Fake News, Dark Money and More Censored Storylines

  • 10/12/2017
  • Paul Rosenberg

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

In America, we commonly think of press freedom and censorship in terms of the First Amendment, which focuses attention on the press and places limits on the government’s power to restrict it. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of World War II, presents a broader framework. Article 19 of that document reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

By highlighting the right to receive information and ideas, Article 19 makes it clear that press freedom is about everyone in society, not just the press, and that government censorship is only one potential way of thwarting that right. This is the perspective that has informed Project Censored from its beginning more than 40 years ago.

Even though Project Censored’s annual list of censored stories is specific, the overriding message has always gone beyond isolated examples. Collectively, they serve to highlight how far short we fall from the fully-informed public that a healthy democracy requires — and that we all require to live healthy, safe, productive, satisfying lives. It’s the larger patterns of missing information, hidden problems and threats that should really concern us. Each Project Censored story provides some of that information, but the annual list helps shed light on these broader patterns of what’s missing, as well as on the specifics of the stories themselves.

During the 1972 election, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporting on the earliest developments in the Watergate scandal — and they were covering it for the Washington Post. Yet, their work was largely isolated. The story was covered as a developing criminal case; it did not transform into a political story until after the election. That’s a striking example of a missing pattern. It was among the issues that motivated Carl Jensen to found Project Censored; he defined censorship 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 its society.”

In the introduction to the current edition’s list of stories, Andy Lee Roth writes, “Finding common themes across news stories helps to contextualize each item as a part of the larger narratives shaping our times.” Roth proceeded  to cite several examples spanning the top 25 list: four stories on climate change, six involving racial inequalities, four on issues involving courts, three on health issues, “at least two stories” involving the Pentagon, three on government surveillance and two involving documentary films produced by the Shell Oil Co.

“There are more connections to be identified,” Roth said.  “As we have noted in previous Censored volumes, the task of identifying common topical themes within each year’s story list and across multiple years transforms the reader from a passive recipient of information into an active, engaged interpreter. We invite you to engage with this year’s story list in this way.”

It’s excellent advice. But to get things started on the more limited scope of the top 10 stories, three main themes clearly seem evident: first, threats to public health; second, threats to democracy, both at home and abroad; and third, an out-of-control military.

Don’t let this overview pattern blind you to other patterns you may detect. Individual stories often involve different overlapping patterns — environmental destruction and an out-of-control military or public health and infrastructure concerns. These patterns don’t just connect problems and issues, they connect people, communities and potential solutions as well. A shared understanding of the patterns that hold us down and divide us is the key to developing better patterns to live by together. With that thought in mind, here is Project Censored’s Top 10 List for 2016-17:

1. Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children’s Health and Could Triple Household Water Bills

After President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Mich., based on lead contamination of the city’s water supply in January 2016, Reuters reporters M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer began an investigation of lead contamination nationwide with shocking results. In June 2016, they reported that although many states and Medicaid rules require blood tests for lead in young children, millions of children were not being tested. In December 2016, they reported on the highly decentralized data they had been able to assemble from 21 states. Those limited results showed that 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip codes across the United States had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint at the peak of its contamination crisis. Within that group, 1,100 communities had lead contamination rates “at least four times higher” than Flint.

In Flint,  five percent of the children screened had high blood lead levels. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2.5 percent of all  children younger than six — about 500,000 children — have elevated blood lead levels.

Pell and Schneyer’s neighborhood focus allowed them to identify local hotspots “whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys,” such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates. They found such hotspots in communities that “stretch from Warren, Pa. … where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to … Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. … In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.”

In January 2017, Schneyer and Pell reported that, based on their previous investigation, “From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs.”

But there’s a deeper infrastructure problem involved. “Lead pipes are time bombs,” and water contamination is to be expected, reporter Farron Cousins wrote in the January 2017 edition of DeSmogBlog. The U.S. relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its life expectancy.

In 2012, the American Water Works Association estimated that a complete overhaul of the nation’s aging water systems would require an investment of $1 trillion within the next 25 years, which could triple household water bills. As Cousins reported, a January 2017 Michigan State University study found that, “while water rates are currently unaffordable for an estimated 11.9 percent of households, the conservative estimates of rising rates used in this study highlight that this number could grow to 35.6 percent in the next five years.”

