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Cover Story: The News That's Not Fit to Print

Project Censored releases its 23rd annual report on stories the mainstream media has not covered; what you don't know can hurt you

By Gabriel Roth · April 15th, 1999 · Cover Story

Heard enough about Monica Lewinsky's blue dress over the past year? Sick of the "lifestyle" features and giant color photos that seem to occupy more and more front pages in the daily press?

Here's what you didn't read while the papers were full of blow jobs and fluff:

· Genetic engineering is threatening the world's food supply and might be contributing to a dramatic outbreak of infectious diseases.

· Your government trained death squads in Mexico and sold weapons to Saddam Hussein.

· Money you spent at a gas station helped soldiers kill nonviolent protesters in Nigeria.

· Your eyeglasses, silverware and contraceptive devices might be made of "cleaned" radioactive metal -- and that's the way the Department of Energy wants it.

· And the governments of the world's richest countries spent 1998 discussing the idea of turning the planet over to multinational companies.

Those are all on Project Censored's 23rd annual list of the year's most underreported news stories. The program, based at Sonoma State University in California, combs the media for news that didn't make the news. Some of the stories got a little play in the dailies, but none received the prominent, ongoing coverage they deserved.

Project director Peter Phillips says censorship can take more subtle forms than an outright government ban. Some of the stories, he says, might have been squelched by editors unwilling to offend powerful advertisers or corporate overseers. But he also blames the mainstream media's blind spots on ever shrinking newsroom budgets, a result of media consolidation.

"With downsizing in the mainstream media, fewer reporters are writing and producing more news stories on tighter deadlines," Phillips says. "As a result, they're growing increasingly dependent on public relations sources for news. Today in the United States there are more PR people spinning stories for government agencies and private corporations than there are journalists -- and many of those stories are being reprinted verbatim in newspapers."

Those whitewashed stories, Phillips says, are taking column space papers once used to challenge official sources. Many of this year's Project Censored selections, he says, are about "powerful people -- governments and corporations, hand-in-hand -- making decisions about our lives undemocratically and sometimes secretly. Those are the stories journalists used to go after."

Ben Bagdikian, former dean of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, has been a judge for Project Censored since it was founded in 1976.

"As usual, a group of the stories are ones involving corporate power and objections to it," he says. "Some of the choices are ones having to do with the covering up of unjustified government policy or stories that disclose corporate wrongdoing. That has been happening year after year after year. There is a tendency (in the mainstream media) to accept the government's explanations for things."

Mainstream media veteran Frank McCulloch, who has been managing editor of The San Francisco Examiner and Sacramento Bee, agrees that the press has failed to do its job. The 10 stories on Project Censored's list have been underreported, he says, "but we could create a list of 100 if we wanted to. We don't do anything close to the job we should be doing."

McCulloch cited "all the fundamental issues facing Congress and the White House, from saving Social Security and health care to Star Wars to campaign finance" as other issues that haven't gotten the serious scrutiny they deserve. He blames the shoddy coverage on a preoccupation with sleaze and scandals.

"Little by little, it's all becoming tabloid," he says. "This year, (daily papers) were concentrating 80 percent of their energies on Monica stories."

To find the stories the mainstream missed, Project Censored volunteers read hundreds of pieces from mainstream, alternative and specialty publications, both print and online. Faculty and student evaluators whittle them down to a list of 25, which are ranked by a panel of authors, scholars and media experts from around the country.

One of those judges, Nancy Kranich, is the associate dean of New York University's library system. She explains that media blackouts of important stories don't just deprive the public of news it needs -- they weaken the historical record.

"Historically, we're going to need this information," she says. "We can't even rely on libraries if no one publishes this stuff. If it's not published, it's not going to be in our history."

Phillips brings up a disturbing trend that seems to be accelerating. "When reporters take risks and write stories that threaten advertisers or friends of the (newspaper's corporate board of) directors, they find that their careers are in jeopardy," he says. "They get fired for writing controversial stories."

Phillips cites TV journalists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, whose report on the dangers of hormones fed to cows to increase milk production was suppressed by a Fox affiliate in Tampa, Fla.; April Oliver and Jack Smith, whose CNN investigation found that the U.S. military used nerve gas on American defectors; Gary Webb, whose "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News exposed connections between the CIA and Los Angeles drug dealers; and The Cincinnati Enquirer's Mike Gallagher. All six reporters lost their jobs as a result of the controversy surrounding those stories.

