Free press, protest, San Francisco, CA
Free press protest in San Francisco, CA, 2017. Photo credit: duluoz cats / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Mickey Huff, the director of Project Censored and its annual look at the 25 most underreported stories. 

Huff talks about how this age of digital news is both the best and worst of times for journalism. Outlets for independent reporting have skyrocketed, but the majority of them lack the power of mainstream corporate media. Thus the MSM behemoths often decide what news we hear. 

And the news is further distorted by the power of social media to promote junk news and disinformation — all of which is processed by our shrinking attention span.

This results, Huff says, in a pervasive level of censorship, whether intentional or not. Amid this gloomy backdrop, he reminds us that independent media, like WhoWhatWhy, have become all the more vital in preserving the free press. 

Each year, Project Censored surveys the media landscape to bring light to the top 25 most censored or underreported stories of the past year — it’s a reminder, he points out, of how much work there is yet to be done.

Of course all of this is made worse by a lack of media literacy on the part of so many citizens.

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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. The barriers to entry in journalism in the digital age have fallen away, yet few outlets actually rise to challenge the traditional corporate media. Too often, the traditional media still decides which stories get attention and which ones don’t. And our withering attention span and our appetite for junk news accentuates that power, and yet independent journalism like WhoWhatWhy perseveres.

And every year, my guest, Mickey Huff, one of the founders and coeditors of Project Censored, along with his colleagues, takes a deep dive into that independent work and selects the most significant stories that you would never have seen otherwise. Mickey joins us on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about these stories as well as the state of the free press today: the impact of the internet algorithms and AI and the actual unique power that independent journalism actually has.

Crowded as the marketplace may be, independent and investigative journalism, like you see every day in WhoWhatWhy, still has a powerful role to play in nudging and countering the corporate media. At its best, it often acts as a check on corporate media from taking the path of least resistance. To talk about all of this and this year’s volume of Project Censored’s State of the Free Press, I am joined by Mickey Huff.

Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored and president of the Media Freedom Foundation. He has coedited 14 volumes of Project Censored’s annual book, and he’s a professor of social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is also chairman of the journalism department. And it is my pleasure to welcome Mickey Huff here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Mickey, thanks so much for joining us.

Mickey Huff: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for the opportunity. Definitely appreciate the good work that you all do there.

Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. When we talk about censored stories, how much is censored on purpose, and how much is simply as a result of the fact that so much of this stuff just doesn’t get covered in this area of short attention span and junk news?

Mickey: Well, that’s a fantastic question, and, in fact, it’s the same kind of a question that journalists and editors and others asked the founder of Project Censored, Carl Jensen, all the way back in 1976. And, of course, that’s before the rise of cable, the 24/7 news cycle or noise cycle as we might refer to it. It’s also, of course, prior to the internet and the world of online information and, of course, predates even social media or antisocial media as may be more of an apt description, but that’s a great question.

Is this phenomenon of censorship or information not getting to the public, let’s say, to use a softer phrase if we will, is this part of a nefarious conspiracy, or is it a matter of news judgment? Is it a matter of there’s only, as in the ’70s and ’80s, it was about column inches in newspapers or print? And then, of course, when you went to the 24/7 news cycle, there seemed to be no shortage of time per se.

Unless we get into different dimensions, that’s all the time we have here empirically, but that question begat other questions. And so the short answer is there’s all types of different things going on in the media ecosystem from the direct censorship, prior restraint, illegal, in fact, government intervention, but then there’s these other forms that are far more insidious and pervasive.

Of course, we know about government censorship and secrets because of WikiLeaks and because of leakers and whistleblowers and so on, but the more pervasive problem is in the corporate media, what we refer to then as censorship by proxy, where these private companies decide or curate information on the basis of what suits their interests. And that’s the more kind of censorship that Carl Jensen really looked at.

And, by the way, when he was asked these questions about what kind of culture do we have in newsrooms, and are you really accusing us of spiking important stories, Jensen said, “Okay, that’s a fair assessment. You only have so much time or space, so I’ll start looking at what you actually cover.” And that birthed the term “junk food news.” Jensen coined that term in 1983, and he said, “Well, if there’s only so much time in column inches, why are you covering frivolous, sensational nonsense?”

