.Hidden From View

Project Censored’s Top 10 stories show just one pattern dominating all others this year

Since its founding in 1976, Project Censored has been focused on stories—like Watergate before the 1972 election—that aren’t censored in the authoritarian government sense, but in a broader, expanded sense reflective of what a functioning democracy should be, censorship defined 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 society.”

Every year, I note that there are multiple patterns to be found in the list of Project Censored’s stories, and that these different patterns have much to tell about the forces shaping what remains hidden. That’s still true, with three environmental stories (two involving fossil fuels), three involving money in politics (two dark money stories) and two involving illicit surveillance.

But the dominance of this one pattern truly is remarkable. It shows how profoundly the concentration of corporate wealth and power in the hands of so few distorts everything we see—or don’t—in the world around us every day. Here then, is this year’s list of Project Censored’s top 10 censored stories:

1) Fossil Fuel Industry Subsidized at Rate of $11 Million per Minute

Globally, the fossil fuel industry receives subsidies of $11 million per minute, primarily from lack of liability for the externalized health costs of deadly air pollution (42%), damages caused by extreme weather events (29%), and costs from traffic collisions and congestion (15%). And two-thirds of those subsidies come from just five countries—the United States, Russia, India, China and Japan. These are key findings from a study of 191 nations published by the International Monetary Fund, or IMF in September 2021, that were reported in the Guardian and Treehugger the next month, but have been ignored in the corporate media.

No national government currently prices fossil fuels at what the IMF calls their “efficient price”—covering both their supply and environmental costs. “Instead, an estimated 99 percent of coal, 52 percent of road diesel, 47 percent of natural gas, and 18 percent of gasoline are priced at less than half their efficient price,” Project Censored noted.

No corporate news outlets had reported on the IMF as of May 2022, according to Project Censored, though a November 2021 opinion piece did focus on the issue of subsidies, which John Kerry, U.S. special envoy for climate change, called “a definition of insanity.” But that was framed as opinion, and made no mention of the indirect subsidies, which represent 86% of the total.

In contrast, “In January 2022, CNN published an article that all but defended fossil fuel subsidies,” Project Censored noted. “CNN’s coverage emphasized the potential for unrest caused by rollbacks of government subsidies, citing “protests that occasionally turned violent.”

2) Wage Theft: U.S. Businesses Suffer Few Consequences for Stealing Millions from Workers Every Year

In 2017, the FBI reported the cost of street crime at about $13.8 billion, the same year that the Economic Policy Institute released a study saying that just one form of wage theft—minimum wage violations—costs U.S. workers even more: an estimated $15 billion annually, impacting an estimated 17% of low-wage workers.

One reason it’s so rampant is that companies are seldom punished, as Alexia Fernández Campbell and Joe Yerardi reported for the Center for Public Integrity in May 2021, drawing on 15 years of data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. “The agency fined only about one in four repeat offenders during that period. And it ordered those companies to pay workers cash damages—penalty money in addition to back wages—in just 14 percent of those cases,” they wrote. 

In addition, “The division often lets businesses avoid repaying their employees all the money they’re owed. In all, the agency has let more than 16,000 employers get away with not paying $20.3 million in back wages since 2005.”

Lack of resources is largely to blame for the lax enforcement, Project Censored explained: “As of February 2021, the Wage and Hour Division employed only 787 investigators, a proportion of just one investigator per 182,000 workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, Campbell and Yerardi noted. For comparison, in 1948 the division employed one investigator per 22,600 workers, or eight times the current proportion.”

That could change, if Congress were to pass the “Wage Theft Prevention and Wage Recovery Act of 2022,” which “would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect workers from wage theft, according to Ariana Figueroa of the Virginia Mercury,” Project Censored noted. It concluded with a quote from Minnesota Congressperson Ilhan Omar: “It is clear more DOL [Department of Labor] funding and additional federal reforms are needed in our localities in order to protect our most vulnerable workers.”

