Project Censored

This year’s Top 10 underreported stories

Since its founding in 1976, Project Censored has been focused on stories – like Watergate before the 1972 election – that aren't censored in the authoritarian government sense, but in a broader, expanded sense reflective of what a functioning democracy should be, censorship defined as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method – including bias, omission, underreporting, or self-censorship – that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in society." It is, after all, the reason that journalism enjoys special protection in the First Amendment: Without the free flow of vital information, government based on the consent of the governed is but an illusory dream.

Yet, from the very beginning, as A.J. Liebling put it, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

In their introduction to Project Censored's annual State of the Free Press, which contains its top censored stories and much more, Project Censored's Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth take this condition head-on, under the heading, State of the Free Billionaire, in contrast to the volume's title, State of the Free Press 2023. Following a swift recap of historic media criticism highlights – Upton Sinclair, the aforementioned Liebling, Ben Bagdikian, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky – they dryly observe, "History shows that consolidated media, controlled by a handful of elite owners, seldom serves the public interest," and briefly survey the contemporary landscape before narrowing their gaze to the broadest of influencers.

Despite the promise of boundless access to information, Silicon Valley mirrors legacy media in its consolidated ownership and privileging of elite narratives. This new class of billionaire oligarchs owns or controls the most popular media platforms, including the companies often referred to as the FAANGs – Facebook (Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (Alphabet).

Obviously, this was written before Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter, but it's an apt reminder that his wildly out-of-touch worldview is not just an individual, personal aberration, but also a symptom of wider systemic dysfunction.

"In pursuit of their own interests and investments, media tycoons past and present, again and again, appear to be conveniently oblivious to the main frame through which they filter news – that of class, including class structure and class interests," Huff and Roth write. "Consequently, they often overlook (or ignore) conflicts of interest that implicate media owners, funders, investors, and advertisers, not to mention their business clients on Wall Street and in Big Pharma, Big Tech, and the military-industrial complex."

This observation perfectly frames the majority of stories in Project Censored's top 10 list, starting with the first two stories: massive subsidies of the fossil fuel industry and rampant wage theft – concentrated on the most vulnerable workers – that eclipse street crime in the magnitude of losses, but is rarely punished, even when offenders are caught dead to rights. It echoes clearly through the stories on Congress members' investments in the fossil fuel industry, the role of corporate consolidation in driving up inflation in food prices, Bill Gates' hidden influence on journalism, and major media outlets lobbying against regulation of surreptitious online advertising, and only at slight remove in two others having to do with dark money, and one about the suppression of Environmental Protection Agency reports on dangerous chemicals. Indeed, only one story out of 10 is somewhat removed from the sphere of corporate corruption concerns: the story of the CIA's plans to kidnap or kill Julian Assange.

Here then, is this year's list of Project Censored's top 10 censored stories:

Fossil fuel industry subsidized $11 million per minute
Globally, the fossil fuel industry receives subsidies of $11 million per minute, primarily from lack of liability for the externalized health costs of deadly air pollution (42%), damages caused by extreme weather events (29%), and costs from traffic collisions and congestion (15%). And two-thirds of those subsidies come from just five countries – the United States, Russia, India, China and Japan. These are key findings from a study of 191 nations published by the International Monetary Fund, or IMF in September 2021, that were reported in the Guardian and Treehugger the next month, but have been ignored in the corporate media.

No national government currently prices fossil fuels at what the IMF calls their "efficient price" – covering both their supply and environmental costs. "Instead, an estimated 99 percent of coal, 52 percent of road diesel, 47 percent of natural gas, and 18 percent of gasoline are priced at less than half their efficient price," Project Censored noted.

"Efficient fuel pricing in 2025 would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 36 percent below baseline levels, which is in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees, while raising revenues worth 3.8 percent of global GDP and preventing 0.9 million local air pollution deaths," the report stated. The G7 nations had previously agreed to scrap fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, but the IMF found that subsidies have increased in recent years, and will continue increasing.

"It's critical that governments stop propping up an industry that is in decline," Mike Coffin, a senior analyst at Carbon Tracker, told the Guardian. "The much-needed change could start happening now, if not for the government's entanglement with the fossil fuels industry in so many major economies," added Maria Pastukhova of E3G, a climate change think tank.

Wage theft: U.S. businesses steal millions from workers every year
In 2017, the FBI reported the cost of street crime at about $13.8 billion, the same year that the Economic Policy Institute released a study saying that just one form of wage theft – minimum wage violations – costs U.S. workers even more: an estimated $15 billion annually, impacting an estimated 17% of low-wage workers.

