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News Hole

The Stories You Probably Didn't Read All About Last Year

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By Gabriel Roth | Posted 4/4/2001

The stock market went down, then up, then down again. Survivor's ratings went up, and up, and up. And for weeks it was impossible to tell whether George W. Bush or Al Gore was on top.

And the mainstream media never averted its gaze for an instant, afraid to miss a single bump or dip.

Meanwhile, out of the frame, two trends remained constant: Big corporations and the government continued to put profits first and people second--and people continued to fight back. But you wouldn't know that if you got your information exclusively from daily papers and TV news.

Some of the stories you missed: The bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia may not have been an accident. The United States could have stopped genocide in Rwanda. An independent study found that genetically modified foods cause serious health problems in rats. And multinational companies are fighting to commodify the world's water supply.

Those items are all on Project Censored's 25th annual list of the year's most underreported news stories. The media-studies program, based at Sonoma State University in California, combs alternative weeklies, trade newsletters, scientific journals, and activist magazines to ferret out the big stories that were underplayed--or completely ignored--everywhere else.

Censorship in the United States is a slippery thing. There is no government agency blacking out offending phrases before they can appear in The New York Times--although for a brief period in 1999 there were U.S. Army propaganda specialists working at CNN.

But two important factors prevent mainstream news outlets from covering tough stories. First, papers end up reflecting the politics of their owners. The interests of big business are the interests of a newspaper's board of directors, which trickle down from the publisher to the editor in chief to the national and metro editors to the reporters--who know very well what kind of stories will make the front page and what kind will get hacked to pieces and buried on page A13.

Second, shrinking budgets for news content mean fewer reporters are covering more stories in less time. Without the time or resources to pursue a lengthy investigation, they rely more and more on press releases and publicists--on the official cover stories of the corporate and government establishment.

"It's becoming increasingly easy to find stories," says Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored. "As the media becomes more and more consolidated and corporatized, it all starts to look the same."

Here are Project Censored's top 10 underreported stories for 2000:


1. World Bank and Multinational Corporations Seek to Privatize Water

Maude Barlow, "The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of the World's Water Supply," Prime, July 10, 2000, www.ifg.org/bgsummary.html; Jim Shultz, "Water Fallout" and Vandana Shiva, "Monsanto's Billion-Dollar Water Monopoly Plans," Canadian Dimension, February 2000, www.purefood.org; "Water Fallout: Bolivians Battle Globalization," In These Times, May 15, 2000, www.inthesetimes.com; "Just Add Water," This, July/August 2000, www.thismag.org; "Bolivia's War Over Water," The Democracy Center, www.democracyctr.org; Pratap Chatterjee, "The Earth Wrecker" and Daniel Zoll, "Trouble on Tap," San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 31, 2000, sfbg.com and sfbg.com.

More than 1 billion people lack access to fresh drinking water, according to the United Nations--and that number is expected to more than double in the next 10 years. World water consumption is growing more than twice as fast as the population. For human beings this is a crisis. For corporations it's an opportunity.

The world's biggest companies increasingly see water as the largest untapped commodity in the world. Water sells itself: If a company controls the local water market, its customers can't go elsewhere. Wealthy people, big first-world cities, and lucrative industries such as agriculture and technology can afford to buy their water--but more and more poor people in developing countries have to pay up or go without. When municipal water services are privatized, rates are doubled or tripled, quality standards drop, overuse is encouraged (it increases profits), and customers who can't pay are cut off.

Governments are lining up to help--the corporations. Every year, public officials from all over the world convene with big-business leaders and World Bank representatives at meetings of the World Water Council, a think tank dominated by commercial interests.

The corporations involved aren't shy about their plans. "Since water is as central to food production as seed is, and without water life is not possible, Monsanto Co. is now trying to establish its control over water," Robert Fraley, that company's chief technology officer, said at a news conference. Here's how Fraley describes countries where people are dying of thirst: "[M]arkets in which there are predictable sustainability challenges and therefore opportunities to create business value."

But the privatizers don't always have an easy time of it. In 1999, the Bechtel Group took over the public water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with the help of the World Bank. The company immediately doubled water rates. Bolivians didn't take this lying down. Last year, general strikes repeatedly brought Cochabamba to a standstill. The government imposed martial law; hundreds of demonstrators were injured, and a 17-year-old protester was shot in the face and killed by military police. Two days later the government conceded and nullified Bechtel's contract.

Cochabamba's water war was one of the most significant victories yet for the opponents of corporate-driven globalization. Most of the U.S. coverage came from Peter McFarren of the Associated Press, whose stories uncritically accepted the government's characterization of the protesters as drug traffickers. McFarren resigned from the wire service when it was revealed that he was actively lobbying the Bolivian Congress in support of a proposal to ship Bolivian water to Chile.

