10 most underreported stories of the year

By Yael Chanoff

Overfished and dying oceans. Silent but deadly radiation blowback. Trillion-dollar bailouts of fat-cat banks. War crimes. Prison slavery. The big stories that never quite made a splash on network TV or the pages of daily newspapers don’t offer much reason for hope.

But Project Censored, which has documented insufficient media coverage of crucial stories since it began in 1967 at Sonoma State University, isn’t always about warm fuzzies. Each year, a group considers hundreds of news stories submitted by readers. Students search LexisNexis and other databases to see if the stories were underreported, and if so, they are then fact-checked by professors and experts in relevant fields.

A panel of academics and journalists chooses the top 25 stories and rates their significance. These finalists appear in Censored 2013: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2011-2012, Project Censored’s annual book release, which drops this year on October 30.

In the book’s foreword, Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed speaks to the general public’s evolution and wariness with traditional-media narratives—and how, despite the many seeds of despair, there is promise. He writes: “The majority of people now hold views about Western governments and the nature of power that would have made them social pariahs 10 or 20 years ago.”

Citing polls from the media, Mosaddeq notes, “The majority are now skeptical of the Iraq War; the majority want an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan; the majority resent the banks and financial sector, and blame them for the financial crisis; most people are now aware of environmental issues, more than ever before, and despite denialist confusion promulgated by fossil fuel industries, the majority in the United States and Britain are deeply concerned about global warming; most people are wary of conventional party politics and disillusioned with the mainstream parliamentary system.”

“In other words,” he continues, “there has been a massive popular shift in public opinion toward a progressive critique of the current political economic system.”

And ultimately, it’s the public—not the president and not the corporations—that will determine the future. There may be hope after all. Here’s Project Censored’s top 10 list for 2013.

01. Continued assault on civil liberties

President George W. Bush is remembered largely for his role in curbing civil liberties in the name of his war on terror. But it’s President Barack Obama who signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, including its clause allowing for indefinite detention without trial for terrorism suspects. Obama promised that “my Administration will interpret them to avoid the constitutional conflict”—leaving us adrift if and when the next administration chooses to interpret them otherwise. Another law of concern is the National Defense Resources Preparedness executive order that Obama issued in March 2012. That order authorizes the president, “in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national-defense requirements.” The president is to be advised on this course of action by “the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council, in conjunction with the National Economic Council.”

Journalist Chris Hedges, along with co-plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg, won a case challenging the NDAA’s indefinite detention clause on September 1, when a federal judge blocked its enforcement, but her ruling was overturned on October 3, so the clause is back.

02. Oceans in peril

Our country has deemed its big banks “too big to fail.” But our oceans won’t be getting a bailout anytime soon, and their collapse could compromise life itself.

In a haunting article highlighted by Project Censored, Mother Jones reporter Julia Whitty paints a tenuous seascape—overfished, acidified, warming—and describes how the destruction of the ocean’s complex ecosystems jeopardizes the entire planet, not just the 70 percent that is water. Whitty compares ocean acidification caused by climate change to acidification that was one of the causes of the Great Dying, a mass extinction 252 million years ago. Life on Earth took 30 million years to recover.

In a more hopeful story, a study of 14 protected and 18 nonprotected ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea showed dangerous levels of biomass depletion. But it also showed that the marine reserves were well-enforced, with five to 10 times larger fish populations than in unprotected areas. This encourages establishment and maintenance of more reserves.

03. U.S. deaths from Fukushima nuclear disaster

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discusses NATO operations in Libya. The BBC has reported on multiple crimes against humanity in Libya committed by NATO forces.

PHOTO BY TECH. SGT. JACOB N. BAILEY, U.S. AIR FORCE

A plume of toxic fallout floated to the United States after Japan’s tragic Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-plant disaster on March 11, 2011. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found radiation levels in air, water and milk that were hundreds of times higher than normal across the United States. One month later, the EPA announced that radiation levels had declined, and they would cease testing.

But after making a Freedom of Information Act request, journalist Lucas Hixson published emails revealing that on March 24, 2011, the task of collecting nuclear data had been handed off from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear-industry-lobbying group. And in one study that got little attention, scientists Joseph Mangano and Jeanette Sherman found that in the period following the Fukushima meltdowns, 14,000 more deaths than average were reported in the United States, mostly among infants. Later, Mangano and Sherman updated the number to 22,000.

04. FBI agents responsible for terrorists plots

We know that FBI agents go into communities such as mosques, both undercover and with the guise of building relationships, and quietly gather information about individuals. This is part of an approach to finding what the FBI now considers the most likely kind of terrorists, “lone wolves.” Its strategy: “seeking to identify those disgruntled few who might participate in a plot given the means and the opportunity. And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity,” writes Mother Jones journalist Trevor Aaronson.

The publication, along with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, examined the results of this strategy, 508 cases classified as terrorism-related that have come before the U.S. Department of Justice since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 243 of these cases an informant was involved; in 49 cases an informant actually led the plot. And “with three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.”

05. Federal Reserve loaned trillions to major banks

The Federal Reserve was audited for the first time in its history this year. The audit report states, “From late 2007 through mid-2010, Reserve Banks provided more than a trillion dollars … in emergency loans to the financial sector to address strains in credit markets and to avert failures of individual institutions believed to be a threat to the stability of the financial system.”