“While the water contamination crisis will occasionally steal a headline or two, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that we’re pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market,” Cousins concluded.

2. More than $6 Trillion in Unaccountable Army Spending

In 1996, Congress passed legislation requiring all government agencies to undergo annual audits. Nonetheless, a July 2016 report by the Defense Department’s inspector general discovered that during the past two decades the Army alone has spent $6.5 trillion that cannot be accounted for.

Dave Lindorff reported in This Can’t Be Happening! that the Department of Defense “has not been tracking or recording or auditing all of the taxpayer money allocated by Congress — what it was spent on, how well it was spent, or where the money actually ended up. Things aren’t any better at the Navy, Air Force and Marines.”

According to Likndorff, the report appeared at a time when, “politicians of both major political parties are demanding accountability for every penny spent on welfare…. Ditto for people receiving unemployment compensation.”

He noted that politicians have also engaged in pervasive efforts “to make teachers accountable for student ‘performance.’”

Yet, he observed, “the military doesn’t have to account for any of its trillions of dollars of spending … even though Congress fully a generation ago passed a law requiring such accountability.”

In March 2017, after Donald Trump proposed a $52 billion increase in military spending, Thomas Hedges reported for The Guardian that, “the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.”

The most recent Department of Defense audit deadline was September 2017, yet neither the Pentagon, Congress, nor the media seemed to have paid any attention.

3. Pentagon Paid PR Firm in the UK for Fake Al-Qaeda Videos

Concern over Russian involvement in promoting fake news during the 2016 election is a justified hot topic in the news. But what about our own involvement in similar operations? In October 2016, a report by Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith in the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that the Pentagon paid more than $660 million to a British public relations firm to run a top-secret propaganda program in Iraq from at least 2006 to December 2011.

The firm, Bell Pottinger, produced three kinds of products: TV commercials that portrayed al-Qaeda in a negative light, news items intended to look like Arabic TV and fake al-Qaeda propaganda films.

A former Bell Pottinger video editor, Martin Wells, told the bureau that he was given precise instructions for production of fake al-Qaeda films, and that the firm’s work was approved by former Gen. David Petraeus — the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq — and on occasion by the White House. Black and Fielding-Smith reported that the United States used contractors because “the military didn’t have the in-house expertise and was operating in a legal ‘gray area.’”

The reporters “traced the firm’s Iraq work through U.S. Army contracting censuses, federal procurement transaction records and reports by the Defense Department’s inspector general, as well as Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda.” Black and Fielding-Smith also interviewed former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq.

Documents show Bell Pottinger employed as many as 300 British and Iraqi staff at one point, and the cost of the company’s media operations in Iraq averaged more than $100 million per year. It’s remarkable that an operation on this scale has been totally ignored in midst of so much focus on “fake news” here in the United States.

4. Voter Suppression in the 2016 Presidential Election

The 2016 election was the first in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court struck down a key provision requiring jurisdictions with a history of violations to “pre-clear” changes. As a result, changes to voting laws in nine states and parts of six others with long histories of racial discrimination in voting were no longer subject to federal government approval in advance.

Since Shelby, 14 states, including many southern states and key swing states, implemented new voting restrictions, in many cases just in time for the election. These included restrictive voter-identification laws in Texas and North Carolina, English-only elections in many Florida counties, the last-minute relocation of polling places as well as the implementation of changes in Arizona voting laws that the Department of Justice had rejected before the Shelby decision.

Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, was foremost among a small number of non-mainstream journalists to cover the suppression efforts and their results. In May 2017, he reported that an analysis of the effects of voter suppression by Priorities U.S.A, showed that strict voter-ID laws in Wisconsin and other states resulted in a “significant reduction” in voter turnout in 2016 with “a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters.” Berman noted that turnout was reduced by 200,000 votes in Wisconsin, while Donald Trump won the state by just over 22,000 votes.

Nationwide, the study found that new voter-ID laws significantly reduced voter turnout for elections from 2012 to 2016.  In counties that were more than 40 percent African-American, turnout dropped five percent — more than twice the 2.2 percent reductions in places where the rules stayed the same. In counties where African Americans comprised less than 10 percent  of the population, election turnouts decreased 0.7 percent under new voter-ID laws. Where there were no changes to voting laws, they increased their election turnouts by 1.9 percent.