One reason it's so rampant is that companies are seldom punished, as Alexia Fernández Campbell and Joe Yerardi reported for the Center for Public Integrity in May 2021, drawing on 15 years of data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. "The agency fined only about one in four repeat offenders during that period. And it ordered those companies to pay workers cash damages – penalty money in addition to back wages – in just 14 percent of those cases," they wrote. In addition, "The division often lets businesses avoid repaying their employees all the money they're owed. In all, the agency has let more than 16,000 employers get away with not paying $20.3 million in back wages since 2005."

We're talking about some major companies. Halliburton, G4S Wackenhut and Circle K Stores – were among "the worst offenders," they reported.

That report kicked off the center's "Cheated at Work'' series, which showed that "U.S. employers that illegally underpaid workers face few repercussions, even when they do so repeatedly. This widespread practice perpetuates income inequality, hitting lowest-paid workers hardest."

"Wage theft includes a range of illegal practices, such as paying less than minimum wage, withholding tips, not paying overtime, or requiring workers to work through breaks or off the clock. It impacts service workers, low-income workers, immigrant and guest workers, and communities of color the most," Project Censored explained. Wage theft also includes worker misclassification as independent contractors – long the case with port truckers, and more recently gig workers.

EPA withheld reports on dangerous chemicals
In January 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, stopped releasing legally required disclosures about chemicals that present a "substantial risk of injury to health or the environment." They had previously been posted in a searchable public database called ChemView.

In November 2021, as part of the Intercept's "EPA exposed" investigative series, Sharon Lerner reported that EPA had received "at least 1,240 substantial risk reports since January 2019, but only one was publicly available. The suppressed reports documented "the risk of chemicals' serious harms, including eye corrosion, damage to the brain and nervous system, chronic toxicity to honeybees, and cancer in both people and animals," Lerner wrote.

"The reports include notifications about highly toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, chemical compounds that are known as 'forever chemicals' because they build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment," Project Censored noted. "The Environmental Working Group explains that 'very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. For decades, chemical companies covered up evidence of PFAS' health hazards.'" Their spread throughout the world's oceans, along with microplastics, was Project Censored's #5 story last year.

Apart from the Intercept, "only a handful of niche publications have reported on the matter," Project Censored noted.

However, in January 2022 Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to disclose the reports. Just weeks later EPA announced it would resume posting the reports in ChemView, Project Censored noted. "Clearly, independent journalism contributed significantly to this outcome," they said. "Had it not been for the work of investigative journalist Sharon Lerner at the Intercept, EPA whistleblowers would not have had a platform to share concerns that ultimately led the agency to resume these critical public disclosures."

At least 128 members of Congress invested in fossil fuel industry
At least 100 U.S. representatives and 28 U.S. senators have financial interests in the fossil fuel industry – a major impediment to reaching climate change goals that's gone virtually unmentioned by the corporate media, despite detailed reporting in a series of Sludge articles written by David Moore in November and December of 2021.

Moore found that 74 Republicans, 59 Democrats, and one independent have fossil fuel industry investments, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in both chambers. The top 10 House investors are all Republicans. But it's quite different in the Senate, where two of the top three investors are Democrats, and Democrats' total investments, $8,604,000, are more than double the Senate Republicans' total of $3,994,126. Topping the list is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, with up to $5.5 million of fossil fuel industry assets, while John Hickenlooper of Colorado is third, with up to $1 million. (Most reporting is in ranges.) Many top investors are Texas Republicans, including Rep. Van Taylor, with up to $12.4 million worth of investments.

"Most significantly, many hold key seats on influential energy-related committees," Project Censored noted. Senators include Manchin, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, and Tom Carper (D-Delaware), chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. "Manchin cut the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a system that would phase out coal, from President Biden's climate bill," they added.

In the House, they explained, "nine of the 22 Republican members of the Energy and Commerce Committee are invested in the fossil fuel industry. As Project Censored detailed in the #4 story on the Top 25 list two years ago, these individuals' personal financial interests as investors often conflict with their obligation as elected legislators to serve the public interest."

Dark money interference in U.S. politics undermines democracy
The same group of conservative dark money organizations that opposed President Joe Biden's Supreme Court nomination – Judicial Crisis Network [JCN], The 85 Fund and their affiliated groups – also funded entities that played a role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a report by the watchdog group Accountable.US. They're closely linked to Leonard Leo, co-chair of the Federalist Society, with money coming from Donors Trust (a dark-money group backed by the Koch network) and the Bradley Foundation.

"These dark money groups not only funded Leo's network of organizations to the sum of over $52 million in 2020, but also funded entities in 2020 that played a role in the insurrection to the sum of over $37 million," Accountable.US reported.

