Monday, April 02, 2007

Book Review: Censored 2007

Full Title: Censored 2007, The Top 25 Censored Stories
Author: Peter Phillips and Project Censored

First off, don’t be confused by the title; this book isn’t the top 25 censored stories of 2007, which has hardly begun; it’s the top 25 censored stories of the past year or so. It’s a compendium of censored news stories, which they put out every year—this is simply the 2007 edition.

The concept of the book is flawless: the media is biased—whether because of some grand conspiracy, or because of media consolidation, or because that’s just the way it is—and this book looks at media bias, from the point of view of important stories that were not covered, or were under-covered, by the mainstream media. Project Censored monitors the media, and reports on stories that the mainstream media refuses to. (Or gives such short shrift to that the general public is never aware of the story’s significance.) The project is managed through Sonoma State University’s Department of Sociology.

Unfortunately, the execution of the book is poor. They obviously didn’t have a strong editorial staff, and a lot of sloppy writing, poor grammar, and punctuation mistakes made it through. The most common problem I found was that the author would begin a quotation, with open quotation marks (“), but never close it. For example, consider the following paragraph, in the Halliburton Charged with Selling Nuclear Technologies to Iran story:

Collins supports the legislation, stating, “It prevents U.S. corporations from creating a shell company somewhere else in order to do business with rogue, terror-sponsoring nations such as Syria and Iran. The bottom line is that if a U.S. company is evading sanctions to do business with one of these countries, they are helping to prop up countries that support terrorism—most often aimed against America.

This paragraph was at the end of a section, so there was no following paragraph. There are two sentences, after the open quote, so my question is: Did Collins utter both sentences, or just the first, and the second is the author’s comment, expanding on Collins’ sentence? There’s no way to know. This is the first example I found, as I went looking for them for this post, but this was a common mistake that I found throughout the book.

I also found an air of “breathless journalism” throughout many parts of the book. (Not the entire book, mind you; it seems to depend on who the main editors were for any given chapter.)

Another problem I had with the book is that it sometimes showed poor judgement. For example, the first chapter in the book, The Top Censored Stories of 2005 and 2006, was mostly good. There were some stories I knew about, but agreed had been under-covered, and there were some that were new to me. But there was also one called Physicist Concludes Official September 11 Explanation is Implausible, in which they expand on the theory that, yep, you guessed it, the buildings didn’t crash on September 11th because they were hit by planes, they came down because of demolition. In other words, the U.S. purposely brought down their own buildings, and just blamed it on the terrorists.

This is a theory being put forward by the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement. Fortunately, this theory has been thoroughly debunked—the “science” involved by the people trying to prove the buildings were demolished is not solid. But the theory causes a lot of problems for the general public anyway; click here for an article describing why this crackpot theory is more than just a nuisance (my words, not the article’s author). The fact that this story was included in the book brings the book’s credibility level down a notch; while much of the book is centred on credible news, it also has this section which gives credence to a crackpot theory, which leads me to question any other stories I wasn’t familiar with.

On a positive note, however, I loved the chapter called Junk Food News and News Abuse. I’ll let the book speak for itself on this one:

One early criticism of Project Censored was from editors and publishers claiming that what the project refers to as censorship is simply a disagreement with the decisions they make regarding what is or is not newsworthy. During the first published volume of Censored research in 1993, founder Carl Jensen addressed this complaint and discussed the reasoning behind his creation of the Junk Food News chapter:

“Many news professionals have said that the issue isn’t so much censorship (or self-censorship) per se, as it is a difference of opinion about precisely what information is important to publish or broadcast. They also point out that there is a finite amount of time and space for news delivery—about twenty-three minutes for a half hour network television evening news program—and that it’s their responsibility to determine which stories are most critical for the public to know.

This struck me as a legitimate argument, so I decided to review the stories that editors and news directors consider to be most worthy of filling their valuable time and space. However, in the course of this research project, I did not find an abundance of hard hitting investigative journalism. Quite the contrary. Indeed, what did become evident was a journalistic phenomenon I call Junk Food News (JFN), which, in essence, represents the flip side of the “Best Censored Stories.” The typical JFN diet consists of sensationalized, personalized and homogenized trivia…. The problem is not the lack of time and space for news, but the quality of the news selected to fill that time and space. We’re suffering from news inflation—there seems to be more of it than ever before, but it isn’t worth as much as it used to be.