"Journalists want to do stories about Watergate -- they want to expose powerful people," Phillips says. "But if it comes down to whether or not you're employed, you think about your family and you often take an easier route."

Phillips has a raft of suggestions for improving the situation: a tenure system to protect reporters who write hard-hitting stories, bigger budgets for investigations and a stronger fire wall between editorial and advertising departments. Without those reforms, Project Censored -- and the alternative publications that break the news the mainstream won't touch -- will have no trouble finding vital stories that go underreported. As Phillips says, "It's getting easy."

Following are Project Censored's top underreported stories of 1998:

1. Secret international trade agreement undermines the sovereignty of nations.
The United States and other developed countries have spent the past three years negotiating a treaty that would usher in a new era of globalized trade -- an era in which governments are powerless to intervene in the decisions of multinational corporations. The treaty, called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), would ban almost any law that could interfere with investors' profits.

The effects would be staggering. Laws that would be struck down under MAI include preferences for companies that hire minorities, restrictions on logging or mining and bans on toxic dumping. Programs to boost local industry or small business would be forbidden. Had the MAI been in force in the 1980s, the United States would have been unable to implement the sanctions against South Africa that helped end apartheid.

The MAI was first discussed at meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO). After early drafts drew flak from developing countries, the negotiations were moved to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), made up of 29 of the world's richest countries. The OECD kept details of the treaty secret until January 1997, when a draft was leaked to a French activist group.

Since then, labor, environmental and human rights advocates around the world have been building opposition to the MAI, and in December 1998, the OECD announced it was ending negotiations and scuttling MAI. Its opponents didn't have time to celebrate the victory, though -- economic superpowers and multinational corporations are still pushing for MAI-like regulations in a number of forums, including the WTO, the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the International Monetary Fund.

Sources: Joel Bleifuss, "Building the Global Economy," In These Times, Jan. 11, 1998; Bill Dixon, "MAI Ties," Democratic Left, Spring 1998; and Miloon Kothari and Tara Krause, "Human Rights or Corporate Rights?," Tribune des Droits Humains, April 1998.

2. Chemical corporations profit off breast cancer.
Every October, the sponsors of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month roll out a massive publicity campaign encouraging women to have their breasts X-rayed. The message of activities such as the Race for the Cure is a simple one: Breast cancer can be beaten by pouring money into research and by getting regular mammograms.

Official propaganda for Breast Cancer Awareness Month never mentions the environmental causes of the disease. Breast cancer rates have crept up by 1 percent a year since 1940 -- a period in which tens of thousands of new chemicals have been introduced into the environment.

That's bad news for women. But it's good news for the chemical and technology companies that sponsor Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The event was founded in 1985 by British multinational Imperial Chemical Industries, now known as Zeneca Group. The firm manufactures Nolvadex, the drug most often prescribed for breast cancer, and runs 11 cancer treatment centers in the United States. The company also makes acetochlor, a pesticide thought by the EPA to cause cancer.

Many of the event's other sponsors also profit from cancer. General Electric makes mammography machines, and Du Pont makes the film used in those machines. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, younger women are encouraged to get screened by those machines regularly -- although exposure to X-rays, including those used in mammography, increase their chances of contracting breast cancer.

You're unlikely to learn that from Breast Cancer Awareness Month publicity, though. Zeneca has veto power over any material used to promote the event.

Sources: Peter Montague, "The Truth about Breast Cancer," Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, Dec. 4, 1997; and Allison Sloan and Tracy Baxter, "Profiting off Breast Cancer," The Green Guide, October 1998.

3. Monsanto's genetically modified seeds threaten world food production.
For 12,000 years, farmers have followed a simple process: Save the best seed from each harvest and use it to plant the next year's. Seed saving lets farmers cultivate the most useful and robust strains, improving the food supply. The plants we eat today were produced by thousands of years of human selection.

