the electoral process.
Unless liberals miraculously spawn a radical turn-around in how federal judges -- who enjoy lifetime terms -- are appointed, one of George W.'s most longstanding legacies may very well be a hard-right judiciary that lasts for decades to come.
8. Secrets of Cheney's energy task force come to light
As the Bush Administration continues to protect the iron wall of secrecy it's erected around Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, at least two documents confirm longstanding suspicions that the Bush Administra-tion's foreign policy is being driven by the dictates of the energy industry.
When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he said that tackling the country's energy crisis would be a top priority. The United States faced nationwide oil and natural gas shortages, and a series of electrical blackouts were rolling across California. The president established the National Energy Policy Development Group and appointed Vice President and former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney as its head.
One of the big issues on the table was oil, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation's energy supply and provided fuel for the vast majority of the country's transportation -- as well as its vast war machine. And, for the first time in history, the U.S. had become reliant on foreign imports for more than 50 percent of its oil supply.
But rather than lay the groundwork for converting the economy to alternative, renewable sources, NEPDG's report, later released by Bush as the National Energy Policy report in May 2001, promoted a central goal of "mak[ing] energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy." In other words, Cheney's group wanted to find additional sources of oil overseas, and ensure U.S. access to that oil, whatever it took.
The public-interest group Judicial Watch recently obtained documents from Cheney's Energy Task Force as the result of filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They indicate that Cheney and his colleagues had their sights on the black gold under the Iraqi desert well before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Last July, the Commerce Department finally turned over records that included "a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as two charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and 'Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts'," according to Judicial Watch's subsequent press release. There were also similar maps and charts for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The documents were dated March 2001.
"The major news media are beginning to pay much closer attention to the links between political turmoil abroad and the economies of oil at home," wrote Michael Klare in the book Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories. "Still, the media remains reluctant to explain the close link between the energy policies of the Bush Administration and U.S. military strategy."
9. Widow brings RICO case against U.S. government for 9/11
As the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, completed its first year, Ellen Mariani and her attorney held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to announce her own startling conclusions. Mariani, wife of Louis Neil Mariani, who died when terrorists flew United Airlines flight 175 into the World Trade Center's south tower, had come to believe that top American officials -- including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others -- had foreknowledge of the attacks, had purposefully failed to prevent them and had since taken pains to cover up the truth.
The administration, she argues in a federal lawsuit, allowed Sept. 11 to happen so that Bush and Co. could launch their seemingly endless, global "war on terror" for their own personal and financial gain. The suit uses the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act -- a law created to go after the Mafia -- to charge the nation's leaders with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and wrongful death.
Her lawyer, Philip J. Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, filed a 62-page complaint that included 40 pages of evidence. "Compelling evidence... will be presented in this case through discovery, subpoena power by this Court, and testimony at trial," he wrote in a press release sent to 3000 print and broadcast journalists announcing the lawsuit and a press conference on the Court steps that day.
At the very least, the case presents the potential to uncover and publicize critical documents and testimony about the Bush Administration's handling of the al-Qaeda threat and its aftermath. But only Fox News showed up to the press conference; and it never ran anything on the topic.
10. New nuke plants: Taxpayers support industry profits
If you thought nuclear energy was dead, think again: The Bush Administration's energy bill -- yet another product of Cheney's industry-stacked Energy Task Force -- doesn't offer any incentives for companies to switch to renewable energy sources. But it does provide taxpayer cash for companies that build new nukes.
A secretly crafted provision of the bill, released late on a Saturday night last Novem-ber, offers energy companies as much as $7.5 billion in tax credits to build six new nuclear reactors. This in addition to almost $4 billion set aside for other nuclear energy programs.
"Nuclear power already has had 50 years of subsidy totaling over $140 billion," reported Nuclear Information and Resource Service's Cindy Folkers.
The administration also removed terrorism protection provisions included in the House version of the bill, and reversed a previous ban on the export of enriched uranium, which may be used to construct nuclear bombs.
The press has been "woefully silent on the bill's nuclear provisions" wrote Folkers and Michael Mariotte in their update for Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories. And while both Democrats and Republicans managed to defeat the version of the bill NIRS warned about last fall, supporters -- particularly Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) -- are still trying to push those provisions through, in some cases as riders on other bills. Current estimates on the total sum of tax credits being considered have since risen to "as much as $15 or even $19 billion."
Camille T. Taiara is a staff reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. For Project Censored's runner-up stories 11-25, sources and judges, go to www.sevendaysvt.com. Project Censored's book, Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories, will be available in bookstores this fall. For more information, go to www.Projectcensored.org.