When presenting the 2007 report on the 25 top news stories that were either underreported or ignored by the US media, Peter Phillips, director of Sonoma State University’s Project Censored, (www.projectcensored.org) said: “Real news informs, balances and awakens society; it cannot be measured with Arbitron ratings or exist to sell materialism…real news can only be measured through its success in building democracy, stimulating grassroots activism, and motivating resistance to top-down institutions.”
Cuban journalist Juan Jacomino spoke with Professor Peter Phillips during his recent visit to Cuba to attend events hosted by the Jose Marti Journalism School. Havana Times brings you part of their conversation.
Juan Jacomino: Well, so many people see the United States as a paradise of freedom of everything, and that of course includes freedom of the press. So how do you to explain something like Project Censored, dealing with the problems of freedom of the press and censorship in the United States?
Peter Phillips: Well, the first amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. That means that people have the right to speak, write, publish materials and not be prosecuted or arrested or prevented from doing that. Most of the time that has worked in the United States. There have been times, tough-during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the rights of people who wrote negative things about the Union, and put over 20,000 people in jail. But that has usually happened during the times of war. Now the difference is we have a permanent war in the United States, the so-called War on Terror. Laws are being passed that restrict human rights, restrict habeas corpus, put people in jail, take all your property, for criticizing the Iraq war in an open way that may be seen as supportive of the enemy. These laws are on the books, they are not being enforced yet; they are not putting anybody in jail yet for writing negative things about Iraq. But the laws are there, and they are capable of doing that. And the corporate media-they are now all big corporations-they are interlocked with the top corporations in the United States. One hundred and eighteen people run the media in the United States, on the board of directors. They pay for people who run for Congress, they can give money to their campaigns, and they pay for lobbyists. Washington runs on money. And if you are in Congress and you try to be independent or you try to get legislation passed that would ensure we have a free media, that breaks up the media monopoly in the United States, you are not going to last, you will be attacked. And they will give money to somebody else to run against you.
Juan Jacomino: Is there awareness in the United States about these issues? Do people know this is happening?
Peter Phillips: There’s a strong awareness in the country that the corporate media is not giving us the whole story. I think more importantly, people realize that we need to work for media democracy. So we’ve had several major conventions over the last ten years, which we call Media Democracy or Media Reform conventions; media democracy means having independent news, having sources of news from the grassroots, or having sources that are sponsored by the people, like the Pacifica Radio network. And media reforms sort of means that we are going to go to Congress and we are going to try and get the Federal Communications Commission to change the laws, and maybe we’ll break up the corporate media a little bit. But that’s unlikely; we’ve been trying to do that for a long time. So these are two pieces in what we call Media Movement: a group that wants to have reform, and a group that says it is time for a kind of media revolution, to build truth in media and build networks of people telling each other the truth from all over the world, and be able to categorize that and put it in a readable form on the Internet, on radio, in print, but from the bottom up. And without advertising on it; it should be supported with taxpayers’ money as media is in Europe and Great Britain, where there is far more critical capability: the Guardian newspaper is probably one of the best in the world and it is a non-profit newspaper. Assuring that people understand how the world works is the only way to build democracy, to have people who are informed of what the decisions are, what the powerful are doing, why we are at war in Iraq, why we are occupying Afghanistan, where the oil is, why China is seen as a danger by the American elite, where is China getting oil from-China is getting oil from Iran, so oil is seen as a weapon, if we can control Iran then the Chinese will be threatened and will not be able to grow as fast-all these global policies that the American people aren’t told about.
Juan Jacomino: Perhaps Internet would have been a great vehicle for a different perspective to news and information, but it ended up being corporate anyway…
Peter Phillips: Well, it’s going to be even more corporate if the laws that allow the distributors of Internet, the owners, Comcast, and Bell, and the big networks, they can screen out-there’s no law that says that they can’t screen out web sites. So the movement is calling for Internet neutrality, meaning that all web sites should have equal access. Comcast and the big providers are likely to have a tier system that for 29 dollars a month you get access to part of the Internet, and for 79 dollars you get more. So you have to pay, and then the corporations, like CNN News, would pay Comcast to make sure that the channels to their site are the fastest, so that it is instantaneous, and quicker to go to CNN News than to anybody else.