That could all be over in the next decade, thanks to the biotechnology industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In March 1998, the USDA and cottonseed giant Delta and Pine Land Co. announced a new patent: a genetic technology that stops plants from reproducing. Soon seed companies will be able to breed the gene, which some call the "terminator," into their products. Those seeds will produce crops that don't reproduce, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year. Seeds with the terminator gene should be on the market by 2004.

Biotechnology companies produce the strongest, highest yielding seeds. When they add terminator technology to their products, farmers who hope to compete will have little choice but to purchase new seeds every year.

Melvin J. Oliver, the USDA scientist who developed the terminator gene, told Global Pesticide Campaigner why the U.S. government wants to stop farmers from saving seeds -- to fatten the profits of American seed companies. "Our mission is to protect U.S. agriculture," he said.

Two months after the announcement, agrochemical conglomerate Monsanto bought Delta and Pine for almost $2 billion. Monsanto is a world leader in bioengineered crops; with the USDA's new technology, it will be able to create an endless market for its products.

Farmers in the developing world will feel the terminator's harshest effects. The gene will allow commercial seed producers to profit from self-pollinating crops, including rice and wheat. As the seed industry continues to consolidate, the ability to produce those two crops -- the staple foods for three-quarters of the world's poor people -- could depend on a private monopoly, thanks to the U.S. government.

Censorship takes many forms: The Ecologist's printer of 26 years refused to release the magazine's special issue on Monsanto and discarded 14,000 copies, citing fears of a libel suit.

Sources: Leora Broydo, "A Seedy Business," Mojo Wire, April 27, 1998; Chakravarthi Raghavan, "New Patent Aims to Prevent Farmers from Saving Seed," Third World Resurgence, April 1998; Hope Shand and Pat Mooney, "Terminator Seeds Threaten an End to Farming," Global Pesticide Campaigner, June 1998, and Earth Island Journal, Fall 1998; and Brian Tokar, "Monsanto: A Checkered History" and "Revolving Doors: Monsanto and the Regulators," The Ecologist, September-October 1998.

4. Recycled radioactive metals might be in your home.
What do you do with millions of tons of radioactive metal? If you're the Department of Energy (DOE), you let scrap companies collect it, clean it up and sell it to manufacturers to be made into ordinary consumer objects: pans, silverware, eyeglasses, dental fillings and IUDs.

The government already issues some companies licenses to sell radioactive metal for reuse. But a new plan proposed by the DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would do away with the permit process -- and increase the amount of radiation in your home a hundredfold. According to the NRC itself, the lax standards those agencies have proposed could cause nearly 100,000 cancer deaths in the current United States population.

The radioactive metal-processing industry is lobbying hard for the changes and mounting a PR campaign to quell public concern. Processing companies sterilize radioactive surfaces with carbon dioxide, but tough standards for allowable doses of radiation are cutting into their bottom line. The DOE's plan would raise those thresholds, allowing the industry to increase its output exponentially.

Companies are already making big bucks selling radioactive metals to Asian countries, which have a high demand for metal and more lax radiation standards than the United States.

Source: Anne-Marie Cusac, "Nuclear Spoons," The Progressive, October 1998.

5. U.S. weapons of mass destruction linked to the deaths of half a million children.
The United States government cites Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" as justification for repeated bombing raids and sanctions. What the government doesn't say: Many of those weapons were built by U.S. firms and sold to Iraq with the explicit support of the White House.

The Reagan administration chose to support Iraq over Iran in their bloody war. As a result, the U.S. government issued export licenses allowing companies to ship U.S. technology directly to Iraqi weapons facilities. In the five years before the Gulf War, the Department of Commerce licensed more than $1.5 billion of strategically sensitive American exports to Iraq.

The government wasn't blind to Saddam Hussein's goals. U.S. intelligence reports from the 1980s vividly documented Saddam's mass gassing of Kurds and Iranians. At a 1989 briefing, CIA officials reported that Iraq "is interested in acquiring a nuclear explosive capability." The following year, the agency informed the government of Saddam's ties to terrorist groups.

That didn't stop Bush administration officials from helping arm Iraq -- and they might have violated federal law in doing so. In 1992, 20 members of the House Judiciary Committee asked the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. Despite a 27-month congressional investigation, whose findings blasted the administration, no special prosecutor was appointed and no officials were indicted or even forced to testify.

