The best news stories of the year are often ones that no one knows about. And that’s where Project Censored comes in. Professor of History at Diablo Valley & Director of Project Censored, Mickey Huff joins me to discuss what Project Censored is, and how it works to bring attention to overlooked news stories.
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Mason Vera Paine and Mickey Huff Interview Transcription
Mason Paine: Professor of History at Diablo Valley and Director of Project Censored Mickey Huff joins me to discuss what Project Censored is and how it works to bring attention to overlook news stories. Thanks for joining me, Mickey.
Mickey Huff: It’s an honor to be here.
Mason Paine: So tell me, how did Project Censored start?
Mickey Huff: Project Censored was founded in 1976 at Sonoma State University in Northern California, which is just outside at the San Francisco Bay Area, founded by Carl Jensen, who had a background in communications, journalism, sociology of media. And the project began as a research initiative based on his observations of the way that the establishment press covered the Watergate scandal, which had happened earlier and led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation by 1974. By 1976, not only, of course, had a lot come out about Watergate, but a lot more came out about the many scandals that were happening during the Nixon administration and, of course, the Johnson administration, but particularly around the Nixon administration of Watergate. Jensen noted that it took a while for the legacy press to get these stories out to the public in a timely manner. And he figured he kind of fancied himself as a media savvy character. Now, look, this is the 70s, so it’s not Internet. There’s no cable. There’s just networks and legacy papers and radio. So it’s a different media ecosystem at the time. But what Jensen noted was that there were independent outlets or smaller outlets that weren’t part of the corporate media or legacy media that actually were reporting on a lot of these kind of things that were happening in an administration.
Mickey Huff: And it led him to this question, that’s the genesis of Project Censored. And that was, what else don’t we know that some outlets cover and some independent or alternative outlets cover, but most people never hear about them unless they’re amplified by the legacy press or the network news, et cetera. Now, I’ll translate that into more contemporaneous terms with cable and the Internet and social media and everything else. But Jensen then led that question to students, and he said, I want to do a project where you research the independent and alternative press for factual stories of significance. And I want you to then comb through them and see where the corporate media actually cover these stories. And if they do, how do they cover them? But if they don’t, why don’t they cover them? And that was the genesis of Project Censored going back to 1976, which then culminated into an annual report on the top Censored stories. Jensen pulled together a group of expert journalists and media scholars to judge stories, but it was all in the guise of student research and what we now refer to as critical media literacy, pedagogy or education. And media literacy is a pretty big buzzword these days.
Mickey Huff: But back in the 70s, people didn’t talk a lot about media literacy or critical media literacy in that way. Jensen was really pioneering. He really pioneered Project Centered as one of the first major news literacy organizations in the United States. We went on to publish a book a year. We’ve got three documentaries. Peter Phillips took over the project in the late 90s. I’ve been the director since 2010 with Andy Lee Ross. And we also started The Censored Press, which we now are publishing other books like this. We have a weekly radio show on Pacifica Radio on 50 stations, the Project Censored Show. So we’ve really grown the project from that one kernel of a question from one curious, media savvy person. And that’s how Project Censored came to be and has kind of sort of helped shape our trajectory over the last nearly five decades.
Mason Paine: I love that I’m a bit of a newsy myself, and I like to think that I can find the odd news and the things that are underreported, but man, you guys really take the cake. And I have to ask, how do you determine whether a news story is subject to censorship or it’s just underreported?
Mickey Huff: Well, that’s a fantastic question. And it goes to the root of the definition of censorship that we have because in the United States, there’s what we find to be a rather curiously specific or neat definition legally about prior restraint in the First Amendment that talks about the government not being permitted to interfere with the reporting of news and information. But it doesn’t seem to say anything about corporations or private entities that are functioning in the spirit of the First Amendment, allegedly through the free press. But they get to determine what they think is newsworthy or legitimate as a news item, and they make, quote, news decisions, right? And so early on, Carl Jensen had feuds with people in journalism whom he was allies with, but they kind of looked at him and they were saying, well, you’re being negative about journalism and our work. And Carl said, Actually, I’m not. Actually, I’m trying to better reinforce and make a better, more transparent kind of news media that report on the stories that people need to know most. Now, guess what? Some of those stories in the public interest aren’t in the corporate interest. They’re not in the private sector interest necessarily, which then lead the corporate media to not necessarily want to research or publish them because they will offend their owners, advertisers, shareholders, et cetera.
