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A look at the year’s top 10 bombshell news stories that barely made the news.

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Project Censored

In the U.S., we commonly think of press freedom and censorship in terms of the First Amendment, which focuses attention on the press itself and limits on the power of government to restrict it. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of World War II, presents a broader framework. Article 19 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

By highlighting the right to receive information and ideas, Article 19 makes it clear that press freedom is about everyone in society, not just the press, and that government censorship is only one potential way of thwarting that right. That’s the perspective that has informed this annual list for some 40 years.

Project Censored compiles an annual list focusing on the top 10 censored stories of the year, those that are underreported. But the underlying issue is not isolated examples. It’s the larger patterns of missing information, hidden problems and threats that should really concern us.

During the 1972 election, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporting on the earliest developments in the Watergate Scandal in the Washington Post. But they were covering it as a developing criminal case; it never crossed over into a political story until after the election. That’s a striking example. It helped contribute to the founding of Project Censored by Carl Jensen, who defined censorship as “the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method – including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship – that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society.”

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1. Widespread lead contamination threatens children’s health and could triple household water bills.

President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan, based on lead contamination of the city’s water supply in January 2016. After that, Reuters reporters M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer began an investigation of lead contamination nationwide with shocking results. In June 2016, they reported that although many states and Medicaid rules require blood lead tests for young children, millions of children were not being tested. In December 2016, they reported on the highly decentralized data they had been able to assemble from 21 states, showing that 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip codes across the U.S. had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint at the peak of its contamination crisis. Of those, 1,100 communities had lead contamination rates “at least four times higher” than Flint.

In Flint, 5 percent of the children screened had high blood lead levels. Nationwide, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2.5 percent of all U.S. children younger than 6 – about 500,000 children – have elevated lead levels in their blood.

But Pell and Schneyer’s neighborhood focus allowed them to identify local hot spots “whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys,” such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates. They found them in communities that “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.”

Six months later, Schneyer and Pell reported in January 2017 that, based on their investigation, “From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs.”

But there’s a deeper infrastructure problem involved, as Farron Cousins reported for DeSmogBlog in January 2017.

“Lead pipes are time bombs,” and water contamination is to be expected, Cousins wrote. The U.S. relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its lifespan.

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 25 years, which could triple household water bills.

As Cousins wrote, “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.”

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2. More than $6 trillion in unaccountable Army spending.

In 1996, Congress passed legislation requiring all government agencies to undergo annual audits, but a July 2016 report by the Department of Defense inspector general found that the Army alone has accumulated $6.5 trillion in expenditures over the past two decades that can’t be accounted for.

As Dave Lindorff reported for This Can’t Be Happening!, 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.” The Army wasn’t alone: “Things aren’t any better at the Navy, Air Force and Marines,” Lindorff added.

The report appeared at a time when “politicians of both major political parties are demanding accountability for every penny spent on welfare… Ditto for people receiving unemployment compensation,” Lindorff wrote.

In March 2017, after Trump proposed a $52 billion increase in military spending, Thomas Hedges reported for The Guardian that full transparency would be a long time coming: “The Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.”

The most recent DoD audit deadline was September 2017, yet neither the Pentagon, Congress, nor the media seem to have paid any attention.

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3. The Pentagon paid a PR firm in the UK for fake Al-Qaeda videos.

Concern over Russian involvement in promoting fake news during the 2016 election is a justified hot topic in the news. But what about our own involvement in similar operations? In October 2016, Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith reported for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on one such very expensive (and questionable) operation. The Pentagon paid a British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, more than $660 million to run a top-secret propaganda program in Iraq from at least 2006 to December 2011. The work consisted of three types of products: TV commercials portraying al-Qaeda in a negative light, news items intended to look like Arabic TV, and fake al-Qaeda propaganda films.

A former Bell Pottinger video editor, Martin Wells, told the Bureau that he was given precise instructions for production of fake al-Qaeda films, and that the firm’s output was approved by former U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and on occasion by the White House. They reported that the U.S. used contractors because “the military didn’t have the in-house expertise and was operating in a legal ‘gray area.’”

The reporters interviewed former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq, and examined records from U.S. Army contracts, the Department of Defense’s inspector general and Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda.

