News & Opinion » Feature

Too Hot to Handle

Project Censored names the top stories buried by the mainstream media in 2000.

by

comment
The stock market went down, then up, then down again. Survivor's ratings went up, and up, and up. And the mainstream media never averted their gaze, afraid to miss a single bump or dip. Meanwhile, out of the frame, two trends remained constant in 2000: big corporations and the government continued to put profits first and people second--and people continued to fight back. But you wouldn't know that if you got your information exclusively from daily papers and TV news.

Some of the stories you missed: The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the former Yugoslavia may not have been an accident. The United States could have stopped genocide in Rwanda. An independent study found that genetically modified foods cause serious health problems in rats. And multinational companies are fighting to privatize and commodify the world's water supply.

Those stories are all on Project Censored's 25th annual list of the year's most underreported news stories. The media-studies program, based at Sonoma State University, combs alternative weeklies, trade newsletters, scientific journals, and activist magazines and ferrets out the big stories that didn't appear anywhere else. Censorship in the United States is a slippery thing. There is no government agency blacking out offending phrases before they can appear in the New York Times--although for a brief period in 1999 there were U.S. Army propaganda specialists working at CNN, according to one of the stories on the Project Censored list.

But two important factors prevent mainstream news outlets from covering tough stories. First, papers end up reflecting the politics of their owners: their wishes trickle down from the publisher to the editor in chief to the national and metro editors to the reporters, who know very well what kind of stories will get on the front page and what kind will get hacked to pieces and buried on page A13.

Second, shrinking budgets mean fewer reporters are covering more stories in less time. Without the time or resources to pursue a lengthy investigation, they rely more and more on press releases and publicists--on the official cover stories of the corporate and government establishment.

So while the stories on this year's list may have received some coverage in a few daily papers, none of them got the ongoing attention they deserved. They weren't blacked out because they were poorly reported: Many of the stories on past years' lists have turned out to be major scoops. Most were thoroughly documented; most were written by credible journalists.

"It's becoming increasingly easy to find stories," project director Peter Phillips says. "As the media becomes more and more consolidated and corporatized, it all starts to look the same." Following are Project Censored's top 10 stories for 2000. To read the stories themselves and to find links to more information go to www.sfbg.com.

1. World Bank and multinational corporations seek to privatize water

More than one billion people lack access to fresh drinking water, according to the United Nations--and that number is expected to double in the next 10 years. World water consumption is growing more than twice as fast as the population.

For human beings this is a crisis. For corporations, though, it's an opportunity.

The world's biggest companies increasingly see water as the world's largest untapped commodity. They're moving to take over local water supplies in the name of profit. When municipal water services are privatized, rates are doubled or tripled, quality standards drop, and customers who can't pay are cut off.

And governments are lining up to help. Every year public officials from all over the world convene with big-business leaders and World Bank representatives at meetings of the World Water Council, a water think tank dominated by commercial interests. The corporations involved aren't shy about their plans. In Vandana Shiva's story in Canadian Dimension, Monsanto's Robert Farley described his company's strategy this way: "Since water is as central to food production as seed is, and without water life is not possible, Monsanto is now trying to establish its control over water." But the privatizers don't always have an easy time of it. In 1999, Bechtel Group took over the public water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with the help of the World Bank. The company immediately doubled water rates.

Bolivians didn't take this lying down. Last year general strikes repeatedly brought the city to a standstill. The government ultimately conceded and nullified Bechtel's contract. Cochabamba's water war was one of the most significant victories yet for the opponents of corporate-driven globalization. Yet most of the U.S. coverage came from the Associated Press's Peter McFarren, whose stories uncritically accepted the government's characterization of the protesters as drug traffickers. McFarren resigned from the wire service when it was revealed that he was actively lobbying the Bolivian Congress in support of a proposal to ship Bolivian water to Chile.

Maude Barlow, Prime, 7/10/00; Pratap Chatterjee, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 5/31/00; Vandana Shiva, Canadian Dimension, February 2000; Jim Shultz, Canadian Dimension, February 2000, In These Times, 5/15/00, This, July/August 2000; Daniel Zoll, San Francisco Bay Guardian, 5/31/00.

