(don't) Read All About It
From carcinogenic toothpaste to world arms sales and lost spaceships of plutonium, here's 10 stories that didn't make headlines.
Thursday, April 30, 1998
Last month, for the 22nd year in a row, the Sonoma State University student and faculty program announced the conclusion of its annual search for major, significant, but little-reported news stories.
And once again, the project, twice honored for publishing the best alternative political issues book in the country, has cast the spotlight on stories that many Americans have never heard of, but need to know about. They include the fact that the United States is the world''s principal arms merchant, providing weapons in almost every conflict worldwide, that many cosmetics and health products routinely used by consumers are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration yet are often contaminated with carcinogenic byproducts, and the fact that the academic freedom and independence of America''s university and college system is being compromised by the increasing practice of big business and industry.
"These and other stories in our annual yearbook provide continuing and convincing evidence that mainstream media in the United States is failing to provide the public information it needs in order to function in a democracy," says Sonoma State University Prof. Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored.
"Alternative media, newspapers and magazines, are doing the job, but unfortunately many Americans don''t see the alternative press. As a result, much vital information is censored simply because it is not available in the papers and television news most people routinely see," he says.
Phillips said every year Project Censored runs head-on with the egos and interests of mainstream media simply because of the project''s use of the word "censorship."
"They don''t like to hear the suggestion that by not covering certain stories, they are effectively censoring the news. But that is exactly the case," says Phillips. "Project Censored defines censorship as the interference with the free flow of information in our society." The concept of news censorship is more complicated than a government official or industry "spin doctor" simply stamping CENSORED on information and hiding it from the public, says Phillips.
"There are a variety of factors that go into censorship in an otherwise democratic society, including the tendency to report entertainment, sex and celebrity news rather than the harder more serious issues of the day," he says. "Increasingly, we believe the leading factors are the conglomeration of media chains and the ownership and control of media giants like NBC and CBS by corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse.
"A reporter for NBC is less likely to investigate nuclear energy issues when he or she knows the corporate boss is chairman of the board of nuclear energy giant General Electric," he says. "That subtle but very effective influence is increasingly the case in newspapers and on television throughout the country."
Project Censored routinely takes a lashing from mainstream media over the notion of censorship in the United States. Phillips received a double-barrel blast during an hour-long interview on National Public Radio''s "Talk of the Nation" last year when Bernard Kalb of CNN and Marshall Loeb of Columbia Journalism Review challenged the suggestion that corporate or commercial considerations come into play when editors make decisions. But within weeks of that program, Loeb''s own CJR criticized the San Francisco Examiner for killing a column critical of Nike lest it offend that corporate sponsor of an Examiner annual run across San Francisco. And Newsweek published a report outlining how Time Warner unsuccessfully leaned on Steven Brill, founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer, to kill a profile on a Federal Trade Commission official because of concerns it could damage the Time Warner-CNN merger that was then under FTC review.
"Those two examples are not unusual," says Phillips.
This year''s yearbook, published by Seven Stories Press of New York, is the culmination of work by 125 student, faculty and community experts based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park in Northern California. The top 25 are culled from more than 600 stories nominated by reporters and editors and readers from throughout the country. Each story is reviewed by student researchers and faculty experts to determine the veracity and significance of the report and to what extent the subject was covered by mainstream media. The final list is submitted to a panel of national judges (See Judges Box) who vote to determine the order of significance.
Of those 25, here are the Top 10 Censored Stories for 1997:
1. CLINTON ADMINISTRATION: ARMS FOR SALE
The United States is now the principal arms merchant for the world. US weapons are evident in almost every conflict worldwide and reap a devastating toll on civilians, US military personnel, and the socio-economic priorities of many Third World nations.
Most US weaponry is sold to strife-torn regions such as the Middle East. These weapons sales fan the flames of war instead of promoting stability, and put US troops based around the world at growing risk. The last five times US troops were sent into conflict, they found themselves facing adversaries that had previously received US weapons, military technology, or training. Meanwhile, the Pentagon uses the presence of advanced US weapons in foreign arsenals to justify increased new weapons spending--ostensibly to maintain US military superiority.
On June 7, 1997, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Arms Transfer Code of Conduct, prohibiting US commercial arms sales or military aid and training to foreign governments that are undemocratic, abuse human rights, or engage in aggression against neighboring states. Yet the Clinton administration, along with the Defense, Commerce, and State departments, has continued to aggressively promote the arms industry at every opportunity. With Washington''s share of the arms business jumping from 16 percent worldwide in 1988 to 63 percent today, US arms dealers currently sell $10 billion in weapons to non-democratic governments each year. During Clinton''s first year in office, US foreign military aid soared to $36 billion, more than double what Bush approved in 1992.