Documents show that Bell Pottinger employed as many as 300 British and Iraqi staff at one point, and its media operations in Iraq cost more than $100 million per year on average. It’s remarkable that an operation on this scale has been totally ignored in the midst of so much focus on fake news.

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4. Voter suppression in the 2016 presidential election.

The 2016 election was the first election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013)a 5-4 conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision requiring jurisdictions with a history of violations to “pre-clear” changes. As a result, changes to voting laws in nine states and parts of six others (including California) with long histories of racial discrimination in voting were no longer subject to federal government approval in advance.

Since Shelby, 14 states, including many southern states and key swing states, implemented new voting restrictions, in many cases just in time for the election. These included restrictive voter-identification laws in Texas and North Carolina, English-only elections in many Florida counties, as well as last-minute changes of poll locations, and changes in Arizona voting laws that had previously been rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice before the Shelby decision.

Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, was foremost among a small number of non-mainstream journalists to cover the suppression efforts and their results. In May 2017, he reported on an analysis of the effects of voter suppression by Priorities USA, which showed 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.” Berman noted that turnout was reduced by 200,000 votes in Wisconsin, while Donald Trump won the state by just over 22,000 votes.

Nationwide, the study found that the change in voter turnout from 2012 to 2016 was significantly impacted by new voter-ID laws. In counties that were more than 40-percent African-American, turnout dropped 5 percent with new voter-ID laws, compared to 2.2 percent in those without. In counties that were less than 10 percent African-American, turnout decreased 0.7 percent with new voter-ID laws, compared to a 1.9-percent increase without.

As Berman writes, “This study provides more evidence for the claim that voter-ID laws are designed not to stop voter impersonation fraud, which is virtually nonexistent, but to make it harder for certain communities to vote.”

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5. Big data and dark money behind the 2016 election.

When Richard Nixon first ran for Congress in 1946, he and his supporters used a wide range of dirty tricks aimed at smearing his opponent as pro-Communist, including a boiler-room operation generating phone calls to registered Democrats, which simply said, “This is a friend of yours, but I can’t tell you who I am. Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?” Then the caller would hang up.

In 2016, the same basic strategy was employed but with decades of refinement, technological advances and massively more money behind it. A key player in this was right-wing computer scientist and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who contributed $13.5 million to Trump’s campaign and also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies” and using “psychographic” microtargeting – based on thousands of pieces of data for some 220 million American voters – as Carole Cadwalladr reported for The Guardian in February 2017.

After Trump’s victory, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix said, “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win.”

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, was more old-school until recently in elections across Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. In Trinidad, it paid for the painting of graffiti slogans purporting to be from grassroots youth. In Nigeria, it advised its client party to suppress the vote of their opposition “by organizing anti-poll rallies on the day of the election.”

But now they’re able to micro-target their deceptive, disruptive messaging. “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven” after they joined the campaign, Nix said. On the day of the third presidential debate, Trump’s team “tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments” via Facebook.

This messaging had everything to do with how those targeted would respond, not with Trump’s or Mercer’s views. In a New Yorker profile, journalist Jane Mayer noted that Mercer argued the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major mistake. Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, told Mayer, “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy – to sweep everything else off the table – even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

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6. Antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” threaten health and foundations of modern medicine.

The problem of antibiotics giving rise to more dangerous drug-resistant germs (“superbugs”) has been present since the early days of penicillin, but has now reached a crisis, with companies creating dangerous superbugs when their factories leak industrial waste, as reported by Madlen Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in September 2016.

Factories in China and India – where the majority of worldwide antibiotics are manufactured – have released “untreated waste fluid” into local soils and waters, leading to increases in antimicrobial resistance that diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and threaten the foundations of modern medicine.

Superbugs have already killed an estimated 25,000 people across Europe, thus globally posing “as big a threat as terrorism,” according to UK National Health Service Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies.

Although the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes is well documented in scientific publications, there is little to no coverage of superbugs in the press. News coverage tends to exaggerate the risks and consequences of natural outbreaks, as seen during the Ebola scare in the U.S. in 2014, rather than reporting on the preventable spread of superbugs.

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7. The toll of U.S. Navy training on wildlife in the North Pacific.

The U.S. Navy has killed, injured or harassed marine mammals in the North Pacific almost 12 million times over a five-year period, according to research conducted by The West Coast Action Alliance and reported by Dahr Jamail for Truthout. This includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and other marine wildlife such as protected species like humpback whales, blue whales, gray whales, sperm whales, Steller sea lions and sea otters.

