Project Censored

The top censored stories of 2020-2021


Project Censored's co-directors, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, title their introduction to this year's edition of State of the Free Press, "A Return to News Normalcy?" drawing a direct parallel between our world today to that of post-World War I America, "When the United States faced another raging pandemic and economic recession," with other sources of tumult as well: "The United States then had experienced a crackdown on civil liberties and free speech in the form of Espionage and Sedition Acts; racial tensions flared during the Red Summer of 1919 as violence erupted from Chicago to Tulsa; Prohibition was the law of the land; and the first wave of U.S. feminism ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment." At the time, they noted, "People yearned for a return to 'normalcy,' as then-presidential hopeful Warren G. Harding proclaimed."

But it was not to be. "The desire for simpler times, however, was more a phantom than a reality, as millions of Americans ultimately had to adjust to a fast-changing world," including a rapidly changing media landscape – most notably the explosion of radio. And we should expect much the same. Every major change in the media landscape has brought with it the promise of expanded horizons and democratic possibility – the potential for a broader, more inclusive public conversation, only to see many of the old patterns of division, exclusion and demonization recur in new ways as well as old, as recent revelations about Facebook remind us.

Project Censored isn't alone in drawing parallels to a century ago. The pandemic above all has expanded journalistic horizons, as a matter of necessity. To a lesser extent, the threat to American democracy – part of a worldwide trend of democratic backsliding – has done so as well. But though some have expanded their horizons, many more continue as if little or nothing has fundamentally changed. Day-to-day news stories perpetuate the fantasy that normal has already returned. And in one sense they're right: The normal patterns of exclusion and suppression that Project Censored has been tracking for over 40 years continue to dominate, with even the latest wrinkles fitting into well-established broad patterns that are depressingly familiar.

These patterns are reflected in Project Censored's top 10 list, with stories about labor struggles, racism, threats to health, the environment and free speech.


1. Prescription drug costs to become a leading cause of death for elderly

"Soaring prescription drug costs have been widely reported by corporate news outlets," Project Censored notes, but they've utterly ignored the staggering resulting cost in human lives. More than 1.1 million seniors enrolled in Medicare programs could die prematurely in the next decade due to unaffordable prescription drugs, according to a November 2020 study reported on by Kenny Stancil for Common Dreams. "As medicines become increasingly expensive, patients skip doses, ration prescriptions or quit treatment altogether," Project Censored explained, a phenomenon known as "cost-related nonadherence," which will become "a leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of diabetes, influenza, pneumonia and kidney disease" by 2030, according to the study by the nonprofit West Health Policy Center and Xcenda, the research arm of Amerisource-Bergen, a drug distributor.

"Even with Medicare insurance, what seniors pay is linked to a drug's price," the study explained, which allowed them "to model how cost-related nonadherence would change under policies that would reduce drug prices, such as Medicare negotiation." The study focused on five medical conditions that "significantly affect seniors and for which effective pharmaceutical treatments are available," including three types of heart disease, chronic kidney disease and type B diabetes.

"The good news is that policy changes can curb the power of Big Pharma, resulting in far fewer avoidable deaths," Stancil reported. "Medicare negotiation is projected to reduce drug prices and seniors' cost-sharing, which could prevent nearly 94,000 seniors' deaths annually and save $475.9 billion," the study stated as one of its key findings.

2. Journalists investigating financial crimes threatened by global elites
Financial crimes of global elites, involving the flow of dirty money through some of the world's most powerful banks, have made major headlines in recent years, most notably with the Panama Papers in 2016 and the FinSen Files in 2020. But we'd know a great deal more if not for the flood of threats faced by journalists doing this work – a major story that hasn't been told in America's corporate media, despite a detailed report from Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), "Unsafe for Scrutiny," released in November 2020.

The report was based on a survey of 63 investigative journalists from 41 countries, which found that 71% had experienced threats and/or harassment while doing their investigations, with a large portion of those (73%) experiencing legal threats as well. Its findings were described by Spencer Woodman in an article for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

"The report found that legal threats are chief among the types of harassment facing journalists conducting financial investigations, and often seek to exploit a skewed balance of power between often underfunded reporting enterprises and the legal might of attorneys hired by the world's wealthiest people and corporations," Woodman wrote.

