Too often, the corporate media decides which news stories get attention — and which get ignored.
Exacerbating this situation is the lack of media literacy on the part of so many citizens and the power of big tech to control so much of what we see.
And yet independent journalism outlets, like WhoWhatWhy, continue to make an impact. Every year, my guest, Andy Lee Roth — one of the founders and co-editors of Project Censored — together with his colleagues selects the 25 most significant stories from independent journalists that you might never have seen otherwise.
This year, two of those stories were exclusively reported first by WhoWhatWhy. Roth joins us on this week’s podcast to talk about these stories, as well as the state of the free press in general and the influence of the internet, algorithms, and AI on public discourse today.
At its best, independent and investigative journalism, he says, acts as a vital check on the self-serving complacency of corporate media, which so often caters to the ever-shorter attention span of the audience.
This year’s 45th volume of Project Censored State of the Free Press 2022 includes two important WhoWhatWhy exclusives, which Roth discusses in-depth:
Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Some would argue that for journalism, it’s both the best of times and the worst of times. The barriers to entry in the digital age have geometrically increased the number of outlets, yet very few of those outlets are able to rise above the power of the traditional corporate media. Traditional media still decides which stories get attention and which ones don’t, and our withering attention span only accelerates that power. The result is a level of corporate media bias and censorship that is sometimes not even intentional but the result of economic forces at play. That’s why independent journalism like WhoWhatWhy and local journalism is so important to the state of the free press.
Keeping an eye on that free press is the role that my guest Andy Lee Roth has played in his role as associate director of Project Censored. Since 1976, Project Censored has been at the forefront of the fight against censorship and the campaign for greater media literacy. Each year, they publish their State of the Free Press, which looks back on the challenges and victories of the previous year, and compiles a list of the top 25 censored or underreported stories.
And this year, once again, WhoWhatWhy is proud to be a part of that volume, contributing two of this year’s top 25 stories. Andy Lee Roth has co-edited 11 previous editions of the Project Censored Yearbook, he’s associate director of Project Censored and coordinator of the project’s campus affiliates program, his research and writing have been published in a variety of outlets, he serves on the board of the Media Freedom Foundation and is a graduate of UCLA and Haverford College. It is my pleasure to welcome Andy Lee Roth here to the podcast. Andy, thanks so much for joining us.
Andy Lee Roth: Thank you for that kind introduction, Jeff, and for featuring some of the work of Project Censored. It’s a pleasure to join you.
Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Talk a little bit about the history of Project Censored. It goes back really to the mid-1970s and took place mostly in Northern California.
Andy: That’s exactly right. Project Censored was founded by Carl Jensen, who was at the time a faculty member at Sonoma State University, teaching in the sociology and communications departments. The project was founded when a student in one of Carl’s courses asked Carl a question about news coverage of Watergate and the re-election of Richard Nixon that Carl felt he didn’t have an adequate answer to. At a basic point being on the night that Nixon was re-elected as president, the networks didn’t make a single mention of the Watergate scandal, even though that story was a public story by that point in time. The question was why wasn’t that covered?
That set Carl and that cohort of students off on a investigative project that continues to this day. The project now is expanded beyond the campus of Sonoma State University. We have a campus affiliates program that links students and faculty at some two dozen colleges and universities across North America. But we’re still doing the same thing that Carl and his students did that first year, way back in 1976. We’re tracking important but underreported stories, stories that have been covered by the independent press and either marginalized or ignored altogether by the corporate news media.
Jeff: In the years of doing this, how many of these stories, not by specific number, but percentage in the sense that you get of it, have been as a result of stories that are underreported simply because it’s just not something that the corporate media thought was important enough or provocative enough. How much of it has been a real effort to cover up particular stories?
Andy: Well, I think that’s a difficult question. It’s a lot easier for us to track and document, as a matter of fact, what stories have and have not been covered than to establish, as a matter of fact, the reasons why because those, of course, go to decisions that we’re not privy to, that are not public processes. We can say, at this point, the project has amassed basically 45 years of what we call censored stories, and I can come back in a moment and unpack the notion in which these are censored stories. With 45 years of top 25 stories, we can start to discern patterns in the kinds of stories that do and don’t get covered.
I like very much the formulation of one of Project Censored’s judges, Robert Hackett, who founded Newswatch Canada inspired by Project Censored. So Newswatch Canada is the Canadian cousin to the project’s focus here in the U.S. Bob Hackett’s assessment is that the corporate media are very good at covering what went wrong today, but they’re quite poor at covering what goes wrong every day. I think if you look at stories that make this year’s top 25 list, or if you look back at the historical record of previous years’ top 25 lists, all of which by the way are archived on the Project Censored website at projectcensored.org, if you look back at any given year’s list or the accumulative data set of the whole list, what you’ll find is that corporate news media often are poor at doing a good reporting on systemic social problems.
