Censored in 2006, Part I

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the January 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

Annually since 1976, Sonoma State University’s Project Censored has highlighted stories that are "underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored in the US." Media legend Walter Cronkite says that “Project Censored is one of the organizations that we should listen to, to be assured that our newspapers and our broadcasting outlets are practicing thorough and ethical journalism.” Censored 2007 (Seven Stories Press), the 30th anniversary volume of this valuable series, identifies “Future of Internet debate ignored by Media” and “Halliburton Charged With Selling Nuclear Technology to Iran” as the top two of 25 underreported stories.

Operating in the tradition of Project Censored, every year I devote two columns designed to give attention to the top ten stories underreported in the local corporate press. Sadly, there could be hundreds of stories mentioned; in this era of hyper profit driven media, no one can say with a straight face that ANY important issue receives the kind of complete and sustained coverage worthy of being called “responsible journalism.” Even more frightening is the fact that if telecommunications industry giants succeed in getting the Congress to undermine so-called Internet neutrality, we could see an end of the ability of grassroots bloggers to serve as press watchdogs. More on “Net Neutrality” in 2007. For now, part 1 of the top 10 censored stories of 2006:

No. 10: Participatory journalism as a cash machine. After years of marginalizing, minimizing, and deriding bloggers and other net activists, the Oshkosh Northwestern in 2006 announced the creation of the “Northwestern Community News Network.” Miles Maguire, founding member of the Oshkosh Community News Network, on his blog gave the effort a mixed review: “Participatory journalism as a grassroots movement by groups and individuals who are not satisfied with the status quo makes sense to me. Participatory journalism as a cash machine by companies with stockholders who are not satisfied with their profit levels is a different kind of a thing.” Evidence of cash machine journalism includes the fact that the Gannett papers literally sold their web homepages, so that in late 2006 when logging on to their sites, the first image on the screen was a massive Kohl’s ad. Don’t expect to see an expose’ of that kind of nonsense in Gannett’s pages anytime soon.

No. 9: What causes poverty? Over the last 4 or 5 years, the corporate press has developed an interest in poverty. Usually around Thanksgiving time, we get stories that feature citizens struggling to make ends meet, along with editorials combining lamentations with half-baked solutions that no one expects the editors to push for in any serious way. Completely absent in these annual absolutions are any meaningful analyses of the link between poverty and the public policies the corporate press have championed or condemned over the years. Poverty in our region became measurably worse after the passage of “free trade” deals, outsourcing arrangements, and Thompson-era welfare “reform.” The corporate press championed those policies at the same time failing to offer leadership on anti-poverty measures like making college affordable, building more affordable housing, or creating a living wage economy.

Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos

No. 8: All Republicans Matter. Mirroring a national and statewide trend, northeast Wisconsin saw outrageous sums of money spent supporting and opposing legislative candidates in 2006. One of the biggest spenders was “All Children Matter (ACM),” a Michigan based pro private school voucher outfit. The local media mentioned the organization in stories about campaign finance, but minimized the group’s ties to the Republican Party and expectation of returns on their political investments. In 1997 ACM director Betsy DeVos told Roll Call Magazine: "I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

No. 7: Cumulus Stations Won’t Allow Candidate Response To Attack Ads. In the race for the 54th assembly district in Oshkosh, Democrat Gordon Hintz was the target of vicious special interest radio ads. Four Cumulus radio stations on which the ads ran would not allow the Hintz campaign to respond with their own ads under the pretext that Cumulus was not accepting ads from any candidate campaign committees. Hintz won the race anyway, and told UW Oshkosh WRST radio that he has always supported meaningful campaign finance reform and that his experience with Cumulus ”has made me more committed to it than ever.” Let’s hold Hintz accountable to that position.

No. 6: Consequences of Board Size Reduction Bill. Before he left office, Representative Gregg Underheim was able to get a bill passed that allows citizens to petition to reduce county board sizes via referendum. Local media, especially print, have long advocated reducing county board sizes. Thus the Underheim bill never received any critical scrutiny. The result? Citizens and Winnebago county officials are locked in a court battle over each side’s interpretation of the law. Covering the Underheim bill in-depth could have produced much better legislation, and in the process saved much citizen time and taxpayer money.

Next month: The top 5 censored stories of 2006.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.