I first came in contact with Mickey Huff, associate professor of history at Diablo Valley College, when one of my articles was selected by Project Censored, for which he serves as director. For the uninitiated, here’s how Huff describes Project Censored: “Project Censored’s principal objective is training students in media literacy and First Amendment issues for the future advocacy and protection of free press rights in the United States. Project Censored has trained some 2,000 students in investigative research in the past three decades. Through a partnership of faculty, students, and the community, Project Censored conducts research on important national news stories that are underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or otherwise censored by the US corporate media.”
Mickey Z.: In a land where freedom of the press is considered sacred and the media is usually portrayed as a collection of closet Leninists yearning to sacrifice Tea Party virgins on the altar of Fidel Castro, why in the world do we need Project Censored?
Mickey Huff: Unfortunately, the myths both of a free press and of the “liberal” media persist in the US, regardless of mountains of evidence to the contrary manifest in various social science studies dealing with media content and bias over at least the past few decades (not to mention scores of articles and books – and Project Censored has been looking at this problem, in terms of what does and does not get reported, for going on 35 years now). The top-down, managed-news, propaganda system corporate media deliver day in and day out, is by design, not accident. And it’s a problem with a pattern. Our books are filled with examples year after year, in addition to other sources. One reason for this is that the bottom line for corporate media is no different than for other for-profit businesses – it’s the bottom line. Reporting the truth, portending to factual accuracy, presenting a diversity of viewpoints, are not the prime concerns of corporate media. Selling eyeballs to advertisers is. Therein lies a major part of the problem for a free press. As A.J. Liebling once put it, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
MZ: Where does the term “Junk Food News” come in?
MH: Along the way, corporate media tell other stories that support the overall status quo of our capitalist economic system (oft at odds with principles of democracy) which rely heavily on historical myths and appeals to emotion in the process of cajoling the public on one issue or another. However, increasingly, corporate media is proving itself irrelevant in terms of news and reporting as more and more Junk Food News (Twinkies for the brain) becomes standard programming (with stories like Balloon Boy, various celebrity deaths and anniversaries of them, the latest escapades of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, “reality” television, and the like). In the US, corporate media help create an excited delirium of knowinglessness on a hyperreal landscape where the end result is a confused and alienated public – from FOX to CNN, and across the AM radio dial, we increasingly have vitriol not virtue, gossip not fact, surface not substance. It is what Dr. Peter Phillips and I have referred to as a literal Truth Emergency – a lack of purity, facts, and deep political meaning in news reporting.
For these reasons, and more, Project Censored, has its work cut out for it. The mission of Project Censored is to teach students and the public about the role of a free press in a free society – and to “tell the News That Didn’t Make the News and Why.” We examine the contents of news and information important to the maintenance of a healthy and functioning democracy. We define modern media censorship as the subtle yet constant and sophisticated manipulation of reality in our mass media outlets. On a daily basis, censorship refers to the intentional non-inclusion of a news story – or piece of a news story – based on anything other than a desire to tell the full story about any given matter (i.e., the truth). Such manipulation can take the form of political pressure (from government officials and powerful individuals), economic pressure (from advertisers and funders), and legal pressure (the threat of lawsuits from deep-pocket individuals, corporations, and institutions).
MZ: What has been the role and impact of Project Censored in all this?
MH: Project Censored, quite simply, seeks media accountability. In our view, the only valid justification for declining a news story is that in a medium limited by time and space, another news story was simply more important to the people of the community, whether local, national or international. While admittedly a subjective process, it is nonetheless, a process to be undertaken by the news people themselves (the investigative journalists and editors), NOT by the managers and CEOs of their “parent company.” No professional journalist or researcher should ever have to face the destruction of his or her career (or life) simply because they wanted to tell the truth. While no two people will always agree on what story is more important than another, a system where the working reporters and editors run the newsroom would at least provide a fertile environment for debate, dissent and critical thinking.
The growth of independent media and journalism in recent years shows that people throughout the world yearn to hold not only their leaders accountable, but their media sources as well. For that reason, the Project Censored research program continues, in its small way, to support and highlight those who tell the truth about the powerful (no matter the consequences) and we are relentless in our quest to make under-reported factual information more available to the public while holding accountable the most ubiquitous of information disseminators, the corporate media, for their output, from the framed and incomplete to the trivial and mundane.
MZ: How did you get involved with Project Censored?
MH: I was interested from the time I saw the first book. Dr. Carl Jensen, a communications professor at Sonoma State University (SSU), founded the Project in 1976 and the first book was published in 1993. I met Jensen’s successor as Project director, Dr. Peter Phillips, a sociologist, at an alternative media conference in San Francisco in 2001. I stayed in contact with Peter and the Project, becoming a community evaluator of stories by 2004. Through my work with Dr. Marc Sapir and the independent polling group Retropoll, I got more involved in media activism and scholarship, was teaching courses on the history of propaganda, and gravitated more to the work of the Project. I worked with Peter on numerous conferences and events, and our work increasingly overlapped. I became the associate director in 2008 after working on the Censored 2009 book with Peter, and taught courses at SSU directly contributing to the Project as Peter’s sabbatical replacement for a semester. I went on to co-edit and co-author the Censored 2010 book. The board of directors of the parent non-profit of Project Censored, the Media Freedom Foundation (MFF), chose me as new director upon Peter stepping down after almost 14 years. I continue to work with Peter and the MFF board, and was lead editor and co-author with him on the newest book, Censored 2011, published by Seven Stories Press. We are working together on our College and University Affiliates Program, building and expanding our blog, the Daily Censored, run by our webmaster Adam Armstrong, and posting year-round Validated Independent News stories in cue for the next volume of Censored. We’re also working with many in independent media to proliferate fact-based information necessary for the public to meaningfully participate in both civic and social affairs.
MZ: How are the stories compiled each year and how can readers get involved?
MH: We receive nominations year-round through our websites. Anyone can nominate a story at our website and we encourage active reviewers of media to send their thoughts and ideas (and links to stories). We at Project Censored are a collective effort. We have literally hundreds of students across the US assisting in research with us now. We have over 30 college and university affiliates and have participants at institutions in close to ten countries around the world as part of our Project Censored International efforts. The Project works in cooperation with faculty and students across the academic spectrum including the areas of sociology of media and censorship, critical thinking, history, English composition, holistic studies, political science, communications, philosophy, and more, where students earn credit for their research and contribute to the annual yearbook (and websites).
Literally hundreds of stories are submitted to Project Censored each year from journalists, scholars, librarians, and concerned citizens around the world. With the help of hundreds of students and faculty at Sonoma State University, Diablo Valley College, and all of our growing affiliate schools along with community members, Project Censored reviews the story submissions for coverage, content, reliability of sources and topical significance. Our researchers and affiliated academic communities select the top 25 stories for publication and our panel of judges (experts in the fields of media, culture, and society), and rank them in order of importance, as they see it. Current or previous national judges include: Noam Chomsky, Susan Faludi, George Gerbner, Sut Jhally, Frances Moore Lappe, Michael Parenti, Herbert I. Schiller, Barbara Seaman, Erna Smith, Mike Wallace, and Howard Zinn.
Readers are encouraged to contact us, send story nominations, and continue to support independent journalism in efforts to combat the current Truth Emergency we face in the US where we seem to be a people awash in a sea of information (read: Internet), yet have a paucity of understanding of what it all means (and don’t know whom to trust in terms of news media). In short, we need to turn off the corporate media, be the media more ourselves, as our partner David Mathison says, and support the proliferation of independent inquiry and diversity of perspectives in the name of a truly free press. We look forward to hearing more from readers and contributors!