Given that international arms sales exacerbate conflicts and drain scarce resources from developing countries, why does the Clinton administration push them so vigorously? The most plausible motive is the drive for corporate profits. It is no small detail that the US'' global arms market dominance has been accomplished as much through subsidies as sales. In return for arms manufacturers'' huge political contributions, much of the US arms exports are paid with government grants, subsidized loans, tax breaks and promotional activities.
2. WARNING: CLEANING AND PREENING MAY KILL YOU
Do you use toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, body lotion, body talc, makeup, or hair dye? These are among the personal care products the American consumer has been led to believe are safe but that are often contaminated with carcinogenic byproducts, or that contain substances that regularly react to form potent carcinogens during storage and use.
Consumers regularly assume that these products are not harmful because they believe that they are approved for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But although the FDA classifies cosmetics (dividing them into 13 categories), it does not regulate them. An FDA document posted on the agency''s World Wide Web home page explains that "a cosmetic manufacturer may use any ingredient or raw material and market the final product without government approval." (This is with the exception of seven known toxins, such as hexachlorophene, mercury compounds, and chloroform). Should the FDA deem a product a danger to public health, it has the power to pull a cosmetic product from the shelves, but in many of these cases the FDA has failed to do so, while evidence mounts that some of the most common cosmetic ingredients may double as deadly carcinogens.
Examples of products with potential carcinogens are: Clairol "Nice and Easy" haircolor, which releases carcinogenic formaldehyde as well as Cocamide DEA (a substance which can be contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines or react to produce a nitrosamine during storage or use); Vidal Sassoon shampoo (which like the hair dye, contains Cocamide DEA); Cover Girl makeup, which contains TEA (which is also associated with carcinogenic nitrosamines); Crest toothpaste which contains titanium dioxide, saccharin, and FD&C Blue number 1 (known carcinogens).
One of the cosmetic toxins that consumer advocates are most concerned about are nitrosamines, which contaminate a wide variety of cosmetic products. In the 1970s, nitrosamine contamination of cooked bacon and other nitrite-treated meats became a public-health issue, and the food industry, which is more strictly regulated than the cosmetic industry, has since drastically lowered the amount of nitrosamines found in these processed meats. But today nitrosamines contaminate cosmetics at significantly higher levels than were once contained in bacon.
The FDA has long known that nitrosamines in cosmetics pose a risk to public health. On April 10, 1979, FDA commissioner Donald Kennedy called on the cosmetic industry to "take immediate measures to eliminate, to the extent possible, NDELA [a potent nitrosamine] and any other N-nitrosamine from cosmetic products." Since that warning, however, cosmetic manufacturers have done little to remove N-nitrosamines from their products, and the FDA has done even less to monitor them.
Individual FDA scientists are speaking out. The FDA''s Donald Harvey and Hardy Chou proclaimed that the continued use of these ingredients contradict what should be a social goal: keeping "human exposure to N-nitrosamines to the lowest level technologically feasible, by reducing levels in all personal care products."
3. BIG BUSINESS WANTS TO FEED YOUR HEAD
Academia is being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Increasingly, industry is creating endowed professorships, funding think tanks and research centers, sponsoring grants, and contracting for research. Under this arrangement, students, faculty, and universities serve the interests of corporations instead of the public--in the process selling off academic freedom and intellectual independence.
Although universities often claim that corporate monies come without strings attached, this usually is not the case. A British pharmaceutical corporation, Boots, gave $250,000 to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) for research comparing its hyperthyroid drug, Synthroid, with lower cost alternatives. Instead of demonstrating Synthroid''s superiority as Boots had hoped, the study found that the other drugs were bioequivalents. This information could have saved consumers $356 million if they had switched to a cheaper alternative, but Boots took action to protect Synthroid''s domination of the $600 million market. The corporation prevented publication of the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and then announced that the research was badly flawed. The researcher was unable to counter the claim because she was legally precluded from releasing the study.
University presidents often sit on the boards of directors of major corporations, inviting conflicts of interest and developing biases that undermine academic freedom and interfere with the ability of the university to be critical or objective.
While university presidents and chancellors gain from their corporate activities, industry and business are returned favors. University boards of trustees are dominated by captains of industry, who hire chancellors and presidents with pro-industry biases. New York University''s board includes former CBS owner Laurence Tisch, Hartz Mountain chief Leonard Stern, Salomon Brothers brokerage firm founder William B. Salomon, and real estate magnate-turned publisher Mortimer Zuckerman.