Mainstream coverage: Toronto Globe and Mail, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Examiner, Toronto Star. For more information, go to www.canadians.org or call (613) 233-2773.


2. OSHA Fails to Protect U.S. Workers

Christopher D. Cook, "Losing Life and Limb on the Job," The Progressive, February 2000, www.progressive.org

Terry Feeny lost three of his fingers molding wheel rims at a Titan Wheel factory in Saltville, Va. He was a skilled mechanic but had never been trained to use the rim-molding machine, which had no safety guard and a missing stop button. Next to some other Titan workers, Feeny was lucky. Don Baysinger was a tire builder at the company's Des Moines, Iowa, plant. He was pinned between two tire-tread machines for more than 20 minutes. His chest was crushed; he died two days later.

Workers at Titan plants across the country are steadily racking up a startling record of injuries and deaths. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with protecting workers and ensuring their workplaces are safe. Christopher Cook's story in The Progressive surveyed the problems at Titan plants around the country and asked what OSHA is doing about them. The answer: Not much.

Every year, 6,000 workers are killed in accidents on the job, and 10 times as many die from diseases acquired at work. But the federal and state agencies charged with protecting the country's 102 million workers employ just 2,300 inspectors. Under the supposedly worker-friendly Clinton administration, OSHA made fewer workplace inspections per year and reduced or dismissed a higher percentage of violations than any administration since the Occupational Health and Safety Act was implemented in 1975, according to a 1999 Public Citizen report.

The government certainly didn't do much for Terry Feeny, Don Baysinger, or their co-workers. Virginia's OSHA didn't inspect the Titan plant until months after Feeny lost his fingers. Inspectors blamed the faulty machinery, then fined the company a paltry $2,250. Feeny himself was laid off; the company ended his worker's compensation less than five months later. Iowa OSHA found that machinery was also at fault in Baysinger's death and levied a fine of $20,000. Two years after the incident, Titan finally agreed to pay half that.

That's not unusual. Since Titan took over the Des Moines plant, OSHA has found the company liable for a total of $140,899 in fines--and subsequently reduced those fines to $54,019.

For more information, go to www.citizen.org


3. U.S. Army's Psychological Operations Personnel Worked at CNN

Alexander Cockburn, "CNN and Psyops," Counterpunch, March 26, 2000, www.counterpunch.org

In 1999, as NATO's war in Kosovo was ending, five interns went to work at CNN's Atlanta headquarters. These interns weren't college students looking to pad their résumés--they were U.S. Army propaganda specialists.

The troops were members of the Third Psychological Operations Battalion, charged with spreading "selected information" to the public. And working at the world's largest news network, they had a chance to do just that. "They worked as regular employees of CNN," an Army spokesperson told Abe de Vries, a reporter for the reputable Dutch daily Trouw. "Conceivably they would have worked on stories during the Kosovo war. They helped in the production of news."

It's not clear what the "psyops" agents actually did at the network. CNN insists they didn't make any journalistic decisions or write any news copy. But the Army, at least, considered the internships a great success. At a military symposium early last year, psyops specialist Christopher St. John called for "greater cooperation between the armed forces and media giants," according to Le Monde du Renseignement, the newsletter of the French intelligence service.

CNN's coverage of the war in Kosovo was criticized for oversimplifying the issues, ignoring objections to the war, and uncritically parroting NATO officials. As de Vries sees it, the real question about the soldiers' tenure as journalists is this: "Did the military learn from the TV people how to hold viewers' attention? Or did the psyops people teach CNN how to help the U.S. government garner political support?" Probably both.

TV Guide later reported that psyops team members also worked at National Public Radio--a revelation that was covered on NPR's All Things Considered. "We recruited from the Army and got three interns, and that was a mistake," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's vice president for news. "And when we discovered that they were from Psyops branch, we finished the arrangement, and it won't happen again."

Foreign coverage: Trouw (the Netherlands), Japan Economic Newswire, Le Monde du Renseignement (France), The Guardian (United Kingdom). (To read de Vries' Trouw report translated from Dutch, go to www.emperors-clothes.com) Mainstream U.S. coverage: National Public Radio, Tampa Tribune, TV Guide.


