State of the Free Press 2024: A Discussion of Ongoing Censorship

Featuring Steve Macek and Andy Lee Roth

by Kate Horgan
Published: Last Updated on
The Official Project Censored Show
The Official Project Censored Show
State of the Free Press 2024: A Discussion of Ongoing Censorship
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Project Censored’s yearly publication, State of the Free Press 2024, hit the shelves in December. The work details the many issues regarding corporate media, from the spread of news deserts to biased and incomplete reporting, while highlighting the public interest journalism of the independent press. On this week’s program, Mickey is joined by co-editor of the volume, Andy Lee Roth, as well as Steve Macek, longtime contributor to the annual book. They discuss some of the most significant stories overlooked or underreported by the corporate media in the past year and also highlight which topics and themes are most-likely to be censored. Concluding the show, Macek shares an update about the ever-increasing number of conservative attempts to ban or restrict books in schools and public libraries, warning that the rising trend needs to be met at the community level while some states race to protect students’ rights to read.

 

Notes:

Andy Lee Roth is Associate Director of Project Censored, co-editor of State of the Free Press 2024, co-coordinator of its Campus Affiliates Program, and a widely-published media analyst. Steve Macek is chair of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College in suburban Chicago, co-coordinator of the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, and longtime contributor to the Project’s annual publications.

 

Video of Interview with Andy Lee Roth

Video of Interview with Steve Macek

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Andy Lee Roth

Mickey Huff: Welcome to the Project Censored show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today on the program, we’re going to take a look at the State of the Free Press 2024. That is the latest annual release from Project Censored, and I am joined in this segment by the co-editor of this new book, Project Censored State of the Free Press 2024.

I am joined by Andy Lee Roth. He is the associate director of Project Censored, co-editor of 14 editions of the Project Censored yearbook. He helps coordinate the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, a news media research network of several hundred students and faculty at two dozen colleges and universities across North America.

In addition to co-authoring The Media and Me, Project Censored’s guide to critical media literacy for young people, Roth has published research and articles in the Index on Censorship, In These Times, YES! Magazine, Truthout, Media, Culture & Society, the International Journal of Press and Politics and other outlets. He earned a PhD in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a BA in sociology and anthropology at Haverford College.

Andy Lee Roth is no stranger, of course, to the Project Censored audience and we welcome you back to the show. Andy Lee Roth to talk about the State of the Free Press Andy. Welcome back to the show.

Andy Lee Roth: Thanks, Mickey. It’s always a pleasure to join you on the show.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, and we’ve had you on the show more recently to talk about a lot of, things going on around media and censorship and what’s been happening in the Middle East.

And today, we want to focus more specifically around the issues of censorship, the kinds of stories that we see that have been underreported in the past year, but also we want to take a look at bigger themes around the kinds of stories that are underreported or censored. And as ever, we want to talk about the solutions.

We want to talk about the intrepid independent journalists that are telling these really important stories. But to get us started Andy Lee Roth let’s let’s talk about a few of the challenges that we’re facing right now. You know, trust in journalism is, is really at an all time low here in the United States. It keeps declining every year.

Alan McLeod wrote about that in the forward of our State of the Free Press 2024 book, and you talk about it too in the introduction, you talk about some of the challenges we have about news deserts and also about the changing habits that Americans have about how they consume news. Andy, can you talk about a few of those things for us?

Andy Lee Roth: Yeah, so these are challenges, and I think of them as being challenges on both the supply side quality journalism and the demand side of quality journalism. So, on the supply side, we know from a variety of reports, including especially Northwestern University’s annual “State of Local News Report,” that about a fifth of all Americans, that would be 70 million people, live in counties where there is only one local news source.

Or there are no local news sources. And those are what are, being talked about now as news deserts. The idea that they are barren. This is, of course, this metaphor is unfair to anyone who, like, I am, is a lover of deserts and actual desert ecosystems are vibrant and alive. But the news deserts we’re talking about here are, are, a vacuum for quality journalism and therefore vulnerable to all the deleterious social effects we know, ramp up when there isn’t quality journalism. So things like the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in the media. And the, yawning digital and economic divide between citizens, all of these, according to Northwestern University, “State of the Local News Report” are amplified by the, the expansion of news deserts.