Mainstream coverage: Toronto Globe and Mail, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Examiner, Toronto Star.

2. OSHA fails to protect U.S. workers

Terry Feeny lost three of his fingers molding wheel rims at a Titan Wheel International Inc. factory in Saltville, Va. He was a skilled mechanic, but he had never been trained to use the rim-molding machine, which had no safety guard and a missing stop button. Compared to some other Titan workers, Feeny was lucky. Don Baysinger was a tire builder at the company's Des Moines, Iowa, plant. He was pinned between two tire-tread machines for more than 20 minutes. His chest was crushed; he died two days later.

Employees at Titan plants across the country are steadily racking up a shocking record of injuries and deaths. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with protecting workers and ensuring that their workplaces are safe. Christopher D. Cook's Progressive story surveys the problems at Titan plants around the country and asks, What's OSHA doing about it? The answer: not much. Every year 6,000 workers are killed in accidents on the job, and 10 times as many die from diseases acquired at work. But the federal and state agencies charged with protecting the country's 102 million workers employs just 2,300 inspectors. The agency fared worse than ever under the supposedly worker-friendly Clinton administration. Clinton's OSHA made fewer workplace inspections and reduced or dismissed more fines than any other, according to a 1999 Public Citizen report.

The government certainly didn't do much for Terry Feeny, Don Baysinger, or their coworkers. Virginia's OSHA didn't inspect the Titan plant until months after Feeny lost his fingers. Inspectors blamed the faulty machinery, then fined the company a paltry $2,250. Feeny himself was laid off; the company ended his workers compensation less than five months later. Iowa's OSHA found that machinery was also at fault in Baysinger's death and levied a fine of $20,000. Two years after the incident, Titan finally agreed to pay half that.

Christopher D. Cook, the Progressive, February 2000. Cook is now city editor at the Bay Guardian.

3. U.S. Army psychological operations personnel worked at CNN

In 1999, as NATO's war in Kosovo was ending, five interns went to work at CNN's Atlanta headquarters. These interns weren't college students looking to pad their résumés--they were United States Army propaganda specialists.

The troops were members of the Third Psychological Operations Battalion, charged with spreading "selected information" to the public. And working at the world's largest news network, they had a chance to do just that. "They worked as regular employees of CNN," an Army spokesperson told Abe de Vries, a reporter for the reputable Dutch newspaper Trouw. "Conceivably they would have worked on stories during the Kosovo war. They helped in the production of news."

It's not clear what the agents actually did at the network. CNN executives, who knew about the soldiers' visit, insist they didn't make any journalistic decisions or write any news copy. But the Army, at least, considered the internships a great success. At a military symposium early last year, psychological operations ("psyops") specialist Christopher St. John described the CNN mission as a textbook example of military-media cooperation, according to Le Monde du Renseignement, a French newsletter covering intelligence agencies. CNN's coverage of the war in Kosovo was criticized for oversimplifying the issues, ignoring objections to the war, and uncritically parroting NATO officials. As de Vries wrote, the real question about the soldiers' tenure as journalists is this: "Did the military learn from the TV people how to hold viewers' attention? Or did the psyops people teach CNN how to help the U.S. government garner political support?" Probably both.

Alexander Cockburn, Counterpunch, 2/16/00 and 3/1/00.

Foreign coverage: Trouw (Netherlands), Japan Economic Newswire, Le Monde du Renseignement (France), the Guardian (U.K.).

Mainstream coverage: National Public Radio, Tampa Tribune, TV Guide.

4. Did the U.S. deliberately bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade?

On May 7, 1999, U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. President Clinton called the bombing "a tragic mistake," the result of faulty maps provided by U.S. intelligence services. That was good enough for the American media, but it wasn't good enough for their overseas counterparts. Working together, reporters from the London Observer and Copenhagen's Politiken found U.S. and NATO government and military sources who told a different story. One official at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, perhaps piqued at the assertion that his agency had botched its job, called the faulty-map story "a damned lie."

In fact, according to these high-ranking sources, NATO deliberately targeted the Chinese Embassy, which was serving as a rebroadcast station for the Yugoslav army.

