I have never seen Carl Jensen, but as I listen to him speak over the phone from his home in Cotati, California. I picture a joyous, reassuring grandfather, a buoyant Papa Smurf of a man. “You have to remain optimistic when you do what I’ve been doing for 20 years,” he tells me in his warm and cheerful voice. “It’s the only way you can remain sane.”
Jensen is talking about Project Censored, the widely recognized if not always respected media watchdog he has held the leash of for two decades. Like David Letterman, Project Censored is famous for its Top Ten lists—in this case, lists which trumpet America’s most under-reported and over-reported stories. He is also talking about Project Censored Canada, which began three years ago but still has a long way to go to match the notoriety of its American cousin.
Jensen, now professor emeritus of communication studies at Sonoma State University in Rohnert, California, created Project Censored in 1976 in reaction to the Watergate scandal. He was amazed that Richard Nixon could be re-elected president in 1972 by such a huge margin only months after the famous break-in attempt. Jensen found two things: that the mainstream media, with the exception of Woodward and Bernstein at The Washington Post, never gave the burglary comprehensive coverage after it took place; and that Watergate coverage before the election was more abundant in the alternative press. These discoveries made Jensen question what else the mainstream press either missed or ignored.
The selection process he devised has three main stages and has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. Nominations—around 700 this year—are first collected by communications students at Sonoma. Anyone can submit a story, but the majority are culled from American alternative publications such as Mother Jones, In These Times and the Utne Reader. Students then examine each nomination for, among other things, its national significance, the amount of coverage received, timeliness and authenticity. Each nomination is then evaluated by the students, and the top-25 stories are given to the volunteer judging panel that, in turn, ranks the stories. The judges then return their rankings to the students, who tabulate the results and release the final list. Past and present judges include Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, media critics Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, and writer Susan Faludi.
In the project’s first year, the number-one story was Jimmy Carter’s membership in the Trilateral Commission, an elite group of well-connected politicians and business leaders from around the western world. Project Censored pointed out that too many media outlets were content to accept the presidential candidate’s assertion that he was just a good ol’ peanut farmer and political outsider.
The 1994 Canada Project Censored Top Ten Stories List
- 1-Cleaning up after AECL—Auditor General criticizes crown corporation for not properly accounting for nuclear cleanup bill
- 2- Canada’s own free-trade deal
- 3-Third World battles General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) over plant patenting
- 4- White-collar and corporate crime overlooked
- 5-Tabacco manufacturers and cigarette smuggling
- 6- Reducing interest rates: an alternative for debt reducing
- 7- The Canadian Wildlife Federation: hiding its hunting connection
- 8- The World Bank: funding forced settlement
- 9- Fish Farming: a biological timebomb?
- 10-Chiaspas crisis unleashed NAFTA damage control
SOURCE: Blindspots in the News? PCC’s yearbook
Ever since that first list came out, Project Censored has been accused of being unfair to the journalism profession. “[It] was criticized by editors and news directors who said that, because of the limits of space and time, they had to exercise news judgment and report what were the most important stories,” Jensen says. “I thought that was a valid observation, so we started to look at what stories they were actually using to fill up that space and time.” That look evolved into the Junk Food Journalism list, which began in 1984. In 1995, the O.J. Simpson saga had the dubious honour of being number one for the second year in a row, with Hugh Grant, Mike Tyson and Windows 95 following close behind.
The origins of the Canadian list can be traced to 1993, when Bill Doskoch, the environment reporter for the Regina LeaderPost, approached the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) to see if it would support a Project Censored Canada. (PCC). Doskoch had been dissatisfied with what he perceived to be a decline in the quantity and quality of investigative reporting, which was brought on by the lack of human and financial resources teamed with the spectre of libel chill.
“Investigative reporting is expensive and slow to produce results,” explains Doskoch, “and there is a perception that no one wants to read it. Access to the courts is more important to the media than access to government files because stories about Paul Bernardo and the underbelly of society sell more papers than investigative stories focused on public policy.”