4. Did the U.S. Deliberately Bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade?

Yoichi Shimatsu, "Reports Showing U.S. Deliberately Bombed Chinese Embassy Deliberately Ignored by U.S. Media," Pacific News Service, Oct. 20, 1999; Joel Bleifuss, "A Tragic Mistake?", In These Times, Dec. 12, 1999; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, "NY Times on Chinese Embassy Bombing: Nothing to Report," Feb. 9, 2000, www.fair.org; Seth Ackerman, "Mission Implausible," In These Times, June 26, 2000, www.inthesetimes.com

On May 7, 1999, U.S. planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. President Bill Clinton called the bombing "a tragic mistake," the result of faulty maps provided by U.S. intelligence services.

That was good enough for the U.S. media, but it wasn't good enough for their overseas counterparts. Working together, reporters from London's The Observer and Copenhagen, Denmark's Politiken found government and military sources who told a different story. One official at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, perhaps piqued at the assertion that his agency had botched its job, called the faulty-map story "a damned lie." In fact, according to these high-ranking sources, NATO deliberately targeted the Chinese Embassy, which was serving as a rebroadcast station for the Yugoslav army.

If there was a decision to bomb the embassy, it probably originated with the Central Intelligence Agency. CIA director George Tenet told Congress that, of 900 sites bombed by NATO, the embassy site was the only one for which the CIA did the targeting.

After The Observer broke the story, the Associated Press picked it up, but few major papers ran it. The Washington Post gave it 90 words in an international-news briefs section under the headline "NATO Denies Story on Embassy Bombing." The New York Times didn't mention it at all. When the media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) asked the Times why it ignored the story, the paper's foreign editor described the Observer piece as "not terribly well-sourced, by our standards at least."

The British and Danish reporters described their sources, who spoke anonymously, as a European NATO military officer serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level; a European NATO staff officer at the two-star level in the Defense Intelligence office; a NATO flight controller based in Naples, Italy; a NATO intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio broadcasts from Macedonia; a very high-ranking former senior U.S. intelligence official connected to the Balkans; a midrank U.S. military official connected to the Balkans; and a U.S. official at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

"It sounds like theTimes might be holding out for a named official source," FAIR's Seth Ackerman says, "which is a standard of evidence that The Times likes to apply in cases where they would rather not report the story at all."

Foreign coverage: The Observer, The Times, The Herald, The Scotsman (United Kingdom); Politiken (Denmark); TheSouth China Morning Post.


5. U.S. Taxpayers Underwrite Global Nuclear Power Plant Sales

Ken Silverstein and Ian Urbina, "Pushing the Nuclear Plants: A U.S. Agency Hooks Foreign Clients," The Progressive, March 2000

The United States doesn't want nuclear power anymore. Not a single nuke plant has been built in this country since the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island. What's the nuclear-power industry to do?

Go abroad, of course. American power companies are bringing nuclear power to the Third World--with a lot of help from U.S. taxpayers.

The Export-Import Bank, a little-known government agency, provides loans, insurance, and other subsidies to foreign governments that want a nuclear plant of their own. Between 1959 and 1993 the bank spent $7.7 billion to sell U.S.-made reactors abroad, typically by financing their purchase by cash-strapped governments in the developing world.

With almost no oversight, the bank directs taxpayer dollars toward irresponsible and inefficient projects, few of which could pass domestic safety standards. While the U.S. government has given in to public pressure and stopped pushing nuclear power at home, it's happy to send it abroad to keep U.S. contractors afloat.

Export-Import backing doesn't guarantee a deal. In the Philippines, Export-Import helped Westinghouse build a a $1.2 billion plant that cost more than twice its initial estimate and never came online, in part because it sits near an active volcano. In Turkey, Ex-Im approved a preliminary loan in support of Westinghouse's $3.2 billion Akkuyu plant, on a site near an active fault line, but last summer, in response to a groundswell of opposition to the plant, the Turkish government finally declared it too expensive and too dangerous--despite lobbying on Westinghouse's behalf by then-Vice President Al Gore.

But two Ex-Im-backed Westinghouse plants in China will probably go ahead--reportedly over the objections of Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser. China's government refuses to abide by nonproliferation rules established by international law and has provided nuclear technologies to Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan. And in the Czech Republic, the bank backed a $300 million loan for the Temelin plant, which European nuclear authorities have deemed dangerous and unnecessary. Nearly a billion dollars over budget, the plant went online last year, sparking massive international protests.

There's a simple reason you won't see this story on the TV news: CBS is owned by Westinghouse and NBC by General Electric--both of which build nuclear plants with the Export-Import Bank's help.

