David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Does Project Censored Censor The News Too?

by David Bacon

BERKELEY, CA (1/8/00) - In 1992, immigrant drywall hangers went on strike from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, halting Southern California home construction for almost a year. They defied police and border patrol agents, even shutting down freeways at rush hour to stop the deportation of picketers. And in the end, they won.

In the years following, immigrants mounted more strikes, involving thousands of workers on construction projects, in huge foundries and tortilla factories, among harbor truckers, and in sweatshops from downtown LA to Pomona.

The impact of this upsurge has been profound. It has changed the demographics of California's labor movement, giving immigrants a new voice and propelling activists into leadership of some of the state's largest unions. It's provided a community power base for a new generation of Latino political leaders. And this upsurge has been met with a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria, from 1994's Proposition 187 to last year's effort to wipe bilingual education off the map.

But despite its profound impact on the economic and political life of California and the rest of the country, this working-class upsurge has gone largly unreported by the mainstream press. "It's really not even on their radar screen," says Susan Alva, staff attorney for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "Sometimes the daily newspapers or TV latch onto individual events, but they don't see the context. The energy of immigrants has been the key to the revival of unions in LA, but you wouldn't know it from reading the mainstream press.

"There's no coverage when we mount successful campaigns to change conditions. When the Korean Immigrant Workers Association united Korean and Latino immigrant workers in restaurants and sweatshops, it wasn't a story because it goes against the grain of the stereotype of immigrants in the media. To them, we're victims, or sometimes even worse - demons and the cause of every ill."

The attitudes behind this lack of coverage are widespread in the press. They not only affect media outlets themselves, but also progressive media critics and watchdogs, like Project Censored, based at the California State University campus in Sonoma County.

While some alternative publications did cover the immigrant worker upsurge, from the LA Weekly and the now-defunct LA View, to The Nation and Labornotes, none of those stories were considered censored by Project Censored judges, and included in their nationally-touted list, issued every year.

"Unions are off-limits to the media," says Conn Hallinan, journalism teacher at University of California at Santa Cruz. "The anti-union bias in the industry is very deep. This problem is also true with Project Censored."

Project Censored says the media does an inadequate job of exposing the abuse of power by government and corporations. Its press release announcing 1999's chosen stories declares that "domestic and international events sure to boggle the minds of even the most indifferent went virtually unnoticed by the press last year. We have "secret" negotiations taking place on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. There is heedless profiteering from breast cancer by chemical corporations. 'Terminator seeds' are being genetically engineered to control the world's food crops. These were all critical issues left untouched by the mainstream press last year."

"On one level I applaud what they do," Hallinan says. "At least they feature the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. But I find there's a consistent pattern of ignoring certain stories."

This year's list includes a story on environmental racism, affecting African-American communities in the industrial cancer belt in Louisiana. It was the first story involving struggle in a community of color to make it into Project Censored's top ten list in the eleven years of stories listed on its web site.

Yet just a few miles away, primarily African-American workers have also been fighting a pitched battle to unionize the huge Avondale shipyard. Six years ago, workers voted for the union, and the company has used its power to deny them their labor rights ever since. Not only that, but according to Nadra Floyd, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO, U.S. taxpayers financed the effort. "The Department of the Navy kept signing contracts with the yard, even including money for consultants which we suspect was used to pay union busters."

Avondale isn't a single isolated struggle. It typifies the obstacles workers face when they try to organize a union - an activity supposedly protected by U.S. Federal law. "The media doesn't care what happens to them," Floyd says. "There's never recognition of the struggle between workers and employers, because it could lead to a discussion of class, which is still considered akin to communism or socialism. The media pretends that class doesn't exist when strikes take place every day."

The struggle of workers against unionbusters was just one story left off Project Censored lists, which reflect the same set of class biases. Those lists inherently assume that the news worth reporting involves the actions of the rich and powerful - their unreported misdeeds. But stories involving movements among working-class people and in communities of color go unnoticed by both the mainstream media and its liberal critics.

Of the 110 stories chosen by Project Censored over 11 years, 64 featured the U.S. government's abuse of power, 54 covered corporate misdeeds, 40 exposed environmental and health crimes, and 35 discussed deception in U.S. foreign policy or misdeeds by other governments. The number of stories featuring a union or a struggle by workers: 0.

The denial of abortions to communities reliant on Catholic hospitals made the 1999 list. The same year, the large-scale union organizing effort by workers in those hospitals was met by firings, discrimination and union busters hired by religious orders. That wasn't news. Same with Monsanto, the chemical giant. It's role as a producer of genetically-modified foods was also featured in 1999. It's role in organizing a company union to fight the United Farm Workers in Watsonville's strawberry fields wasn't.

The attitude holds true for stories outside the U.S. as well.

Project Censored stories exposed the U.S. government's pro-corporate bias in negotiating NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. But free trade has had its most serious challenge from a new cross-border movement. U.S., Mexican and Canadian workers have challenged plant closures, organized independent unions, and mounted strikes against exploitation on the border. It's high point has been the 2-year strike by the first successful independent union in the maquiladora border plants - at Tijuana's Han Young factory. Baja California authorities have abandoned the rule of law to suppress it. That story, covered by a few alternative publications, was ignored by Project Censored and the mainstream media.