And, of course, then the answer became “Well, that’s what the public wants,” and it flips around. And, of course, that’s not exactly what the public wants. And even if the public does want junk food news, they still do want to be informed to know what’s happening. And so at Project Censored, we’ve been digging deeply since 1976 to find the stories the corporate media won’t cover that the independent and alternative press do.

Jeff: And talk a little bit about the growth in the independent and alternative press, particularly since the internet. And in some ways, it seems to be the golden age of that, and yet there’s so much that still doesn’t get covered.

Mickey: Yes, that’s, again, a good point. And we’ve, of course, expanded our search for independent and alternative information that doesn’t come through legacy establishment press or corporate media. Many folks refer to that as the mainstream media or press. We do not because we don’t think there’s anything very mainstream about half a dozen corporations controlling 90% of the media in the United States or five major tech companies controlling platforms or internet traffic.

So we don’t use that kind of terminology, but we do then look for these noncorporate type sources — nonlegacy sources. And with the advent of the internet, well, we’ve got a mixed bag. We’ve got, on one end, a mass proliferation of wonderful sites, opportunities, platforms, places for independent journalists to write and report, but the problem that comes along with that is obscurity.

In fact, this even came up recently with Twitter, not a journalistic platform, with their new owner, Elon Musk, when he talked about freedom of speech and freedom of reach, so an interesting thing that Musk said there. And that’s the problem with a lot of stuff on the internet is that it’s a needle in a haystack. How do you get independent, alternative voices that don’t have the budgets, that don’t have the major platforms, to get out to massive audiences without compromising integrity?

And that’s, I think, been a major question at the root of journalism and purportedly free societies for a very long time. In fact, in this year’s book, Andy Lee Roth and I go back, and we look at previous generations. Upton Sinclair decried the oligarchic class and the ownership of the press in a book that he wrote called The Brass Check. A.J. Liebling at The New Yorker wrote in 1961 in The Wayward Press column about… He was, again, decrying the business interest that controlled the press.

And he said that freedom of the press belonged only to those who owned one, and so this issue is something that we revisit. And we have to look beyond the billionaire and the oligarchic class to find independent alternative information, which means we also have to be critically media literate. And the other major thing that Project Censored does is create curriculum.

And we try to teach people how to sift through these thousands and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of sources and things that are now available online, so they can vet them and judge them for accuracy. No small feat, but critical thinking, independent thought, and the maintenance of a free press is hard work. And that’s what we try to remind people is that often, the easier it is to get your information, the more suspect one might be of it.

Jeff: Right, and because a big part of the problem is that there is just so much information out there, so many sources now.

Mickey: You’re so right about that, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing, right? For years, people have asked us these questions: Whom do you trust? Where do we go to get information, as if there’s some truth.com site or something where you can just go, and they’ll tell you what’s up, and you can go about your day? Again, it’s just not that simple. And by the way, while we criticize the legacy press, The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or the cable outlets CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the networks, etc., we also want people to know that they’re not just in the business of peddling falsehoods constantly.

They wouldn’t be in business really, if they were. So it’s not as if that these so-called mainstream outlets only peddle nonsense and censor true information. So that makes it even more difficult because, on any given day, any of these outlets can publish breaking news, great stories, important things that we need to know, and simultaneously also proliferate mass propaganda, half-truths, distorted information, or outright lies.

So it’s a mess, and people rightfully then begin to question the integrity of a lot of these outlets, the longer they go, and the more it’s demonstrated that they don’t always have the public’s best interest at heart. Well, why is that? Well, again, now, we go back to the problem of ownership. And this year in the book, we really focus on who does own the media.

What is the billionaire class? How are hedge funds buying up local newspapers, creating news deserts where there’s no diversity, no real local Indigenous kind of vernacular information happening at the grassroots level? Well, that’s where the internet can come in and be helpful. But then, of course, then we have things coming in from all sides of the political spectrum. Alternative and independent doesn’t mean that something’s objective. It just means that if it does have a bias, it’s often worn on its sleeve.

So we can see what people, let’s say, In These Times or The Nation or the National Review, these are, of course, more well-known alternative outlets nowadays. Of course, WhoWhatWhy, another great source of information that you often don’t find in the corporate press and certainly analysis and perspectives you don’t find in the corporate press, but now we get back to critical media literacy education.

