Each year, Project Censored publishes State of the Free Press, an in-depth analysis of the most influential independent journalism of the year that focuses on voices and subjects that are ignored by the traditional media. Every volume contains the Project Censored’s annual list of the most critical yet under-reported news stories. Top 25 lists of State of the Free Press 2022 covers topics like how “climate debtor” nations have taken over the world and how Pfizer is a bully to South American governments over the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the lack of coverage of the historical Wildcat strike campaign to protect workers’ rights. Additionally, the book offers a critical examination of the junk food stories provided by the mainstream media and the adversity of “news abuse.” It will also review previous years’ top 25 stories and highlights the most inspiring examples of democracy in media practice.
Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff edit state of the Free Press. Roth manages Project Censored’s Campus Affiliates Program, which brings college students and professors at universities and colleges across the U.S. together in a group effort to pinpoint the year’s most unreported news stories. Huff is the program’s director and the President of the non-profit Media Freedom Foundation. We requested Roth Huff and Roth Huff to share their opinions about what news is left under the radar and why.
Peter Handel: How does Project Censored decide on its Top 25 most censored books every year?
Andy Lee Roth: The purpose of the annual top 25 list of stories is to draw the attention of people to the importance of news stories that have been omitted and distorted by the news media owned by corporations and to recognize the efforts of independent journalists who helped in educating the public on those stories.
Preparing the annual top 25 list of stories is a year-long effort that involves hundreds of people and at least five reviews and evaluations. The levels that are selected for consideration are suggested by college students who participate in the Campus Affiliates Program and other people in the community who are interested. After being identified, stories are reviewed by the students and their faculty mentors to determine authenticity, credibility, and transparency of source and coverage by corporate news outlets. If an account cannot meet any of these criteria, it is deemed indecent and will be discarded for further examination.
When Project Censored receives the candidate story, we perform another round of reviews following the same criteria and revising the study to include any future corporate news coverage. Accounts deemed worthy of consideration are made available on the website of the Project as validated Independent News stories (or VINs).
In the spring, we will offer all available VINs for the current cycle to students and faculty on our affiliated campuses and our expert panel of judges who decide to narrow the story of the candidates from a large number of applicants to a select list.
Stories that are selected for it onto the shortlist will undergo another round of rigorous examination. Those deemed worthy of consideration are submitted for review by our panel of experts, who then decide on their ranking in the order they were presented. The resultant top 25 story list appears in the annual publication of Project Censored and on our website. It is also used by newsweeklies that are independent across the nation.
Please give us some examples of the news stories featured on the 2020-2021 news list.
This year, Andy Lee Roth: One of the most talked-about stories in the historic wave of wildcat strikes. Payday Report, an independent newspaper that focuses its attention on issues affecting workers, has reported over 1,750 wildcat strikes in March 2020. The media of the corporate world has mostly not been able to “connect the dots” on the magnitude of the protests. Until the end of October 2021, when media started covering “Striketober,” corporate news presented protests by workers in the pandemic as isolated and isolated events. In general, the corporations’ news media do not do a good job taking on labor-related issues.
The second story of the year, “Journalists Investigating Financial Crimes Threatened by Global Elites,” focused on a study published by the U.K.-based Foreign Policy Centre about the dangers faced by journalists who investigate financial crimes by wealthy individuals as multinational corporations. Journalists from 41 countries reported being the subject of defamation lawsuits and social media smear campaigns, online trolling, and physical violence due to investigating stories about financial criminals. Although the Foreign Policy Center’s report garnered some attention from major news outlets outside of the United States, our research revealed that at the time of writing, the most prominent commercial media outlet or newspaper based in the United States had so much as the report outlines. This is particularly troubling since threats to journalists harm freedom of the press and undermine the well-being of democratic societies.
Other stories in the list have only received a small amount of media coverage by corporations, but the range isn’t even close to the importance of the subject. For instance, story 19 on Europe’s desire for biomass fuel derived from American forests has focused on an excellent New York Times article. However, no other major news publication has published an opinion piece. The harvesting of wood to make biomass fuel has resulted in polluting the air with toxic chemicals and devastating flooding throughout the southern coastline and the southern coast of the United States, including North and South Carolina, South Georgia, Alabama, and northern Florida However, the majority of Americans are unaware of this as the mainstream media has not covered the subject.
In the book State of the Free Press 2022, you discuss shocking attacks on the media in the United States and abroad. What were the main obstacles to a free press in 2020-2021?
Mickey Huff: The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest threat to the integrity of journalism. However, it’s not just the one. The disease has caused severe harm to every aspect of American society, and journalism has not been left unaffected. In December 2021, it was reported that the Poynter Institute said that more than 100 local media outlets have shut down since the start of the epidemic, which is a devastating loss that will accelerate the growth of “news deserts,” communities or regions with none of the local news outlets in any way. Project Censored has documented how companies with conservative agendas swoop into these communities to capitalize on the need to have local media.