Mickey Huff: And so the definition of censorship at Project Censored has always been broader to include anything that interferes with information, the flow of information, the free flow of information in a society that purports to have free press principles. And so censorship by proxy, which is a huge issue nowadays with big tech social media, is actually a major component of the kinds of censorship that we see. It’s far more insidious and pernicious than the prior restraint issue with government. Now, look, we know government does this. We know governments keep secrets. We know they intimidate journalists. We know through what just even happened in the Biden administration with the so called Twitter files that there were inappropriate connections between government agencies and media and social media outlets to suppress information, and that is very problematic. We know from WikiLeaks and other organizations that there are things the government doesn’t want us to know, and they lean on corporate media outlets to not report them. In fact, even going back to the Jensen story with Watergate, the Nixon White House pressured CBS News head to not have Walter Cronkite publish certain things about Watergate. So this is an ongoing problem.
Mickey Huff: We know there are prior restraint problems, but the bigger issue with us at Project Censored goes into the underreporting, and if you will, citing Edward Herman and Nomchoski’s Manufacturing Consent and their propaganda model. There is a much more insidious form of censorship that happens as a matter of business modeling within the so called press industry. And so how do we determine? Well, that’s a great question. It involves research, and it involves faculty and students and databases. We can’t always tell exactly why someone makes a decision to not report something or report the way they do. But our interest is mainly acknowledging the fact that it happens, and it unfortunately happens with far more regularity than most people in this country are aware of. We research hundreds of stories a year. We distill them to a top 25 with a book, with media analysis. We go back and cover previously under reported censored stories to see if they languished in obscurity or do they get picked up by the establishment press, in which case we can log them for doing their job. So back to the issue with Densen not being negative. We don’t want to only be seen as a negative critic of establishment or legacy media.
Mickey Huff: We want to be critical and affirmative. When these major media outlets do cover these important stories, we want to applaud them and say, do more of this, please. You have resources, you have a platform. These stories are important, and the press is important, and it really can affect people’s lives when they’re not doing that job, we’re critical. And then we highlight the voices of intrepid independent journalists who really are, in many cases, sticking their necks out, sometimes even putting their careers on the line to tell stories that we need to know and have a right to know, but the corporate media would rather not tell us.
Mason Paine: Being in media, knowing a lot of media people, and being blessed with knowing some really great producers, I’ve had the honor of looking behind the curtain quite a few times, so I can see where it’s oversaturated. And I think a great example of that or two is like, go fund me and missing people. There are so many emails my producer gets from GoFundMe sending out, hey, if you want to do a feel good story, you should look up this person, look up this fund or another one. Is you get a lot from the city, from Chicago, Cook County or the state saying, hey, there’s these missing people. And it’s hundreds, hundreds of emails. How do you choose between one person or the next?
Mickey Huff: No, I hear you. We actually get some of those emails too, believe it or not. I just got to this week that were not missing persons per se, but very specific individual cases. And that’s not the kind of work that we do with the project. We’re a media literacy organization and an analyst organization. We are not the on the ground, gumshoe reporters per se. Right. We have more of an academic approach to this, but the scenario that you just brought up is a legitimate one. And how do you select that? And then it goes back to the early days of the project when many of the folks in the industry said, well, Carl Jensen, we only have so many column inches and there’s only so much time that the news is on and we have to make news judgments. And Carl said, well, that’s fair. That’s a fair assessment. Maybe it’s not that you’re overtly censoring something. Maybe you missed it. Maybe there wasn’t enough time. So let’s look at what you do cover with that limited amount of column inches and time. And what he discovered was what he coined in the early 80s as junk food news.
Mickey Huff: And what he found was there was an amazing amount of sensationalistic stripe and nonsense that filled the pages of the news media that crowded out other significant and important stories. So he started to not only do the top 25 censored stories, but he started to do the top junk stories that the media said they well, we couldn’t cover these important stories because it was too busy. But yet in the mid 90s, it was all O. J. Simpson all the time, where they would just wall to wall coverage about a trial. Now, I’m not saying that wasn’t an important issue, but it certainly wasn’t as important commensurate with the time it was given because it was sensationalist, it attracted eyeballs, and it boosted profits for media corporations. That’s not a journalistic ethos and that’s not driven by the desire to tell the public what’s really going on. As the mid 20th century journalist George SELDI’s once said that the job of journalism isn’t to false balance or to be, quote, objective or detached. It’s to actually tell the public what’s going on about key issues that matter and not get distracted by sensationalist nonsense and not to cowpow to corporate or government pressures.
Mason Paine: That is so true. And I think one of the hardest things is how do you find the balance between ratings and keeping people informed? Because when you bring some really good information to the forefront, sometimes people find it boring. Which ratings it’s not good for ratings. People will tune out you’re not going to get money from anybody who wants to do sponsorships or endorse your program. So it becomes a point of like, well, what do I do? Do I try to save my job in this industry and all these people around me, or do I try to inform the people who kind of don’t want to be informed?