It’s the teaching of people how to think critically, how to analyze sources and then giving them options of where to look that’s very broad. We want to broaden our media habits and media diet. We don’t want to constrict them. And our top 25 stories each year is a highlight, if you will, of what we find to be the best and having the most journalistic integrity of the stories that don’t get the attention in the corporate media that they should.

Jeff: One of the things that research shows over and over again is that on a one-off basis, even providing correct information, providing the truth on any particular subject doesn’t really change minds. It’s not like an injection that immediately makes someone realize that they’re going to see the light, that this is an ongoing process.

Mickey: I’m really glad you brought that up because I teach critical thinking courses among others. And one of the things we talk about is cognitive biases. And what you’re referring to, of course, is something we all grapple with: the confirmation bias. Even if I go and research something, am I only researching something to reinforce my own hunches, my own beliefs, my own previously-held views? Because if so, that’s something that’s referred to as a weak-sense critical thought process.

What we want is a strong-sense critical thought process, which means we purposely go out to challenge our own assumptions and challenge our own views. And you’re right about that. Interestingly enough, study after study has been done that show a backfire effect that when we present people with factual information that runs afoul or counters or creates cognitive dissonance with what they already think or believe rather than people taking that as a reflective moment or an introspective moment to reassess their ideas, many people simply react, push back, and double down.

And there’s a lot of research that shows that there’s a backfire effect in sharing this information, but I also have to say, interestingly enough, that there are other studies that show that a lot of how we get people to consider changing their minds has to do with how we approach them. Do we approach people with a truth stick and beat them with it, and say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. No matter what, here’s the facts to show it,” or are we more Socratic?

Do we go into dialogue with people with a sense of mutual respect that even if we don’t agree with somebody, and even if we think they’re wrong and have evidence to prove it, how we communicate with people is often as important or more important as what we think we’re communicating. We talked about this in another book that came out last year that I did with Nolan Higdon, Let’s Agree to Disagree: a Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy.

We’ve talked about it in United States of Distraction. And year after year at Project Censored, we remind people about diversifying sources, about tone, about how we communicate, and I think that that’s very important. And I think we go a long way at gaining other people’s respect, even if we don’t think we want it. When we think about how we communicate to them, and when we give people the opportunity, not only to hear what we have to say but then to speak back, to ask questions, and give people time to go and research things and come back and continue the conversation, that’s something that I think that I’m not going to assume we ever had it as a society, lofty Golden Era somewhere back in our past.

I’m not assuming that, but I will say that it’s something that we really should see and try to model that, unfortunately, our corporate media don’t do. It’s a shouting fest. It’s almost like a world wrestling contest when you watch some of these cable shows or when you go on Twitter and look at social media feeds. The lack of respect and civility is astounding.

By the way, I’m not suggesting we have to be civil; the First Amendment doesn’t require that. I’m simply saying that when possible, it’s very difficult to be civil with people that hold odious views or racist views, sexist or hateful viewpoints. But I’m suggesting that the way we communicate matters, and I think that we need to look to independent and alternative media to show those kinds of models because we don’t see it in the corporate press.

Jeff: What are you finding in terms of differences in generational approach to all of this?

Mickey: Another fascinating question that we could spend so much time with. I really appreciate your lines of inquiry here, Jeff. I would say that there’s differences and similarities. I guess I’m being the man of nuance here for the segment today. But younger people, of course, skew more digitally. They skew more towards social media applications to get and share news information.

Now, of course, we know those aren’t journalistic outlets. And we’ve seen in the past several years that that’s actually contributed significantly to a spread of mis- and disinformation. There was an assumption that a Stanford study really tipped on its head. The idea was that younger people were called digital millennials or digital natives, more specifically. And the assumption was that they were very sophisticated at navigating the digital media ecosystem.

And while they may navigate it and know how to use the gadgets, the study discovered quickly that that doesn’t mean younger people automatically have critical thinking skills. And, of course, when we go and look at older demographics over 50, what we found is that those people, while they should have the critical thinking skills, tended to be more creatures of habit, and they tended to go to outlets that they were used to. They didn’t broaden their horizons. And, in fact, they may even be more subject to their own confirmation biases because they’ve been developing them for so long.