The kinds of problems that don’t result in a dramatic sensational event today, like a ship sinking or an airplane crashing, but the grinding inequalities and abuses of power that are daily affairs. Those tend to be peripheral to the interests of the corporate news media but also something that I think independent news media which, of course, the project champions and WhoWhatWhy is an outstanding example of just this, are oriented in different ways. There are a number of, I think, organizational institutional factors that differentiate independent news media and corporate news media that result in these significant differences in patterns of the kinds of stories that do or don’t get covered.
Jeff: As you look at this history, and you look at the kinds of stories that really have been championed by independent media, talk a little bit about how that’s evolved over the years, and what you’ve seen change in terms of the way these stories have come to light.
Andy: Well, the internet is obviously a huge shaper of how news is produced and distributed now. I was faculty at Sonoma State University back when Peter Phillips was one of my colleagues in the sociology department at that time, the director of Project Censored, the project second director. Peter took over when Carl Jensen stepped down. And I can remember being in Peter’s investigative journalism and media courses at Sonoma State, where he would walk into the classroom, the seminar classroom, and there would be, say, 15 or 20 students sitting around the seminar table ready to get going on that semester’s work. And Peter would literally hand out print copies of Mother Jones magazine in these time’s fair’s latest print publication.
And this was in the early 2000s. A lot of that research for Project Censored at the time was still based on print media. Of course, now, those outlets and many others like them still publish wonderful and beautiful print magazines. I think of YES! Magazine and High Country News as independent news outlets with just lush beautiful print editions of their reporting, but everything has moved online.
And at some level that’s a wonderful thing because it means for instance, for the working of the project, we can now have a campus affiliates program where the several hundred students and faculty who are researching independent news stories each annual cycle may never actually meet each other in person. Yet we can coordinate our efforts because we’re connected digitally. And the materials that we’re researching are available digitally online.
The downside of that, as I’ve written some about, is, of course, in terms of the circulation of news, we now are increasingly dependent on social media platforms and other online spaces that are controlled by big tech that don’t see themselves as journalistic organizations but nonetheless have incredible power to control the flow of news and information on those platforms through those social media networks, and I’ve written some about this is in effect the new gatekeeping, it’s algorithmic.
And it’s not necessarily the direct product of old-fashioned editors making decisions about what we see or don’t see. It’s now done algorithmically through artificial intelligence in ways that we don’t have nearly as much access to. So I think that’s at least one major change in the news media landscape since the founding of the project that everyone probably listening here is aware of at some level.
But we can always dig deeper, and learn more. I think this is part of the project’s interest in championing of critical media literacy. When we use, say, Google to do a search, that’s not a neutral tool. The Google search engine or the DuckDuckGo search engine or whatever search engine we use operates on the basis of algorithms that shape the results of our searches in ways that are not necessarily neutral.
And so I think when you apply that to news, we’re adding a whole another level of decision making and control about what news stories are prominent and what news stories we’re unlikely to ever hear of at all unless we actively seek out reporting on that topic.
Jeff: In many ways, the agenda-setting of the corporate media influences in a profound way that algorithmic decision-making that takes place on those platforms.
Andy: Yes. Agenda-setting is such a huge issue for the work that the project is oriented to and the kind of critical media literacy that we’re about. That term originates in communications and sociology, just disciplines oriented to media, and originally meant the idea that the big news organizations set the agenda for what the public considers important and worth talking about.
Now, I think we have to talk about agenda setting at the level of organizations that, as I mentioned, don’t see themselves as journalistic outlets. Google, Facebook, Twitter have an agenda-setting function. One of the things that I like to note, though, as a countervailing pressure to that corporate control of news, there’s another agenda-setting dynamic that hasn’t been studied or even acknowledged as much by sociologists who study news production. I’m mentioning sociology because that’s my training, my background, which is the agenda-setting function of the independent news media.
And one of the things that Project Censored we can see based on this long run of decades of looking at news media coverage, independent and corporate, is that oftentimes, independent news media have an agenda-setting function for the corporate news media. Independent news media will cover stories that the corporate news media have not been covering, and by the independent coverage, they will put pressure on corporate news outlets to intersect, track and follow those stories.
