Beat the Press

In the early days of radio, when the BBC was still growing into its journalistic knickers, it was not uncommon for a Beeb newsreader to intone these words several minutes before exhausting the time reserved for his newscast: "There is no more news."

The conceit that there is a finite amount of news is unthinkable today. We demonstrate our faith in the plentifulness of news with our perpetual presentations of it: news at the top of the hour, which begat the 30-minute nightly newscast, which then spawned the 24-hour news channel, which is set to yield three additional 24-hour news channels. With the profusion of daily newspapers, monthlies, weeklies, monographs, scholarly journals, zines, and newsletters -- not to mention the Babel of the Internet -- who could believe that much is being censored? Carl Jensen and his comrades at Project Censored.

For the past 20 years, Jensen, a professor of communications at Sonoma State University, and his Project Censored team have campaigned against the inadequacies of the press by collecting and publicizing what they consider to be the top 25 "censored" stories of the year. Project Censored findings are embraced and disseminated by a slew of alternative newspapers around the country; the San Francisco Bay Guardian printed its "annual tribute" to Project Censored as a cover story last week, with Guardian City Editor Ron Curran giving a sticky tongue bath to Jensen, the project, and its findings.

Condensed to its essence, the Project Censored complaint isn't that the mighty hand of power swoops down to quash the truth. In Censored 96, Jensen's paperback guide to 1995's most censored stories, he lays out this "alternative definition of censorship": "[F]or the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method -- including bias, omission, under-reporting, or self-censorship -- which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world."

I don't know where Jensen acquired the linguistic contraption that shreds Webster's and creates "alternative definitions" of his liking, but I'll pay him top dollar if he can locate another one for my journalistic toolbox. Jensen's definition is a lever and a place to stand, allowing him to discover "censored" stories in America's largest dailies, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsday, and the Christian Science Monitor, as well as the pygmy pages of the lefty press -- Mother Jones, CovertAction Quarterly, Public Citizen, the Nation, and Earth Island Journal.

What are 1995's most censored stories as revealed by Project Censored? The new list includes the broken promises of NAFTA; the privatization of the Internet; Gingrich's plan to dismantle the FDA; the balancing of the budget on the backs of the poor; the dangers of child labor; the deadly effects of dioxin; and the suppression of the widespread scientific support for needle exchange. And ranking No. 1 is an Internet posting, co-authored by Ralph Nader, that reprises a Project Censored favorite: how deregulation will accelerate centralized ownership of the media.

Many of the stories on the Project Censored list are good ones, although I'm not convinced that the deathburger potential of E. coli is underreported by any stretch, nor do I believe that there is a Gulf War Syndrome cover-up. What's bothersome about the Project Censored list is how fall-down slippery the selection of stories seems to be. If Project Censored has devised a formula for finding stories, I'd wager that it is based on these premises: Business is bad; chemicals are bad; military defense is bad; corporate media is bad; Republicans are bad.

Is it unthinkable to expect Project Censored to hype an overlooked story that illustrates the perils of big government? Wasn't there a single underreported piece about IRS abuses last year that should have gotten more public notice? Is it inconceivable that the right-wing press might have stumbled onto a good story in '95?

I attribute the narrowness of the Project Censored list to the cramped vision of the judges who pick the stories -- all of them seem to have been recruited by Jensen from the enemies list of the American Spectator. This year's panel includes Pacifica Radio econ blabbermouth/Examiner contributor Julianne Malveaux; author Michael Parenti, who outwings Lenin; Saint Ben Bagdikian, the pious defender of family-owned newspapers -- no matter how awful the family-owned newspapers may be; Institute for Policy Studies co-founder Richard Barnet; Susan Faludi, this generation's Gloria Steinem; and vegetable extremist Francis Moore LappŽ. In previous years, the Project Censored panel included socialist outriders Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman. In fact, former Jack Paar sidekick/game-show host Hugh Downs, who was on the 1993 panel, is the closest thing to a working journalist or political moderate to serve as a judge in recent years.

Formulated in its left-wing hothouse, the Project Censored list ends up preaching mostly to the converted. Which is not necessarily a bad idea -- the allure of redundancy is what draws the faithful to church every Sunday. But Project Censored is not likely to cull new converts to its cause unless it engages the world outside the Pacifica/IPS/South End Press axis.

After completing this year's list, Jensen retired from the campaign and appointed Peter Phillips to replace him as censor-maven. If Phillips wants the Project Censored message to peal outside Berkeley, Madison, and Ann Arbor, he might want to think about tinkering with Jensen's idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes a censored story. How can a New York Times piece, which is reprinted by hundreds of papers, be considered censored?

As a perceptive thinker once wrote, "If you do not expose yourself to all truths, as well as the falsehoods that may come with them, you can never truly know the difference between right and wrong." Actually, Carl Jensen wrote it in the first chapter of Censored 96.

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