.Top 5 Independent News Stories Corporate Media Ignored in 2023

Nonprofit media watchdog Project Censored reports on the year's underreported stories

Each year, nonprofit media watchdog Project Censored publishes a list of the top independent news stories corporate media ignored. These are the top five.

This is what the lead researcher in Project Censored’s No. 1 story this year said: “We have made the planet inhospitable to human life.”

The researcher wasn’t talking about the climate catastrophe. He was talking about so-called “forever chemicals,” polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), linked to prostate, kidney and testicular cancer and additional health risks. And the study he led found unsafe levels in rainwater worldwide.

But there’s a second story intertwined with the “forever chemicals” pervasive presence: the revelation that companies responsible for them have known about their dangers for decades, but kept those dangers hidden—just like fossil fuel companies and climate catastrophe. The intersection of environmental/public health and corporate criminality is typical of how certain long-standing patterns of censored news weave together across the years, even decades.

The two story themes in the No. 1 story—environmental harm and corporate abuse—so dominate the top 10 story list that they send another message as well, a message about the fundamental mismatch between our needs as a species living on a finite planet and a rapacious economic system conceived in ignorance of that fact.

There are still other patterns here, to be sure—and readers are encouraged to look for themselves because seeing those patterns enriches one’s understanding of the world as it is and as it’s being hidden from the public. But this dominant pattern touches us all. The evidence is right there, in the stories themselves.

1. ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Rainwater a Global Threat to Human Health

Rainwater is “no longer safe to drink anywhere on Earth,” Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported in Insider in August 2022, summing up the results of a global study of so-called “forever chemicals,” polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Researchers from Stockholm University and the Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics at ETH Zurich concluded that “in many areas inhabited by humans,” PFAS contamination levels in rainwater, surface water and soil “often greatly exceed” the strictest international guidelines for acceptable levels of perfluoroalkyl acids.

They’re called “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down, “allowing them to build up in people, animals, and environments,” Insider reported. Project Censored notes, “Prior research has linked these chemicals to prostate, kidney, and testicular cancer and additional health risks, including developmental delays in children, decreased fertility in women and men, reduced vaccine efficacy, and high cholesterol.”

“PFAS are now ‘so persistent’ and ubiquitous that they will never disappear from the planet,” lead researcher Ian Cousins told Agence France-Presse. “We have made the planet inhospitable to human life by irreversibly contaminating it now so that nothing is clean anymore. And to the point that it’s not clean enough to be safe,” he said, adding, “We have crossed a planetary boundary,” a paradigm for evaluating Earth’s capacity to absorb harmful impacts of human activity.

The “good news” is that PFAS levels aren’t increasing in the environment. “What’s changed is the guidelines,” he said. “They’ve gone down millions of times since the early 2000s, because we’ve learned more about the toxicity of these substances.”

All the more reason the second strand of this story is important: “The same month,” Project Censored writes, “researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published a study in the Annals of Global Health using internal industry documents to show that the companies responsible for ‘forever chemicals’ have known for decades that these substances pose significant threats to human health and the environment.”

There’s been limited corporate media coverage that rainwater isn’t safe to drink—specifically from USA Today, the Discovery Channel and Medical News Today. But the general public clearly hasn’t heard the news. However, there’s been more coverage of the series of lawsuits developing in response to PFAS. But the big-picture story surrounding them remains shockingly missing.

2. Hiring of Former CIA Employees and Ex-Israeli Agents ‘Blurs Line’ Between Big Tech and Big Brother

“Google—one of the largest and most influential organizations in the modern world—is filled with ex-CIA agents,” Alan MacLeod reported for MintPress News in July 2022. “An inordinate number of these recruits work in highly politically sensitive fields, wielding considerable control over how its products work and what the world sees on its screens and in its search results.”