The number was tabulated from the Navy’s Northwest Training and Testing environmental impact statement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s letter of authorization for the number of “takes” of marine mammals caused by Navy exercises.

As the Alliance noted, this does not include impacts on “endangered and threatened seabirds, fish, sea turtles or terrestrial species” due to Navy activities, which have expanded dramatically, according to the Navy’s 2015 environmental impact statement. Those expansions include: a 778-percent increase in number of torpedoes; a 400-percent increase in air-to-surface missile exercises (including in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary); a 1,150-percent increase in drone aircraft; an increase from zero to 284 sonar testing events in inland waters.

There has been almost no coverage of these activities impacts in the corporate press.

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8. Maternal mortality is a growing threat in the U.S.

The U.S. maternal mortality rate is rising, while it’s falling elsewhere across the developed world. Serious injuries and complications are needlessly even more widespread with shockingly little attention being paid.

“Each year over 600 women in the U.S. die from pregnancy-related causes and over 65,000 experience life-threatening complications or severe maternal morbidity,” Elizabeth Dawes Gay reported, covering an April 2016 congressional briefing organized by Women’s Policy Inc. “The average national rate of maternal mortality has increased from 12 per 100,000 live births in 1998 to 15.9 in 2012, after peaking at 17.8 in 2011.”

Former Congressmember Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said at the meeting, “The U.S. is the only nation in the developed world with a rising maternal mortality rate.”

Inadequate health care in rural areas and racial disparities are drivers of this maternal health crisis. Nationally, African American women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes.

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9. DNC claims right to select presidential candidate.

A key story about 2016 election has mostly been ignored by the media – a class-action lawsuit alleging that the Democratic National Committee broke legally-binding neutrality agreements in the Democratic primaries by strategizing to make Hillary Clinton the nominee before a single vote was cast. The lawsuit was filed against the DNC and its former chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in June 2016 by Beck & Lee, a Miami law firm, on behalf of supporters of Bernie Sanders. At a hearing in April 2017, DNC lawyers argued that neutrality was not actually required and that the court had no jurisdiction to assess neutral treatment.

As Michael Sainato reported for the Observer, DNC attorneys claimed that Article V, Section 4 of the DNC Charter – which instructs the DNC chair and staff to ensure neutrality in the Democratic presidential primaries – is actually “a discretionary rule” that the DNC “didn’t need to adopt to begin with.”

In addition, DNC attorney Bruce Spiva said it was within the DNC’s rights to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” Sainato also reported that DNC attorneys argued that specific terms used in the DNC charter – including “impartial” and “evenhanded” – couldn’t be interpreted in a court of law, because it would “drag the court… into a political question and a question of how the party runs its own affairs.”

Much of the reporting and commentary on the broader subject of the DNC’s collusion with the Clinton campaign has been speculative and misdirected, focused on questions about voter fraud and countered by claims of indulging in “conspiracy theory.” But this trial focuses on documentary evidence and questions of law – all publicly visible yet still treated as suspect, when not simply ignored out of hand.

Even Sainato’s reporting – which has consistently used official documents, including the leaked DNC emails and courtroom transcripts, as primary sources – has been repeatedly labeled “opinion” rather than straight news reporting by the Observer.

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10. 2016: A record year for global internet shutdowns.

In 2016, governments around the world shut down internet access more than 50 times, according to the digital rights organization Access Now, “suppressing elections, slowing economies and limiting free speech,” as Lyndal Rowlands reported for the Inter Press Service.

“In the worst cases internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations,” Rowlands was told by Deji Olukotun of Access Now. “What we have found is that internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities.”

Many countries intentionally blacked out internet access during elections and to quell protest. “Telecommunications companies can push back on government orders, or at least document them to show what’s been happening, to at least have a paper trail,” Olukotun said.

On July 1, 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution signed by more than 70 countries condemning “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.”

It noted that “the exercise of human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, on the internet is an issue of increasing interest and importance.”

(1) comment

Dorothy Kaltz

Paul is the best. The billionaires weren't content censoring MSM. Now they are censoring Google, FB, YouTube, and Twitter. Once Trump's guy kills net neutrality, the people will be lucky if they have access to a free press anywhere.

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