Once he got the nod from the CAJ, Doskoch contacted Jensen for advice and guidance. “What intrigued me the first time I spoke to Bill was that he was representing the CAJ,” Jensen says. “I was surprised that it would help implementing this kind of project.” In the States, Project Censored has never been an official linkage with any such organization, although Jensen has addressed the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded for his work by the society’s Los Angeles chapter.
Convinced of Doskoch’s sincerity, Jensen assumed the role of mentor, telling the Saskatchewan reporter that he would require an academic ally to aid him with research. After approaching all the country’s communication and journalism schools, he chose to hook up with professors Bob Hackett and Donald Gutstein of the communication studies program at Simon Fraser University (SFU is no stranger to Top Ten lists; the university bookstore publishes an annual list of the most offensive books on its shelves). The University of Windsor’s School of Communication also showed interest, but did not get actively involved until 1994.
As academic research, PCC is financed through 1997 by a $62,000 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) grant given to Hackett, the primary investigator. The project also received a few hundred dollars start-up money from the Goodwin Foundation, which promotes investigative reporting in Canada. This money goes to pay the salaries of research assistants, but also covers the costs of online searches and the publication of Blindspots in the News?, the project’s yearbook.
On May 7, 1993, the birth of Project Censored Canada was announced. In a story handled by Canadian NewsWire, Doskoch explained why the CAJ decided to help support a project that would cast such a critical eye on the profession it represents: “The CAJ has always considered the promotion of investigative reporting to be one of the most important parts of its mandate. We see Project Censored Canada as complementing those efforts because it will help direct journalists to those issues at which they should be taking a closer look.”
PCC, which focuses solely on English print media, then began to solicit nominations from the public, members of Parliament and alternative publications like THIS Magazine and The Canadian Forum. This resulted in 111 nominations which by using criteria similar to the U.S. model, was boiled down to a short list of 20 stories for the judges panel.
For judges, Doskoch and Hackett wanted an even representation of Canadians, so they recruited men and women from different regions and political stripes. The first list included Le Devoir publisher Lise Bisonnette, Fraser Institute director Michael Walker, writers June Callwood and Lindalee Tracey, University of Western Ontario Dean of Journalism Peter Desbarats and former New Democratic Party premier of Manitoba Howard Pawley.
When I hear about it the first time, [Project Censored Canada] fascinated me,” says Pawley, now an associate professor at the University of Windsor. “It struck me as a worthy effort that would show the media the importance of widening their coverage.” Pawley is still enthusiastic about the project and remains part of the judging panel for the third list, to be released mid-April.
The first list, which covered 1993, debuted at the spring 1994 CAJ national convention in Ottawa. Hoping to stir up interest, PCC put a press package in the convention kits of each of the 350 delegates and sent press releases to newspapers, wire services and broadcasters, including the CBC. The top story concerned Somalia and a claim that it was oil, not humanitarianism, that prompted the involvement of peace keepers, including Canadians, in the country. (A similar story placed second on the 1993 American list.) Other stories from that list included Canadian mismanagement of the East Coast cod fishery while blaming foreign overfishing, the negative economic impact of logging in British Columbia and how business has hijacked the environmental agenda.
The response to PCC and its findings was mixed. While Doskotch called public reaction “favourable,” in truth there was not much public reaction at all. The list did receive mention in a handful of major newspapers across the country, but most of the coverage was within the pages of alternative media outlets like Shift and Victoria’s Monday Magazine.
In attendance at that CAJ conference was Christopher Doran, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism. He was unimpressed with the list, and in the April 22, 1994, pages of The Globe and Mail, criticized PCC’s merit and mandate. “Project Censored would have us believe that our current system of news selection is in the thrall to powerful government and corporate interest,” he wrote, “interests that police what the media report so as to engineer a compliant public. Suddenly, we’ve entered the dark domain of the conspiracy theory—the preserve of the naive and the happily paranoid.” Dornan, who does see value in having media watchdogs and ombud organizations, went on to say that one of his problems with PCC is that it is politically biased towards the left.