For more information, go to www.bankwatch.org or www.bicusa.org


6. International Report Blames U.S. and Others for Genocide in Rwanda

Ellen Ray, "U.S. Military and Corporate Recolonization of the Congo," CovertAction Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2000, www.caq.com; David Corn, "Loyal Opposition: Clinton Allowed Genocide," Alternet, July 25, 2000, www.alternet.org

In March 1998, President Clinton visited Rwanda and apologized for the West's failure to act to stop the 1994 massacre of Tutsi tribespeople by that nation's Hutu military. Clinton blamed that failure on ignorance: He and other Western leaders, he said, "did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

Last year, a report by a distinguished panel that included African heads of state, a Canadian ambassador, and a former chief justice of India's supreme court concluded that Clinton knew exactly what was happening in Rwanda. Information from U.S. intelligence analysts, the State Department, and Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian officer who commanded U.N. forces in Rwanda, warned of the massacres before they began.

"There were a thousand early warnings that something appalling was about to occur," the report states. It goes on to blame the United States, Belgium, France, and the United Nations for failing to stop the killings.

The United Nations is obligated to intervene in genocide under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. But Clinton and his then-representative to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, stymied that intervention at every turn. Dallaire believed he could halt much of the slaughter with 3,000 more troops; instead, the U.N. Security Council, backed or led by the United States, reduced his force from 2,000 to 270. That was only the beginning. "At every stage," the report says, "Albright could be found tossing up roadblocks to speedy decisions for effective action."

The Security Council eventually approved a new mission of 5,500 troops, along with 50 U.S. armored personnel carriers. But for weeks the United States haggled over the cost of its involvement. By the time Tutsi rebels had pushed out the Hutu military, not one of the vehicles and none of the soldiers had made it to Rwanda.

"President Clinton insists that his failure was a function of ignorance," the report states. "The facts show, however, that the American government knew precisely what was happening. . . . But domestic politics took priority over the lives of helpless Africans." In other words, Clinton lied--and, as Corn points out, "lying about genocide is a bit more outrageous than lying about sex."

To read the report, go to www.oau-oua.org.


7. Independent Study Points to Dangers of Genetically Altered Foods (Dismissed by Media and Biotech Industry)

Joel Bleifuss, "No Small (Genetic) Potatoes," In These Times, Jan. 10, 2000; Ben Lilliston, "Don't Ask, Don't Know," Multinational Monitor, January/ February 2000, www.essential.org; Karen Charman, "Genetic Gambling," Extra!, May/June 2000

In 1998, a British scientist named Arpad Pusztai appeared on television to discuss some of his research. Within weeks, he had lost his job. His research team had been disbanded, his experiments stopped, and his data confiscated.

Pusztai's crime was to question the safety of transgenic food--foodstuffs bioengineered to include genes from another species. His research indicated that rats fed transgenic potatoes suffered from damaged immune systems and stunted growth. His was the first independent study to examine the effects of bioengineered food on mammals; previous work of this kind had all been sponsored by biotech firms.

Industry supporters in the British government and the scientific establishment dismissed Pusztai's research, pointing out that his data had never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The Rowett Research Institute, where Pusztai worked, sacked him; it was later revealed that the institute had taken a substantial grant from biotech giant Monsanto.

The Lancet, Britain's most prestigious medical journal, published a peer-reviewed paper by Pusztai in the fall of 1999. This study went further than the last: It suggested that the health problems observed in rats might be caused not by the chemicals added to the potatoes by genetic means but by the process of genetic engineering itself. It's possible that the problems Pusztai found are limited to a single variety of potatoes--but it's also possible they're common to every transgenic organism.

As bioengineered foods increase their share of the U.S. market, independent studies such as Pusztai's are the only way consumers can be sure their food is safe. But those studies aren't going on in this country--and the agency that should be conducting them is asleep at the switch. The Food and Drug Administration rigorously tests new medications and food additives. But in 1992, it decreed that genetically engineered foods are "substantially similar" to conventional crops and therefore do not require safety testing. Less than a decade later, anyone who buys food at the supermarket is eating genetically engineered produce, and we have no idea what it's doing to us.

Foreign coverage: Wide coverage in Britain and Ireland, including The Independent, The Times, The Guardian, and The Irish Times. Mainstream U.S. coverage: The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal (which wrote a debunking story under the headline "Attack of the Killer Potato"). For more information, go to: www.sustain.org/biotech.


8. Drug Companies Influence Doctors and Health Organizations to Push Meds

Ken Silverstein, "Prozac.org," Mother Jones, November/December 1999, www.motherjones.com; Barry Duncan, Scott Miller, and Jacqueline Sparks, "Exposing the Mythmakers," Family TherapyNetworker, March/April 2000, www.familytherapynetwork.com; David Oaks, "NAMI: The Story Behind the Story," Dendron, Spring 2000, www.MindFreedom.org ; Stephen Pomper, "Drug Rush," Washington Monthly, May 12, 2000

Studies show that anti-depressants are far from the miracle cures they're sold as--in fact, they're less effective than psychotherapy. But in 1999, more than 130 million prescriptions were written for depression and other mental-health symptoms, at a total cost of $8.58 billion.