So that’s a problem on the supply side. That problem, I should add, is underscored by the fact that in many communities where there is no local news source, they’re also because of historical inequalities that we’ve documented in past Censored yearbooks, the process of digital redlining. There’s also a lack of access to internet, which means those people are doubly, people in those communities are doubly caught off, cut off.

Not only do they live in a news desert in terms of print journalism, but they’re also less likely to have the kind of digital access that many of us take for granted as a way of seeking out news and information. If you shift over to the demand side, the picture isn’t pretty either. We know a lot of Americans are no longer paying attention to news.

They engage in what is known as “news snacking,” a term used by, a number of, critical media scholars, including a colleague of ours, Hektor Haarkoetter of the German news enlightenment initiative. Hektor talks about news no longer being received consciously, but rather being consumed incidentally, like potato chips that the metaphor, the food metaphors around news that are, of course, familiar to anyone who follows Project Censored and listens to this show, I’m sure. The other dimension that critical scholars are pointing out in terms of changing news habits is not only is there this kind of incidental kind of, examining of news. So you’re coming across news as you’re scrolling through, the social media feed on your phone on your device while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, say, and so it’s not concentrated, focused attention.

It’s distracted, fleeting attention to news. The other element that critical media scholars talk about on what I’m calling kind of the demand side is this idea that news finds me, and that you don’t the belief it’s a, it’s a misbelief. It’s a mistaken belief that if anything important, I will learn about because it will come at me through, say, my Facebook feed or on Twitter or whatever.

And that news finds me, perception has been shown in, in empirical studies to lead to widening gaps in political knowledge and also to people having a, a, a, a, a, a, miss people overestimating their, their sense of how well informed they are. They have a false sense of being well informed when they’re engaged in this news finds me.

Dynamic. The other thing about that news finds me and this again resonates with, reports from previous Censored yearbooks and themes of this program, is that of course, that when we’re counting on our. Social media to keep us informed about news in this news finds me mindset. We’re dependent on platforms and algorithms that don’t necessarily have a commitment to ethical journalism in the public interest.

And so. It’s not only that we’re not the bottom line is the news may not find us due to some of those gatekeeping practices. So these are two problems on the demand side, around new snacking and news finds me and on the supply side in terms of news deserts that, we address in the introduction to State of the Free Press 2024.

Mickey Huff: You know, Andy Lee Roth that news finds me the news snacking element and the sort of built in backing to that sort of sort of a kind of a what’s like a Dunning Kruger nation. You kind of just described there in many, many ways. And so, I mean, what you just described, creates in and of itself, like, each of these things being its own challenge, in its own right.

And when you put them all together, Right. This is when we sort of have a, well, we, again, what we’re looking at here, we’ve seen in the last several years, we’ve, we’ve talked about the post truth emergency issues. We’ve talked about epistemic crises, et cetera. What, what, what is being outlined here, really looks in a lot of ways to be confounding, meaning that how do we then approach the challenges that we face?

That you’ve just outlined about news deserts. How do we like again individually? You know, we could go out and be less snacky, more intentional about the way in which we get information. But that does get into one of the other elements that the project focuses on. And that’s critical media literacy education.

And that’s well, where do people go? I mean, part of the reason why people maybe are new snacking is that they don’t have, they don’t, they don’t know what else is on the menu. Stick with the food metaphor. They don’t know what else is on the metaphor. So I’m stumbling through the menu myself here. But I’d like to talk about, you know, also we talk about solutions, talk about reinventing journalism.

We talk about the importance of public journalism. And then, of course, as you outlined in chapter 1, at great detail, these are prime examples of journalism in the public interest that show us, how new snacks could be very healthy, and people can find places to go and get them themselves. They don’t have to wait around for them to be found.

Can you talk a little bit about the importance of critical media literacy education in the challenges that you just laid out for us?

Andy Lee Roth: Yeah, I mean, I think, I think part of it is just creating a taste to extend this metaphor, perhaps to its limit, creating a taste or a hunger for quality journalism in the public interest.