These loans had significantly lower interest rates and fewer conditions than the high-profile Troubled Asset Relief Program bailouts, and were rife with conflicts of interest. Some examples: the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. served as a board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York at the same time that his bank received more than $390 billion in financial assistance from the Fed. William Dudley, who is now the Federal Reserve Bank of New York president, was granted a conflict-of-interest waiver to let him keep investments in American International Group and General Electric at the same time the companies were given bailout funds. The audit was restricted to Federal Reserve lending during the financial crisis. On July 25, 2012, a bill to audit the Fed again, with fewer limitations, authored by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, passed the House of Representatives. House Resolution 459 expected to die in the Senate, but the movement behind Paul and his calls to hold the Fed accountable, or abolish it altogether, seems to be growing.

George Clooney (left), shown here discussing Sudan with President Barack Obama, was arrested under House Resolution 347, which established “restrictive zones” where one’s First Amendment right is null and void.

PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA

06. Small network of corporations run the global economy

Reporting on a study by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich didn’t make the rounds nearly enough, according to Censored 2013: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2011-2012. They found that of 43,060 transnational companies, 147 control 40 percent of total global wealth. The researchers also built a model visually demonstrating how the connections between companies—what it calls the “super entity”—work. Some have criticized the study, saying control of assets doesn’t equate to ownership. True, but as we clearly saw in the 2008 financial collapse, corporations are capable of mismanaging assets in their control to the detriment of their actual owners. And a largely unregulated super entity like this is vulnerable to global collapse.

07. The International Year of Cooperatives

Can something really be censored when it’s straight from the United Nations? According to Project Censored evaluators, the traditional media underreported the United Nations declaring 2012 to be the International Year of the Cooperatives, based on the co-op business model’s stunning growth. The United Nations found that in 2012, 1 billion people worldwide are co-op member-owners, or one in five adults over the age of 15. The largest is Spain’s Mondragon Corporation, with more than 80,000 member-owners.

The United Nations predicts that by 2025, worker-owned co-ops will be the world’s fastest growing business model. Worker-owned cooperatives provide for equitable distribution of wealth, genuine connection to the workplace and, just maybe, a brighter future for our planet.

08. NATO war crimes in Libya

In January 2012, the BBC “revealed” how British Special Forces agents joined and “blended in” with rebels in Libya to help topple dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a story that alternative media sources had reported a year earlier. NATO admits to bombing a pipe factory in the Libyan city of Brega that was key to a water-supply system that brought tap water to 70 percent of Libyans; NATO said that Qaddafi was storing weapons in the factory.

In Censored 2013, writer James F. Tracy makes the point that historical relations between the United States and Libya were left out of traditional-media news coverage of the NATO campaign: “background knowledge and historical context confirming Al-Qaeda and Western involvement in the destabilization of the [Qaddafi] regime are also essential for making sense of corporate news narratives depicting the Libyan operation as a popular ’uprising.’”

09. Prison slavery in the United States

On its website, the UNICOR manufacturing corporation proudly proclaims that its products are “Made in America.” That’s true, but they’re made in places in the United States where labor laws don’t apply, with workers often paid just 23 cents an hour to be exposed to toxic materials and have no legal recourse.

These places are U.S. prisons. Slavery conditions in prisons aren’t exactly news. It’s literally written into the Constitution: The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, outlaws “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” But the article highlighted by Project Censored this year reveal the current state of prison-slavery industries and its ties to war.

The majority of products manufactured by inmates are contracted to the United States Department of Defense. Inmates make complex parts for missile systems, battleship anti-aircraft guns, and land-mine sweepers, as well as night-vision goggles, body armor and camouflage uniforms. Of course, this is happening in the context of record-high imprisonment in the United States, where grossly disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics are imprisoned and can’t vote even after they’re freed.

As psychologist Elliot D. Cohen puts it in this year’s book, “This system of slavery, like that which existed in this country before the Civil War, is also racist, as more than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color.”

10. House Resolution 347 criminalizes protest

H.R. 347, sometimes called the “criminalizing protest” or “anti-Occupy” bill, made some headlines. But concerned lawyers and other citizens worry that it could have disastrous effects for the First Amendment right to protest.

Officially called the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, the law makes it a felony to “knowingly” enter a zone restricted under the law, or engage in “disorderly or disruptive” conduct in or near the zones. The restricted zones include anywhere the Secret Service may be—places such as the White House, areas hosting events deemed a “National Special Security Event,” or anywhere visited by the president, vice president and their immediate families; former presidents, vice presidents and certain family members; certain foreign dignitaries; major presidential and vice presidential candidates (within 120 days of an election); and other individuals as designated by a presidential executive order.

These people could be anywhere, and NSSEs have notoriously included the Democratic and Republican national conventions, Super Bowls, and the Academy Awards. So far, it seems the only time H.R. 347 has kicked in is with George Clooney’s high-profile arrest outside the Sudanese embassy. Clooney ultimately was not detained without trial—information that would be almost impossible to censor—but what about the rest of us who exist outside of the mainstream media’s spotlight?

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