“This study provides more evidence for the claim that voter-ID laws are designed not to stop voter impersonation fraud, which is virtually nonexistent, but to make it harder for certain communities to vote,” Berman concluded.

As Berman noted in an article published by Moyers & Co. in December 2016, the topic of “gutting” the Voting Rights Act did not arise once during the 26 presidential debates prior to the election, and “

[c]

able news devoted hours and hours to Trump’s absurd claim that the election was rigged against him while spending precious little time on the real threat that voters faced.”

5. Big Data and Dark Money Behind the 2016 Election

When Richard Nixon first ran for Congress in 1946, he and his supporters used a wide range of dirty tricks aimed at smearing his opponent as pro-Communist. One was a boiler-room operation that generated phone calls to registered Democrats and simply said, “This is a friend of yours, but I can’t tell you who I am. Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?” Then the caller would hang up.

In 2016, the same basic strategy was employed, but with decades of refinement, technological advances and massively more money behind it. A key player in its deployment was right-wing computer scientist and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who contributed $13.5 million to Trump’s campaign  Mercer also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies” and using “psychographic” microtargeting — based on thousands of pieces of data for some 220 million American voters — as Carole Cadwalladr reported for The Guardian in February 2017.

“We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” said Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix, after Trump’s victory.

Until recently, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, participated in elections across Europe, Africa and the Caribbean with a style that was more old-school. In Trinidad, it paid for the painting of graffiti slogans that were generally assumed to be the work of grassroots youth. In Nigeria, it advised its client party to suppress the vote of the opposition “by organizing anti-poll rallies on the day of the election.”

These days, however, their approach is decidedly new-school, thanks to technology that enables them to micro-target their deceptive, disruptive messaging. “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven” after they joined the campaign, Nix said in September 2016. On the day of the third presidential debate, Trump’s team “tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments” via Facebook.

This messaging had everything to do with how targeted voters would respond, not with Trump’s or Mercer’s views. In a New Yorker profile, Jane Mayer noted that Mercer argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major mistake, a subject not remotely hinted at during the campaign.

“Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy — sweep everything else off the table — even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views,” Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, told Mayer.

With the real patterns of influence, ideology, money, power and belief hidden from view, the very concept of democratic self-governance is now fundamentally at risk.

6. Antibiotic Resistant “Superbugs” Threaten Health and Foundations of Modern Medicine

Anson Stevens-Bollen, Santa Fe Reporter

The problem of antibiotics giving rise to more dangerous drug-resistant microorganisms (“superbugs”) has been present since the early days of penicillin, but has now reached a crisis, with companies creating dangerous superbugs when their factories leak industrial waste, as reported by Madlen Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in September 2016. Factories in China and India, where the majority of worldwide antibiotics are manufactured, have released “untreated waste fluid” into local soils and waters, leading to increases in antimicrobial resistance that diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and threaten the foundations of modern medicine.

“After bacteria in the environment become resistant, they can exchange genetic material with other germs, spreading antibiotic resistance around the world, according to an assessment issued by the European Public Health Alliance, which served as the basis for Davies’s news report,” Projected Censored explained. One strain of drug-resistant bacterium that originated in India in 2014 has spread to 70 other countries.

Superbugs have already killed an estimated 25,000 people across Europe, thus globally posing “as big a threat as terrorism,” according to a UK National Health Service Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies.

“At the heart of the issue is how to motivate pharmaceutical companies to improve their production practices,” Project Censored noted. “With strong demand for antibiotics, the companies continue to profit despite the negative consequences of their actions…. The EPHA assessment recommended five responses that major purchasers of medicines could implement to help stop antibiotic pollution. Among these recommendations are blacklisting pharmaceutical companies that contribute to the spread of superbugs through irresponsible practices, and promoting legislation to incorporate environmental criteria into the industry’s good manufacturing practices.”

Superbugs are especially threatening modern medicine, in which a wide range of sophisticated practices — organ transplants, joint replacements, cancer chemotherapy and care of pre-term infants — “will become more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake,” said Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization.

“Although the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes is well documented in scientific publications, there is little to no coverage on superbugs in the corporate press,” Project Censored noted. “What corporate news coverage there is tends to exaggerate the risks and consequences of natural outbreaks — as seen during the Ebola scare in the United States in 2014 — rather than reporting on the preventable spread of superbugs by irresponsible pharmaceutical companies.”