And I think, I think, you know, Peter Phillips, our colleague and the former director of Project Censored always talk about the idea that we have to encourage people and, and get people to want this. Right. And so one of the things we, so

I think critical media literacy is part of that. I think the more that people have a kind of a sensibility and some of the skills that come with critical media literacy, the more they want to move away from the kind of, mealy, greasy, not very nutritious news, that, you know, content that passes as quote news on the, on the big commercial stations, the big commercial outlets, and the more they want to dive into, kind of substantive reporting that actually speaks to concerns of their own, one way, I think, to get at that is something we talk about in the introduction, which is thinking back to the golden era of muckraking journalism in the United States in the early 20th century. So people like Ida May Tarbell, Lincoln Stevens, Upton Sinclair, and remembering that that reporting was wildly popular. It was muckraking reporting in the public interest.

It, it skewered, the comfortable and gave comfort to, the, the, I’m getting the phrase wrong, right? It was truly public interest journalism, but it wasn’t the niche of some elite, news junkies who found interest in that. It was the, it was the mass public, to the point that the journals and outlets that had these muckrakers soon found competition from, from competing outlets who tried to produce the same kind of reporting themselves because it was drawing, it was drawing, public attention.

So, one of the things I think to think about, and I don’t have a full answer for this, but it’s something that ought to be part of our discussion is today we know there’s an appetite for shame and scandal, right? A lot of the junk food news that Project Censored reports every year, pivots on notions of shame and scandal, usually among celebrities of one sort or another, Hollywood sports, and the like.

But what if we harnessed that appetite, which I think is real and probably not going to go away, what if we harnessed that appetite to substantive reporting about genuine public issues? There’s no shortage of shame and scandal out there. And so I think that’s 1 avenue that without descending into kind of, weekly world news, headlines, that journalism, that’s an avenue that journalism, good, independent, investigative journalism might tap into once again, a hundred some years later.

Mickey Huff: Indeed, and it’s, you know, it’s important to remember, you know, past is prologue in this regard because we’re talking about reviving this public hunger for news about what’s really going on as George Seldes, the 20th century journalist used to always say, and the kind of stories that that are highlighted each year by Project Censored going all the way back to 1976.

These are the kind of stories that really matter. These are the stories that have legs. These are the stories that that have meaning that can really change people’s lives. And so journalism can really make a difference. And again, the founder of Project Censored, Carl Jensen, had long insisted that, that, that journalism, is worth fighting for.

You know, Andy, we folk we face some of the challenges in our culture now, that are very negative about just all journalism that if you, if you, if you disagree with it, it’s just fake news. And again, part of this ties into it to one of the themes that we’re going to get at later in the program and that’s the way in which journalists or the news media, particularly the corporate media, how they do and don’t even cover themselves or their own industry. And so given that the, the, the audience of citizens out there, they’re, they’re kind of, at the mercy in some ways of what the media will show them of this news and editorial judgment. But we’ve seen that again, this this public that we have, they don’t believe that they’re being told the truth.

They don’t believe they’re being told, the about the important stories and worse they now are believing that they’re being purposely misled or distracted. And so I want to. We’re going to have to take a break here quickly, but I want to use that as a springboard to talk about why there is hope and why there are great avenues and outlets for this kind of journalism that is in the public interest that I think could go a long way to satisfy that news snack craving while also giving people the things that they need to be more meaningfully, civically engaged. So, Andy Lee Roth, we want to continue our conversation about Project Censored State of the Free Press after this brief musical break. And after that we’re going to get into some of the kinds of stories that have been underreported.

We’ll look at some of the patterns of those, and we’ll also talk about, well, we’ll talk about the economy. Andy Lee Roth before the break, we were talking more broadly about some of the trends and patterns and challenges we face in our media ecosystem today.

And what I want to spend some time doing here in this next part of our segment is really going into some detail about solutions journalism about highlighting the importance of independent, an independent and free press, how it can function in our society. So we do want to look at maybe, a few of the topics that come up each year, not just this year, but I know you want to talk about some of the patterns of the type of stories that are underreported, whether it’s about economic hardship, have a lot of stories about climate and the environment.