And so we have challenges across the age spectrum, but the good news, I think, out of all of this is that people have become aware that how they get their information matters. We can’t just trust sources because they’ve been around. We can’t just trust sources because they’ve been right about something we care about. We have to build long-term relationships with journalists, with outlets, with sources, and we have to make it really part of our daily routines.

Civic engagement isn’t a hobby. Democracy is not a spectator sport, as Ralph Nader has often quipped. We really need to commit ourselves to being engaged, to be informed citizens, and we need to help each other in the process by generating civic dialogue that, when possible, is done in a civil way. We can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think that across the spectrum, I think that we can all teach each other better ways to be compassionate or empathic listeners, as well as critical thinkers and communicators.

Jeff: You brought up the subject: You mentioned the idea of relationships with journalists. And, really, that’s becoming a larger and larger factor in journalism today: That it is personality-driven; it is individual-driven, relationship-driven, interactive in that sense. We see it with the vast array of Substacks, for example, that are out there. Talk about that and whether you see that as a positive or a negative that it is so personal today.

Mickey: Well, absolutely. It’s certainly something that we’ve seen. And a lot of folks that have jumped from more traditional outlets or bigger platforms have decided to go it alone, as it were. And some of these people were pushed out of the legacy or establishment press. Chris Hedges comes to mind, who used to be at The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. That could only really eventually find a place online at Truthdig and then went with Scheerpost and, of course, had a show at RT America, the Russian outlet, on books called On Contact. It was a book review show, an intellectual program.

RT was the victim of censorship by proxy when cable outlets dumped it during the Russia-phobic frenzy with the invasion of Ukraine earlier last year. And RT was disappeared and all those people lost their shows and archives. So that’s one thing that drives people away from these kinds of platforms is the risk of either being censored or shut down and disappeared.

So on one hand, places like Substack seem attractive because they offer this kind of independence. They offer this place where you can go and see Chris Hedges be Chris Hedges. I’m not shilling for Hedges. I’m just using him as a pretty high-profile example. There are thousands of these people that have fled or moved to Substack. Of course, Matt Taibbi is another one who’s, of course, also been in the legacy press recently because of the Twitter files, which is another can of worms we could end up in, but I see it as both positive and negative. Again, nuance.

I think on one level, it’s good to have that and build that relationship and see what these people do on their own without interference at a place like Substack. But the flip side is is how many Substacks are in the haystack? How many Substacks are these needles we never find? We’re back to the very issue that we mentioned only moments ago about how then do we find these kinds of sources of information. Not everybody has the luxury of being a former legacy media person with a well-known reputation that can be found.

How do we find new people? So I think that Substack is very interesting, but it also then is reinforcing a monetization model. And that opens up again other issues, right? Do we really have a true and open public press? Do we have a publicly-funded free press? Well, in the United States, the short answer to that is not really. And that then contri

butes to our many problems and creates a real bifurcation in the entire media landscape.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about some of the stories that are part of this year’s look from Project Censored.

Mickey: There are so many. We look at hundreds of stories a year where we have 30 international judges that are academics, journalists. Some have been with us since the inception of the project, actually. We work with, off and on, a couple of dozen colleges and universities across the US, a couple in Canada. And this is a research project, right? Remember, the Project Censored was started as a student research project for students to learn how to vet information and find accurate news sources.

So that’s how our stories are nominated and submitted. We get hundreds of them. They go through several series of vetting and judging by our judges and people at the project. And we come up then with this listing of what we find to be the most significant, underreported, or censored stories of the year. This year, just to top it off, and I’ll show you, too, our link to the problem of the billionaire press. The number one story is how the fossil fuel industry is subsidized at the rate of $11 million per minute.

One of the journalists that wrote this for TreeHugger for The Guardian, again, these are independent journalists; Eduardo Garcia talks about an IMF report that showed how significant it was that there are all these kinds of subsidies that go to fossil fuel companies that offset some of their other challenges and, in fact, make them extremely, extremely profitable, number one.

And number two, here you go. Number two, when we have these major for-profit media outlets reporting on things like the climate crisis, how willing were they to critically look at the oil industry that’s A) being wildly subsidized by the government but B) turning around and using millions and millions and millions of dollars to spend money on advertising at those very same media outlets? That, as part of the propaganda model from Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, looks at the problem of who owns the press, the relationship of advertising.

