The Top 10 Censored Stories of 2017 • PART 2

Posted In: News, Investigative Reporting, National,   From Issue 858   By: Robert E Martin

01st March, 2018     0

by Project Censored • Introduction by Robert E. Martin

When Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen started looking into the new media’s practice of self-censorship in 1976, the internet was only a dream and most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels and vacuum tubes. Back then, the vast majority of Americans got all of their news from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn’t on ABC, NBC, or CBS, it might as well not have happened.

Forty years later, the media world is a radically different place where Americans are as likely obtaining their ‘news’ from the echo chamber of Facebook than they would from the nightly news. And as strictly digital news sources such as The Huffington Post and Reddit continue to flourish, as Jensen’s Project Censored continues to discover, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure in the major media.

The investigative research team at Project Censored, which sprang out of a journalism workshop at Sonoma State University, defines censorship as “…anything that interferes with the free flow of information in a society that purports to uphold free press principles.” Sponsored by the Media Freedom Foundation every year since 1976, the Project selects the 25 “most censored stories” on the planet.

Since 1985 The Review has published their findings, which we are doing again this year in two installments, listed democratically in order of importance according to the Project’s judges.  We hope you find this second installment both informative and useful.

 

#1 Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children’s Health, and Could Triple Household Water Bills

In December 2016, M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters reported that nearly 3000 neighborhoods across the US had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint, Michigan at the peak of its contamination crisis. Blood tests showed that more than 1,100 of those communities had rates of lead contamination “at least four times higher” than had been found in Flint.

In January 2016, President Obama had declared a federal emergency in Flint, based on lead contamination of the city’s water supply. In that case, corrosive river water leached lead from old pipes; as a result, 5 percent of the children screened in Flint had high blood lead levels. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 2.5 percent of all US children under the age of six—approximately 500,000 children—have elevated blood lead levels.

In early 2016, Flint’s lead-contaminated water featured prominently and frequently in the news; however, news about the health plight of Flint’s residents quickly peaked, and it never emphasized the full scope of the issue. Unlike Flint, the “lead hotspots” identified in Pell and Schneyer’s report have received “little attention or funding.” Pell and Schneyer wrote that the communities affected by lead poisoning “stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania . . . where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to . . . Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.”.

As part of a special series of investigations on lead poisoning across the US, titled “Unsafe at Any Level,” Pell and Schneyer requested testing data at the neighborhood level from all fifty states. Their focus on census tracts and zip code areas allowed them to identify neighborhoods “whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys,” such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates.

Twenty-one states responded with data, allowing Pell and Schneyer to identify 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip code areas with rates of lead poisoning at least double Flint’s rate. (Pell and Schneyer reported that some states’ health departments did not have the data, or did not respond to records requests, while other states would not share the data they did have. The twenty-one reporting states are home to about 61 percent of the US population.)  Interactive maps embedded in their December 2016 report detail their findings for census tracts and zip code areas in the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri; Milwaukee; South Bend, Indiana; Cleveland; Baltimore; Fresno; Los Angeles; and Buffalo.

Nevertheless, just eleven US states, plus Washington, DC, mandate blood lead tests for all children; some other states mandate tests for children in areas with known exposure risks. But even in states that require testing, Schneyer and Pell reported, “more than half the children were missing a test.”

Declaring this the “Era of Infrastructure Replacement,” in 2012 the American Water Works Association estimated that a complete overhaul of the nation’s aging water systems would require an investment of $1 trillion over the next twenty-five years, which could triple the cost of household water bills.

As Cousins reported, a Michigan State University study, conducted by Elizabeth A. Mack and Sarah Wrase and published in January 2017, found that, “while water rates are currently unaffordable for an estimated 11.9% of households, the conservative estimates of rising rates used in this study highlight that this number could grow to 35.6% in the next five years.” (11.9 percent equates to 13.8 million US households; 35.6 percent would amount to 40.9 million households.) As Cousins concluded, “While the water contamination crisis will occasionally steal a headline or two, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that we’re pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market.”

Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell, “Unsafe at Any Level: Millions of American Children Missing Early Lead Tests, Reuters Finds,” Reuters, June 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/lead-poisoning-testing-gaps/.

M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, “Off the Charts: The Thousands of U.S. Locales Where Lead Poisoning is Worse Than in Flint,” Reuters, December 19, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-testing/.

 

#2 Over Six Trillion Dollars in Unaccountable Army Spending

According to a July 2016 report by the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General (DoDIG), over the past two decades the US Army has accumulated $6.5 trillion in expenditures that cannot be accounted for, because two government offices—the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the DoD’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service—“did not prioritize correcting the system deficiencies that caused errors . . . and did not provide sufficient guidance for supporting system-generated adjustments.”

In the bureaucratic language of the report, the expenditures themselves are referred to as “unsupported adjustments” and the lack of complete and accurate records of them are described as “material weakness.” In other words, as Dave Lindorff reported, the DoD “has not been tracking or recording or auditing all of the taxpayer money allocated by Congress—what it was spent on, how well it was spent, or where the money actually ended up.”

In 1996, Congress enacted legislation that required all government agencies—including not only the Department of Defense but also the federal government’s departments of education, veterans’ affairs, and housing and urban development, for instance—to undergo annual audits.

As Thomas Hedges reported for the Guardian in March 2017, “the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.” (For Project Censored’s previous coverage of the Pentagon’s “inauditable” budget, see “Pentagon Awash in Money Despite Serious Audit Problems,” Censored 2015, pp. 59–60.)

As Lindorff wrote, in fiscal year 2015 total federal discretionary spending—which includes everything from education, to housing and community development, to Medicare and other health programs—amounted to just over $1.1 trillion, and the $6.5 trillion in unaccountable Army expenditures represents approximately fifteen years’ worth of military spending.

Dave Lindorff, “Ignoring the Pentagon’s Multi-Trillion-Dollar Accounting Error,” FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), September 2, 2016, http://fair.org/home/ignoring-the-pentagons-multi-trillion-dollar-accounting-error/.

Thomas Hedges, “The Pentagon Has Never been Audited. That’s Astonishing,” Guardian, March 20, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/20/pentagon-never-audited-astonishing-military-spending.

 

#3 Pentagon Paid UK PR Firm for Fake Al-Qaeda Videos

The Pentagon paid a British PR firm more than $660 million to run a top-secret propaganda program in Iraq from at least 2006 to December 2011, Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith reported for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in October 2016. The UK-based PR firm Bell Pottinger produced short TV segments made to appear like Arabic news stories and insurgent videos, according to a former employee.

According to Bell Pottinger’s former chairman, Lord Tim Bell, his firm had worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy agreements.” He said that he reported to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the National Security Council on his firm’s work in Iraq. According to a former employee, Martin Wells, who worked as video editor in Iraq, the firm’s output was approved by former General David Petraeus—then–commander of the coalition forces in Iraq—and on occasion by the White House.

The Bureau reported that Bell Pottinger’s work consisted of three types of products, including TV commercials portraying al-Qaeda in a negative light, news items intended to look like they had been “created by Arabic TV,” and—the third and most sensitive type—fake al-Qaeda propaganda films. Wells, the firm’s former video editor, said that he was given precise instructions for production of fake al-Qaeda films, and that US Marines would take CDs of these films on patrol to drop in houses that they raided.

Codes embedded in the CDs linked to a Google Analytics account, which allowed US military personnel to track a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played, providing crucial intelligence for US operations. “Key people who worked in that unit deny any involvement with tracking software as described by Wells,” the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report noted.

Black and Fielding-Smith reported that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism “traced the firm’s Iraq work through US army contracting censuses, federal procurement transaction records and reports by the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General, as well as Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda.” They also interviewed former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq.

In a year when pundits and politicians of all stripes as well as members of the public and the establishment press crowed over “fake news,” the US corporate media completely ignored the story of how one of the most powerful US government institutions, the Department of Defense, secretly used taxpayer money to create fake news of its own.

Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith, “Fake News and False Flags: How the Pentagon Paid a British PR Firm $500 Million for Top Secret Iraq Propaganda,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, October 2, 2016, http://labs.thebureauinvestigates.com/fake-news-and-false-flags/.\

 

#4 Voter Suppression in the 2016 Presidential Election

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of racial discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Shelby County v. Holder that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the section that determined which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement, was unconstitutional and could no longer be used. (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required specific states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act established the formula to determine which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement.)

As Ari Berman and other independent journalists reported, this made 2016 the first presidential election in fifty years without the full protections guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act. The director of media and campaigns for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Scott Simpson, told Mother Jones, “The Shelby decision is when this election began for people of color.”

Specifically, as a result of the Shelby decision, changes to voting laws in nine states and parts of six others with long histories of racial discrimination in voting were no longer subject to federal government approval. Since Shelby, fourteen states, including many southern states and key swing states, implemented new voting restrictions, in many cases just in time for the election.

In May 2017, Berman reported on an analysis of the effects of voter suppression, by Priorities USA. The analysis, he wrote, showed that strict voter-ID laws in Wisconsin and other states resulted in a “significant reduction” in voter turnout in 2016, with “a disproportionate impact on African-American and Democratic-leaning voters.”

In May 2017, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law identified thirty-one states that have introduced ninety-nine bills in 2017 to “restrict access to registration and voting.” Thirty-five of these bills in seventeen states, the Brennan Center reported, have seen “significant legislative action,” meaning those bills have been approved “at the committee level or beyond.” Furthermore, the Brennan Center report noted, “The majority of states acting to restrict voting are legislating on topics where courts previously acted to protect voters.”

Ari Berman, “Welcome to the First Presidential Election Since Voting Rights Act Gutted,” Rolling Stone, June 23, 2016, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/welcome-to-the-first-presidential-election-since-voting-rights-act-gutted-20160623.

Sarah A. Harvard, “How Did the ‘Shelby County v. Holder’ Supreme Court Decision Change Voting Rights Laws?,” Mic, July 29, 2016, https://mic.com/articles/150092/how-did-the-shelby-county-v-holder-supreme-court-decision-change-voting-rights-laws.

 

#5 Big Data and Dark Money behind the 2016 Election

Right-wing computer scientist and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer was the top donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, contributing $13.5 million and helping lay the groundwork for what is now called the Trump Revolution. Mercer also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies” and using microtargeting.

As Carole Cadwalladr reported for the Guardian in February 2017, Cambridge Analytica’s website boasts that it has psychological profiles based on thousands of pieces of data for some 220 million American voters. As Jane Mayer and other independent journalists reported, Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and others used these capacities to exploit a populist insurgency among voters and tip the election toward Trump.

Right-wing websites are now dominating Google’s search results on certain subjects. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, mapped the “news ecosystem” and found millions of links to right-wing sites “strangling” the mainstream media. As the Guardian and the New Yorker reported, Albright has described Cambridge Analytica as a “propaganda machine,” using trackers from sites like Breitbart to document people’s web histories and target them with messages and advertisements via their Facebook accounts.

Mercer’s money also enabled Steve Bannon to fund Breitbart, a right-wing news site established with the express intent of serving as a Huffington Post for the Right. Since 2010, Mercer has donated $95 million to right-wing political campaigns and nonprofits. As Cadwalladr reported in the Guardian, Mercer funds the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think tank, and the Media Research Center, which refers to itself as “America’s Media Watchdog” and aims to correct “liberal bias.”

As Mayer reported, Mercer has argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major mistake, and sources who know Mercer told Mayer that he has stated that the Clintons have had opponents of theirs murdered, and that, during the Gulf War, the US should have simply taken Iraq’s oil. As Mayer wrote, “despite his oddities, he has had surprising success in aligning the Republican Party, and consequently America, with his personal beliefs, and is now uniquely positioned to exert influence over the Trump Administration.”

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard (VICE), January 28, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win.

Carole Cadwalladr, “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media,” Guardian, February 26, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage.

Jane Mayer, interviewed by Nermeen Shaikh and Amy Goodman, “Jane Mayer on Robert Mercer and the Dark Money Behind Trump and Bannon,” Democracy Now!, March 23, 2017, 

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