And then, of course, there are patterns of stories about media censorship and online censorship, itself, you know, literally almost a meta topic of sorts, but in the lower off I wanted to hand it over to you because I know there’s a few things that you would like to, to point out among these kinds of patterns that we see in under reported stories over the years, Andy Lee Roth.

Andy Lee Roth: Yeah. So, this yearbook, the State of the Free Press 2024 yearbook is the 31st edition of the Project’s yearbook series and the 48th cohort of students working with campus affiliates of Project Censored to identify and vet and ultimately bring to wider public attention these important, but under-reported stories, the stories we call the top censored stories of the year, and.

So just to kind of give a preliminary preview, these are stories about things like activism to reform outdated laws that criminalize HIV, the economic costs of gun violence, and the discovery of toxic forever chemicals, PFAS, in our rainwater. And each of these stories is, included in this year’s top 25 list.

But before we dive more into some of those specific stories, I think it’s really important to kind of step back and think about the project as a whole. This is now, so this year’s top 25 list, adds to, a kind of an ongoing systemic study of patterns of marginalization, bias, and sometimes outright exclusion of topics from corporate news coverage.

And we can talk a lot about, you know, the factors that shape this, but one of them is prominent in my mind, which is that journalists are, by their daily routines and their professional values, heavily focused on kind of dramatic events. Which means they’re less good at covering ongoing issues, and some of this may be my bias as a sociologist who thinks social structurally showing through here.

Fair enough. But I’m not alone in that attitude. Robert Hackett, who is, the founder of Newswatch Canada has this great line that I always, think hits the mark. He talks about how for corporate news, news is what went wrong today, not what goes wrong every day. And so I think a lot of the stories that Project Censored has covered over the years are stories about systemic inequalities and problems.

So, economic inequality, systemic and institutionalized racism, environmental degradation, these kinds of, of broad themes all have a common denominator of being ongoing problems where yes, on occasion, there are dramatic single events. So we just got done with the giant, international, climate conference.

Which brings some attention to climate issues and and human caused, climate change. But on a day to day basis, climate change and environmental degradation are kind of grinding realities that don’t always have a news hook that a journalist can easily peg a story on and they and for these reasons, they tend to be under reported, especially relative to their significance in terms of their impacts on all of us.

And so I think that’s an important correction. We’ve talked about that in the past, in terms of saying, you know, Project Censored sees important news stories because we don’t operate on a 24/7 news cycle. If we have a news cycle, it’s like a 52/12, right? 52 weeks, 12 months. We put out a yearbook every year.

That looks back at the previous 12 months of journalism and assesses where have there been successes? Where have there been pitfalls? Where have there been important stories that got the attention they deserved and especially where have there been important stories that were neglected, marginalized, or blockaded and those are the ones obviously that we try to focus on and draw more attention to through the top 25 story list in the annual yearbook.

Mickey Huff: And indeed, and, you and Steve Macek, who, coauthored that chapter Steve will be on later in the program today, actually wrote up a piece that will link later, but you, you wrote an analysis of sort of, big energy, how, how they, impact what, what gets covered, how COP 28 is covered. Do you want to talk about any of the specifics around that?

Or do you want, do you want to talk a little bit about how that works in terms of how these, this kind of collusion? Yields to this kind of distorted or lack of coverage about any of these matters.

Andy Lee Roth: Yeah. So this wasn’t a plan. The story selection process is a year long process that involves hundreds of people in vetting and identifying vetting and summarizing stories.

And ultimately our, expert panel of 28 international judges vote to rank the finalists in order for a top 25 list. So, we didn’t set out at the beginning of this annual cycle to get a bunch of stories about big energy. And how big energy contributes to the climate crisis and at the same time hides and propagandizes its role in the creation of that climate catastrophe.

We didn’t set out to have a cluster of stories on that theme, but as it turns out, we do.

So this year’s top 25 story list includes independent journalism, exposing how big energy is, using, financial support to skew climate and energy research at universities across the country. How fossil fuel investors have sued national governments to block climate regulations.