Federal tax dollars fund about $7 billion worth of research, to which corporations can buy access for a fraction of the actual cost. This is largely the result of two 1980s federal laws which allow universities to sell patent rights derived from taxpayer-funded research to corporations--encouraging "rent-a-researcher" programs. The result of these changes has been a covert transfer of resources from the public to the private sector and the changing of universities from centers of instruction to centers for corporate R&D.
4. GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE: THE IMPLICATIONS ARE SCARY
For over 40 years, New Zealand''s largest intelligence agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has been helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the Pacific region. Neither the public nor the majority of New Zealand''s top elected officials had knowledge of these activities--activities which have operated since 1948 under a secret, Cold War-era intelligence alliance between the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (the UKUSA agreement). But in the late 1980s, in a decision it probably regrets, the United States prompted New Zealand to join a new and highly secret global intelligence system--one of the world''s biggest, most closely held intelligence projects, a project that allows spy agencies to monitor most of the telephone, e-mail, and telex communications carried over the world''s telecommunication networks. It potentially affects every person communicating between (and sometimes within) countries anywhere in the world.
The ECHELON system, designed and coordinated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) is one of the world''s biggest, most closely held intelligence projects. Unlike many of the Cold War electronic spy systems, ECHELON is designed primarily to gather electronic transmissions from nonmilitary targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country. The system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computers to identify and extract messages of interest from the mass of unwanted ones. Computers at each secret station in the ECHELON network automatically search millions of messages for pre-programmed keywords. For each message containing one of those keywords, the computer automatically notes time and place of origin and interception, and gives the message a four-digit code for future reference.
Computers that can automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed since at least the 1970''s, but the ECHELON system was designed by NSA to interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function as components of an integrated whole. Using the ECHELON system, an agency in one country may automatically pick up information gathered elsewhere in the system. Thus, the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for the NSA no differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases located on their soil.
The potential abuses of and few restraints around the use of ECHELON have motivated other intelligence workers to come forward. In one example, a group of "highly placed intelligence operatives" from the British Government Communications Headquarters came forward protesting what they regarded as "gross malpractice and negligence" within the establishments in which they operate, citing cases of GCHQ interception of charitable organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Aid.
5. TORTURE DEVICES: MADE IN THE USA FOR EXPORT
In its March 1997 report entitled "Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment," Amnesty International lists 100 companies worldwide that produce and sell instruments of torture. Forty-two of these firms are in the United States. This places the US as the leader in the manufacture of stun guns, stun belts, cattle probe-like devices, and other equipment which can cause devastating pain in the hands of torturers.
According to the Amnesty International report, the following are some of the American companies currently engaged in the production and sale of such weapons: Arianne International of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; B-West Imports Inc., of Tucson, Arizona; and Taserton, of Corona, California. Arianne International makes the "Myotron," a compact version of the stun gun. B-West joined with Paralyzer Protection, a South African company, to produce shock batons that deliver a charge of between 80,000 and 120,000 volts. Taserton was the first company to manufacture the Taser, a product which shoots two wires attached to darts with metal hooks. When these hooks catch a victim''s skin or clothing, the device delivers a debilitating shock. Los Angeles police officers used the device against Rodney King in 1991.
These weapons are currently in use in the United States and are being exported to countries all over the world. The US government is a large purchaser of stun devices--especially stun guns, electroshock batons, and electric shields. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty both claim the devices are unsafe and may encourage sadistic acts by police officers and prison guards--both here and abroad. "Stun belts offer enormous possibilities for abuse and the infliction of gratuitous pain," says Jenni Gainsbourough of the ACLU''s National Prison Project. She adds that because use of the belt leaves little physical evidence, this increases the likelihood of sadistic, but hard-to-prove, misuse of these weapons. In June 1996, Amnesty International asked the Bureau of Prisons to suspend the use of the electroshock belt, citing the possibility of physical danger to inmates and the potential for misuse.
Manufacturers of electroshock weapons continue to denounce allegations that use of their devices is dangerous and may constitute a gross violation of human rights. Instead, they are making more advanced innovations. A new stun weapon may soon be added to police arsenals--the electroshock razor wire, specially designed for surrounding demonstrators who get out of hand.
6.OOPS! LOST THE PLUTONIUM!