Details of U.S. complicity in building up Saddam Hussein's arsenal are available in government documents. But the mainstream media never chose to investigate -- even when that arsenal was turned against Kuwait, and then against U.S. soldiers.

Sources: Dennis Bernstein, "Made in America," San Francisco Bay Guardian, Feb. 25, 1998; Bill Blum, "Punishing Saddam or the Iraqis," I.F. Magazine, March-April 1998; and Robert M. Bowman, "Our Continuing War Against Iraq," Space and Security News, May 1998.

6. United States nuclear program subverts United Nations' Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the United Nations' Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans countries from test detonations of nuclear bombs. Congress hasn't yet approved the treaty. But already the United States is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of that agreement and drawing harsh criticism from foreign powers -- although not from the domestic press.

In 1998, the Department of Energy conducted five "subcritical" nuclear tests -- tests in which a "controlled nuclear reaction" is produced but the bombs don't fully explode. Though subcritical tests might not technically violate the CTBT, other countries accuse the Clinton administration of making an end run around the agreement.

On May 11, the day India carried out an underground nuclear test, the Indian government announced it would sign a test-ban treaty that banned subcritical experiments. The European Parliament passed a resolution saying U.S. tests "violate the spirit" of the CTBT and warning that they could provoke India and Pakistan to carry out full-scale tests. Officials in China and Japan also blasted the government.

Some critics say subcritical testing is just one element in the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a comprehensive nuclear armament program that's costing the United States more than it spent on nukes a year during the Cold War. Others see the testing as a cynical move to convince nuclear contractors not to oppose the CTBT. To pass the test ban treaty, they suggest, the administration had to demonstrate that it didn't plan to let that treaty interfere with nuclear stockpiling. One anonymous Clinton administration official called subcritical testing "the cost of the test ban. In order to get the treaty through Congress, we had to buy off the labs."

Source: Bill Mesler, "Virtual Nukes: When Is a Test Not a Test?," The Nation, June 15, 1998.

7. Gene transfers linked to dangerous new diseases.
At least 30 new diseases, including AIDS, ebola and other deadly viruses, have emerged in the past two decades. Existing infectious diseases, such as cholera, malaria and tuberculosis, are returning in force. And more and more bacteria are developing resistance to antibiotic treatment.

Despite this mounting public health crisis, one contributing factor has gone largely unconsidered by the media and the international health establishment: the emerging genetic engineering industry.

Biotechnologists invent new plant and animal species by inserting genetic material from one species into another. To combine genes from species that can't interbreed, they have to break down the defense mechanisms that inactivate dangerous foreign genes. In doing so, they might be increasing the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes.

While the biotechnology industry risks increasing the prevalence of infectious diseases, regulators are stepping out of the way. The Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO) have forbidden countries from banning imports of genetically altered foods that conform to WHO's lax standards. And the European Commission is giving generous grants to scientists to promote public acceptance of biotechnology.

Meanwhile, the scientific and economic assumptions on which the field is founded are beginning to collapse. Genetic engineering is a dangerously imprecise science: When you insert a foreign gene into an organism, you never know exactly what the effect will be. Animals engineered for strength and size have turned out blind or unable to breathe. Genetically altered crops have produced substandard yields. And most disastrously for the industry, very few genetically engineered lines reproduce properly.

The biotechnology firms that have invested billions in these new technologies are desperate to recoup their losses. In Europe, industry group EuropaBio hired crisis-management specialists Burson Marsteller to refurbish its image. San Francisco apparently isn't worried: Last year the city handed over Mission Bay to the University of California for a biotechnology research center.

Sources: Mae-Wan Ho and Terje Traavik, "Sowing Diseases, New and Old," Third World Resurgence, No. 92; and Mae-Wan Ho, Hartmut Meyer and Joe Cummins, "The Biotechnology Bubble," The Ecologist, May-June 1998.

8. Catholic hospital mergers threaten reproductive rights for women.
The Roman Catholic Church is now the largest private health-care provider in the United States, with more than $44 billion in assets. But the church isn't content to run its own hospitals. Increasingly, Catholic hospitals are forming partnerships with secular hospitals and HMOs -- and those partnerships are making it increasingly difficult for women to get reproductive care.