Juan Jacomino: Going back to Project Censored, which has been going on for more than 30 years, Peter, the original idea, whose idea was it, and how did it all start?
Peter Phillips: Carl Jensen was the founder, and he did for the first 20 years. He was a professor of Sociology, and then he became a professor in Communications Studies. He was teaching his class on Media, and students asked him: how come Richard Nixon got elected in 1972 when Watergate was happening, and people knew about it. Well, they went back and they looked at the corporate media and found that Watergate had been exposed but there had been no analysis. The Washington Post and the big ones, which knew about Watergate, they held on to it until after the elections to really expose it; they said that they did not want to influence the elections. So he started to ask himself what other stories were not being covered in the United States. So they started, just a class, and Dr. Jensen started something they called Project Censored, and they did press releases on what they thought were the most important news stories that weren’t covered by the media. They got their input from print magazines, because there was no Internet then. So over the last 32 years it has evolved into something that’s much larger. Carl started writing books containing all this information about 15 years ago. The books continue to be released-we have a publisher in New York-and they go out all over the world. And now with the Internet we can post the stories as we are researching them. So there are tens of thousands of people who look at the stories every day and give us feedback. So there is a long history there, and the Internet has helped a lot in order to get these stories out. And it is easier for us to find them, and students can do their research, which they love to do.
Juan Jacomino: Tell us a little bit about that procedure; you put out about 25 stories, stories that have been poorly covered or not covered as they should have been, on a yearly basis. How do you go about that?
Peter Phillips: Well, we could put out hundreds of stories that haven’t been covered in the corporate media in the United States, but we prioritize by having over 200 students and faculty research for 12 months. They put in thousands of hours of time verifying stories, making sure that the story wasn’t covered in the corporate media, and then we go through a process of prioritization. Students would consult; if the story is on nuclear energy, the student consults with a physicist, to make sure that the story is correct, is factual, and has been vetted. Then they check the databases, using ProQuest and Lexis-Nexis-which cover all the newspapers and transcripts of news shows in the United States-to see if it was covered. And so if it wasn’t covered then it becomes a candidate, it’s a finalist. The finalists are about 300, which we then take down to 150, and then to 60. Then all the faculty and all the students vote on those 60, and we get 25.
Juan Jacomino: Do you have credibility? Are people interested?
Peter Phillips: Well, we have a lot of credibility. We are a university. There are a lot of professors involved. They are true stories. There is always someone who criticizes one story or another, but the criticism is often the other way around. The corporate media never covers us; the New York Times has never mentioned Project Censored; the Los Angeles Times did a book review once, but they really do not want to talk about us, they just wish we would go away. Then there are certain stories… if you cover stories that are very sensitive, like Palestine and Israel issues, there are people in the U.S. that do not like that, who think you are anti-Semitic or biased, and you are not, it’s a news story, it’s factual truth.
Juan Jacomino: I understand that in your 2008 report you included the story of the Cuban Five and how it’s been played by the media in the United States.
Peter Phillips: We did a research study on the Cuban Five and determined that the corporate media in the U.S. was biased, that they told us lies about what happened. They said they were convicted spies; they never convicted of spying. They were not there to spy on the United States government; they were there to spy on the Cuban mafia in Miami, the one that has been doing terrorist attacks on Cuba. But we the people in the U.S. don’t know that story; we don’t know that side of it. So we traced the history, we verified the facts, we verified the results of the trial, we used a number of sources, and then we looked at how the media reported that, and compared it. So we laid it out, and said; there is bias. In AP, in how the newspapers reported the story; they did not tell us the truth about what the Cuban Five were doing and why they were in the United States. That’s the research that we did. And I wished we’d done it a few years before, because it was there. But we just don’t see everything all the time.