“Chief amongst these is the trust and safety department, whose staff, in the words of the Google trust and safety vice president Kristie Canegallo, ‘[d]ecide what content is allowed on our platform’—in other words, setting the rules of the internet, determining what billions see and what they do not see,” McLeod continued.

And more broadly, “a former CIA employee is working in almost every department at Google,” Project Censored noted.

But Google isn’t alone. Nor is the CIA. “Former employees of US and Israeli intelligence agencies now hold senior positions at Google, Meta, Microsoft, and other tech giants,” Project Censored wrote. A second report focused on employees from Israel’s Unit 8200, its equivalent of the CIA, which is “infamous for surveilling the indigenous Palestinian population,” MacLeod wrote. Using LinkedIn, he identified hundreds of such individuals from both agencies, providing specific information about dozens of them.

“The problem with former CIA agents becoming the arbiters of what is true and what is false and what should be promoted and what should be deleted is that they cut their teeth at a notorious organization whose job it was to inject lies and false information into the public discourse to further the goals of the national security state,” MacLeod wrote, citing the 1983 testimony of former CIA task force head John Stockwell, author of In Search of Enemies, in which he described the dissemination of propaganda as a “major function” of the agency.

“I had propagandists all over the world,” Stockwell wrote, adding:

“We pumped dozens of stories about Cuban atrocities, Cuban rapists [to the media]… We ran [faked] photographs that made almost every newspaper in the country … We didn’t know of one single atrocity committed by the Cubans. It was pure, raw, false propaganda to create an illusion of communists eating babies for breakfast.”

“None of this means that all or even any of the individuals are moles—or even anything but model employees today,” MacLeod noted later. But the sheer number of them “certainly causes concern.”

3. Toxic Chemicals Continue to Go Unregulated in the United States

The United States is “a global laggard in chemical regulation,” ProPublica reported in December 2022, a result of chemical industry influence and acquiescence by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over a period of decades, according to reporters Neil Bedi, Sharon Lerner and Kathleen McGrory. A headline example: Asbestos, one of the most widely-recognized toxic substances, is still legal in the U.S., more than 30 years after the EPA tried to have it banned.

“Through interviews with environmental experts and analysis of a half century’s worth of legislation, lawsuits, EPA documents, oral histories, chemical databases, and regulatory records, ProPublica uncovered the longstanding institutional failure to protect Americans from toxic chemicals,” Project Censored reported. 

ProPublica identified five main reasons for failure:

1. The Chemical Industry Helped Write the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). A top EPA official “joked the law was ‘written by industry’ and should have been named after the DuPont executive who went over the text line by line,” ProPublica reported. The law “allowed more than 60,000 chemicals to stay on the market without a review of their health risks” and required the EPA to always choose the “least burdensome” regulations. “These two words would doom American chemical regulation for decades.”

2. Following Early Failures, the EPA Lost Its Resolve. In 1989, after 10 years of work, the EPA was banning asbestos. But companies that used asbestos sued and won in 1991, based on a court ruling they’d failed to prove it was the “least burdensome” option. However, “the judge did provide a road map for future bans, which would require the agency to do an analysis of other regulatory options … to prove they wouldn’t be adequate,” but rather than follow through, the EPA simply gave up.

3. Chemicals Are Considered Innocent Until Proven Guilty. For decades, the U.S. and EU used a “risk-based” approach to regulation, requiring the government to prove a chemical poses unreasonable health risks before restricting it—which can take years. In 2007, the EU switched to a “hazard-based” approach, putting the burden on companies when there’s evidence of significant harm. As a result, ProPublica explained, “the EU has successfully banned or restricted more than a thousand chemicals.” A similar approach was proposed in the U.S. in 2005 by New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, but it was soundly defeated.