Once again, it’s not just a problem of suppressing a single story, but two overlapping patterns — the biological problem of superbugs and political economy problem of the corporate practices that produce them so wantonly.

7. The Toll of Navy Training on Wildlife in the North Pacific

The Navy has killed, injured or harassed marine mammals in the North Pacific almost 12 million times over a five-year period, according to research conducted by the West Coast Action Alliance and reported by Dahr Jamail for Truthout. The casualties include endangered species such as humpback whales, blue whales, gray whales, sperm whales, steller sea lions and sea otters. The number of destroyed and damaged marine lives was derived from the Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing environmental impact statement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s letter of authorization, which report the number of “takes” of marine mammals caused by Navy exercises.

“A ‘take’ is a form of harm to an animal that ranges from harassment, to injury, and sometimes to death,” Jamail wrote. “Many wildlife conservationists see even ‘takes’ that only cause behavior changes as injurious, because chronic harassment of animals that are feeding or breeding can end up harming, or even contributing to their deaths if they are driven out of habitats critical to their survival.”

As the alliance noted, this does not include impacts on “endangered and threatened seabirds, fish, sea turtles or terrestrial species” due to Navy activities. Those activities have dramatically expanded, according to the Navy’s October 2015 environmental impact statement. These include:

  • A 778 percent increase in number of torpedoes
  • A 400 percent increase in air-to-surface missile exercises (including Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary)
  • A 1,150 percent increase in drone aircraft
  • An increase from none to 284 sonar testing events in inland waters

“It is, and has been for quite some time now, well known in the scientific community that the Navy’s use of sonar can damage and kill marine life,” Jamail reported.

“With little oversight on Navy training activities, the public is left in the dark regarding their environmental impacts, including especially how Navy operations impact fish in the North Pacific and marine life at the bottom of the food chain,” Project Censored noted. “There has been almost no coverage of these impacts in the corporate press.”

8. Maternal Mortality a Growing Threat in the U.S.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate is rising, even as it declines across the developed world. Serious injuries and complications are needlessly even more widespread with shockingly little attention being paid.

“Each year more than 600 women in the United States die from pregnancy-related causes and more than 65,000 experience life-threatening complications or severe maternal morbidity,” Elizabeth Dawes Gay reported, covering an April 2016 congressional briefing organized by Women’s Policy Inc. “The average national rate of maternal mortality has increased from 12 per 100,000 live births in 1998 to 15.9 in 2012, after peaking at 17.8 in 2011.”

“The U.S. is the only nation in the developed world with a rising maternal mortality rate,” Rep. Lois Capps stated at the meeting.

“Inadequate health care in rural areas and racial disparities are drivers of this maternal health crisis,” Project Censored summarized. “Nationally, African-American women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes, with rates even higher in parts of the U.S. that Gay characterized as ‘pockets of neglect,’ such as Georgia, where the 2011 maternal mortality rate of 28.7 per 100,000 live births was nearly double the national average.”

The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health has developed safety bundles of ‘best practices, guidelines and protocols to improve maternal health care quality and safety,’” Gay wrote. “These ‘bundles’ include equipping hospital labor units with a fully stocked cart for immediate hemorrhage treatment, establishing a hospital-level emergency management protocol, conducting regular staff drills and reviewing all cases to learn from past mistakes, among other things.”

More broadly, Kiera Butler reported for Mother Jones that doctors rarely warn patients of the potential for serious injuries and complications that can occur following birth.

“Women have a right to make informed decisions about their bodies and serious medical situations; however, when it comes to birth and its aftereffects, Butler found that doctors simply are not providing vital information,” Project Censored summarized.

Many state laws require doctors to inform women of the potential complications and dangers associated with delivery, but none require them to discuss potential long-term problems, including the fact that some complications are more prevalent in women who give birth vaginally, rather than by cesarean section.

“All told, according to a 2008 study by researchers at the California HMO Kaiser Permanente, about one in three women suffer from a pelvic floor disorder (a category that includes urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and prolapse), and roughly 80 percent of those women are mothers,” Butler reported. “Women who deliver vaginally are twice as likely to experience these injuries as women who have a cesarean or who have not given birth. For one in 10 women, the problem is severe enough to warrant surgery.”

