Project Censored: Illuminating untold stories for more than 35 years

When the American people reelected Richard Nixon in 1972, Carl Jensen, a professor at Sonoma State University, was bewildered. Less than a month before the election, Woodward and Bernstein reported that the FBI had determined that the Watergate break-in was part of “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election and directed by officials of the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President.” And yet, that story wouldn’t resonate nationally until after the election, and Nixon won by a landslide.

HI_REZ_MFF_PC_LOGO_Same_typeJensen formed Project Censored four years later to research how the American media was failing to provide all the information the people need to make informed decisions. Today, the non-profit organization is still going strong and just released its 2014 edition, a 429-page compendium that includes in-depth media analysis and a list of the top 25 stories most overlooked by the national media.

While the media landscape has changed in some ways over the past 37 years that Project Censored has been uncovering overlooked stories, many of the problems Jensen identified long ago remain a challenge today.

The United States has a free press guaranteed by its constitution; it has the world’s most sophisticated communications system; and it has more independent media outlets disseminating more information 24-hours a day than anywhere else in the world. Considering our autonomous press and the quantity of information that daily bombards us, we should be a very knowledgeable populace. Unfortunately, high technology and a free press do not guarantee a well-informed society.

While these words could have been written yesterday, they were pulled from an essay Jensen first published in 1989. Jensen continues:

The top overlooked story of the year revealed one of the underlying causes of “censorship” and issued a warning of what is to come. Media critic Ben Bagdikian revealed that just 29 corporations controlled half or more of all the media business in America in 1987. More disturbing, Wall Street analysts, specializing in the media, predicted that only half a dozen giant firms will control most of our media by the 1990s. The full potential impact of this information cartel on a free society is still ignored by our press.

As we all know, Bagdikian’s predictions have proven prescient. This is just one of many stories that Project Censored spotlighted well before it became a national story. Last year’s #1 censored story was America’s emerging police state, one that exploded onto the national airwaves following the Edward Snowden revelations. Each edition of the book includes a section that takes a look at what’s happened to the stories highlighted in previous years, and many of the stories grow legs after being memorialized in the book.

While Project Censored began as a research project at Sonoma State with students from the university contributing, the research has since expanded to universities across the country under the leadership of its current director Mickey Huff, a professor at Diablo Valley College, which is located about a 45 minute drive from San Francisco. This past year, 56 professors at 18 different colleges worked together to identify and analyze more than 200 under reported stories to create a list of the top 25.

Huff and his predecessor Peter Philips, a professor at Sonoma State who took over for Jensen in the 90s, have distilled a replicable process that anyone can use with any news story to assess its role in the media landscape and to help determine if it belongs in Project Censored’s compendium. But that process, is more than just a curation tool for generating content for the book, says Huff. Project Censored has created a curriculum for media literacy that forces critical thinking about the stories we read.

Students participating with Project Censored review stories by asking a series of questions to help determine if a particular news item is a strong candidate for the book. He or she must first decide whether the story is timely and verify that the information reported is factual and accurate. The student will then research other stories that have been published on the issue to examine how the story fits within the larger media landscape and that the story hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere.

“The books are the process of teaching media literacy,” he said. “We’ve taught several thousand students. … The books are the fruit of the labor.”

Project Censored plans to continue to seed the model for media analysis by sharing it on their Web site and speaking to the availability of the curriculum at public events and during conversations with professors and other educators. Huff said he is hoping to see the number of participants contributing research continue to grow, and that individuals unaffiliated with any institutions are invited to help with the research as well.

Beyond the list of censored stories, each book also includes a wide range of media analysis. This year Huff invited Journalism that Matters to contribute an essay, which I wrote, for a chapter on “Media Democracy in Action: Free Press and Free Speech Advocates that Make a Difference.” That chapter also includes essays by Daniel Ellsberg, Sunsara Taylor, Ken Walden and others.

Huff and Philips also host a Project Censored radio show for the Pacifica Networks, and there is even an award-winning documentary about their work that was just released this year. But despite this organizational success, Project Censored is still struggling to remain economically sustainable.

“We are undergoing some growing pains, and we don’t get foundation money much anymore as we’ve pissed off a lot of people over the past 37 years. So we are working on getting as many $5 to $10 a month subscribers to help us operate our Web sites and outreach,” said Huff. “We would love to be in hundreds of schools and have the radio on-air in as many places as we can to spread the word, especially about critical thinking and media literacy.”