The Catholic Church imposes rules on its hospitals covering abortion, contraception and sterilization, among other procedures. When Catholic hospitals are competing with secular ones, women who don't want their health in the hands of the church at least have somewhere to go. But as the HMO system cuts into hospital revenues, competing hospitals have an incentive to merge or partner, often forming a local monopoly. Catholic hospitals, with the resources of the church's health-care network behind them, are frequently the more powerful partner -- and they use their leverage to insist that secular hospitals sign away their right to provide reproductive health services.

These partnership agreements take many forms. Some secular hospitals agree to conform to church doctrines; others continue to offer contraception but not abortion. Some agreements allow an independently run women's health clinic -- forcing women to go to more than one provider and offering anti-abortion extremists an easier target than a consolidated hospital.

The hardest hit are poor women, who depend on hospitals for reproductive care when local physicians won't take Medicaid and who have more difficulty traveling to hospitals far from their homes.

In a few communities, women's health advocates have taken on the Catholic Church and won. But across the country, the church is taking control of more and more medical facilities. And women's health care is usually the first victim.

Source: Christine Dinsmore, "Women's Health: A Casualty of Hospital Merger Mania," Ms., July-August 1998.

9. U.S. tax dollars support death squads in Chiapas.
On Dec. 22, 1997, 45 indigenous men, women and children were shot in the village of Acteal in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Their bodies were dumped into a ravine. Throughout Chiapas, indigenous people were kidnapped, tortured and killed.

Soldiers from the Mexican Army Airborne Special Forces Groups (GAFE) -- a paramilitary unit trained by U.S. Army Special Forces -- were charged with the killings by local officials.

Massacres in Chiapas are one of the dirty secrets of U.S. foreign policy: Under the guise of the war on drugs, the United States supports brutal counterinsurgency measures by Central American states. The U.S. government's real motive, indigenous activists in Mexico say, is the protection of foreign investment.

The GAFE massacres were led by Lt. Col. Julian Guerrero Barrios, a graduate of the infamous U.S.-sponsored School of Americas; some of the soldiers in his command were trained at U.S. bases.

The number of Mexican military officers and personnel receiving U.S. specialized training has increased significantly since 1996. Clinton's 1998 budget earmarked more than $21 million dollars to fight drug trafficking in Mexico -- including $12 million for Pentagon training. Anti-drug efforts continue to focus on the Chiapas region. According to a Feb. 26 Washington Post report, the United States is now training 1,067 Mexican officers a year.

Source: The Slingshot collective, "Mexico's Military: Made in the USA," Slingshot, Summer 1998; and Darrin Wood, "Bury My Heart at Acteal," Dark Night Field Notes.

10. Environmental student activists gunned down on Chevron Oil facility in Nigeria.
On May 25, 1998, 121 indigenous Nigerian activists occupied Chevron's Parabe oil platform and barge in the Niger delta. The activists say pollution from Chevron's oil operations is ruining fishing and farming conditions, depriving their communities of their livelihood.

On May 28, Chevron employees flew soldiers from Nigeria's Navy and Mobile Police to the platform in the company's helicopters. The soldiers opened fire, killing two protesters, Jola Ogungbeje and Aroleka Irowaninu, and wounding several others. Eleven activists were held by the government for three weeks.

During his imprisonment, one activist said, he was handcuffed and hung from a ceiling-fan hook for hours after he refused to sign a statement written by Nigerian authorities.

On July 10, the anarchist news service A-Infos released the testimony of protest leader Bola Oyinbo, recorded by Environmental Rights Action. Pacifica reporter Amy Goodman and producer Jeremy Scahill investigated the story and recorded Chevron spokesperson Sola Omole acknowledging that Chevron managers had asked the Nigerian military to intervene in the demonstration and had transported the soldiers to the platform.

Although the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page article Nov. 19, the rest of the mainstream media didn't think a U.S. company's role in the killing of indigenous Nigerians merited coverage.

Sources: Environmental Rights Action-Friends of the Earth Nigeria, "Chevron in Nigeria: ERA Environmental Testimonies," A-Infos News Service, July 10, 1998; and Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, "Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria's Oil Dictatorship," Democracy Now, Pacifica, Sept. 30, 1998.

GABRIEL ROTH is city editor of San Francisco Bay Guardian, where a version of this story first appeared.


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