4. The EPA Mostly Regulates Chemicals One by One. In 2016, a new law amended the TSCA to cut the “least burdensome” language and created a schedule “where a small list of high-priority chemicals would be reviewed every few years; in 2016, the first 10 were selected, including asbestos,” ProPublica reported. “The EPA would then have about three years to assess the chemicals and another two years to finalize regulations on them.” But six years later, “the agency is behind on all such rules. So far, it has only proposed one ban, on asbestos, and the agency told ProPublica it would still be almost a year before that is finalized.” Industry fights the process at every step. “Meanwhile, the EU has authored a new plan to regulate chemicals even faster by targeting large groups of dangerous substances,” which “would lead to bans of another 5,000 chemicals by 2030,” ProPublica continued.

5. The EPA Employs Industry-Friendly Scientists as Regulators. “The EPA has a long history of hiring scientists and top officials from the companies they are supposed to regulate, allowing industry to sway the agency’s science from the inside,” ProPublica wrote. A prime example is Todd Stedeford. “A lawyer and toxicologist, Stedeford has been hired by the EPA on three separate occasions,” ProPublica noted. “During his two most recent periods of employment at the agency—from 2011 to 2017 and from 2019 to 2021—he was hired by corporate employers who use or manufacture chemicals the EPA regulates.”

“A handful of corporate outlets have reported on the EPA’s slowness to regulate certain toxic chemicals,” Project Censored noted, citing stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. “However, none have highlighted the systemic failures wrought by the EPA and the chemical industry.”

4. Stalkerware Could Be Used to Incriminate People Violating Abortion Bans

Stalkerware—consisting of up to 200 surveillance apps and services that provide secret access to people’s phones for a monthly fee—“could become a significant legal threat to people seeking abortions, according to a pair of articles published in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion,” Project Censored reported.

“Abortion medication is safe. But now that Roe is overturned, your data isn’t,” Rae Hodge wrote for the tech news site CNET just two days after the Dobbs decision. “Already, the digital trails of abortion seekers can become criminal evidence against them in some states where abortion[s] were previously prosecuted. And the legal dangers may extend to abortion seekers in even more states.” 

The next month, writing for Slate, University of Virginia law professor Danielle Keats Citron warned that “surveillance accomplished by individual privacy invaders will be a gold mine for prosecutors targeting both medical workers and pregnant people seeking abortions.”

Invaders only need a few minutes to access phones and passwords. “Once installed, cyberstalking apps silently record and upload phones’ activities to their servers,” Citron said. “They enable privacy invaders to see our photos, videos, texts, calls, voice mails, searches, social media activities, locations—nothing is out of reach. From anywhere, individuals can activate a phone’s mic to listen to conversations within 15 feet of the phone,” even “conversations that pregnant people have with their health care providers—nurses, doctors and insurance company employees,” she wrote.

As a result, Hodge cautioned, “Those who aid abortion seekers could be charged as accomplices in some cases,” under some state laws.

It’s not just abortion, she said, “Your phone’s data, your social media accounts, your browsing and geolocation history, and your ISP’s detailed records of your internet activity may all be used as evidence if you face state criminal or civil charges for a miscarriage.”

“Often marketed as a tool to monitor children’s online safety or as device trackers, stalkerware is technically illegal to sell for the purpose of monitoring adults,” Project Censored noted, but that’s hardly a deterrent. 

“Stalkerware and other forms of electronic surveillance have been closely associated with domestic violence and sexual assault, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence,” Citron noted.

In addition, Hodge said, “third-party data brokers sell sensitive geolocation data—culled through a vast web of personal tracking tech found in apps, browsers, and devices—to law enforcement without oversight.” And “abortion bounty hunter” provisions adopted by states like Texas and Oklahoma add a financial incentive. “Given the inexpensive cost of readily available stores of personal data and how easily they can be de-anonymized, savvy informants could use the information to identify abortion seekers and turn a profit,” she noted.

“The law’s response to intimate privacy violations is inadequate, lacking a clear conception of what intimate privacy is, why its violation is wrongful, and how it inflicts serious harm upon individuals, groups, and society,” Citron said. 

