Every year for almost five decades, Project Censored — one of the most respected anti-censorship and media literacy advocacy organizations in the U.S. — has published a State of the Free Press yearbook. The annual volume collects the 25 most underreported stories of the past year and exposes how economic and political forces manipulate our media landscape to their benefit. State of the Free Press 2024 is one of the group’s most hard-hitting yearbooks yet. With their signature muckraking style, co-editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff cast an unsparing light on the subtle and not-so-subtle media industry powers that undermine democracy and deprive citizens of their right to know about critical issues.
Contributors to Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2024 include Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns for Reporters Without Borders; Jen Senko, filmmaker best known for The Brainwashing of My Dad; and Robin Andersen, award-winning media critic and professor emerita of communication and media studies at Fordham University.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff discuss their new book and their longtime mission of fighting censorship and advocating for critical media literacy.
Peter Handel: Let’s start by explaining how you decide which stories deserve to be on your list of the most important but underreported. Then give us a few examples of stories featured in State of the Free Press 2024.
Andy Lee Roth: Among the issues highlighted in this year’s story list is the corporate news media’s apparent reluctance to cover the grinding consequences of immense, systemic economic inequalities, as highlighted by independent press reporting on record-high corporate profits against the backdrop of a looming debt crisis for the world’s poorest nations, and the reality that nearly half of all unhoused people in the United States are employed.
The story list is the result of a painstaking, year-long review process that involves several hundred people who work with Project Censored through its Campus Affiliates Program or as members of its expert panel of international judges. The process begins with college students identifying, vetting and summarizing independent news stories on topics that have been poorly covered by corporate news media. Together, students and their faculty mentors evaluate each candidate story’s importance, timeliness, quality of sources and inadequate corporate news coverage. If it fails on any one of these criteria, the story is deemed inappropriate and is excluded from further consideration. The majority of stories each year meet this fate.
On receiving qualified story candidates from our campus affiliates, Project Censored undertakes a second round of judgment, using the same criteria and updating the review to include any subsequent, competing corporate coverage. We post stories that pass this round of review on the project’s website as “Validated Independent News stories (VINs).”
In early spring, we present all of these validated news stories in the current cycle to the faculty and student researchers and our panel of expert judges, who cast votes to winnow the candidate stories to a short list of approximately three dozen stories. These finalists are then reviewed again by the panel of judges, who cast votes in a second round to rank the finalist stories in numerical order. At the same time, these experts — including media studies professors, professional journalists and editors, and a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission — offer their insights on the stories’ strengths and weaknesses.
By the time a story appears on the pages of the State of the Free Press yearbook, it has undergone at least five distinct rounds of review and evaluation. Although the stories that Project Censored brings forward may be socially and politically controversial — and sometimes even psychologically challenging — we are confident that each is the result of serious journalistic effort and deserves greater public attention.
Trust in media is at an all-time low. In February 2023, a survey conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that half of Americans believe national news organizations intentionally deceive the public in order to suit their own agendas. Why do so few now trust the media and what impact does this have on us as a society?
Mickey Huff: It seems like we have been addressing this concern every year for at least a decade. While the trajectory of public opinion regarding the efficacy and accuracy of the Fourth Estate has been steadily declining, given the failures of corporate media, declining trust is likely based on some valid concerns. But there are important differences between wholesale dismissals of journalism as a profession and the kind of fact-based, carefully sourced media criticism that Project Censored promotes.
Public trust in journalism has been grievously harmed by politicians’ rhetorical attacks on journalists and regular disparagement of journalism as a profession. No one does this more than Donald Trump. During his time in the White House, Trump regularly referred to the press as the “enemy of the people.” Despite the host of civil and legal charges he now faces, he continues to harangue the press and call for the investigation or closure of any news outlet that dares to depict him in (accurate but) negative light.
But the problem of public trust in journalism is bigger and deeper than Trump’s self-interested attempts at bear-baiting the press and the public. Trust in journalism is also eroded, more subtly but systematically, by the steady shuttering of community newspapers, which leave many Americans without access to trustworthy sources of local news.
