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Attacks on Journalists Are Just One Looming Threat to Press Freedom in the US

Trump weaponized the term “fake news,” but corporate news media has always had deep, structural flaws.

Trump weaponized the term “fake news,” but corporate news media has always had deep, structural flaws.

Every year, Project Censored publishes State of the Free Press, an in-depth look at the year’s best independent journalism, centering voices and topics marginalized by the establishment press. Each volume features the project’s list of the year’s most important but underreported news stories. In addition, the book provides critical analysis of the junk food news served by the establishment media and the prevalence of “news abuse.” It also revisits previous years’ top 25 stories and shares the inspiring examples of media democracy in action. The top 25 list for State of the Free Press 2022 includes topics such as how “climate debtor” nations have colonized the atmosphere, the way Pfizer bullies South American governments over the COVID-19 vaccine and the scant coverage of the historic wave of wildcat strikes for workers’ rights.

State of the Free Press is edited by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff. Roth is the coordinator of Project Censored’s Campus Affiliates Program, which brings hundreds of professors and students at colleges and universities across the U.S. together in a collective effort to identify each year’s most underreported news stories. Huff is the project’s director and president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation. We asked Roth and Huff to share their thoughts on what important news goes unmentioned and why.

Peter Handel: How does Project Censored decide on its top 25 most censored stories each year?

Andy Lee Roth: The aim of the project’s annual top 25 story list is to alert the public to extraordinarily important news stories that have been marginalized, distorted or ignored by the corporate news media, and to celebrate the good work of the independent journalists who have helped inform the public about those stories nonetheless.

The production of the project’s annual top 25 story list is a year-long process that involves several hundred people and at least five distinct rounds of review and evaluation. Candidate stories are nominated by college students participating in the project’s Campus Affiliates Program and interested community members. Once identified, stories are vetted by those students and their faculty mentors for newsworthiness, credibility, transparency of sourcing and corporate news coverage. If a story fails on any one of these criteria, it is deemed inappropriate and excluded from further consideration.

Once Project Censored receives the candidate story, we undertake a second round of evaluation, using the same criteria and updating the review to include any subsequent corporate news coverage. Stories that pass this stage of review are posted on the project’s website as Validated Independent News stories (or VINs).

In spring, we present all eligible VINs in the current annual cycle to the faculty and students at our affiliate campuses and to our panel of expert judges, who vote to winnow the candidate stories down from several hundred to a short list.

The stories that make the short list are subject to another round of intensive review, and those that pass muster are sent to our panel of judges, who vote to rank them in numerical order. The resulting top 25 story list is featured in Project Censored’s annual book, on our website and by independent news weeklies across the country.

Give us a few examples of the independent news stories featured on the 2020-2021 story list.

Andy Lee Roth
Andy Lee Roth

Andy Lee Roth: One of this year’s top stories is the historic wave of wildcat strikes: Payday Report, an independent news outlet focused on labor issues, has documented more than 1,750 wildcat strikes since March 2020. Corporate media have by and large failed to “connect the dots” on the scope of these protests. In fact, until October 2021, when the corporate media began to cover “Striketober,” corporate news framed worker protests during the pandemic as sporadic, isolated events. Overall, corporate news media do a poor job of covering labor issues.

This year’s number two story, “Journalists Investigating Financial Crimes Threatened by Global Elites,” focused on a report by the U.K.-based Foreign Policy Centre about the threats faced by journalists investigating financial misconduct by wealthy individuals and international corporations. Journalists from 41 nations reported being subject to defamation lawsuits, social media smear campaigns, online trolling and even physical violence in the course of investigating stories on financial crimes. Although the Foreign Policy Centre’s report received some attention from corporate news media outside the United States, our research found that, as of July 2021, no major commercial newspaper or broadcast outlet in the United States had so much as mentioned the report. This is especially troubling because threats to journalists undermine freedom of the press and jeopardize the health of democratic societies.

Still other stories on the list have received limited corporate news coverage, but that coverage is not at all proportional to the significance of the topic. For example, story number 19, about Europe’s hunger for biomass fuel made from American forests, was the subject of one exemplary New York Times article, but no other corporate news outlet so much as ran an op-ed on the issue. The harvesting of timber for biomass fuels has led to toxic air pollution and catastrophic flooding along the southern coast of the United States, including North and South Carolina, southern Georgia, Alabama and northern Florida, but most Americans know nothing about this because the establishment press have failed to cover the issue.

In State of the Free Press 2022, you talk about disturbing attacks on the media at home and abroad. What were the major challenges to a free press in 2020-2021?

Mickey Huff
Mickey Huff

Mickey Huff: The COVID-19 pandemic is the most obvious threat to journalistic integrity, but not the only one. The pandemic has done severe damage to every sector of American society, and journalism has not been spared. In December 2021, the Poynter Institute reported that more than 100 local news outlets have closed since the beginning of the pandemic — a terrible loss that accelerates the spread of “news deserts,” communities and regions where there is no local news coverage at all. Project Censored has documented how corporate outlets with conservative agendas swoop into these communities to exploit the need for local news.

