Albion Monitor /Commentary
[For those who may have come in late and missed the first part of our narrative, this debate sprung from Mr. Shafer's April 10 SF Weekly editorial which attacked Project Censored, Sonoma State University's media-watch group for which I am the Associate Director. ]

Unclear on the Concept (Part II)

by Mark Lowenthal

....So the stage was set. San Francisco Weekly editor Jack Shafer and I were to square-off in an in-studio, on-the-air debate to be broadcast on April 17 as the feature attraction of Dennis Bernstein's Flashpoints show on KPFA (the Berkeley-based Pacifica Network flagship station).

"Face to face debates are always better," I told myself as I entered the KPFA studio, "they require a greater degree of mutual respect."

This theory became superfluous, however, as I was immediately informed that Mr. Shafer had decided to forgo the arduous trip across the Bay Bridge and conduct his end of the debate from the comfort of his office. So much for the elevated level of mutual respect...

As the debate kicked off, Bernstein gave Shafer first crack, allowing him to summarize the criticisms contained in his column.

Wasn't he guilty of the same charge of editorial bias that he so virulently leveled against Project Censored?

Shafer succinctly explained that Project Censored has an overbearing left-wing bias -- a fact belied by its refusal to review stories from the right-wing or conservative press, the openly partisan nature of the stories that are selected and the leftist panel of judges who help select them.


"Let me begin by saying," I explained, "that we at Project Censored always have -- and always do --- welcome criticism. Indeed, it's the only way to strengthen yourself as an organization."

"However, we would hope that such criticism is constructive, fair-minded -- and most importantly, informed. Mr. Shafer's is none of these."

As I pointed out to the audience, Shafer could have cleared up a number of his misconceptions and avoided the embarrassment of wildly inaccurate in-print statements by taking one simple step: calling me (or anyone connected with Project Censored) -- something he never took the trouble to do.

This, I noted, was a cardinal journalistic sin -- basic Journalism 101 -- and something that Shafer, as the editor of a newspaper for God's sake, should know.

Such a decision, I continued, was clearly a conscious one -- and aside from being journalistically irresponsible, also cheated the readers of the SF Weekly. Indeed, if the motivation for writing the piece was the presumption that readers would find the topic interesting, wouldn't readers find it infinitely more interesting to read the criticism and then the reaction to the criticism, thus allowing readers to make up their own minds? It would seem so -- unless the motivation for writing the piece was not to bring an interesting point/counter-point discussion to readers -- but rather to simply take a myopic rhetorical position. And if this was the case, wasn't he guilty of the same charge of editorial bias that he so virulently leveled against Project Censored?

No response from Shafer, who changed the subject to the partisan nature of the stories cited on Project Censored's recently-released annual "top censored stories" list.

Among his examples of such partisanship: How deregulation will accelerate centralized ownership of the media ("reprising a Project Censored favorite"), Gingrich's plan to dismantle the FDA, the dangers of child labor, the deadly effects of dioxin and the suppression of widespread scientific report of needle exchange programs.

If these are proof of "partisanship," I would not want to be a citizen of any Shafer-designed democracy.

As hard as it may be to believe, we have no journalistic scrutiny litmus test

While the over-heated rhetoric of contemporary politics has politicized everything from child-immunization to curb-side wheelchair cut-outs, I would hope that contemporary journalism does not succumb to viewing the government-sanctioned corporate monopolization of our news and information system, the protection of consumers from dangerous drugs and medical devices and the lax enforcement of child labor laws as "liberal" issues.

Far from pushing a policy "agenda," Project Censored is simply calling on the press (on an annual basis) to provide a broader range of information to the public. A more representative spectrum of information and ideas allows the electorate to make more informed policy decisions. Indeed, i argued, intelligent policy can't be formulated or ratified -- nor can democracy function properly -- if the citizenry is not informed by an inclusive range of debate and information.

I also took on-air exception to the Project's alleged "formula" for selecting stories. Said Shafer, "I'd wager that it is based on these premises: business is bad, chemicals are bad, military defense is bad, corporate media is bad, Republicans are bad."

"Is it unthinkable, he continued, "to expect Project Censored to hype an overlooked story that illustrates the perils of big government? Is it inconceivable that the right-wing press might have stumble onto a good story?"

Aside from being reductionist and insulting, Shafer's analysis is sadly misguided, at best. His alleged "formula" is wackiness of the highest order. As hard as it may be to believe, I informed Shafer, we have no journalistic scrutiny litmus test. Indeed, all the subjects he listed (business, the chemical industry, industrial/military complex, corporate media, Republicans) -- and any other base of domestic power -- should be reported on thoroughly and critically.