Some judges with the project, including one-time Reform Party insider Tome Flanagan, believe the project is flawed at the nomination stage. They are probably right, since nominations for the first two Canadian lists were more likely to have come from the alternative media than from a member of Parliament, so the results were skewed towards the left of centre.
The 1995 U.S. Project Censored Junk Food Journalism List
- 1-The O.J. Simpson Trial
- 2-Hugh Grant
- 3-Kato Kaelin
- 4-Mike Tyson
- 5-Windows 95
- 6-Michael Jackson
- 7-Jerry Garcia
- 8-Colin Powell
- 9-Mickey Mantle
- 10-Shannon Faulkner
SOURCE: LEXIS/NEXIS, Rocky Mountain News.
Flanagan, now a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, has mixed feelings about the process. “I credit them for trying to widen their view, which is probably why [one-time Progressive Conservative MP and cabinet member] John Crosbie and I were included as judges in 1995. It was a conscious effort to give Project Censored Canada balance, but it still isn’t balanced.” Flanagan is also concerned that, “a lot of the stories on the final list are not really stories. They are more like perspectives on events or opinion, rather than news.” Although he feels politically outnumbered, Flanagan believes he will have more influence with Project Censored Canada as a judge than as an outsider.
Even self-described “small-1 liberal” Desbarats has a problem with the project’s leftist tilt. “There seems to be a tendency to assume that, because media are controlled by private capital and business interests, under-reported stories are those that take a critical look at those interest. We have to be careful that project members are not imposing their definition of what is news and that the project does not reflect their political interests too closely.” What’s more, he adds, valid stories that look unfavourably on the left’s sacred cow may be overlooked because of built-in-bias.
Doskoch denies the project has a political agenda, and doesn’t apologize if some think it does. Regardless of the political aftertaste, he says, the public should be made aware of PCC’s consensus on under-reported stories. “If I have a bias,” he says, “I’m biased towards good old-fashioned muckraking journalism.” Still, PCC watns to avoid political labels that would take away from what it does. To offset this perceived imbalance for the 1995 list, Project Censored Canada solicited input from more traditionally “right wing” sources like Alberta Report.
Another snag for PCC is how little mainstream coverage it gets—a definite problem for a project set up to raise awareness about journalism’s shortcomings for the public and the profession. Perhaps the biggest reason is that the list, for all of its good intentions, is kind of boring. The Canadian list doesn’t reel off scandal after exposé like that of the American original, which benefits from an alternative media that has more money to put towards investigative reporting.
Doskoch isn’t fazed that many consider the list to be a yawner. “I’d like to see the project rendered meaningless,” he says. “The shittier the Top Ten list is, the better it is for the Canadian media and the country.” And uninteresting list, he claims, is a positive sign that the Canadian mainstream media are doing an effective job of informing the public. If the list starts to get interesting, Doskoch says, then Canadians can start to worry.
Boring or not and biased or not, Doskoch is betting PCC will give journalists cause to become more introspective about their profession. “I hope that Project Censored Canada makes reporters and news editors look at what influences their news judgment, whether it is advertisers or politics or their perceptions of their audience.”
There will be some changes to PCC this year. The CBC is making some of its resources available to the project, allowing it to expand its research capabilities. A home page (http://cc6140mac.comm.sfu.ca), offering the yearbook and the project’s Top Ten lists, is already available on the World Wide Web. PCC will also debut its very own Junk Food Journalism list this year, marking the University of Windsor’s first year as a significant contributor.
But if PCC cannot get more attention, improvements won’t matter. Even though nominations were up for last year’s list, mainstream coverage dropped from little to almost nothing. An online search of Canadian newspapers from around the time the list was released in April 1995 turned up only a brief Canadian Press story in The Globe and Mail. What’s more, with the SSHRCC grant expiring, the project’s future beyond 1997 is not guaranteed. It would be no small irony that if things do go poorly and Project censored Canada dies, its demise would probably qualify as one of the year’s top under-reported stories.