Twice Project Censored has featured Shell's environmental crimes in Nigeria, and its support for the dictatorship which killed playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and young activists in the oil-rich Niger delta. But the most dangerous challenge to the Nigerian generals came from the oil workers union, who mounted a general strike in 1994. Soldiers killed workers, imprisoned hundreds more for years, including top labor leaders, and suppressed the oil unions.

That story, reported in the Black Scholar and alternative weeklies, didn't make it into either the mainstream press or the Project Censored list.

Liberal media critics would have us believe that the function of progressive journalists is to "speak truth to power." But Monsanto, the Nigerian generals, U.S. government trade negotiators and the other subjects of exposes already know the truth. What challenges them is when the people on the bottom begin to fight for power. But the stories of those struggles are the real censored stories -- the ones that don't make it into the mainstream media.

Certainly the growth of giant media corporations has something to do with it. Probably the most censored story of the last few years is the Detroit newspaper strike, a direct challenge to two media monopolies by their own employees. It's hardly a surprise that Gannett and Knight-Ridder didn't report it. Nor is it much of a surprise that other media monopolies saw a common class interest in keeping the story quiet. But Project Censored and other media critics didn't see a story here either.

While corporate class interest certainly leads to censorship, media workers share responsibility. After all, thousands of them belong to unions, and care a lot about their own salaries and working conditions. There were real efforts by dedicated newspaper union activists to challenge the suppression of the news from Detroit. But most media workers didn't feel a strong sense, not just of personal, but of class responsibility to report the story.

Media monopolies and journalism schools have taught journalists that they must not participate in movements for social justice, especially unions and community organizations which challenge the established order. "Many reporters internalize the ban on being participants, and believe it would compromise their supposed neutrality and objectivity," says Steve Stallone, communications director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "For reporters and editors, if they don't already know about something, it's not news. But the neutrality rule says you can't cover a story if you know about it from your personal experience, because it's a conflict. And of course, behind this lies the knowledge of what you need to do to please your boss and get ahead."

"Project Censored is a reflection of the industry," Hallinan says. "The objective persona is like the tooth fairy - it doesn't exist. It not only makes reporters unwilling to be participants, but they can't be good journalists with it either. Was I.F. Stone neutral on Vietnam and Korea, or Mike Quinn on the San Francisco general strike?. The point isn't to be objective and neutral, but to be fair and accurate. Neutrality destroys independent reporting - no one but reporters believes in it."

Belonging to unions can provide important job protections for journalists who challenge corporate power. But union membership doesn't automatically lead to better coverage of workers and communities of color. For that, unions need to actively educate their members and appeal for loyalty to the labor movement and struggles in working-class communities. Some of the stories most hostile to workers during the 1998 BART strike, for instance, were written or aired by union members.

"Yes, corporations own the newspapers, but if reporters bit and screamed more, they could change a lot," Hallinan asserts. "Newspapers have to rely on them to produce the copy. Sure, publishers and editors have a class stance, but so does the average reporter, even if they belong to the Newspaper Guild."

Another measure that would lead to coverage of unions and communities of color would be increasing diversity among media workers themselves. Bill Fletcher, former AFL-CIO education director and now assistant to President John Sweeney, and an organizer of the Black Radical Congress, points out that "communities of color are overwhelmingly working-class communities. The percentage of union membership among African-Americans, 18-20%, is the highest among any racial or national group."

Yet minorities make up 11.1% of media workers, and 45% of newspapers hire no minorities at all, according to Hallinan. Minority journalists are three times as likely to be unemployed as white ones. To reflect their percentage in the population, minorities would comprise 27.1% of media employees.

"Look at the class origin of reporters and editors also," he urges. "Seventy-five years ago, they were overwhelmingly working-class people. Today they're largely middle class."

The demographics of the judges and staff at Project Censored reflect those of the media. Perhaps they don't see some stories because they don't exist in their world.

For Floyd, a leading African-American unionist, the problems of the coverage of unions and of communities of color are closely linked. "I don't see nearly enough coverage of either. If the issue is crime, then there may be some, or during the holidays they talk about poverty in a very paternalistic way. But in terms of covering the struggles in our communities on a day-to-day, ongoing basis, there's very little."

Like Susan Alva, Floyd points out that workers and people of color need media coverage that goes beyond reporting particular events. "We need an analysis of the system in this country that reflects the reality of our lives," she says. "The media talk about our economic system in black and white terms. Communism is dictatorial and repressive. The free enterprise system is the savior of all people. The media says our economic system allows us the freedom to do wonderful things, but there's no discussion of how this system really works, and what its true impact is on working people."

That expectation requires an analysis and critique of the media far beyond highlighting unreported exposes of government and corporate misdeeds. It calls for a new kind of participatory activist journalism, with roots in the struggles of workers, unions and communities of color, loyal to the ideal of fundamental social change and those who fight for it.

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