As for regular, thorough and critical reporting by the major corporate media, how do those entities fare? Big business? Rarely in the "A" or front section (that most citizens read) and mostly informational or promotional, rather than critical. The chemical industry? Forget it. Industrial/military? Nearly two-and-a-half decades of ongoing rip-offs and scandals should answer that question. Corporate media? Be serious (also see Telecommunications Act of 1996).

And what of the bias implied by the Project's failure to cite any stories illustrating the "perils of big government?" To begin with, I assured Shafer, we feel strongly, as I had mentioned earlier, that domestic power -- in whatever form -- should be scrutinized and held accountable. I also agreed that there were certainly numerous instances of waste and abuse of power on behalf of "big government." "Fortunately," I pointed out, "your conservative brethren in Congress have done a wonderful job of making "big government" one of the dominant themes of major media news coverage over the past year -- thus allowing us to focus our attention on other, truly under-reported topics.

"Believe me, Ralph Nader would love to have that kind of power over the New York Times and the Washington Post"

Another of Shafer's assertions that I took great exception to was his charge that our left-wing bias is belied by our refusal to review right-wing publications for possible story selection. As I told Shafer over the air, this is simply not true. In fact we receive quite a few stories from right-wing publications -- and believe it or not, have actually cited stories on not one, but two occasions from the ultra-right-wing Spotlight, the newspaper of the Liberty Lobby. As I explained to Shafer, although I find this group's intolerance and anti-semitism abhorrent, a good story is a good story -- regardless of where it comes from.

I also pointed out to Shafer that we do, in fact, invite about half a dozen conservatives to join our national panel of judges every year, but aside from John McLaughlin who sat on our panel in 1991, most decline to participate.

Again, I reminded Shafer, these were just two of themany incorrect assertions that could have been cleared up with a brief phone call.

At this point in the debate Shafer started to flail wildly.

"I also think some of the stories you cite are factually inaccurate."

"Such as?," I shot back. "Which stories -- specifically -- and what are the inaccuracies?"

"I can't cite anything off-hand," he mumbled.

"Then it's rather irresponsible to toss off those kinds of charges isn't it?" I countered.

"Well, I have to say that the assertion that your number one story was "censored" (concerning the unprecedented corporate consolidation of media ownership allowed for under the Telecom Act of 1996) is ludicrous," stammered Shafer.

"If anyone "censored" that story (an analysis of the bill, co-authored by Ralph Nader and posted on the Internet) it was Ralph Nader!" Shafer bellowed.

"If Nader thought his analysis of the Telecom bill was so important, why didn't he get it into the New York Times or the Washington Post!" he continued. "By just posting it on the Internet, he acted as the primary "censor" of his own piece!"

I let out an audibly exasperated exhale upon hearing this.

"With all due respect Jack, that is utterly ridiculous."

"Believe me," I continued, "Ralph Nader would love to have the kind of power over the New York Times and the Washington Post that you ascribe to him. Trust me Jack, I know Nader's organization quite well -- and they have full-time press people who do nothing but try to get that group's many reports and studies covered by the national, regional and local media including the Times and the Post. Those outlets refused to cover the story - which is the entire point of it being on our list -- and why the story was relegated to a posting on the Internet!"

No response.

Finally, the hour had just about run out and we were both given the opportunity to make closing statements.

Shafer's main point in closing shifted to Project Censored's "naive" blanket-condemnation of corporate media and our romanticism of independent or family-owned media outlets.

"The fact is," stated Shafer, "that there are many excellent corporate-owned newspapers out there and there are some bad ones too. But the same can be said of independent or family-owned newspapers. Just because it's a corporate-owned paper doesn't make it axiomatically bad and just because it's an independent doesn't make it axiomatically bad."

"On balance," he concluded, "there's really no difference."

"Well," I followed, "I don't think I could have come up with a more illustrative closing statement than that."

"While I completely agree that there are good and bad media outlets that are both corporate and independently owned, to equate the two systemic models is ridiculous.

"We have literally thousands of media outlets in the country," I concluded, "and in a perfect world, every one would have a separate owner. And these thousands of owners would encompass a wide array of backgrounds and interests."

"To equate that ownership model with the one we currently have -- a relative handful of huge corporations with virtually identical priorities and interests -- and an astronomical degree of control over information, speaks volumes about Mr. Shafer's perspective."

One other item that speaks volumes about Mr. Shafer's perspective -- that I didn't find out till the day after our debate: Shafer had just announced his resignation as editor of the SF Weekly.... to go to work for Bill Gates on a new Microsoft on-line media venture.

Mark Lowenthal is associate director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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