After the Observer broke the story, the Associated Press wire service picked it up, but few major papers ran it. The Washington Post gave it 90 words in an international news briefs section, under the headline, "NATO Denies Story on Embassy Bombing." The New York Times didn't mention it at all. When the press watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting asked the Times why it ignored the story, the paper's foreign editor described the Observer's piece as "not terribly well-sourced, by our standards at least."

"It sounds like the Times might be holding out for a named official source," FAIR's Seth Ackerman told In These Times, "which is a standard of evidence that the Times likes to apply in cases where they would rather not report the story at all."

Seth Ackerman, In These Times, 6/26/00; Joel Bleifuss, In These Times, 12/12/99; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting staff report, 2/9/00; Yoichi Shimatsu, Pacific News Service, 10/20/99.

Foreign coverage: the Observer (U.K.), Politiken (Denmark), Glasgow Herald (Scotland), the Scotsman (Scotland), South China Morning Post, the Times (U.K.).

5. U.S. taxpayers underwrite global nuclear power plant sales

The people of the United States don't want nuclear power anymore. Not a single nuke plant has been built in this country since the 1979 meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island. What's the nuclear power industry to do?

Go abroad, of course. American power companies are bringing nuclear power to the third world--with a lot of help from the U.S. taxpayer. The Export-Import Bank, a little-known government agency, provides loans, insurance and other subsidies to foreign governments that want a nuclear plant of their own. Between 1959 and 1993, the bank spent $7.7 billion to sell American-made reactors abroad, typically by financing their purchase by cash-strapped developing-world governments. With almost no oversight, the bank directs taxpayer dollars toward irresponsible and inefficient projects, few of which could ever pass domestic safety standards. While the U.S. government has given in to public pressure and stopped pushing nuclear power at home, it's happy to send it overseas to keep U.S. contractors afloat.

In Turkey, Ex-Im approved a preliminary loan in support of Westinghouse's $3.2 billion Akkuyu plant, on a site near an active fault line. Last summer, in response to a groundswell of opposition to the plant, the Turkish government finally declared it too expensive and too dangerous--despite lobbying on Westinghouse's behalf by then-vice president Al Gore.

In the Czech Republic the bank backed a $300 million loan for the Temelin plant, which European nuclear authorities have deemed dangerous and unnecessary. Nearly a billion dollars over budget, the plant went online last year, sparking massive international protests. There's a simple reason you won't see this story on the TV news. CBS is owned by Westinghouse and NBC by General Electric--both of which build nuclear plants with the Ex-Im Bank's help.

In February of this year President George W. Bush announced that he hoped to cut the bank's budget by 25 percent.

Ken Silverstein and Ian Urbina, the Progressive, March 2000.

6. International report blames U.S. and others for genocide in Rwanda

In March 1998, President Clinton visited Rwanda and apologized for the West's failure to act to stop the 1994 genocide there. Clinton blamed that failure on ignorance: he and other Western leaders, he said, "did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you had been engulfed by this unimaginable terror." Last year a report by a distinguished panel convened by the Organization for African Unity concluded that Clinton knew exactly what was happening in Rwanda. Information from U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department, and U.N. forces in Rwanda warned of the massacres before they had begun.

The U.N. is obligated to intervene in genocide under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. But Clinton and secretary of state Madeleine Albright stymied that intervention. "At every stage," the report says, "Albright could be found tossing up roadblocks to speedy decisions for effective action."

"President Clinton insists that his failure was a function of ignorance," the report states. "The facts show, however, that the American government knew precisely what was happening ... but domestic politics took priority over the lives of helpless Africans." In other words, Clinton lied--and, as David Corn points out, "lying about genocide is a bit more outrageous than lying about sex."

David Corn, Alternet, 7/25/00; Ellen Ray, CovertAction Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2000.

7. Independent study points to dangers of genetically altered foods

In 1998 a scientist named Árpád Pusztai appeared on British television to discuss some of his research. Within weeks the Scottish research institute where he worked had sacked him, disbanded his team, and confiscated his data.

Pusztai's crime was to question the safety of transgenic food--foods that are bioengineered to include genes from other species. His research indicated that rats fed transgenic potatoes suffered from damaged immune systems and stunted growth. His was the first independent study to examine the effects of bioengineered food on mammals--previous work of this kind had all been sponsored by biotech firms. It was later revealed that Pusztai's former employers had taken a substantial grant from biotech giant Monsanto.