However, the dangers to journalism don’t just stop with the epidemic. The United States is an increasingly risky place for journalists who are the target of assaults or arrests and other threats. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker identified 2021 as “another record year” for press freedom violations across the United States, and also documented journalists being targeted by 142 attackers and 59 detentions, arrests, or detentions, and 23 subpoenas issued to journalists or news organizations in addition to 36 incidents of journalists who had their equipment destroyed or damaged. In light of these and other reasons, the United States ranked just 44th out of 180 nations in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which highlighted the “disappearance of local news” as well as the “ongoing and widespread distrust of mainstream media” in those who suffer from “many chronic, underlying conditions” which affect press freedoms across the United States.
The third risk to the integrity of journalism comes from Big Tech. These new giants of media comprising Alphabet (which is the owner of Google along with YouTube), Meta (which has Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp), Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft serve as judges of public issues and legitimate debate despite their leaders’ claims that they are technology platforms and not media or publishing corporations. The effects of the web and the growing impact of social media cannot be overemphasized. “Google may not be a country, but it is a superpower,” Timothy Garton Ash stated in his book Free Speech: Ten Principles for the Connected World.
According to Andy Lee Roth, the tech giants are now the gatekeepers of the future. Their software “determine which news stories circulate widely, raising serious concerns about transparency and accountability in determinations of newsworthiness.” Transparency and accountability are the guiding guidelines in ethical journalistic practice. However, news gatekeeping based on proprietary algorithms violates these guidelines for ethical journalism, causing severe threats to the credibility of journalism and the probability of a knowledgeable public.
Are threats to freedom of expression getting worse under the Trump administration, or have they remained similar since 1976 when Project Censored began?
Andy Lee Roth: Trump’s presidency highlighted (and profited from) the chronic diseases within American society before the rise of Trump to the presidency. Trump was remarkable in his determination to denounce the media for being “the enemy of the people” when it covered stories that didn’t make him look good. He was adamantly opposed to any journalism that relied on factual truth, with the possibility of “alternative” facts, as suggested by his counselor Kellyanne Conway. It’s hard to believe that there’s no link between Trump’s provocative remarks and the subsequent threats and violence directed at journalists, ranging from Rep. Greg Gianforte’s attack on a Guardian reporter as well as his message “Murder the Media” scratched on the door of the U.S. Capitol during the unsuccessful insurrection of January 6 and 7, 2021.
It’s misleading and even dangerous to believe the assumption that U.S. journalism was free of flaws before the time Donald Trump weaponized the term “fake news” to serve his interests. This assumption gives more power to Trump than he is entitled to but fails to recognize the serious, fundamental flaws in the corporations’ news outlets. Procensored’s Steve Macek and I argued in a November 2020 piece for Truthout the explanations for bias in the news, which trace it back on “the self-interest and partisan bias of editors and journalists — or even aggregates of those individual interests and biases — fail to explain the political power of news or to identify the foundations on which far more fundamental forms of news slant are built.” To fully comprehend the most profound biases in the establishment media is to conduct a structural analysis of journalism, which includes the financial imperatives, institutional limitations, professional ethics, and social connections that determine the making of every news report. These are the essential elements of critical media literacy Project Censored champions.
A comprehensive analysis of the threats to the freedom of the press should look back to before Trump’s presidency and beyond it. The Biden administration has never referred to the media as the “enemy of the people,” however it continues its efforts to bring Julian Assange to justice. Although the First Amendment indeed protects “prior restraint” — the process of preventing the publication or publication of information or ideas from authorities, in November 2021, an New York State court ordered The New York Times not to make public information about Project Veritas. Project Veritas, a far right-wing organization known for its deceitfully edited videos. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker pointed out that this was the first previous restraint imposed on The Times following its involvement in the Pentagon Papers case of 1971.
In your book, you have the chapter on the exaggerated and unsubstantiated “Junk Food News” that discusses what you refer to as “humilitainment.” What is “Junk Food News,” and what does it do to distract us from more critical reporting?
Mickey Huff: Project Censored began to monitor Junk Food News after news editors reached out to Carl Jensen, the Project’s founder, to challenge its assertion that certain news subjects had been “censored.” Citing a limit on time and space available for news coverage and preventing the Project from covering every major news item, the editors were left Jensen thinking: What should they protect? The issue, Jensen found, was not necessarily the lack of time or space to cover news that was important; however, it was the quality of information chosen to fill that short space and time. According to Jensen’s definition, “sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia,” which is why Jensen coined the term that is now widely used “Junk Food News.”
Today, students and faculty who are part of Project Censored continue to track Junk Food News. This year’s chapter looks at the social media platform TikTok as a popular source of news about junk food. In particular, the research focuses on “humilitainment,” a term invented in 2005 by scholars of media Brad Waite and Sara Booker to refer to entertainment based on the humiliation and annoyance of others. TikTok offers humilitainment, which is evident in the dramatic coverage in the news in the case of Gorilla Glue Girl. The authors of the chapter show how the fascination with entertainment obscures a more severe range of issues such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Ethiopia and the flurry of female unemployment that COVID-19 accelerated as legislation that restricts the right to vote.