And one of the ways that we can see that is we — one of the features in every year Censored Yearbook is our deja vu news chapter where we go back and look at — we select a handful of stories from previous years’ top 25 lists, and we look at what’s happened to those stories since they were first reported by the independent press and covered by Project Censored. And some of those stories do in fact break through to “mainstream,” i.e., corporate news coverage, and that’s an important agenda-setting effect that I think scholars who study the news media have not fully acknowledged at the expense of our understanding of just how important independent news media is. That’s another dimension: the pressure that independent news media put on corporate news media to cover stories that might not otherwise get covered.
So we tend to think about the press as a form of check and balance on government power, but another form of checks and balances are the role that independent news media play on corporate news media.
Jeff: And talk a little bit about Project Censored State of the Free Press 2022. In a moment, we’ll talk about some of the WhoWhatWhy content that is part of that, but tell us a little bit about this year’s volume first.
Andy: We’re so proud of this latest yearbook, I have to say. Humblebrag, I guess, maybe for a moment from the cover of the book, which is another fantastic illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen depicting the Statue of Liberty trying to push back the hands of time to some imaginary normal to the top 25 story list that includes stories like how the high cost of prescription drugs may become a leading cause of deaths for elderly Americans to the historic wave of wildcat strikes for workers rights, and how police dogs have been used as instruments of violence, especially targeting people of color.
We have a fantastic top 25 story list this year that some 209 students from 10 different colleges and universities helped us identify that and present. We have, of course, I mentioned earlier, the annual deja vu news chapter which looks back at some previous stories. That chapter this year was written by a number of students from North Central College under the guidance of Steve Macek, who’s one of my Project Censored colleagues.
So we’re looking back at how private prison companies fund anti-immigrant legislation, the story from our 2012 book and updating that story, as well as looking back more recently to a 2019 top 10 story about the FBI racially profiling Black identity extremists, and what’s happened with that story. The Bureau continues its short answer — the Bureau changed the name. They no longer use the Black identity extremist terminology. They now talk about racially motivated violent extremism.
But when you have a program as the FBI launched after the project’s initial coverage of the BIE acronym use by the FBI, they launched a program called Iron Fist that basically is continuing to surveil and investigate Black activists. So we look back at stories like that. We talk about junk food news, the term Carl Jensen coined when journalists said — this is back in the early days where we started talking — journalists and editors would say, “Carl, the critique is unfair. There’s only so much time in the evening broadcast, there are only so many column inches in the newspaper, we can’t cover everything.” That was the defense when Carl started producing these top 25 lists.
And Carl said — so he decided to start looking at what they did cover, and a lot of it was what he called junk food news. Frivolous sensational stories that kind of like a bag of potato chips, you can knock back the whole bag, and when you get to the last crumbs, you have a stomach ache, but you still haven’t really been nourished.
And so where this year, that chapter was written by Mickey Huff, my colleague at the project, the project’s current director, and students and colleagues of his at Diablo Valley College, and they have some great stuff on Gorilla Glue girl, and how TikTok during the pandemic has been a purveyor of a specific form of junk food news that they analyze: it’s humilitainment.
TikTok thrives on humilitainment, and Gorilla Glue girl, the young woman who ostensibly made a mistake and tried to style her hair with Gorilla Glue only to find out perhaps to her real or feigned surprise that this was not such a good idea. That video didn’t just go viral on TikTok. It was covered as news by a number of prominent national news outlets. So the junk food news chapter always juxtaposes these sensational, frivolous stories with actual hard news that was sidelined in the same time period.
We also have a chapter on news abuse by Robin Andersen, looking at how corporate news media, when they do cover topics of importance often obscure the real import of those stories by providing false balance on those stories. And Robin Andersen, who writes for Fair and is a professor emeritus from Fordham University in New York, has a brilliant analysis of how this applies to coverage of the January 6 events and restrictions on voting rights spearheaded by Republican leaders.
And all that is heavy stuff. We end the book this year with a chapter on media democracy in action — guiding likes, organizations and people who are showing us a clear, better way forward. And I won’t try to list all the contributors to this year’s media democracy in action, but I’ll just quickly point to two of them: the Critical Media Project and also The Propwatch Project, both of which are online platforms that are leading lights in the critical media literacy movement, which is not something just for college students.
It’s something that all of us can benefit from, and both the Critical Media Project and Propwatch Project, which we have articles by the folks who run each of those outlets. They provide incredible resources that people can use to inform themselves, and make themselves more aware of some of these dynamics we’ve been talking about this morning as they affect the production and framing of news stories.
We try to end each book on a positive note by saying, “Look, in spite of a lot of what demands attention and improvement, we have models and exemplars, and I might even say heroes who we can look to inspire us and inform us and engage us.”