But the threats to journalism aren’t limited to the pandemic. The United States is an increasingly dangerous place for journalists, who are subject to assaults, arrests and other threats. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker described 2021 as “another record year” for press freedom violations in the country, and documented 142 assaults on journalists, 59 arrests or detainments, 23 subpoenas of journalists or news organizations, and 36 instances of journalists having equipment damaged or destroyed. For these and related reasons, the United States ranked just 44th of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, which identified the “disappearance of local news” and “ongoing and widespread distrust of mainstream media” among the “many chronic, underlying conditions” impacting press freedoms in the United States.

A third threat to journalistic integrity comes from Big Tech. The impacts of the internet and the increasing influence of social media cannot be overstated. “Google may not be a country, but it is a superpower,” Timothy Garton Ash noted in his book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. The new media giants — including Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube), Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), Twitter, Apple and Microsoft — function as arbiters of public issues and legitimate discourse, despite their leaders’ assertions that they are tech platforms, not publishers or media companies.

As Andy Lee Roth has written, these tech giants are the new gatekeepers and their proprietary algorithms “determine which news stories circulate widely, raising serious concerns about transparency and accountability in determinations of newsworthiness.” Accountability and transparency are guiding principles for ethical journalism. But news gatekeeping conducted by proprietary algorithms crosses wires with these ethical guidelines, producing grave threats to the integrity of journalism — not to mention the likelihood of a well-informed public.

Did threats to freedom of the press worsen during the Trump administration, or have they remained basically the same since 1976 when Project Censored began?

Andy Lee Roth: Trump’s presidency exposed (and exploited) chronic malignancies in American society that predated his rise to power. Trump was extraordinary in his zeal to condemn the press as “the enemy of the people” whenever it reported news that failed to flatter him. He seemed opposed to any form of journalism that involved factual reality, with the exception, perhaps, of “alternative” facts, as endorsed by his counselor Kellyanne Conway. It’s difficult to accept that there is no connection between Trump’s provocative rhetoric and subsequent violence and threats directed at journalists, from Rep. Greg Gianforte’s 2017 assault of a Guardian reporter, to the message “Murder the Media” scratched onto a door to the U.S. Capitol during the failed insurrection on January 6, 2021.

But it is misleading — and dangerous — to assume that U.S. journalism was free of faults until Donald Trump weaponized the term “fake news” to serve his own interests. That position cedes more influence to Trump than he deserves, while it ignores the importance of deep, structural flaws in corporate news media. As Project Censored’s Steve Macek and I argued in a November 2020 article for Truthout, explanations of news bias that trace it back to “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 understand the establishment media’s deepest biases requires a structural analysis of journalism, including the economic imperatives, institutional constraints, professional values and social relationships that shape the production of every news story. These are the basic building blocks of the critical media literacy that Project Censored champions.

A clear-eyed analysis of threats to freedom of the press must look back before Trump’s presidency — not to mention beyond it. The Biden administration does not refer to the press as “enemy of the people,” but it continues in its efforts to extradite Julian Assange. And, although the First Amendment provides protection against “prior restraint” — the effort to prevent publication or publicization of information or ideas — by the government, in November 2021, a New York State court ordered The New York Times not to publish information about the group Project Veritas, a far right group notorious for its production of deceptively edited videos. As the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker noted, this was the first prior restraint for the Times since the Pentagon Papers case of 1971.

In your book you include a chapter on sensationalized and empty “Junk Food News” that discusses something you call “humilitainment.” What is “Junk Food News,” and how does it distract us from more substantive reporting?

Mickey Huff: Project Censored began to track Junk Food News after news editors contacted Carl Jensen, the project’s founder, to counter the project’s claim that certain news topics were “censored.” Citing a finite amount of time and space for news reporting, which prevented them from covering every important story, those editors got Jensen wondering: What do they report? The problem, Jensen found, was not necessarily a lack of time and space for substantive news, but the quality of the news selected to fill that limited time and space. Most of it was, in Jensen’s words, “sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia,” for which he coined the now-common term “Junk Food News.”

Today, faculty and students working with Project Censored continue to track Junk Food News. This year’s chapter investigates the social networking service TikTok as a popular purveyor of junk food news. In particular, the analysis focuses on “humilitainment,” a term developed in 2005 by media scholars Brad Waite and Sara Booker to describe entertainment that capitalizes on someone else’s humiliation. TikTok trades in humilitainment, as exemplified by sensational news coverage of Gorilla Glue Girl. The chapter’s authors show how a fascination with humilitainment obscured more substantive reporting on topics including humanitarian crises in Yemen and Ethiopia, the wave of disproportionately female unemployment propelled by COVID-19, and legislation to restrict voting rights.

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