3) EPA Withheld Reports on Dangerous Chemicals

In January 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA stopped releasing legally required disclosures about chemicals that present a “substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.” They had previously been posted in a searchable public database called ChemView.

In November 2021, as part of The Intercept’s “EPA Exposed” investigative series, Sharon Lerner reported that EPA had received “at least 1,240 substantial risk reports since January 2019, but only one was publicly available. The suppressed reports documented “the risk of chemicals’ serious harms, including eye corrosion, damage to the brain and nervous system, chronic toxicity to honeybees, and cancer in both people and animals,” Lerner wrote.

“Basically, they are just going into a black hole,” one whistleblower told Lerner. “We don’t look at them. We don’t evaluate them. And we don’t check to see if they change our understanding of the chemical.”

Apart from The Intercept, “only a handful of niche publications have reported on the matter,” Project Censored noted.

4) At Least 128 Members of Congress Invested in Fossil Fuel Industry

At least 100 U.S. representatives and 28 U.S. senators have financial interests in the fossil fuel industry—a major impediment to reaching climate change goals that has gone virtually unmentioned by the corporate media, despite detailed reporting in a series of Sludge articles written by David Moore in November and December of 2021.

Moore found that 74 Republicans, 59 Democrats and one independent have fossil fuel industry investments, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats in both chambers. The top 10 House investors are all Republicans. But it’s quite different in the Senate, where two of the top three investors are Democrats, and Democrats’ total investments, $8,604,000, are more than double the Senate Republicans’ total of $3,994,126. 

Topping the list is Joe Manchin (WV), with up to $5.5 million of fossil fuel industry assets, while John Hickenlooper (CO) is third, with up to $1 million. (Most reporting is in ranges.) Many top investors are from Texas, including Rep. Van Taylor, with up to $12.4 million worth of investments.

As of May 21, 2022, Sludge’s reporting had gotten no corporate coverage, repeating the whiteout of a similar report in 2020. “Corporate news outlets have only reported on the fact that clean energy proposals are stalled in Congress, not the financial conflicts of interest that are the likely cause of this lack of progress,” Project Censored concluded.

5) Dark Money Interference in U.S. Politics Undermines Democracy

The same group of conservative dark money organizations that opposed President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nomination—Judicial Crisis Network [JCN], The 85 Fund and their affiliated groups—also funded entities that played a role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a report by the watchdog group Accountable.US. They’re closely linked to Leonard Leo, co-chair of the Federalist Society, with money coming from Donors Trust (a dark-money group backed by the Koch network) and the Bradley Foundation.

Just one group, JCN, spent $2.5 million “before Biden even named his nominee,” Ketanji Brown Jackson, Derysh reported, “accusing Biden of caving in to leftists by promising a ‘Supreme Court nominee who will be a liberal activist.’” On the other hand, “JCN spent tens of millions helping to confirm Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to Open Secrets, and launched a $25 million effort to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the 2020 election,” he reported.

“It should worry us all that the groups leading the fight against Biden’s historic nomination of Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court are tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election,” Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, told Salon.

Rightwing dark money’s role in fighting Judge Jackson’s nomination and confirmation process was highlighted by Business Insider in February 2022, along with op-eds in both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post covering the discussion of dark money during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, and a March 2022 Mother Jones report.

“However,” Project Censored noted, “none of the articles featured in the corporate press covered dark money supporting Trump’s Big Lie, the impact such funding had on promoting and reinforcing anti-democratic ideology, or the ramifications of how such dark money spending erodes public trust in government and the election process.”

6) Corporate Consolidation Causing Record Inflation in Food Prices

“Corporate consolidation is a main driver of record inflation in food prices, despite claims by media pundits and partisan commentators to the contrary,” Project Censored reports. 

“The establishment press has covered the current wave of inflation exhaustively, but only rarely will discuss the market power of giant firms as a possible cause, and then usually only to reject it,” as they did when the Biden administration cited meat industry consolidation as a cause of price increases in September 2021, “treating administration attempts to link inflation to consolidation as a rhetorical move meant to distract from conservative critiques of Biden’s stimulus program.”