A fifth of the nation — 70 million Americans — now live in news deserts, defined as counties with either just one or no local newspaper. Noting that credible news “feeds grassroots democracy,” Northwestern University’s 2022 report “The State of Local News” concluded that news deserts contribute to “eroding trust in media” and “the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization … and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens.”
Project Censored strives to revitalize the public’s trust in journalism by promoting independent, investigative journalism that serves the public interest, rather than a corporation’s bottom line. As Carl Jensen, the project’s founder, liked to quip about the profession, “We need more muckrakers, and fewer buck-takers.”
You have long pointed to corporate ownership and control as a culprit in the dismal state of our media. How did we get to a point where corporations have this kind of influence over news?
Roth: Corporate media reflect a corporate world view. They reinforce a corporate version of culture in which the majority of all people are treated primarily as consumers and, perhaps, every two to four years, as voters. That narrow typecasting doesn’t serve ordinary people or the common good.
Thinking specifically about news, corporate media employ narrow, exclusive definitions of who and what count as “newsworthy.” At least since Ben Bagdikian’s landmark study, “The Media Monopoly,” published in 1983, we’ve been on alert that consolidation of media ownership has many negative effects for quality journalism that serves the public interest and, ultimately, for democracy. Can we have diversity of content without diversity of media ownership and producers? An examination of corporate news coverage suggests, day after day, that the answer is “no.”
But the question of corporate influence in determining who and what count as “newsworthy” now goes beyond corporate news media to include what a colleague of ours refers to as the Four Horses of the Apocalypse — Google, Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram), Microsoft and X (formerly known as Twitter). None of these tech giants conceive of themselves as journalistic outlets — they have no commitment to ethical journalism — but they are more than willing to profit from news reports shared as content by users of their platforms. Big Tech plays an increasingly important — but typically hidden — role as gatekeepers of news. In that role, they are far more powerful than the individual newspaper editors of past eras due to the global scope of digital technology.
These aren’t concerns in the abstract. As State of the Free Press 2024 details, based on original reporting by Alan MacLeod of MintPress News, Big Tech companies, including Google, Meta and Microsoft, are hiring former employees of U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies for senior positions, affording them significant influence over online communication, commerce and information gathering. The new yearbook also features independent investigative journalism on U.S. government agencies’ pressuring Twitter to constrain political content, plus leaked documents that revealed new details of the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to ramp up censorship of online speech through the development of a Disinformation Governance Board.
Of the 25 underreported stories, nine of them involve environmental issues. Why is environmental coverage so poor at a time when we are facing a dire environmental crisis?
Roth: The pernicious influence of the fossil fuel industry cannot be overstated.
As the independent investigative journalists featured in State of the Free Press 2024 have documented, in efforts to maintain their economic interests and political influence, fossil fuel investors are suing national governments to thwart climate regulations and using donations to universities to skew climate and energy research. This is happening even as climate change has forced entire tribal towns to relocate, and new research further documents the threats of oil and gas extraction to human health.
Thanks to the work of independent journalists, we also know that rainforest carbon offset programs — as endorsed by Shell, Disney, and other internationally renowned corporations — are often “worthless,” and that the fossil fuel industry was not alone in hiding its knowledge of the climate crisis from the public. Electric utility companies have also been knowingly spreading misinformation about climate change for decades.
In February 2023, a train carrying toxic materials derailed in Ohio. State of the Free Press 2024 includes a scathing critique of the coverage of this story. Talk about that criticism.
Huff: There are multiple layers of significance to this story, including the timing and quality of the corporate media’s coverage and the Biden administration’s anemic and delayed response. Corporate media eventually joined the furor over the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, but failed to cover the alarming frequency of toxic chemical spills. As a result, this story was featured in the yearbook’s top 25, as well as covered in both the Junk Food News and News Abuse sections for further analysis. The February 3, 2023, train derailment, spilling toxic chemicals (including vinyl chloride) in the small, Rust Belt community of East Palestine, Ohio, was surely a newsworthy affair.
