Words

State of the 
Free Press

Missing patterns in the news

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the end of a free press?

The global pandemic has functioned like an X-ray, starkly exposing fateful compound fractures in American society. Beyond its terrible toll on human life, the pandemic has made clearer than ever before structural weaknesses in fundamental U.S. institutions and the nationwide malignancy of chronic racial prejudices and economic inequalities.

“The pandemic has not spared journalism, and any assessment of contemporary assessment of the free press must necessarily begin with the coronavirus and its impacts,” write media analysts Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff in the introduction to their new book, Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2020, cataloguing the news stories that unfolded below the fold of traditional news coverage.

“The pandemic has accelerated two trends that imperil journalism and the free flow of information upon which the profession depends,” they observe.

Approximately 36,000 employees of news media companies in the United States have been “laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus,” the New York Times recently reported. But these media companies were already under considerable financial strain before the pandemic, due to the rise of social media and competition for revenue in an era where traditional funding models for news have collapsed.

“In some ways the modern corporate press is worse than it has ever been in taking on powerful interests, and less interested than ever in addressing wealth inequality or the problems of poor people,” writes Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi in the foreword to this year’s collection of stories.

“News companies hate stories about inequality for a variety of reasons, but especially because they’re a bummer: advertisers know images of deprivation and suffering depress the urge to buy, which is why we typically don’t see poverty on TV unless it’s being chased by police. Hard to sell Buicks,” Taibbi muses.

“The modern media consumer has been trained to worry first and foremost about assigning blame, and to perceive the world as a vast left/right battleground in which problems only exist because (circle one) Democrats/Republicans allow it,” he observes.

In other words, Taibbi writes, the news media is now not merely in the business of ignoring certain types of stories, but “actively engaged in teaching audiences to disbelieve in the very existence of such stories.” As a result, modern audiences often have an easier time believing outlandish conspiracy theories or “fake news” than in certain kinds of system corruption.

Every year since 1976, Project Censored has performed an invaluable service—shedding light on the most significant news that’s somehow not fit to print.

But in a changing media landscape, even the mission of Project Censored has adjusted with the times:

“Censorship in an authoritarian society is obvious, from a distance, at least. There is a central agent or agency responsible for it, and the lines are clearly drawn. That’s not the case in America—yet some stories rarely, if ever, see the light of day, such as stories about violence against Native American women and girls, even though four out of five of them experience violence at some point in their lives. The linkage between environmental degradation, cultural disruption and violence against Native American women is strong, yet underreported.

“The primary purpose of Project Censored is to explore and publicize the extent of news censorship in our society by locating stories about significant issues of which the public should be aware, but is not, for a variety of reasons,” wrote founder Carl Jensen on the organization’s 20th anniversary.

This year, for example, among Project Censored’s top 10 stories there are two stories about violence and victimization of women of color, including the role of media neglect: #1. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (introduced above) and #7. Underreporting of Missing and Victimized Black Women and Girls. There are similarities as well as differences between them, and being able to see them both together in Project Censored’s list helps us see them both more fully as distinct, yet connected stories.

There are also stories concerning the media itself (#2. Monsanto “Intelligence Center” Targeted Journalists and Activists and #6. Shadow Network of Conservative Outlets Emerges to Exploit Faith in Local News); there are two climate-change stories about overlooked causes and risks (#3. U.S. Military—A Massive, Hidden Contributor to Climate Crisis and #9. Rising Risks of Nuclear Power Due to Climate Change) while a third (#4. Congressional Investments and Conflicts of Interest) had a climate-change component—senators’ fossil fuel investments; and two related to income inequality (#5. Inequality Kills: Gap between Richest and Poorest Americans Largest in 50 Years, about the problem itself and #8. The Public Banking Revolution, about a promising way to support a more equitable economy). Further climate-change threads are woven through these stories—a highlighted connection between the extractive fossil-fuel industry and violence against Native women.

Intriguingly, Item #10 in this year’s list explores a strategy to revive local media through a “public option” of new community investments.

The stories listed are only part of what Project Censored does, however. Chapters are devoted to other forms of obfuscation that help keep censored stories obscured. There’s a chapter on “Junk Food News,” meaning cheaply produced stories focused on celebrityhood, industry-generated buzz, and other trivia in place of substantive investigative journalism, and another devoted to “News Abuse,” meaning genuinely important topics presented through a distorted lens or two. There’s also a chapter devoted to “Déjà Vu News,” tracking previous Project Censored stories to update them and track whether they’ve gained some of the wider attention they deserve. And the chapter “Media Democracy in Action” highlights individuals and organizations engaged in building a more inclusive, equitable and democratic society.

A slimmer volume than in past years, this book is still packed with information.

Project Censored’s List of the Top Underreported Stories of 2020.

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