The Unbearable Lameness of Project Censored

It has become pointless, misleading, and laughable. It's time to slay the alternative media's sacred cow and put us all out of our misery.

| Tue Apr. 11, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

Will Project Censored please go away?

On Mar. 29, this year's top 25 "censored" stories were announced to a giant yawn. Just like every year at this time, the latest edition of Project Censored's book compiling those stories is hitting the stores, and alternative weeklies are plastering the list on their covers.

The fact that Project Censored is predictable and boring isn't its biggest problem these days. It's also become irrelevant, laughable, and cheesy. Worse still, it's losing its credibility -- not a good thing for a media watchdog.

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Censorship is a big, scary word. It's dangerous to toss around the concept casually; there are legitimate First Amendment issues in this country, never mind the limits of press freedoms elsewhere in the world that should get attention but don't. Censorship implies that some covert cabal somewhere is conspiring to keep The Truth from The People. But that's hardly the case with Project Censored's latest picks.

These stories are allegedly "The News That Didn't Make the News" -- except, of course, for the ones that did, which in fact include every article cited. The articles on this year's list appeared in dozens of publications, from our own Mother Jones to Dollars and Sense, The Nation, and The Village Voice -- all reputable and reasonably well-known publications.

The small print in this year's Project Censored materials tell us that the stories it honors are actually "underreported" or "undercovered" by the general media. Of course, the corporate media's flaccidity and vacuousness is a bad thing. But some grand conspiracy of censorship it isn't. Then again, "Project Underreported" wouldn't sell as many books, get as much press, or make its fans feel as self-righteous.

Also misleading is Project Censored's central assertion that the mainstream media has ignored the stories the PC team has unearthed. In the cases of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th most "censored" stories of 1999, at least one major mainstream newspaper, magazine, or television news program (C-Span, CNN, and the Washington Post among others) did in fact cover the exact story, before the publication that Project Censored honors.

Perhaps the greatest indicator that Project Censored has passed its prime is how high on the "no shit" scale most of this year's honorees will rank with even marginally informed readers. For example, the sixth most "censored" story: "NATO Defends Private Economic Interests in The Balkans." Or how about number five: "Turkey Destroys Kurdish Villages with US Weapons." No kidding ... Clinton acknowledged that in 1995, as Project Censored's Web site itself notes. Or my personal favorite, number two: "Pharmaceutical Companies Put Profits Before Need." Thank God someone told us.

It should embarrass us that Project Censored has become a thinly veiled excuse for an alternative press self-love-fest, an opportunity for us to give ourselves awards, something to convince us that we're doing well and doing good. Are we really that insecure?

On the laughable front, this year we've got the left's poster boy Mumia Abu-Jamal writing the introduction. Mumia, perhaps the most inappropriately overexposed individual on earth -- who still insists that he is being censored, despite having a radio show and column carried just about anywhere Birkenstocks can be found, and on whose behalf thousands of sheep-like youth are leafletting an urban center near you -- serving as an example of censorship?

And just how credible can this operation be if, in its online abstract of one honored story, it identifies the KLA as the Kosovo Libertarian Army? Of course, it does make for a scarier story: Rush Limbaugh running a breakaway European republic!

It's sad, really. Back when Carl Jensen founded Project Censored in 1976 at Sonoma State University in Northern California, outlets for alternative views and news -- such as cable television, weekly newspapers, and Internet sites -- were either far fewer than they are now or didn't exist. If the mass media of the time didn't report it, we likely never heard it.

Jensen and his journalism students pored through public-interest groups' studies and trade journals for his "censored" stories. He was, at the time, justified to some extent in invoking the spectre of censorship, because no mainline news media ever covered the stories he cited, despite the fact that some mainstream journalists told him that they had known about the stories but chose not to pursue them. The public was stunned and outraged by what Project Censored exposed in those early years, and the news media were publicly shamed.

We owe Jensen a debt of gratitude: His two decades of work helped change journalism for the better. Unfortunately, his success made Project Censored a less compelling project after the first decade. Four years after Jensen's retirement, the project is so far from its founding mission and sensibility that it's not only irrelevant -- it's an embarrassment. Not only is the project no longer run by journalists (it moved from the communications department to the sociology department with Jensen's departure) or effectively even about journalism, it has become more misleading than informative.

Project Censored has done great things for public-interest media. Let's give it a dignified burial.