However, the corporate media were not only slow to cover the tragic, unfolding events there (where half of the town’s 5,000 residents were evacuated and a reporter trying to cover it was violently arrested), the focus for much of the national media at the same time was fixated on alleged UFOs. These were first thought to be Chinese spy balloons, then errant weather balloons. They actually turned out to be “hobbyist” balloons, which the U.S. military shot down to the tune of nearly $2 million, setting off an international incident.
Meanwhile, we learned from the independent press several key details about the history of chemical releases, exposures, spills, and other accidents in the U.S., as well as the frequency of train derailments and their preventable causes, which happen more than a thousand times each year. In East Palestine, Ohio, it was an outdated braking system from the Civil War period that doomed the Norfolk Southern train. However, railway unions had been decrying this specific safety concern, among others, for some time prior to this incident, even threatening a major strike over safety and labor issues. That is, until the Biden administration stepped in and forcibly averted the strike. In other words, a Democratic president openly sided against labor, against safety concerns, and ultimately against the people of East Palestine and the surrounding environment. Unless something is done about such safety conditions, there will be more derailments, and there will be more preventable disasters like the one in Ohio.
Each year, the State of the Free Press includes a survey of “Junk Food News,” those fluff stories that suck us in by providing entertainment instead of news and distracting attention from important reporting. What are a few examples of this from 2023?
Huff: “Junk Food News” is a term coined by Project Censored founder Carl Jensen in 1983, and was the focus of our 2013 award-winning documentary, Project Censored the Movie: Ending the Reign of Junk Food News.
Jensen’s criticism of the establishment media’s taste for Junk Food News led some in the industry to cry foul and claim they did not censor stories. They said they were exercising news judgment, given the limited time, space and resources available to them. Jensen thought that seemed like a valid response, so he started to investigate what these so-called “mainstream” news outlets did cover. What he discovered was that establishment “news judgment” seemed to include many sensational and titillating, yet inconsequential and trivial, stories masquerading as actual news. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jensen noted that the more these types of stories jumped from the tabloids to feature pieces in major news outlets, the more they crowded out hard news stories the public needed to know about. Today, Junk Food News has unfortunately proliferated across news platforms and into social media, where its sensational focus tends to preoccupy the public.
Each year, Project faculty and students root through the rubbish bin of corporate media to find the best of the worst Junk Food News stories. We then review independent news sources to find other, more important reports — journalism that serves the public interest — that could have been covered instead. Of course, these junk stories often highlight salacious celebrity scandals in all their lurid details; drama on and off the fields and courts in professional sports; “horse race” coverage of political races and elections; and the like. Just within these few categories, there is an endless supply of examples that fill the airwaves and column inches of what passes for the news.
This year’s Junk Food News chapter presents a full menu, including the “faux-lanthropy” of YouTube sensation MrBeast. Jimmy Donaldson, whose online persona is MrBeast, is probably the most well-known example of the rising number of social media influencers on platforms like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube who strive to make names for themselves by ostensibly trying to do good in the world.
In January 2023, MrBeast released a video on YouTube that focused on his efforts to cure blindness. The video — which has now been viewed more than 168 million times — details his paying for a medical procedure to cure blindness in 1,000 people. The internet was quickly abuzz over MrBeast’s generosity. Eventually, critics pointed out that MrBeast was making a lot of money from the advertising revenue produced by the video’s popularity.
Lost in the media scrum was any coverage on the hardscrabble reality of health care for most Americans under a for-profit system that rakes in trillions of dollars a year. It’s not that the U.S. doesn’t have the resources to help with curable blindness — as MrBeast’s popular video would have you believe — it’s that it is bad for business to provide medical care on the basis of something other than a person’s employment. Junk Food News coverage of MrBeast’s “faux-lanthropy” dodges this reality and leads people to believe solutions to the crisis in health care are simpler and more individualized than they actually are.
Before the rise of the internet and social media, Jensen’s concern was that the establishment media’s quest for more readers, advertisers and profits would overshadow journalistic integrity and ethical reporting in the public interest. We share those concerns, which have multiplied in the 21st century. The specifics may change from year to year, but the concept behind Junk Food News remains. This is why we need a truly vibrant and independent free press — one that tells the public what’s really going on — so we can be more meaningfully civically engaged and address the many challenges we collectively face as a society.