While there has been coverage of dark money spending on Supreme Court nominations, Igor Derysh at Salon was alone in reporting this – the related involvement in Jan. 6.

"Donors Trust has funneled more than $28 million to groups that pushed election lies or in some way funded the rally ahead of the Capitol riot," while "Members of the Federalist Society played key roles in Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the election," including attorney John Eastman, architect of Trump's plan to get Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election, senators Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who led the objections to the certification of Trump's loss after the riot, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who filed a lawsuit to throw out election results in key states. In addition, 13 of the 17 other Republican attorneys general who joined Paxton's suit were also Federalist Society members.

"The influence of dark money – political spending by organizations that are not required to disclose their donors – presents a major challenge to the swift functioning of the judicial nomination and confirmation process, and the U.S. government as a whole," Project Censored noted. "[D]ark money deeply influences political decisions in favor of select individuals' or groups' agendas rather than in support of the public's best interests."

Corporate consolidation causing record inflation in food prices
"Corporate consolidation is a main driver of record inflation in food prices, despite claims by media pundits and partisan commentators to the contrary," Project Censored reports. "The establishment press has covered the current wave of inflation exhaustively, but only rarely will discuss the market power of giant firms as a possible cause, and then usually only to reject it," as they did when the Biden administration cited meat industry consolidation as a cause of price increases in September 2021, "treating administration attempts to link inflation to consolidation as a rhetorical move meant to distract from conservative critiques of Biden's stimulus program."

But as Food and Water Watch reported in Nov 2021, "while the cost of meat shot up, prices paid to farmers actually declined, spurring a federal investigation." That investigation is ongoing, but meat conglomerates Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Smithfield Foods and JBS have paid just over $225 million to settle related civil suits in the poultry, beef and pork markets.

That's just part of the problem. A July 2021 joint investigation by Food and Water Watch and the Guardian "reported that a handful of 'food giants' – including Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Conagra, Unilever and Del Monte – control an average of 64 percent of sales of 61 popular grocery items," Project Censored noted. Altogether, "four firms or fewer controlled at least 50% of the market for 79% of the groceries," the Guardian reported.

Occasionally articles touched on the issue of consolidation (mostly to debunk it), though there are a couple of opinion pieces to the contrary. "But these isolated opinion pieces were far outnumbered by the hundreds, even thousands, of reports and analyses by commercial media outlets that blamed everything but oligopolistic price gouging for the rising cost of groceries," Project Censored concluded.

Concerns for journalistic independence as Gates Foundation gives $319 million to news outlets
The list of billionaires with media empires includes familiar names like Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, most recently, Elon Musk. But, "While other billionaires' media empires are relatively well known, the extent to which [Microsoft co-founder Bill] Gates's cash underwrites the modern media landscape is not," Alan MacLeod wrote for MintPress News in November 2021.

MacLeod examined more than 30,000 individual grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and found it had donated "more than $319 million to fund news outlets, journalism centers and training programs, press associations and specific media campaigns, raising questions about conflicts of interest and journalistic independence," Project Censored summarized.

"Recipients of this cash include many of America's most important news outlets, including CNN, NBC, NPR, PBS and The Atlantic.

"MacLeod's report includes a number of Gates-funded news outlets that also regularly feature in Project Censored's annual Top 25 story lists, such as the Solutions Journalism Network ($7.2m), The Conversation ($6.6m), the Bureau of Investigative Journalism ($1m), and ProPublica ($1m) in addition to the Guardian and The Atlantic," Project Censored noted. "Direct awards to news outlets often targeted specific issues, MacLeod reported. For example, CNN received $3.6 million to support 'journalism on the everyday inequalities endured by women and girls across the world,' according to one grant. Another grant earmarked $2.3 million for the Texas Tribune 'to increase public awareness and engagement of education reform issues in Texas.' As MacLeod noted, given Bill Gates' advocacy of the charter school movement – which undermines teachers' unions and effectively aims to privatize the public education system – 'a cynic might interpret this as planting pro-corporate charter school propaganda into the media, disguised as objective news reporting.'"

"No major corporate news outlets appear to have covered this issue," only a scattering of independent outlets, Project Censored noted. This despite the fact that, "As far back as 2011, the Seattle Times published an article investigating how the Gates Foundation's 'growing support of media organizations blurs the line between journalism and advocacy.'"