With that much money at stake, you can bet the drug companies will do whatever it takes to get a bigger slice of the pie. That's why they spend $5 billion to send sales reps to doctors' offices, giving expensive presents to encourage physicians to prescribe the right meds. And that's why they contribute to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). The alliance, which calls itself a grass-roots organization, pushes a program called "assertive community treatment," in which program workers, backed up by court orders, visit patients' homes daily and watch as they take their medicine.

NAMI never disclosed its drug-company funding--but Mother Jones researchers found $11.72 million in industry contributions to the group in two and a half years. The largest single donor: Eli Lilly and Co., maker of Prozac.

And there's reason to wonder if these drugs are even safe, let alone effective. Responding to both AIDS activists and drug companies, the Food and Drug Administration has dramatically sped up the drug-approval process over the last decade. But once a medication is on the market, the feds' process for monitoring its safety is underfunded and unreliable.

For more information, go to www.MindFreedom.org, www.NARPA.org, or www.icspp.org.


9. EPA Plans to Disperse Toxic/Radioactive Waste Into Denver's Sewage System

Will Fantle, "Plutonium Pancakes," The Progressive, May 2000

Between 1950 and 1980, millions of gallons of industrial waste were dumped into the Lowry landfill near Denver, Colo. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the landfill a Superfund site in 1984. The groundwater there may contain plutonium, one of the deadliest substances on the planet. What to do with it?

Here's EPA's suggestion: Pipe it through the Denver sewage system, then use it to fertilize crops in Colorado's farmland.

For years, Adrienne Anderson and her students at the University of Colorado have been studying EPA documents concerning the Lowry site. Among the records is a 1991 report on pollution at the site by the Lowry Coalition, an alliance of the corporations and government agencies that polluted the landfill in the first place. The group's scientists found radioactive waste there at levels up to 10,000 times greater than at Boulder, Colo.'s notorious Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant. If they're right, it suggests that the government was dumping radioactive waste from the plant into shallow, unlined pits at Lowry, as some landfill neighbors suspect.

EPA insists there's no plutonium at Lowry. Officials say the agency has re-analyzed the researchers' data and couldn't find any radioactive waste. But the only permit EPA holds for the sewer dump allows it to receive Lowry wastewater containing plutonium at levels 150 times greater than state drinking-water standards.

Municipal sludge has been used as fertilizer since 1993. If there's plutonium running through Denver's sewage system, it will be used to fertilize wheat for human consumption--and we may wind up eating radioactive pancakes.

Colorado's two biggest papers, The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, merged last year. Neither covered the plutonium issue much--perhaps because both papers were among the corporations that dumped toxic wastes into Lowry.

For more information, contact Adrienne Anderson at (303) 492-2952 or andersa@mho.com.


10. Silicon Valley Uses Immigrant Engineers to Keep Salaries Low

David Bacon, "Silicon Valley Sweatshops," Washington Free Press, September/October 2000, www.speakeasy.org, and "Immigrants Find High-Tech Servitude in Silicon Valley," Labor Notes, September, 2000

To make up for supposed shortages of skilled labor, the high-tech industry brings engineers to California from India and the Philippines under an immigration program known as H1-B. Under the program's terms, the companies serve as sponsors for their immigrant employees--a status that gives employers power over workers' immigration status. If workers file a complaint--or, heaven forbid, seek to organize a union--they can be deported immediately.

Employers have wasted no time taking advantage of this power. Some withhold wages; others force employees to work long hours and weekends without overtime pay. And thanks to labor laws that exempt contract workers from ordinary workplace protections, the industry has quashed attempts at collective action by engineers. A recent strike at Boeing Co. demonstrated that skilled engineers were prepared to use traditionally blue-collar tactics to win better wages; H1-B helps ensure such disruptions won't interfere with the high-tech industry's profits.

Despite its brutal consequences for workers, the program is popular with both Republicans and Democrats, who enjoy the tech industry's substantial campaign contributions. In early October, Congress overwhelmingly passed an industry-backed proposal to increase the number of H1-B visas granted each year. Other industries are eagerly jumping on the bandwagon: Agriculture and meat-packing concerns, among others, have proposed new or expanded contract-labor programs.

Mainstream media coverage: San Francisco Chronicle. For more information, contact the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network, (510) 643-2355; the National Campaign for Dignity and Amnesty, (212) 473-3936; the AFL-CIO, (202) 637-5000; or the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, (510) 465-1984.

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