Albion Monitor /Commentary
Mass Mediations

Unclear on the Concept

by Mark Lowenthal

The inevitable backlash following Project Censored's annual list

There's an odd little parable my grandfather used to tell me about the banker who strolls into the lounge of his country club where he spots the club president -- a fellow businessman and long-time friend.

"I've been meaning to say something about those god-awful plaid pants you've been wearing lately," says the banker, playfully teasing his pal.

"And I've been meaning to tell you that your membership's been revoked," replies his unamused "friend," who promptly calls security to have the banker escorted from the premises.

This quaint little anecdote has come to mind several times during the past month as the backlash that inevitably follows the release of Project Censored's annual censored stories list gets into full swing (see 3/30/96 Albion Monitor).

Criticized for not using more tories from "alternative" news weeklies

Sure, we at Project Censored are used to the annual snubbing and sniping that comes with the release of each list. What we're not used to is getting ice-picked in the neck by our so-called friends who's work we have supported over the past twenty years.

Indeed, we've come to expect the rabid right-wing frothing of fringe groups like Reed Irvine's comically named Accuracy In Media ("dangerous" and "socialist" are two of their consistent adjectives of choice) -- and we're more than used to mainstream media cheap-shots such as our local New York Times-owned daily's burying of their brief annual story -- on the obituary page.

It came as something of a surprise, however, when we recently found ourselves being slagged by a small handful of "alternative" news weeklies which, with one notable exception, were cheesed-off at us for failing to adhere to our "mission" which, according to these critics, is to support smaller "alternative" publications such as the papers that they edit.

According to the logic of these folks, Project Censored, by virtue of its citing The New York Times and the Washington Post on its 1995 "best censored" stories list, has sold out to the mainstream -- and as noted above -- strayed from its mission. This is rather amusing for a couple of reasons. First, it is rather curious that the citation of mainstream publications is suddenly a "hot button" issue, considering our annual citation of two to three such mainstream sources -- for at least the past six or seven years (more on this later). Second, these critics seem to be harboring a rather serious misconception about the "mission" of our Project.

Trend in the alternatives for more pop-culture features, expanded arts and entertainment sections

While Project Censored, over the past twenty years, has probably done more to support the nation's alternative weeklies than any other journalism organization in the country, this support has been by implication; by calling attention to alternative weeklies' collective body of fine and important journalism. Direct support and/or promotion of the nation's alternative news weeklies, however, has not -- and is not -- part of our organizational mission statement.

What is a central part of our mission statement is a pledge to support (and advocate for) more investigative journalism, which we uphold through the citation of good, under-reported investigative news stories -- whether they come from The Boston Phoenix or The New York Times.

There is also an additional component to this equation, as I told one reporter (from an "alternative" publication) who recently interviewed me about this mini-controversy: a marked decrease in the number of investigative stories being published by alternative weeklies. This trend, quite ironically, is due to a related trend -- corporate ownership -- that has been eroding the quality of mainstream journalism for some time now.

Indeed, a small number of corporate-style "alternative" newspaper chains have sprung up over the past five or so years, with each following a similar formula: more pop-culture features, expanded arts and entertainment sections -- and less hard and investigative news reporting. Uncoincidentally, Project Censored has received a decreasing number of hard, investigative stories from alternative weeklies during this period and has begun citing more and more trade journals and public interest group reports.

Columnist calls Project "myopic, heavily biased and wholly fraudulent"

Interestingly enough, the one critic whom I identified earlier as the notable exception to the "Project Censored isn't supporting the alternative weeklies" crowd, happens to be the editor of one such chain-owned corporate-alternative weekly.

In a refreshing change of pace, this gentleman, one Jack Shafer, of The San Francisco Weekly (owned by the New Times chain), didn't scold the Project for failing to support the nation's alternative weeklies, but instead ripped it for being myopic, heavily biased and wholly fraudulent.

In a vitriolic column titled "Beat the Press," (San Francisco Weekly, April 10-16) Shafer managed to produce a dazzling, full frontal attack which was simultaneously reductionist, insulting and mean-spirited.

According to Shafer, Project Censored is "based upon the premises that: Business is bad; chemicals are bad; military defense is bad; corporate media is bad; Republicans are bad."

Additionally, an exasperated Shafer rhetorically complained, "Is it unthinkable to expect Project Censored to hype an overlooked story that illustrates the perils of big government?" (emphasis added)

"Is it conceivable," he continued, "that the right-wing press might have stumbled onto a big story in '95?"

"How can a New York Times story be considered censored?" He wondered aloud.

Not satisfied with patently incorrect assertions and unnecessary (and ignorant) speculation, Shafer also took delight in taking personal shots at a number of Project Censored judges such as "econ-blabbermouth" Julianne Malveaux, "Saint" Ben Bagdikian ("pious defender of family-owned newspapers -- no matter how awful") and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Susan Faludi (to whom he ascribes the curiously pejorative label, "this generation's Gloria Steinem").

As you might expect, Shafer's "critique" pissed me off in a fairly large way. And within hours of publication, Dennis Bernstein of Pacifica radio flagship station KPFA (Berkeley, California) organized an on-air debate between myself and Mr. Shafer -- the spark-inducing results of which, you can read about in the next edition of the Albion Monitor.

Next issue: Part 2: "With all due respect Jack..."

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

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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