Physical threats and online harassment were also a grave concern, but they were geographically uneven. "While no journalists surveyed in North America reported physical threats, 60% of respondents working in sub-Saharan Africa, and 50% of respondents from North Africa and the Middle East region reported threats of physical attack," Woodman noted. Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb in Malta in October 2017.

The silence about this silencing has been deafening, Project Censored noted. There has been some coverage overseas, but "To date, however, no major commercial newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States has so much as mentioned the FPC's report."

3. Historic wave of wildcat strikes for workers' rights
After millions of people were designated "essential workers" when the U.S. went into lockdown in March 2020, thousands of wildcat strikes erupted to challenge dangerous working conditions and chronic low wages, exacerbated by refusal to protect against COVID-19 and for decreasing coverage or sharply increasing the cost of medical insurance, for those who had it. A further strike surge was driven by "Black and Brown workers using digital technologies to organize collective actions as a way to press some of the demands for racial justice raised by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protesters," Project Censored noted.

At the labor news website Payday Report, Mike Elk created a continuously updated COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, which had identified "1,100 wildcat strikes as of March 24, 2021, many of which the corporate media have chosen to ignore," according to Project Censored, including "more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement," in June 2020 alone, according to Elk.

"While local and regional newspapers and broadcast news outlets have reported on particular local actions, corporate news coverage has failed to report the strike wave as a wave, at no time connecting the dots of all the individual, seemingly isolated work stoppages and walkouts to create a picture of the overarching trend," Project Censored reported.

The sole exception where there was national coverage was in August 2020 when highly paid baseball and basketball pro athletes walked out in violation of their contracts to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police. The coverage ended quickly once they returned a few days later.

4. "Climate debtor" nations have "colonized" the atmosphere
The United States and other developed countries in the global north are responsible for 92% of all the excess carbon dioxide emissions driving global warming, according to a study in the September issue of The Lancet Planetary Health. The U.S. alone was responsible for 40%, followed by Russia and Germany (8% each), the United Kingdom (7%) and Japan (5%).

The study's author, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, told Sarah Lazare, of In These Times, that his research began from the premises that "the atmosphere is a common resource" and that "all people should have equal access" to a fair share of it. He calculated each nation's fair share of a sustainable global carbon budget, based on population, along with an analysis of "territorial emissions from 1850 to 1969, and consumption-based emissions from 1970 to 2015." In turn, this was used to calculate "the extent to which each country has overshot or undershot its fair share," according to the study. Thus the above list of the largest climate debtors.

The results, he told In These Times, show that "the countries of the Global North have 'stolen' a big chunk of the atmospheric fair-shares of poorer countries, and on top of that are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions... [T]hey have effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons for the sake of their own industrial growth."

In contrast, the study found that "most countries in the Global South were within their boundary fair shares, including India and China (although China will overshoot soon)." The leading climate creditors to date are India (34% of global "undershoots"), China (11%), Bangladesh and Indonesia (5% each) and Nigeria (4%).

5. Microplastics and toxic chemicals increasingly prevalent in world's oceans
According to a pair of scientific studies published in the summer of 2020, microplastic particles and a family of toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have become more widespread in the world's oceans than previously realized and have begun to contaminate the global seafood supply. The two problems are related because PFAS – a family of highly stable "forever chemicals" with more than 4,700 known members – can occur as microplastics, they can stick to microplastic particles in water, and are involved in the production of plastics.

In July 2020, a German-American study published in the scholarly journal Environmental Science & Technology revealed that PFAS – which are used in a range of products including carpets, furniture, clothing, food packaging and nonstick coatings – have now been found in the Arctic Ocean.

"This discovery worries scientists," Project Censored explains, "because it means that PFAS can reach any body of water anywhere in the world and that such chemicals are likely present in our water supply." This is concerning because, as Daniel Ross reported for Truthout, there are "Known human health impacts ... include certain cancers, liver damage, thyroid linked to increased risk of severe COVID-19."

Ross cited a number of other studies as well, noting that, "Emerging research suggests that one important pathway [for PFAS spreading] is through the air and in rainwater," and that they had been widely detected in China, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"PFASs are probably detectable in 'all major water supplies' in the U.S.," according to an Environmental Working Group study, Ross reported. "What's more, over 200 million Americans could be drinking water containing PFAS above a level EWG scientists believe is safe, according to the organization's most recent findings."