“Until federal regulations and legislation establish a set of digital privacy laws, abortion seekers are caught in the position of having to create their own patchwork of digital defenses, from often complicated and expensive privacy tools,” Hodge warned. While the bipartisan American Data Privacy and Protection Act is still “slowly inching through Congress,” it “is widely thought toothless,” she wrote.

The Biden administration has proposed a new rule protecting “certain health data from being used to prosecute both clinicians and patients,” STAT reported in May 2023, but the current draft only applies “in states where abortion is legal.”

“Corporate news outlets have paid some attention to the use of digital data in abortion-related prosecutions,” Project Censored reported. While there have been stories about post-Roe digital privacy, “none have focused specifically on how stalkerware could potentially be used in criminal investigations of suspected abortions.”

5. Certified Rainforest Carbon Offsets Mostly ‘Worthless’

“The forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to a new investigation,” The Guardian reported on Jan. 23, as part of a joint, nine-month reporting project with SourceMaterial and Die Zeit. “The analysis raises questions over the credits bought by a number of internationally renowned companies—some of them have labeled their products ‘carbon neutral,’ or have told their consumers they can fly, buy new clothes or eat certain foods without making the climate crisis worse.”

“About 90 percent of rainforest carbon offsets certified by Verra, the world’s largest offset certifier, do not reflect real reductions in emissions,” Project Censored summed up. Verra, “has issued more than one billion metric tons worth of carbon offsets, certifies three-fourths of all voluntary carbon offsets.”

While “Verra claimed to have certified 94.9 million credits,” the actual benefits “amounted to a much more modest 5.5 million credits.” This was based on an analysis of  “the only three scientific studies to use robust, scientifically sound methods to assess the impact of carbon offsets on deforestation,” Project Censored said. “The journalists also consulted with Indigenous communities, industry insiders, and scientists.”

The Guardian wrote, “The studies used different methods and time periods, looked at different ranges of projects, and the researchers said no modeling approach is ever perfect. However, the data showed broad agreement on the lack of effectiveness of the projects compared with the Verra-approved predictions.”

Specifically, “The investigation of twenty-nine Verra rainforest offset projects found that twenty-one had no climate benefit, seven had significantly less climate benefit than claimed (by margins of 52 to 98 percent less benefit than claimed), while one project yielded 80 percent more climate benefit than claimed. Overall, the study concluded that 94 percent of the credits approved by these projects were ‘worthless’ and never should have been approved.”

“Another study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge found that in thirty-two of the forty forest offset projects investigated, the claims concerning forest protection and emission reductions were overstated by an average of 400 percent,” Project Censored reported. “Despite claims that these thirty-two projects together protected an area of rainforest the size of Italy, they only protected an area the size of Venice.”

While Verra criticized the studies’ methods and conclusions, an outside expert, Oxford ecoscience professor Yadvinder Singh Malhi, had two doctoral students check for errors, and they found none. “I wish it were otherwise, but this report is pretty compelling,” he told The Guardian.

“Rainforest protection credits are the most common type on the market at the moment. And it’s exploding, so these findings really matter,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, who’s researched carbon credits for 20 years. “But these problems are not just limited to this credit type. These problems exist with nearly every kind of credit,” she told The Guardian. “We need an alternative process. The offset market is broken.”

“There is simply nobody in the market who has a genuine interest to say when something goes wrong,” Lambert Schneider, a researcher at the Öko-Institut in Berlin, told SourceMaterial.

“The investigations by The Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial appear to have made a difference. In March 2023, Verra announced that it would phase out its flawed rainforest offset program by mid-2025,” Project Censored reported. But it could only find one brief mention of the joint investigation in major U.S. newspapers, a Chicago Tribune op-ed.

To learn more about Project Censored and its publication, ‘State of the Free Press 2024,’ visit projectcensored.org. Project Censored was founded at Sonoma State University in 1976 by the late Carl Jensen. It is sponsored by the Media Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Fair Oaks.

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