The Lancet, Britain's most prestigious medical journal, published a peer-reviewed paper by Pusztai in the fall of 1999. That study went further than the last: it suggested that the health problems observed in rats might be caused not by the chemicals added to the potatoes by genetic means but by the process of genetic engineering itself. It's possible that the problems Pusztai found are limited to a single variety of potato--but it's also possible they're common to every transgenic organism, including many of the foods in our supermarkets.

Joel Bleifuss, In These Times, 1/10/00; Karen Charman, Extra!, May/June, 2000; Ben Lilliston, Multinational Monitor, January/February, 2000.

Foreign coverage: wide coverage in England, including the Independent, the Herald, the Irish Times, the Guardian, and the Times.

Mainstream coverage: Washington Post, Wall Street Journal.

8. Drug companies influence doctors and health organizations to push meds

In 1999 more than 130 million prescriptions were written for depression and other mental-health disorders at a total cost of $8.58 billion. Some patients were eager to take the medications. Others needed a bit more persuading.

That's why drug companies contribute to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. That association, which calls itself a grassroots organization, pushes a program called "assertive community treatment," in which program workers, backed up by court orders, visit patients' homes daily and watch as they take their medicine.

NAMI never disclosed its drug-company funding--but Mother Jones researchers found $11.72 million in industry contributions to the group in two and a half years. The largest single donor: Eli Lilly and Company, which manufactures Prozac.

And there's reason to wonder if some psychoactive drugs are even safe, let alone effective. Responding to AIDS activists and drug companies, the Food and Drug Administration has dramatically sped up the drug approval process over the past decade. And once a drug is on the market, the FDA's process for monitoring its safety is underfunded and unreliable.

Barry Duncan, Scott Miller, and Jacqueline Sparks, Networker, March/April, 2000; David Oaks, Dendron, Spring 2000; Stephen Pomper, Washington Monthly, 5/12/00; Ken Silverstein, Mother Jones, November/December 1999.

9. EPA plans to pipe possibly radioactive waste through Denver's sewage system

Between 1950 and 1980, millions of gallons of industrial waste were dumped into the Lowry landfill near Denver, Colo. The Environmental Protection Agency declared the landfill a Superfund site in 1984. The groundwater there may contain plutonium, one of the deadliest substances on the planet. What to do with it?

Here's the EPA's suggestion: pipe it through the Denver sewage system, then use it to fertilize crops in Colorado's farmland.

According to a 1991 report by the very companies that polluted the site, the landfill contains radioactive waste at levels up to 10,000 times greater than average levels at Boulder's notorious Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. (The EPA insists there's no plutonium at Lowry.) Denver's sewage is used as fertilizer. If there's plutonium running through Denver's sewage system, it will be used to fertilize wheat for human consumption--and we may wind up eating radioactive pancakes. Colorado's two biggest papers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, formed a joint operating agreement last year. Neither covered the plutonium issue much--perhaps because both papers were among the corporations that dumped toxic waste into Lowry.

Will Fantle, the Progressive, May 2000.

10. Silicon Valley uses immigrant engineers to keep salaries low

To make up for supposed shortages of skilled labor, the high-tech industry brings engineers to California from India and the Philippines under an immigration program known as H1-B. Under the program's terms, the companies serve as sponsors for their immigrant employees--a status that gives employers power over workers' immigration status. If workers file a complaint--or, heaven forbid, seek to organize a union--they can be deported immediately.

Employers have wasted no time taking advantage of this power. Some workers say they've had paychecks withheld; others have been forced to work long hours and weekends without overtime compensation. And thanks to labor laws that exempt contract workers from ordinary workplace protections, the industry has quashed any attempts at collective action by engineers.

Despite its brutal consequences for workers, the program is popular with both Republicans and Democrats, who enjoy the tech industry's substantial campaign contributions. In early October, Congress overwhelmingly passed an industry-backed proposal to increase the number of H1-B visas granted each year.

David Bacon, Labor Notes, September, 2000; Washington Free Press, July/August, 2000.

Mainstream media coverage: San Francisco Chronicle.

Add a comment