Mickey Huff: This is kind of a go to quote about that issue. And this goes back to the 2016 election when the then CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, speaking at a tech conference in San Francisco on technology, media, and telecom. He said, quote, Sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going. It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. He noted that I’ve never seen anything like this. He’s talking about the sensationalist media coverage, trump as a performer, carnival barking performer, et cetera, that the media couldn’t turn away from. And he said, It’s not good for the country, but it’s good for us. And he said, it’s going to be a very good year for us. Who was us? Not the United States, not you and me, the citizen, but the media corporations that gave $5 billion of free time to these people. Trump, in fact, was given double the free media time and exposure that Clinton was, who was given even more than Sanders. And there have been study after study about this. We talked about this in our book, United States and Distraction. We mentioned it in our annual books.
Mickey Huff: This is what we’re up against. We now know clearly that the industry has something other than the public interest in mind, and it’s the profit interest. News for profit is part of the problem of the system. Which is why we need more citizen based journalism, nonprofit journalism and journalism that’s actually run by schools, by academics, and by people who really want to report about their communities, not about fancy head talking heads on TV trying to redirect and distract people. And not people that, again, are cow towing to corporate interests and advertisers.
Mason Paine: And I’m glad you brought up your annual books. How do you decide what stories go in there?
Mickey Huff: We have a detailed explanation of all that in each book. And at our website, Project Censored.org, where you can get access to all this information for free. We have a campus affiliates program. We’re now on some 20 campuses. We work with people all over the country and several other countries, actually. Now we even have an international initiative that we’ve begun this year. But we have professors that research stories with students as part of their curriculum in class. And so this is something that students research and produced using databases, using our validated independent news curriculum. We have students help work on the junk food news chapter, news abuse propaganda. So we’re again, very student centric, and students are the ones that go out and find stories in the independent media. I teach classes on social justice, political economy. I teach critical thinking, contemporary historiography. And so there’s no shortage of stories that students find of interest. And then I say, well, was that covered in the corporate media? And they go and they look for a data. They learn how to use databases. They learn how to search for these things. And if their story isn’t being covered or isn’t being covered fully or accurately, they put together this report that we call a validated independent news story that then goes through a professor that’s validated and fact checked, and it goes on our annual ballot.
Mickey Huff: And we have some 30 national judges every year that look through a couple of hundred stories, and they begin researching and distilling them down to, say, 40 stories based on significance, interest. Have they been picked up? Are they still not being reported upon widely? And then that eventually gets us our list of top 25 that’s actually picked up every year by the weekly papers, the association of Alternative Newspapers. And those top ten are run in city papers around the country. They’re also published in our annual book seven stories, Press and Censored Press, called Project Censored state of the Free Press with the latest one is 2023. Just came out late last year that looked at the news cycle from the previous year and a half. And the stories actually, the stories in the top 25, archived all the way back to 76, are on our website for free. You can go to Project censor.org. You can see our free documentary films, our weekly radio show. You can find out how to get the book. And if you’re an educator and you want to include this kind of curriculum in the classroom, we have tons of free resources that we can share, and we can loop you in with Andy Lee Ross and Steve Mason for our Campus Affiliates program.
Mason Paine: How young do you think we should be teaching our children about media literacy.
Mickey Huff: From the infancy as soon as possible? Funny you mentioned it. We have a new book just out called The Media and Me a Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People. And it is by our project centered media revolution collective. It’s ten of us, ten authors from very diverse backgrounds. And we wrote a textbook, basically for the public that is eminently readable and it is very accessible. And it is aimed for people that are maybe a precocious twelve or 13, but it goes all the way up to people who may be 17, 1819 and are less media savvy. It’s a book written to young people with young people in mind. It’s not a book that finger wags or lectures young people for using digital media or technology. It’s a how to know, how to navigate that increasingly complex digital media landscape so that students are given the critical tools they need to understand the difference between fake news and real news or opinions and editorials and hard news and to understand the impact of advertising or pop culture on news and information. So we not only believe we should start teaching media literacy, critical media literacy, to people as young as they are when they start using media, we think there needs to be a concerted effort in the K Twelve curriculum.
Mickey Huff: That there’s some part of this that goes down, at least the fourth or fifth grade, but really becomes a serious part of the curriculum by junior high into high school. So when they come to college, it’s not like Project Censored is the first time they’ve ever been experiencing that, hey, guess what? The news media doesn’t always tell us everything, and sometimes they don’t tell us the truth. And how can I be in the driver’s seat to determine these things? There’s no one stop shop. We can’t tell people to go to truth.com and find the news you need. What we need to do is be teaching people the educational tools so that they can begin to learn how to interact with media on their own and develop their own relationships. We’re not here to tell people what to think. We’re here to help people learn how to better think critically and independently about the media they consume. And increasingly in social media, the social media that consumes you where you are the product. And so we think it’s important that young people know that, which is why we wrote The Media and me, one.