And, how and and then one that I think is a really interesting story because it goes to one of the most widely touted approaches to, mitigating climate change, carbon offset programs. And we have independent reporting from the Guardian, from SourceMaterial and, the German outlet (unintelligible) , all of whom.

Basically, coordinated on a study to show that most of the carbon offset programs from the largest, sponsor of those programs, Vera, are quote worthless. And that’s not my estimation. That’s the estimation of the scientists who did multiple studies of these carbon offset programs. Just to give you one example, one study conducted by scientists at University of Cambridge found that 32 of the 40 forest offset programs they looked at, involved claims of, emission reductions and forest protections that were 400 percent greater than what actually was accomplished through these carbon offset programs.

Another, a way that they put that in context was, one, you know, Vera claimed that in 1 set of programs, they had protected an area of land in the Amazon, the size of Italy, I believe, when in fact, the protected area was about the size of the city of Venice within Italy. So dramatic overstatements.

Now, who benefits from these? Global brands like Disney, Shell, Gucci, Netflix, United Airlines, all are promoting their environmental commitments by investing in carbon offset programs sponsored by Vera. And of course, there’s an obvious conflict of interest here. Vera collects the money to do these programs and Vera simultaneously assesses the the, success of those programs.

So these 3rd party independent assessments are the ones coming up with the conclusion that a lot of these programs are overstated. So speaking from my personal point of view here, I think this shows us how once again, the climate crisis is not something that we’re going to find purely technological solutions to right?

Carbon offset programs may help in some situations, but they are not the, the, the. They are not the silver bullet that fells climate, the climate crisis. And we really have to think about, how we cut back in, not just individually, but collectively on our, our demands, our needs on the, on the, on, on the climate, on, on the environment.

Mickey Huff: Well, Andy Roth, the there’s there’s even more to it with the news media’s relationship with big energy, you know, right as well. And I know you’ve you’ve talked about how much how much money goes you mentioned Vera and the money being paid there. Well, there’s, there’s 2 billion some dollars being spent over a decade from fossil fuel companies and trade associations.

And how, how does that play into this and play into to what’s happening in terms of public awareness or, or being able to hold these kind of companies accountable

Andy Lee Roth: in any way? Yeah, this is something that our colleague Steve Macek and I have been looking at, which is, you know. Why aren’t these stories covered?

Why do we have a cluster of big energy stories in this year’s story straight? All the stories on the story list to reiterate for people who may be hearing about Project Censored and the top 25 stories for the first time, all the stories on the top 25 story list are there because they’re important, but they’ve been either neglected or covered in only a partial biased incomplete way by corporate news outlets, right? So that means these stories and the studies that I’ve been citing a moment ago have not been covered in the corporate news media to any extent. Why is that? Well, one answer is the news media, the corporate news media’s dependent relationship on advertising, not just from fossil fuel companies, but from other industries, related industries that are dependent on fossil fuel, like auto manufacturers and airlines, right?

That economic dependence on advertising from these companies, affects what kind of news we get from the commercial media? And there’s an amazing study, that, by sociologist, Robert Brulle and Christian Downie, co researcher. They looked at all the fossil fuel industry advertising and promotions between 2008, 2018.

So, 10 plus year period, and they found that during that time, fossil fuel companies and their trade associations spent a whopping 2. 2 billion dollars on advertising and promotions. Now, those ads were misleading in and of themselves. They often implied that oil and gas companies were leading the efforts to address climate change.

But the other effect of those ads is a kind of that this is exactly what, critical media scholars have talked about in journalism for years, which is The need to have a firm wall between the editorial side of a news organization and the business side. And when there’s two point, a collective 2.2 billion in advertising at stake, it’s hard to imagine that the editorial side of all these news outlets isn’t being compromised by the business side where these advertising revenues are essential to these commercial news outlet’s very existence.

Mickey Huff: It’s extraordinary greenwashing, right? I mean, it’s,

Andy Lee Roth: Yeah, it’s greenwashing, it’s green, literally, but it’s a, it’s a different form of greenwashing than we usually think about when that the, the, the conventional greenwashing is the ads claiming that you name the oil or gas company is, is a leader in addressing climate change.