Jeff: And, of course, two of those top 25 stories are stories that first appeared in WhoWhatWhy.
Andy: That is absolutely true. One of this year’s top 25 stories without which we would know probably next to nothing about this topic reported by Misha Valencia, the WhoWhatWhy story Treaty Created to Stop Child Abductions Could Now Be Protecting Abusers. In a nutshell, and there’s more to this story, and I’d refer people to the full summary and back to the original WhoWhatWhy report, if this intrigues you. The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is a convention signed by over 101 nations intended to protect children from being abducted and taken away from their home countries.
But as Misha Valencia’s WhoWhatWhy report noted, abusers are now using the treaty as a way to manipulate the courts to regain custody of children. So the overwhelming number of people who have been pursued as abductors under this Hague Convention on International Child Abduction were really mothers who were escaping abuse, and attempting to protect their children from being returned to abusive partners.
And there’s much more to say about this story. The two points I’ll leave off on are one, it’s a story of unintended consequences, loopholes in a convention that don’t take into account how mothers and children often flee dangerous environments but are afraid to report abuse for fear of disbelief, embarrassment, or shame, have no track, have in effect no court standing, no record of claims when they come before the court.
And also in terms of the project’s interest in this as a “censored” story, this is one where we found there’s been hardly any corporate news reporting on this topic. The coverage that does exist is local and isolated. So we will find stories as we located when we were betting the WhoWhatWhy report on this topic. We find local stories in, say, the New York Times about a particular case here, or the USA Today has a story about a case in Ohio where the father is in Italy, but none of the corporate news media that we reviewed when we looked at this story were talking about the unintended but systemic consequences of children being returned to abusive parents.
So this is one of those stories. It’s a tough story, but I often think about stories like this. Would we rather not know about a story such as this one? If it were up to the corporate news media, I think we would be entirely ignorant of this phenomena, or we might know about it as a local isolated event: a case here, a case there. But it was reporting by WhoWhatWhy that connected the dots on this story and showed how gaps in the Hague Convention lead to this unintended but terrible consequence.
Jeff: And there’s also the story about what’s taking place on U.S. farms today.
Andy: Jessica Moss reported this story for WhoWhatWhy: the next pandemic may be bred on U.S. farms. I’ll quote from her article just briefly: “The threat boils down to American excess,” she wrote. Looking historically at American meat production and global demand for cheap and plentiful animal protein, some 99% of meat in the United States comes from factory farms that are premised on the confining of animals in tight indoor packed pins. Overcrowding threatens to amplify disease in the animals, hastens mutations in those diseases and increases the likelihood of them spreading from animals to humans.
And so Moss’s report for WhoWhatWhy on this was looking at how these conditions — factory farm operations are one vector by which we may have the next global pandemic. So one of the things that those entities that run factory farms try to do to prevent disease is they, of course, use antibiotics which have the side effect of encouraging fast growth among livestock. But the problem is that, as Moss reported, excessive use of these medicines causes those microbes to develop drug-resistant pathogens, what we know as antimicrobial resistance. And that threat is another factor.
So this is something that is not just a concern for independent news outlets like WhoWhatWhy and Project Censored. This is something that the United Nations is on and the World Health Organization are on as crucial issues facing not just American society but our global society. The World Health Organization has identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the top 10 threats to global health. And in July of 2020 in a panel called Preventing The Next Pandemic, the Executive Director of the U.N.’s Environmental Program, Inger Andersen, said that we have to recognize that human health, animal health, and planetary health are inextricably linked.
So you would think with that stature, those are good, the World Health Organization and the U.N. fit corporate journalism’s elite Rolodex of who counts as an authoritative source. Nonetheless, when we began investigating this story after it was nominated, we found that there was little to no coverage of this in the corporate news media. We found an article back to November 2020 in the LA Times. We found a Wired report in September of 2019. Vox had an article on the topic in August 2020.
But by and large, this story was receiving nowhere near levels of corporate coverage that would be commensurate with the levels of risk that Moss first reported for WhoWhatWhy. So this is one of those ones where you look at it, and you scratch your head, and you go, “How can this not be a major news topic?” If we’re talking about the agenda-setting function and we’re certainly… COVID 19 is certainly part of the news agenda even in the corporate news media’s fairly narrow definitions of who and what counts. This angle has been marginalized.
Jeff: Andy Lee Roth, Project Censored State of the Free Press 2022. Andy, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today right here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Andy: Yes, thank you, Jeff. It’s a pleasure to join you, and I hope you and everyone at WhoWhatWhy keep up the great work that you do as paragons of the kind of independent investigative journalism that we’ve been talking about today.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share, and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.