On Nov. 16, 1996, Russia''s Mars 96 space probe broke up and burned while descending over Chile and Bolivia, scattering its remains across a 10,000-square-mile area. The probe carried about a half pound of deadly plutonium divided into four battery canisters, and no one seems to know where they went. Gordon Bendick, director of legislative affairs for the National Security Council, states there are two possibilities. Either the..."canisters were destroyed coming through the atmosphere [and the plutonium dispersed], or the canisters survived re-entry, impacted the earth, and...penetrated the surface...or could have hit a rock and bounced off like an agate marble."
This amount of plutonium has the potential to cause devastating damage. According to Dr. Helen Caldicott, president emeritus of Physicians for Social Responsibility, "Plutonium is so toxic that less that one millionth of a gram is a carcinogenic dose." She states "One pound, if uniformly distributed, could hypothetically induce lung cancer in every person on earth." Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of California, Berkeley, confirms the increased hazard of lung cancer which would occur if the probe burned up and formed plutonium oxide particles.
On Nov. 17, when the US Space Command announced the space probe would re-enter the earth''s atmosphere with a predicted impact point in East Central Australia, President Clinton telephoned the Australian Prime Minister John Howard and offered "the assets the US has in the Department of Energy," to deal with any radioactive contamination. Howard placed the Australian military and government on full alert and warned the public to use "extreme caution" if they came in contact with the remnants of the Russian space probe.
In the first of a series of blunders, the day after the space probe had fallen on South America, the Space Command remained focused on Australia. Later they reported the probe had fallen in the Pacific, just west of South America. A Russian news source put the site in a different patch of the Pacific altogether. Major media in the United States reported the probe as having crashed "harmlessly" into the ocean. On Nov. 18, 1996, the Washington Post ran the headline: "Errant Russian Spacecraft Crashes Harmlessly After Scaring Australia."
On Nov. 29, US Space Command completely revised its account. It changed not only where, but also when the probe fell. The final report placed the crash site not west of South America, but directly on Chile and Bolivia. The date of the crash was also revised from Nov. 17 to the night before. Apparently, US Space Command had initially tracked the booster stage of the Russian craft, and not the actual probe itself.
The New York Times mentioned the incident on page 7 under "World Briefs" on Dec. 14. The Russian government has been uncooperative, still refusing to give Chile a description of the canisters to aid in retrieval efforts.
7. NORPLANT: FORCED USE OF BIRTH CONTROL
Low-income women in the United States, and in the Third World, have been the unwitting targets of a US policy to control birth rates. Despite continuous reports of debilitating effects of the drug Norplant, women here and in the Third World, who have received the implantable contraceptive, have had difficulty making their complaints heard, and in some instances have been deceived, according to our resources.
A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary "The Human Laboratory," accused the US Agency for International Development (USAID), of acting in conjunction with the Population Council of New York City, to use uninformed women in Bangladesh, Haiti, and the Philippines for tests of Norplant. Many of these women were subjects in pre-injection drug trials that began in 1985 in Bangladesh, one of the world''s poorest countries. Norplant is a set of six plastic cylinders containing a synthetic version of a female hormone. It is intended to prevent pregnancy for five years. Surgery is required for removal--at a cost far beyond the reach of low-income women, whether in Bangladesh or the United States, if the removal is not subsidized.
The BBC documentary said the women stated that they had been told that the drug was safe and not experimental. Implantation was free. One woman interviewed in the documentary said that after implantation, suddenly her body became weak, and that she couldn''t get up, look after her children, or cook. Other women reported similar problems, stating that when they asked to have Norplant removed, they were told it would ruin the study. The narrator of the documentary, Farida Akhter, recounted that when another woman begged to have the implant removed--saying "I''m dying, please help me get it out,"--she was told, "Okay, when you die, inform us, we''ll get it out of your body." Many women who were used in the trials have suffering from eyesight disorders, strokes, persistent bleeding and other side effects.
Now Norplant devices are figuring in reproductive rights policies in the United States as well. Journalist Rebecca Kavoussi reports that the reproductive rights of women addicted to drugs or alcohol have once again become the focus of legislation. Senate Bill 5278, now under consideration in the state of Washington, would require "involuntary use of long-term pharmaceutical birth control" (Norplant) for women who give birth to drug-addicted babies. Under this proposal, a woman who gives birth to a drug-addicted baby would get two chances--the first voluntary, the second mandatory--to undergo drug treatment and counseling. Upon the birth of a third drug-addicted child, the state would force the mother to undergo surgery to insert the Norplant contraceptive.