6. Canary Mission blacklists pro-Palestinian activists, chilling free speech rights
Before the "critical race theory" moral panic fueled a nationwide uprising to censor discussions of race in education, there was an opposite moral panic decrying "cancel culture" stifling certain people, especially in education. But even at the peak of the "cancel culture" panic, perhaps the most canceled people anywhere in America – pro-Palestinian activists and sympathizers – got virtually no attention. That was even though a well-funded, secretly run blacklist website, known as Canary Mission, explicitly targeted thousands of individuals with dossiers expressly intended to ruin their careers before they even began. The dossiers "have been used in interrogations by Israeli security officials," according to the Forward, a Jewish publication. They've also been used by the FBI, as reported by The Intercept.

The website, established in 2015, "seeks to publicly discredit critics of Israel as 'terrorists' and 'anti-Semites,'" Project Censored noted, but its careless style of accusation has caused a backlash, even among pro-Israeli Jews. "While some of those listed on the site are prominent activists, others are students who attended a single event, or even student government representatives suspected of voting for resolutions that are critical of Israel," the Forward reported. More than that, it reported three examples when Canary Mission was apparently retaliating against critics, including Jews.

Its main targets are Palestinians, particularly activists involved with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement that works to peacefully pressure Israel to obey international law and respect Palestinians' human rights. As The Intercept reported in 2018, "While Canary Mission promotes itself as a group working against anti-Semitism, the blacklist's effective goal is to clamp down on growing support for Palestine in the United States by intimidating and tarnishing Palestinian rights advocates with the brush of bigotry."

The list itself has had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, another Intercept story reported. "A survey of over 60 people profiled on Canary Mission, conducted by the group Against Canary Mission, found that 43 percent of respondents said they toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website." Some have even received death threats.

"For many otherwise unknown activists, a Canary Mission profile is their most visible online presence," Project Censored reported, "'It's the first thing that comes up when you Google my name, the claim that I'm a terrorist supporter and an extremist,' one former activist on Palestinian issues told The Intercept."

7. Google's union-busting methods revealed
In 2018, Google dropped its longtime slogan, "Don't be evil," from its code of conduct. In 2019, Google hired IRI Consultants, a union avoidance firm, "amid a wave of unprecedented worker organizing at the company," as Vice's Motherboard put it in January 2021, while reporting on leaked files from IRI that provided a disturbing picture of how far Google may have strayed in its willingness to sabotage its workers' rights. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for companies to spy on employees and guarantees workers the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. "Nevertheless," Project Censored noted, "companies like Google attempt to circumvent the law by hiring union avoidance firms like IRI Consultants as independent contractors to engage in surveillance and intimidation on their behalf."

"Employers in the United States spend roughly $340 million on union avoidance consultants each year," Lauren Kaori Gurley reported for Motherboard, but their practices are apparently so disreputable that IRI doesn't identify its clients on its website "beyond saying the firm has been hired by universities, renewable energy companies, automakers, 'the nation's largest food manufacturers,' and 'several top 10 worldwide retailers,' she reported.

"Consultants specialize in operating in the grey areas of the law," John Logan, a professor of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State told Gurley. "They're not quite illegal but they're sort of bending the law if they're not breaking it."

"Google is not the only Big Tech company to enlist union avoidance consultants in recent years. In fall 2020 and spring 2021, employees at Amazon's massive fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, launched a much-publicized unionization effort," Project Censored noted. "As John Logan detailed in a lengthy article for LaborOnline, Amazon responded to the Bessemer drive by spending at least $3,200 per day on anti-union consultants." Employees voted more than 2-1 against joining the union, but the election was overturned for a set of eight labor law violations after Project Censored's book went to the publisher – a decision that Amazon is appealing.


8. Pfizer bullies South American governments over COVID-19 vaccine

Pfizer has essentially held Latin American governments to ransom for access to its lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine," Project Censored reports, the latest example of how it's exerted undue influence to enrich itself at the expense of low- and middle-income nations going back to the 1980s, when it helped shape the intellectual property rules it's now taking advantage of.

