Censored 2003

By Peter Phillips and Project Censored

For over 25 years Project Censored has brought attention to those news stories left un- or under-reported by the mainstream news media. Their use of the word “censored” is deliberately provocative. In a country like the U.S. freedom of the press is more than a right, it’s a duty. Its failure is a threat to democracy.

Exactly how and why it fails is a question worth considering. For Robert McChesney, introducing this year’s volume, it is due to the weakness of today’s professional journalism. Lazy, cost-cutting, personally ambitious reporters only repeat “official sources,” thus functioning as mouthpieces for the propaganda of elites. For Peter Phillips “censorship today is a subtle system of information suppression in the name of corporate profit and self-interest”:

Corporate media seem to have abdicated their First Amendment responsibility to keep the public informed. The traditional journalistic values of supporting democracy by maintaining an educated electorate now take second place to profits and ratings. . . . News and information in American society have become a top-down entertainment system with capsulized parrotings of government/corporate ideological messages.

This is a point of view I find myself in total agreement with. The current War on Terrorism and invasion of Iraq offer the most recent examples of journalists being bribed, bullied, and otherwise managed by business and political elites. (Only two weeks ago the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh was actually branded a terrorist on CNN by one administration hack.) The packaging of the war as entertainment by all of the major news media (“America strikes back”; “Target: Iraq”, etc.) has resulted in a ratings boom. At last there is something good to watch on TV.

Having said this, I also think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to think that things are much worse than they have ever been. The news has always been an entertainment product. Is Murdoch a less savory press lord than Hearst? There never was a Golden Age. And good reporting is still being done. The mainstream media are crammed with “junk food news,” but they also sometimes get it right. The number 2 story in this year’s collection, for example, is Maud Barlow’s expose of the plan to privatize public services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). As the editors note, however, this story received “extensive international corporate media coverage” (albeit little attention within the U.S.).

But while the idea of a Golden Age of news reporting is a myth, there is still some evidence that we are on a downward slide. The consolidation of media control in the hands of only ten international conglomerates (documented in this volume) is cause for concern, as is our shortening attention span, the rise of personality journalism and opinionating over reporting, and the control of the news media by professional media handlers with press “strategies.” Obviously we need some responsible alternatives, and not just in political reporting. Given that the worst of today’s reporting borrows heavily from the entertainment/news paradigms (what is an “embedded journalist” but another junket whore?), who is there left to trust when covering the arts?

Though not a great book, this year’s volume is highly recommended. In addition to its Top 25 list there are also a number of interesting extra features, including a look at news coverage after 9/11 and the scandal of censored literature appearing in New York State exams. While the news synopses could be improved on, and a lot of typos corrected (with all the people working on this project, was there no one to proof-read the galleys?), Censored 2003 is a valuable social document. It’s all the news that wasn’t fit to print, which is all the more reason it must be read.

Review first published online March 27, 2003.


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