It looks at the reliance on official sourcing, flak, and, of course, ideological bias. Here, we clearly have bias with subsidization of fossil fuels. And, by the way, these are the same fossil fuel companies that have been lying to the public about the harm their products cause for over 40 years. That’s another major censored and underreported story that we’ve covered for years and years and years that’s now out in the open.

It has now been reported in the more establishment and legacy press, but that story went underreported for decades. So we have to look at the types of stories, too, that tend to be underreported. And a lot of these environmental stories were underreported because there are way too many profits being made by polluting and causing climate crisis. And a lot of news outlets didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds and the corporations that feed them advertising dollars.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about what other categories seem to repeat over and over again in this arena.

Mickey: Yes, I’m glad you asked that. Stories with big pharma, stories with big tech, stories with big oil, big agriculture. Notice these are major corporate sectors of society that not only have an undue influence on our public institutions and our governing process, now, not just through lobbying but dark money —  that’s another of our major themes. But then these companies in turn influence not only public policy but how the corporate media will cover the impacts of those policies.

So just looking at that kind of a relationship, what we’re really talking about here is capitalism. What we’re really talking about here is how does capitalism impact public institutions, and how does capitalism impact a for-profit news media? Well, the answer to that in a short sentence or short term is extraordinarily. It has a lot to do with how things get covered, what’s gets covered, what people concerned at these media outlets, what they think of as being newsworthy, right?

Another thing that Noam Chomsky had talked about for years, especially when looking at the consequences of foreign policy, was who are worthy and unworthy victims. And that’s another theme. Another theme that drives our stories is about equity and social justice. A lot of impacts of, say, environmental degradation occur disparately in communities of color and in impoverished communities. Well, does the billionaire press cover the impact of those kind of policies?

Historically, not very well, and we have a long track record of showing how those stories weren’t covered well, and why we needed muckraking journalists, independent journalists to really shine a light in the dark places to make those stories known to the public, so the public could then demand reform through civic engagement and also, at the same time, work to democratize our purportedly free press.

Jeff: In all the years you’ve been doing this, have you seen any kind of a sea change in the way these kind of stories have evolved?

Mickey: Interestingly, there’s a pattern between the legacy establishment press, the corporate press, and the alternative independent press, and that’s that many stories will get broken in the independent media universe. And it takes sometimes half a year, a year, maybe 18 months before corporate or establishment outlets will eventually get around to reporting about something — if they do. We have a segment in our book every year called Deja Vu that looks at previously underreported and censored stories.

And what it does is it tracks them, and it says, “Well, has this story come to light? Is this still a societal issue?” Case in point: One of our stories from 1977 was The Myth of Black Progress. That was, basically, a 10-year retrospective. It was something that was published in an alternative and independent media outlet that actually said, “Despite all the civil rights efforts of the 1960s, many African American communities continued to struggle.”

And so the progress wasn’t necessarily being seen or measured. Well, 40 years later, we go back and look at that story, and we see, well, some of these things are still happening. Some of these issues are still with us. So when the corporate press do pick up previously underreported stories, we want to champion them. We want to say, “Absolutely. Good work.” You have big budgets. You have a whole team of reporters to go cover important stories.

When it’s a slow news day, don’t go back to Elon Musk. Don’t go back to the Kardashians. Pick up the Project Censored annual yearbook and go look at some things that maybe you missed in the previous year. And Ralph Nader actually used to say that all the time. He used to say, “Well, what is it? A slow news day at The Washington Post?” Pick up a copy of Censored. There’s plenty of things there that you all haven’t been covering.

So, look, it’s, again, one of those nuanced responses. When the corporate media do get around to covering these stories, there’s often a significant lag. And often, when we go and look at the Deja Vu stories, there are some stories that just languish in obscurity. They just never seem to get the attention they deserve by the corporate press, which unfortunately shows us the need.

We still have a great need for independent journalism, a great need for muckraking, truth-telling, transparently-sourced information. And we definitely have a greater need in society as we have a proliferation of mis- and disinformation. We have a need for critical media literacy education, so people can be in their own driver’s seat deciding how and where they get information, and they decide and determine whom to trust.

Jeff: Mickey Huff, Project Censored, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.

Mickey: I thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity, and keep up all the great work you all do there.

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.


Author

  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for WhoWhatWhy.org

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