CIA discussed plans to kidnap or kill Julian Assange

The CIA seriously considered plans to kidnap or assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in late 2017, according to a September 2021 Yahoo News investigation, based on interviews with more than 30 former U.S. officials, eight of whom detailed U.S. plans to abduct Assange and three of whom described the development of plans to kill him. If it had been up to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, they almost certainly would have been acted on, after WikiLeaks announced it had obtained a massive tranche of files – dubbed "Vault 7" – from the CIA's ultra-secret hacking division, and posted some of them online.

In his first public remarks as Donald Trump's CIA director, "Pompeo devoted much of his speech to the threat posed by WikiLeaks," Yahoo News noted, "rather than use the platform to give an overview of global challenges or to lay out any bureaucratic changes he was planning to make at the agency." He even called it "a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia," a designation intended to grant the CIA wide latitude in what actions it took, while shielding it from congressional oversight.

Since it would take place in Britain, there had to be agreement from them. "But the British said, 'No way, you're not doing that on our territory, that ain't happening,'" a former senior counterintelligence official told Yahoo News.

"U.S. plans to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange have received little to no establishment news coverage in the United States, other than scant summaries by Business Insider and The Verge, and tangential coverage by Reuters, each based on the original Yahoo News report," Project Censored notes. "Among US independent news outlets, Democracy Now! featured an interview with Michael Isikoff, one of the Yahoo News reporters who broke the story, and Jennifer Robinson, a human rights attorney who has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. Rolling Stone and The Hill also published articles based on the original Yahoo News report."

New laws preventing dark money disclosures sweep the nation
Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision relaxing campaign finance regulations, dark money spending has exploded, and now Republican lawmakers across the U.S. are pushing legislation to make it illegal to compel nonprofit organizations to disclose who the dark money donors are. Recently passed laws in Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia are based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which brings together corporate lobbyists and conservative lawmakers to advance special-interest business-friendly legislation.

"ALEC is deeply enmeshed with the sprawling political influence networks tied to billionaire families like the Kochs and the Bradleys, both of which use non-disclosing nonprofits that help to conceal how money is funneled," Donald Shaw reported for Sludge on June 15, 2021. "Penalties for violating the laws vary between the states, but in some states penalties could include prison sentences."

Democrats and good government groups have pushed back. "On April 27, 2021, 38 Democratic senators sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig urging them to roll back an anti-disclosure rule put in place by the Trump Administration," Project Censored reported.

While there's been some coverage of some aspects of this story – a Washington Post story about Democrats pressuring the Biden administration, the Associated Press reporting on South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's defense of her state's law – except for regional papers like the Tampa Bay Times, Project Censored reports, "There has been little acknowledgment in the establishment press of the stream of ALEC-inspired bills passing through state legislatures that seek to keep the source of so much of the money spent to influence elections hidden in the shadows."

Major media outlets lobby against regulation of "surveillance advertising"
"Surveillance advertising" – collecting users' data to target them with tailored advertising – has become a ubiquitous, extremely profitable practice on the world's most popular social media apps and platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc. But now, as Lee Fang reported for the Intercept in February 2022, the Biden administration's Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is seeking to regulate user data collection. Lobbyists for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, or IAB, are pushing back.

"In a letter, IAB called for the FTC to oppose a ban on data-driven advertising networks, claiming the modern media cannot exist without mass data collection," Fang reported.

"The IAB represents both data brokers and online media outlets that depend on digital advertising, such as CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, Vox, the Orlando Sentinel, Fox News, and dozens of other media companies," Fang explained. "The privacy push has largely been framed as a showdown between technology companies and the administration," but "the lobbying reveals a tension that is rarely a center of the discourse around online privacy: Major media corporations increasingly rely on a vast ecosystem of privacy violations, even as the public relies on them to report on it." As a result, "Major news outlets have remained mostly silent on the FTC's current push and a parallel effort to ban surveillance advertising by the House and Senate by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey," Fang concluded.

"The IAB argues that targeted advertising – and, by extension, the siphoning of user data – has become necessary due to declining revenues from print sales and subscriptions," Project Censored summarized. "Non-digital advertising revenue decreased from $124.8 billion in 2011 to $89.8 billion in 2020, while digital advertising revenue rose from $31.9 billion to $152.2 billion in the same period, according to Pew Research."

"The corporate media have reported the FTC's openness to new rules limiting the collection and exploitation of user data, but have generally not drawn attention to IAB lobbying against the proposed regulations," Project Censored noted, citing articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post as examples. "[N]either outlet discussed IAB, its lobbying on this issue, or the big media clients the organization represents."

Paul Rosenberg is a Los Angeles, California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Salon and Al Jazeera English. This article is copyrighted by Random Lengths News, a division of Beacon Light Press, 2022.

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