But as Food and Water Watch reported in Nov 2021, “while the cost of meat shot up, prices paid to farmers actually declined, spurring a federal investigation.” That investigation is ongoing, but meat conglomerates Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Smithfield Foods and JBS have paid just over $225 million to settle related civil suits in the poultry, beef and pork markets.

As for grocers, “Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the country, cited rising inflation as the reason for hiking prices in their stores even as they cut worker pay by 8%,” Project Censored noted. “Yet, as Stancil explained, Kroger’s CEO publicly gloated that ‘a little bit of inflation is always good for business.’ 

“That CEO earned 909 times what the median worker earned, while worker pay decreased by 8% in 2020, and “the company spent $1.498 billion on stock buybacks between April 2020 and July 2021 to enrich its shareholders,” the Groundwork Collaborative reported. Kroger was one of just four companies that took in an estimated two-thirds of all grocery sales in 2019, according to Food and Water Watch.

Occasionally, articles touched on the issue of consolidation (mostly to debunk it), though there are a couple of opinion pieces to the contrary. “But these isolated opinion pieces were far out-numbered by the hundreds, even thousands, of reports and analyses by commercial media outlets that blamed everything but oligopolistic price gouging for the rising cost of groceries,” Project Censored concluded.

7) Concerns for Journalistic Independence as Gates Foundation Gives $319 Million to News Outlets

The list of billionaires with media empires includes familiar names like Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, most recently, Elon Musk. But, “While other billionaires’ media empires are relatively well known, the extent to which [Microsoft co-founder Bill] Gates’s cash underwrites the modern media landscape is not,” Alan MacLeod wrote for MintPress News in November 2021.

MacLeod examined more than 30,000 individual grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and found it had donated “more than $319 million to fund news outlets, journalism centers and training programs, press associations, and specific media campaigns, raising questions about conflicts of interest and journalistic independence,” Project Censored summarized.

“MacLeod’s report includes a number of Gates-funded news outlets that also regularly feature in Project Censored’s annual Top 25 story lists, such as the Solutions Journalism Network ($7.2m), The Conversation ($6.6m), the Bureau of Investigative Journalism ($1m), and ProPublica ($1m) in addition to the Guardian and the Atlantic, Project Censored noted. 

“As MacLeod noted, given Bill Gates’ advocacy of the charter school movement—which undermines teachers’ unions and effectively aims to privatize the public education system—‘a cynic might interpret this as planting pro-corporate charter school propaganda into the media, disguised as objective news reporting.’”

“No major corporate news outlets appear to have covered this issue,” only a scattering of independent outlets, Project Censored noted. This despite the fact that “As far back as 2011, the Seattle Times published an article investigating how the Gates Foundation’s ‘growing support of media organizations blurs the line between journalism and advocacy.’”

8) CIA Discussed Plans to Kidnap or Kill Julian Assange

The CIA seriously considered plans to kidnap or assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in late 2017, according to a September 2021 Yahoo News investigation, based on interviews with more than 30 former U.S. officials, eight of whom detailed U.S. plans to abduct Assange and three of whom described the development of plans to kill him.

If it had been up to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, they almost certainly would have been acted on, after WikiLeaks announced it had obtained a massive tranche of files—dubbed “Vault 7”—from the CIA’s ultra-secret hacking division, and posted some of them online.

In his first public remarks as Donald Trump’s CIA director, “Pompeo devoted much of his speech to the threat posed by WikiLeaks,” Yahoo News noted, “rather than use the platform to give an overview of global challenges or to lay out any bureaucratic changes he was planning to make at the agency.” He even called it “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” a designation intended to grant the CIA wide latitude in what actions it took, while shielding it from congressional oversight.

Potential scenarios proposed by the CIA and Trump administration officials included crashing into a Russian vehicle carrying Assange in order to grab him, shooting the tires of an airplane carrying Assange in order to prevent its takeoff, and engaging in a gun battle through the streets of London,” Project Censored summarized. “Senior CIA officials went so far as to request ‘sketches’ or ‘options’ detailing methods to kill Assange.”