“The corporate news media have paid limited attention to maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S.,” Project Censored notes. There have been scattered stories, but nothing remotely close to the sort of sustained coverage that is warranted.

9. Primaries? Dems Say Party Empowered to Pick Prez Candidate

A key story about 2016 election has mostly been ignored by the media — a class-action lawsuit alleging that the Democratic National Committee broke legally-binding neutrality agreements in the Democratic primaries by strategizing to make Hillary Clinton the nominee before a single vote was cast. The lawsuit was filed against the DNC and its former chair,  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in June 2016 by Beck & Lee, a Miami law firm, on behalf of supporters of Bernie Sanders. At an April 27 hearing,  DNC lawyers argued that neutrality was not actually required and that the court had no jurisdiction to assess neutral treatment.

As Michael Sainato reported for the Observer, DNC attorneys claimed that Article V, Section 4 of the DNC Charter, which instructs the DNC chair and staff to ensure neutrality in the Democratic presidential primaries, is actually “a discretionary rule” that the DNC “didn’t need to adopt to begin with.” In addition, DNC attorney Bruce Spiva later said it was within the DNC’s rights to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” Sainato also reported that DNC attorneys argued that specific terms used in the DNC charter, including “impartial” and “evenhanded,” couldn’t be interpreted in a court of law, because it would “drag the Court … into a political question and a question of how the party runs its own affairs.”

Jared Beck, representing the Sanders supporters, responded, “Your Honor, I’m shocked to hear that we can’t define what it means to be evenhanded and impartial. If that were the case, we couldn’t have courts. I mean, that’s what courts do every day, is decide disputes in an evenhanded and impartial manner.”

Not only was running elections in a fair and impartial manner a “bedrock assumption” of democracy, Beck argued earlier, it was also a binding commitment for the DNC: “That’s what the Democratic National Committee’s own charter says,” he said. “It says it in black and white.”

Much of the reporting and commentary on the broader subject of the DNC’s collusion with the Clinton campaign has been speculative and misdirected, focused on questions about voter fraud and countered by accusations of indulging in “conspiracy theory.” But this trial focuses on documentary evidence and questions of law — all publicly visible yet still treated as suspect, when not simply ignored out of hand.

As Project Censored notes, “[E]ven Michael Sainato’s reporting — which has consistently used official documents, including the leaked DNC emails and courtroom transcripts, as primary sources — has been repeatedly labeled “opinion” — rather than straight news reporting — by his publisher, the Observer.”

10. A Record Year for Global Internet Shutdowns: 2016

According to the digital rights organization Access Now, in 2016 the world’s governments shut down internet access more than 50 times, “suppressing elections, slowing economies and limiting free speech,” as Lyndal Rowlands reported for the Inter Press Service.

“In the worst cases internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations,” Rowlands was told by Deji Olukotun, of Access Now. “What we have found is that internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities.” Olukotun said.

Kevin Collier also covered the report for Vocativ, noting that Access Now uses a “conservative metric,” counting “repeated, similar outages,” like those which occurred during Gabon’s widely criticized internet “curfew,” as a single instance. The Vocativ report included a dynamic map chart, designed by Kaitlyn Kelly, that vividly depicts internet shutdowns around the world, month by month for all of 2016, as documented by Access Now.

“Many countries intentionally blacked out Internet access during elections and to quell protest. Not only do these shutdowns restrict freedom of speech, they also hurt economies around the world,” Project Censored notes. “TechCrunch, IPS, and other independent news organizations reported that a Brookings Institution study found that Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion between July 2015 and June 2016” — a conservative estimate according to the study’s author, Darrell West.

As Olukotun told IPS, one way to stop government shutdowns is for internet providers to resist government demands.

“Telecommunications companies can push back on government orders, or at least document them to show what’s been happening, to at least have a paper trail,” Olukotun observed.

On July 1, 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution signed by more than 70 countries lauding the Internet’s “great potential to accelerate human progress,” and condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.” It noted that, “the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the Internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance.”

Yet, “understanding what this means for Internet users can be difficult,” Azad Essa reported for Al Jazeera in May 2017. Advocates of online rights “need to be constantly pushing for laws that protect this space and demand that governments meet their obligations in digital spaces just as in non-digital spaces,” he was told by the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.

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