Jennifer Washburn focuses on Medicaid rejection of Norplant removals in the US State Medicaid agencies, for example, often generously cover the cost of Norplant insertion but don''t cover removal before the full five years. Although Medicaid policy may cover early removal "when determined medically necessary," medical necessity is determined by the provider and the Medicaid agency, not the patient.
8. A NATIONAL ID CARD--COMING SOON?
In September 1996, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996. Buried on approximately page 650 was a section that creates a framework for establishing a national ID card for the American public. This legislation was slipped through without fanfare or publicity. This law has various aspects: It establishes a "Machine Readable Document Pilot Program" requiring employers to swipe a prospective employee''s driver''s license through a special reader linked to the federal government''s Social Security Administration. The federal government would have the discretion to approve or disapprove the applicant for employment. In this case, the driver''s license becomes a "national ID card." The government would have comprehensive files on all American citizens'' names, dates and places of birth, mothers'' maiden names, Social Security numbers, gender, race, driving records, child support payments, divorce status, hair and eye color, height, weight, and anything else they may dream up in the future.
Another part of the law provides $5 million-per-year grants to any state that wants to participate in any one of three pilot ID programs. One of these programs is the "Criminal Alien Identification Program," which is to be used by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to record fingerprints of aliens previously arrested.
The author of the national ID law, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), stated in a Capitol Hill magazine that it was her intention to see Congress immediately implement a national ID system whereby every American would be required to carry a card with a "magnetic strip on it on which the bearer''s unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded." Congressman Dick Armey (R-TX), among others, has strongly denounced the new law, calling it "an abomination, and wholly at odds with the American tradition of individual freedom."
9. TOXIC TOYS: NOT CHILD''S PLAY
Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), US toy factories have cut a one-time American workforce of 56,000 in half and sent many of those jobs to countries where workers lack basic rights.
In the past decade Mattel, the makers of "Barbie," bought out six major competitors, making it the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Employing 25,000 people worldwide, Mattel now only employs 6,000 workers in the US. NAFTA has freed Mattel to further reduce its American work force and take advantage of repressive labor laws in other countries.
In the Dynamic factory just outside of Bangkok, 4,500 women and children stuff, cut, dress and assemble Barbie dolls and Disney properties. Many of the workers have respiratory infections, their lungs filled with dust from fabrics in the factory. They complain of hair and memory loss, constant pain in their hands, neck and shoulders, episodes of vomiting, and irregular menstrual periods. Metha is a militant woman in her twenties who tried to start a union at the Dynamics plant. She claims the company not only fired her but threatened to shut her up "forever." She developed respiratory problems and was hospitalized. She expresses her fear to talk to a reporter by saying, "Barbie is powerful. Three friends have already died. If they kill me, who will ever know I lived?"
Though separated by distance, these Mattel workers are intimately connected by experience, as are those of countless other abused workers in toy factories in Thailand and China, where Mattel now produces the bulk of their toys.
Under pressure, the industry adopted a code of conduct, which conveniently calls upon companies to monitor themselves.
10. NERVE GAS IN OREGON: WHAT ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT?
Despite evidence that incineration is the worst option for destroying the nation''s obsolete chemical weapons stockpile at the Umatilla Army Depot, the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) gave the green light to the Army and Raytheon Corporation to spend $1.3 billion of taxpayer money to construct five chemical weapons incinerators. Despite strong protests, on Feb. 7, 1997, the EQC made its final decision to accept the United States Army''s application to build a chemical weapons incineration facility near Hermiston, Oregon.
Some examples of the chemicals to be incinerated include nerve gas and mustard agent; bioaccumulative organochlorines such as dioxins, furans, chloromethane, vinyl chloride, and PCBs; metals such as lead, mercury, copper and nickel; and toxins such as arsenic. These represent only a fraction of the thousands of chemicals and metals that will potentially be emitted throughout the Columbia River watershed and from the toxic ash and effluents which pose a significant health threat via entrance to the aquifer.
Contrary to what incineration advocates claim, there is no urgent need to incinerate, since the stockpile at Umatilla has small potential for explosion or chain reaction as a result of decay. A 1994 General Accounting Office report estimates that the actual number of years for safe weapons storage is 120 years rather than the 17.7 years originally estimated by the National Research Council. Thus, the timeline for action could conceivably be lengthened until all the alternatives--such as chemical neutralization, molten metals, electro-chemical oxidation, and solvated electron technology (SET)--are considered. A delay is supported by a National Academy of Sciences report, entitled "Review and Evaluation of Alternative Chemical Disposal Technologies," which states that there has been sufficient development to warrant re-evaluation of alternative technologies for chemical agent destruction.