Junk Food News…and Worse

You’re not getting your First Amendment’s worth.

The Watergate break-in occurred in June 1972, but didn’t figure into the presidential election that year. While journalists look back on Watergate as a journalistic triumph, due to developments after the election, Carl Jensen took a different view. He saw the failure to recognize Watergate’s importance until after the election as a symptom of systemic failures in the media.

In 1976, Jensen began Project Censored as a way to attack this systemic failure head-on. The best-known aspect of this attack on the problem has been the development and distribution of an annual list of censored stories — not censored by the government, but by the media itself. Yet Jensen also knew that it wasn’t just a problem of important stories being buried, it was also a problem of what buried them: a distracting flood of trivial, irrelevant, sensationalist, or simply entertaining stories. Individually, they might be harmless, but collectively, as a steady diet, they starved the public of the knowledge needed for democratic self-government. They were, simply put, “Junk Food News,” the analysis of which was an important supplement to the highlighting of censored stories every year.

When Jensen stepped down as director of Project Censored, his successor, Peter Phillips, created an offshoot category of analysis, “News Abuse,” to encompass stories that involve inherently newsworthy subjects, but which are covered in a way that diminishes their value. The two categories are described and explored in Project Censored’s most recent publication from Seven Stories Press, Censored 2016: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2014–15, in Chapter 3, “A Vast Wasteland.” The distinction between them is clear-cut, in theory at least:

“Viewers often know they are watching Junk Food News and have lamented its increase over the years. But News Abuse is a different calamity because while viewers believe they are being well informed about important matters, the actual coverage of the stories acts to manipulate, misinform, and even disinform — i.e., News Abuse is a form of propaganda.”

But, in practice, there seems to be less of a clear-cut line dividing them — rather, they often seem more like intertwining threads. While examples such as “deflategate” or the prolonged media obsession over the death of Robin Williams seem like fairly straightforward instances of Junk Food News, the same cannot be said for other stories. And that’s not an outside critic’s perspective. In a section devoted to the exposure of fabrications by NBC’s Brian Williams and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, the Project Censored authors write:

“While the O’Reilly versus Williams coverage had the flare of Junk Food News, it qualifies as News Abuse because it was obfuscated into a liberal versus conservative debate rather than proof of the institutional obfuscation, disinformation, and manipulation of the corporate news industry. In fact, the only area where Williams and O’Reilly differed was in their apology. Williams admitted fault while O’Reilly did not; instead the latter continuously amended his statements while claiming to be the victim of the liberal media. This contributed to the false corporate news media narrative that the claims against O’Reilly were not factually based, but an ideological attack by the ‘liberal left.'”

As is noted in a Mother Jones story cited in the text, O’Reilly has not only lied repeatedly about being under fire in the Falklands War (no Americans made it to the war zone), he has used that false claim to bully others ideologically into silence. Critical examination of the issues raised by these two fabricators could have been deeply enlightening — which is why the mishandling clearly falls into the realm of News Abuse. But the juvenile finger-pointing way in which it was mostly covered also dragged it down into the Junk Food News realm as well.

Another example cited of News Abuse was former New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s book-length attempt to rehabilitate her reputation for her duplicitous reporting that helped pave the way to war with Iraq: “In a series of television appearances promoting the book, Miller argued that the invasion of Iraq was not her fault because her sources, mostly from Bush administration connections and insiders, had lied to her and her editors published them. Of course a journalist’s job is not only to find evidence but to verify it, but that did not happen in this case. Miller acted unfamiliar with that elementary rule of journalism.”

But as the authors note, Miller’s revisionism was just one small part of the larger story, which allowed both MSNBC and The New York Times to rewrite their own history as well: “MSNBC allowed New York Times reporter Nick Confessore to lambaste Miller over her excuses for the false reporting that led to the Iraq invasion,” Project Censored noted. But this let The Times off the hook for publishing her stories in the first place — stories that other, more careful reporters (particularly at Knight-Ridder) — were simultaneously punching holes in. MSNBC also reinforced its positioning “as the anti-war, pro-truth, corporate network,” which may have become somewhat accurate after the fact — but not when the war began:

“[I]t was MSNBC that sacked antiwar programmers such as Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura from their network to make space for more pro-war voices in the year leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. In fact, according to MSNBC’s own internal memos, they let go of their antiwar voices to increase ratings. Thus, while the corporate press lambasted Judith Miller for rewriting history, they were rewriting their own, excluding the role they played in the calamitous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which by 2015 had cost US taxpayers over three trillion dollars, the lives of thousands of Americans, and over a million dead Iraqis.”

Other examples fall more clearly into the category of News Abuse alone, particularly those involving stigmatized groups: the Ebola “crisis” used “as a Trojan horse to instill fear in Americans while inciting anti-immigrant sentiments,” a variety of related Islamophobic narratives, and, of course, good old fashioned racism. The corporate media treatment of anti-Muslim violence typifies how such groups are treated:

“[I]n February 2015, three Muslim American students were shot and killed by Craig Stephen Hicks, a white neighbor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Major corporate news outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, and Fox News initially remained silent on the attack and President Obama waited two days to issue an official statement. No corporate coverage labeled the triple homicide as an act of domestic terrorism — rather, Hicks was referred to as a lone loon.”

The corporate media has been similarly reluctant to see the systemic police violence which has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement:

“The ‘justifiable homicides’ of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, erupted in politically charged protests and public debates across the country. The corporate coverage of these killings and their aftermaths blamed African-Americans for their own deaths while justifying police behavior and excusing whites for the same crime. This coverage distracts from the racism built into the legal system and results in public sympathy for state violence. …”

Fox News and The New York Times degraded Brown with phrases such as “bad guy” and “no angel.” Weeks after the Brown shooting, The New York Times asked citizens to give police the benefit of the doubt.

Reinforcing racial stereotypes and preconceptions, rather than focusing on the facts that contradict them — that’s the very definition of News Abuse.

The media has the power to inform and inspire people to change the world. Or it can amuse them to death. Or direct them toward convenient scapegoats. To really know what you’re missing, you have to get the larger picture — the stories you’re not getting everyday, and a clear understanding of what you’re getting instead. Project Censored provides both. 


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