News should be nutritious for society. We need more steak and less sizzle from the press. The news should warn us about things that make our society ill, whether economically, politically, or physically. And there is such news out there, as Project Censored has revealed time and again.”

Carl Jenson, Censored 1993

In essence, this chapter of the book covers some of the biggest “Junk Food News” stories of 2005 and 2006, while contrasting them with the stories that the mainstream media didn’t cover. To give the first example in the chapter, on March 20th, 2006, there were a few interesting stories that the mainstream media could have covered, such as:
  • An Iraqi police report charging U.S. troops with the deaths of local, non-combatant civilians.
  • A study by glaciologists warning that the world’s mountain glaciers are melting at a faster rate than at any time in the last 150 years
  • The Archbisohp of Canterbury announced that he did not believe Creationism should be taught in schools, and called on U.S. fundamentalists to discontinue their campaign to force the issue in public classrooms. This one was big news in Europe, even though it wasn’t covered in American news.
Why weren’t these stories covered? Because the mainstream media was too busy covering the fact that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might have gotten married. Might have gotten married. Oy.

This was one example. Here is the list of JFN stories that made it into this issue of Censored:
  1. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get together
  2. Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson break up
  3. American Idol hits an all time high
  4. The Runaway Bride that didn’t
  5. Martha Stewart is back in town
  6. Brokeback Mountain breaks through
  7. Britney Spears (it just wouldn’t be a list without her)
  8. Myspace infiltrates our space
  9. Steroids in Baseball get pumped up
  10. The DaVinci Code ad nauseum
In addition to the “Junk Food”, they also have a section of the chapter dedicated to “News Abuse”. These are stories which, in the Censored editors’ opinions, really were newsworthy, but that got so much air time that their importance was skewed. In addition, because these stories get so much air time, other newsworthy stories go untold. Here is the list they presented in this edition:
  1. Natalie Holloway
  2. Bird Flu
  3. Finger in Wendy’s Chili Bowl
  4. Dick Cheney Shoots Friend
  5. Katrina Criminals in Superdome
The “Bird Flu” one especially interested me, so I’ll quote it here:

Like the terror alert updates in 2002, forewarnings of avian flu pervaded the twenty-four hour news channels throughout 2005. The specter of a world wide influenza pandemic is nothing to be taken lightly and news editors were warranted in their decision to cover such a possibility. But most U.S. coverage of the avian flu focused on the potential for genetic mutations that would make it more deadly, and comparisons to the 1918 influenza pandemic that took some 500,000 lives (despite the fact that Avian Flu has, as of 2006, caused less than 125 deaths worldwide).

In 2005, the fact that a U.S. company had developed a vaccine for the avian flu, and its stock price was increasing, received some scant coverage in the press. Yet, though the information was readily available, no one in the mainstream mentioned that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was chairman of the board of Tamiflu’s parent company (Gilead Sciences) until he became Defense Secretary in 2001—and that he is still a major stockholder. Since Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary, Gilead’s stock price has gone from around $7 per share to slightly above $50 a share in 2006. In October 2005, as Tamiflu was becoming the hottest drug in the world market, the Pentagon announced it had stockpiled quantities of Tamiflu for members of the military.

Hmm. So the Avian Flu scare, while somewhat valid, was also very much overhyped? And the person initiating the over-hyping, the Defense Secretary, was also getting rich from it, but the mainstream media never bothered to mention it? You can see why a book like Censored 2007 is so important.

All in all, although it pains me to say it, I don’t really recommend the book, unless you have time on your hands, and are able to research some of the stories yourself. Aside from the grammatical mistakes, which our minds are capable of working around, the main thing that worries me is the story claiming that the World Trade Center was brought down by the U.S. and not by the planes. If they let a story like that get through, what other stories are lacking in credibility? So if you see any stories in the book which you didn’t know about ahead of time, you then have to do some research on your own, to find out if they’re real stories. Maybe that’s what the authors wanted, but in effect, all it does is place this book in the “conspiracy theory” camp. Which is a shame, because there are other stories in here which I know are true, and the main thrust of the book is right on: They’re stories that should have been told, and the mainstream media let the public down by not reporting them.