"Pfizer has been accused of 'bullying' Latin American governments in Covid vaccine negotiations and has asked some countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases," according to reporters at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

It's normal for governments to provide some indemnity. But, "Pfizer asked for additional indemnity from civil cases, meaning that the company would not be held liable for rare adverse effects or for its own acts of negligence, fraud or malice," BIJ reported. "This includes those linked to company practices – say if Pfizer sent the wrong vaccine or made errors during manufacturing."

That same month, "just after the United States approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, In These Times' Sarah Lazare filed a detailed report on the history of the pharmaceutical giant's opposition to expanding vaccine access to poor countries, beginning in the mid-1980s during the negotiations that eventually resulted in the establishment of the WTO in 1995.

"It is difficult to think of a clearer case for suspending intellectual property laws than a global pandemic," and "a swath of global activists, mainstream human rights groups and UN human rights experts have added their voices to the demand for a suspension of patent laws," Lazare noted. But Pfizer was joined in its opposition by pharmaceutical trade groups and individual companies, such as Moderna, another COVID-19 vaccine maker.

As a result, "One could make a map of global poverty, lay it over a map of vaccine access, and it would be a virtual one-to-one match," she wrote. "Once again majority black and brown countries, by and large, are left to suffer and die."

9. Police use dogs as instruments of violence, targeting people of color
The use of vicious dogs to control Black people dates back to slavery, but it's not ancient history according to an investigative series of 13 linked reports, titled "Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons," coordinated by the Marshall Project in partnership with AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute. They found evidence that the pattern continues to this day, with disproportionate use of police dogs against people of color, often resulting in serious injury, with little or no justification. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a majority-Black city of 220,000, is the dog-bite capital of America, with a bite rate more than double the next-ranked city, Indianapolis.

According to Bryn Stole and Grace Toohey's February 2021 report: Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people, records show. Of those, 53 were 17 years old or younger; the youngest were just 13. Almost all of the people bitten were Black, and most were unarmed and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes like driving a stolen vehicle or burglary.

But Baton Rouge is hardly alone. Approximately 3,600 Americans annually are sent to the emergency room for severe bite injuries resulting from police dog attacks. These dog bites "can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchers," a team of five reporters wrote in October 2020, as part of a summary of the main finding of their research.

Other highlights from the series included: "Though our data shows dog bites in nearly every state, some cities use biting dogs far more often than others." This ranged from just one incident in Chicago from 2017 to 2019 to more than 200 in Los Angeles and more than 220 in Indianapolis.

"Most bite victims are men, and studies suggest that in some places, they have been disproportionately Black." This includes the Ferguson, Missouri, police department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, where it's been found that "dogs bit non-white people almost exclusively."

10. Activists call out legacy of racism and sexism in forced sterilization
Forced sterilization was deemed constitutional in a 1927 Supreme Court decision, Buck v. Bell, after which forced sterilizations increased dramatically, to at least 60,000 forced sterilizations in some 32 states during the 20th century, predominantly targeting women of color. And while state laws have been changed, it's still constitutional, and still going on today – with at least five cases of women in ICE custody in Georgia in 2019 – while thousands of victims await restitution, as reports from the Conversation and YES! Magazine has documented.

"Organizations such as Project South, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab are actively working to document the extent of this underreported problem – and to bring an end to it," Project Censored noted. But their work is even more underreported than the problem itself.

"During the height of this wave of eugenics by means of sterilization in the U.S., forced hysterectomies were so common in the Deep South that activist Fannie Lou Hamer coined the term 'Mississippi Appendectomy' to describe them," Ray Levy Uyeda wrote in a YES! Magazine article, "How Organizers are Fighting an American Legacy of Forced Sterilization," which begins with the story of Kelli Dillon. Dillon was a California prison inmate in 2001 when she underwent a procedure to remove a potentially cancerous growth – and the surgeon simultaneously performed an unauthorized hysterectomy, one of 148 forced sterilizations that year in California prisons, and one of 1,400 carried out between 1997 and 2010.

Paul Rosenberg is an activist turned journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, Al Jazeera English and numerous other periodicals. He has worked as an editor at Random Lengths News, of San Pedro, California, since 2002.

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