Mason Paine: Of the things I know about News is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. What to do with this information, I know for a lot of people, sometimes being ignorant really is bliss. Have you ever come across those who are like, I just don’t want to know?
Mickey Huff: All the time. We live with them, right? There are family members, there are neighbors, there are coworkers, and believe it or not, there are students. Sometimes it’s better not to know for some people, and they just don’t have the bandwidth to handle a story or an idea. And we understand that, but that’s also why we operate in an educational setting, and we strongly believe that the free press principles protected in the First Amendment are there for educational purposes. If you go back to the beginning of the Republic with people like Jefferson, Madison, Warts and all here people, I’m not trying to put anyone on a pedestal or knock anyone down, but these folks did put forward important concepts about the nature of how people become informed. In fact, Jefferson once quipped that he would rather have a country with newspapers and a well informed citizenry than a country with a government and no literate people. And so ripping on that concept, the idea is that we think people should have the opportunity to know what’s going on. If they choose to tune out and they choose to not know, that’s kind of on them. And as far as we go as being educators or public intellectuals, it’s on us to convince those people that what you don’t know really can affect you.
Mickey Huff: I’m not saying it can only hurt you, but the things that people are unaware of do affect them, whether they know it or not. Riffing on Aldous Huxley from the 1920s facts don’t cease to exist simply because they’re ignored or not known. And our job as educators is to try to get people to understand that sometimes there are really tough things that are going on around that we do need to understand and know about. But turning the blind eye is not the best way to move forward, and it certainly is no way to having a well informed populace in a self governing society. So we think that media literacy, critical media literacy and a free press are integral components into living in a democratic republic. And we cannot achieve our objectives of living in a free society without access to accurate information.
Mason Paine: Now, before I let you go, I have to ask, could you give a quick rundown of how you find Censored News?
Mickey Huff: Well, we research. We pay attention to literally hundreds of independent alternative sources and foreign news sources around the world, other news sources that aren’t domestic. We, of course, pay close attention to the corporate and established media to see what they are doing and how they’re covering it. But this all starts when we were young. I started being a news consumer and a news junkie. I grew up in a house, working class house. But my parents had news weeklies and magazines and newspapers and books. And they weren’t college educated, my parents, but they had a respect for knowledge and learning. And so I was fortunate enough to be brought up in an environment that really honored being aware of certain things. And ironically, my parents weren’t political. They didn’t even believe in voting. They were actually very private people, conservative in some ways, but they were also very radical in other ways by really pushing the idea that we have our own mind to develop. And there’s a lot of news and information and a lot of things to learn about in the world. And we should be curious, not fearful, and maybe we should be skeptical, but not cynical, right?
Mickey Huff: And I’ve battled with that a long time. I’m over 50 years old now, 16 some books later, and so on. Been teaching college 20, 23, 25 some years. I’ve really tried to remember that. I’ve really tried to remember and honor the spirit of curiosity, not fear, being a healthy skeptic, not a defeated cynic. And I think that those are things we can instill in people. And so those values still inform me to want to know what’s going on, even if it’s not necessarily great news or information. But we can’t do anything about the challenges we face. Mason, unless we know what they are. And that requires an open mind, which actually leads to one of the textbooks I wrote with Nolan Higgin last year called let’s Agree to Disagree, which is a critical thinking guide to communication, conflict management, and critical media literacy that talks about how not just young Americans, but all of us we all need to have our minds opened. We all need to diversify our news habits and diets, and we all have to try on other ideas that may not be our own or not dive with our own confirmation bias if we’re going to live in an incredibly diverse society.
Mickey Huff: And I think it’s those diversities that we harness and that we celebrate that make us even more informed, more broadly informed, more empathetic, and actually contribute to more people living a better life.
Mason Paine: Well, Mickey, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate you being here. For those listening, where can they find more about Project Censored?
Mickey Huff: You can go online to project censored ord that’s. C-E-N-S-O-R-E-D. Like censorship censored. You can also go to our publishing imprint, Censoredpress.org, and you can contact us through those websites. You can check out our books, and we have a ton of free material stories, analysis, curriculum, films, weekly radio show. So if anybody wants to reach out to us and give us ideas for stories or offer even constructive critiques of the things that we do, any educators out there, we’d love to hear from you. And if there’s anything we can do to help you all in your communities be better informed and have the tools you need to educate those around you, please do not hesitate to reach out. And I want to thank you, specifically Mason, for this opportunity not just to speak with you, but to speak with all the people that you speak with. So thank you so much.
Outro: This has been the Mason Vera Paine show. Thanks for listening.
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