WikiLeaks was a complete obsession of Pompeo’s,” a former Trump administration national security official told Yahoo News. “After Vault 7, Pompeo and [Deputy CIA Director Gina] Haspel wanted vengeance on Assange.” It went so far that “Pompeo and others at the agency proposed abducting Assange from the embassy and surreptitiously bringing him back to the United States via a third country—a process known as rendition,” they reported. (Assassination entered the picture later on.) 

Since it would take place in Britain, there had to be agreement from them. “But the British said, ‘No way, you’re not doing that on our territory, that ain’t happening,’” a former senior counterintelligence official told Yahoo News.

US plans to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange have received little to no establishment news coverage in the United States, other than scant summaries by Business Insider and The Verge, and tangential coverage by Reuters, each based on the original Yahoo News report,” Project Censored notes. 

“Among US independent news outlets, Democracy Now! featured an interview with Michael Isikoff, one of the Yahoo News reporters who broke the story, and Jennifer Robinson, a human rights attorney who has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. Rolling Stone and The Hill also published articles based on the original Yahoo News report.”

9) New Laws Preventing Dark Money Disclosures Sweep the Nation

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United relaxing campaign finance regulations, dark money spending has exploded, and now Republican lawmakers across the U.S. are pushing legislation to make it illegal to compel nonprofit organizations to disclose who the dark money donors are. 

Recently-passed laws in Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia are based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which brings together corporate lobbyists and conservative lawmakers to advance special-interest business-friendly legislation.

“ALEC is deeply enmeshed with the sprawling political influence networks tied to billionaire families like the Kochs and the Bradleys, both of which use non-disclosing nonprofits that help to conceal how money is funneled,” Donald Shaw reported for Sludge on June 15, 2021. “Penalties for violating the laws vary between the states, but in some states could include prison sentences.”

While there’s been some coverage of some aspects of this story—a Washington Post story about Democrats pressuring the Biden administration, the Associated Press reporting on South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s defense of her state’s law—except for regional papers like the Tampa Bay Times, Project Censored reports, “There has been little acknowledgment in the establishment press of the stream of ALEC-inspired bills passing through state legislatures that seek to keep the source of so much of the money spent to influence elections hidden in the shadows.”

10) Major Media Outlets Lobby Against Regulation of ‘Surveillance Advertising’

“Surveillance advertising”—collecting users’ data to target them with tailored advertising—has become a ubiquitous, extremely profitable practice on the world’s most popular social media apps and platforms—Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc. But now, as Lee Fang reported for The Intercept in February 2022, the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is seeking to regulate user data collection. Lobbyists for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, or IAB, are pushing back.

“In a letter, IAB called for the FTC to oppose a ban on data-driven advertising networks, claiming the modern media cannot exist without mass data collection,” Fang reported.

“The IAB represents both data brokers and online media outlets that depend on digital advertising, such as CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, Time, U.S. News and World Report, The Washington Post, Vox, the Orlando Sentinel, Fox News, and dozens of other media companies,” Fang explained. “The privacy push has largely been framed as a showdown between technology companies and the administration,” but “The lobbying reveals a tension that is rarely a center of the discourse around online privacy: Major media corporations increasingly rely on a vast ecosystem of privacy violations, even as the public relies on them to report on it.” 

As a result, “Major news outlets have remained mostly silent on the FTC’s current push and a parallel effort to ban surveillance advertising by the House and Senate by Rep. Anna Eshoo…and Sen. Cory Booker…,” Fang concluded.

“The corporate media have reported the FTC’s openness to new rules limiting the collection and exploitation of user data, but have generally not drawn attention to IAB lobbying against the proposed regulations,” Project Censored noted, citing articles in the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post as examples. “[N]either outlet discussed IAB, its lobbying on this issue, or the big media clients the organization represents.”

©Random Lengths News, a division of Beacon Light Press, 2022

Paul Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, senior editor for ‘Random Lengths News,’ and a columnist for ‘Salon’ and ‘Al Jazeera English.’

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