Right. And we’ve all seen those ads with the beautiful scenes of a, you know, a future with clean air and, and, you know, not a, yeah. Not a submerged indigenous, pristine water, town or village in sight due to rising tides from global warming. But the other form of it is right. It’s the it’s the compromising of the journalistic ethics where the advertising revenues conflict with the ethical commitments to reporting in the public interest.

Mickey Huff: So, speaking of of ethics or lack thereof and reporting in the public interest, we’re, we’re running out of time in this segment. And one of the issues, of course, that we had mentioned earlier was how the media don’t really cover themselves very well. And they certainly don’t necessarily cover issues of censorship where they have some key role perhaps in it.

And there are, of course, as usual, unfortunately, a couple stories this year that also address these issues of regulating information under the guise of regulating disinformation. We’ve seen other efforts to pressure social media. Anything you want to add about some of these challenges we face moving forward Andy Lee Roth?

Andy Lee Roth: We have a couple of important reports this year. One, Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang from the Intercept reporting about how, leaked documents show Homeland Security plans to regulate disinformation online. That, of course, sounds good on the face of it. Who wants disinformation online? But do we really want the Department of Homeland Security being the entity that determines what does or doesn’t count as disinformation. We’ve written, some in previous years, you and I, Mickey about some of the Orwellian overtones, of a disinformation governance board, which supposedly has been discontinued. But efforts along those lines are, part of the picture.

And then, we also have a story based on reporting by Matt Taibbi, and also Kenan Malik at The Guardian about, the Twitter files and how the Twitter files reveal that there has been pressure from U. S. The U. S. government, the federal government agencies of the federal government on social media platforms. Pressure on those platforms to suppress alternative views on them.

And, of course, you know, by the time the book comes out, we finish the book in, the book goes to the publisher in June, July, so some time has passed since, the dateline on that story in the yearbook, but of, of course, we know, like, Twitter X now is, I can’t use the language, I can’t use the language I would, on the air, it’s a mess, but underlying that, like that, in some ways to me, that’s the ways that Elon Musk and Twitter is a mess, is a distraction from these realities, which is that, and it’s not, I believe, you know, we have reporting on Twitter, but there’s no reason to believe that, the U. S. government is singling out Twitter for this kind of pressure. All our social media platforms are, I think, subject to this over and above 1st amendment protections. And that’s cause for concern on the supply side that we were talking about earlier as well.

Mickey Huff: And Andy Lee Roth, this is this, this challenge, this issue that we’re pointing out here yet again, it goes, it crosses administrations.

It’s not just the Democrats in the Biden administration, although that’s specifically what we’re dealing with now, but previously under the Trump administration, we were dealing with these. Very similar kinds of stories in some instances, maybe even more egregious examples of stories. I mean, this, this is a bipartisan problem and I think that in some ways that that’s 1 of the challenges we even face at Project Censored is trying to get people to understand what critical media literacy and education and critical pedagogy is.

And how that informs the way that we are trying to constructively critique journalism in a way that helps push it to be more informative and more in the public interest so that we can spur, we can spur meaningful civic engagement. Andy Lee Roth, there’s so much more to discuss that we’ve run out of time in this segment.

However, I do want to give you a moment if you want to share anything else with our listeners. Other things you want to point attention to. I know we have a brilliant study guide for this book. And by the way, to our listeners, you can go to projectcensored.org and you can see all of these stories for free.

You can see all the things that Andy Roth was talking about. You can see a history of the stories going back to 1976. It’s all available there for free at projectcensored.org.. Andy Lee Roth, final words for this segment, please.

Andy Lee Roth: Mickey, it was a little over 100 years ago that the person who’s probably the pioneer of of contemporary media studies as we know them today.

Walter Lippmann himself, a journalist, said the news about the news needs to be told and, without padding the Project on, it’s collective back too much. That’s what I see Project Censored trying to do is in this complicated ever shifting news ecosystem that we live in today, comprising news deserts, new snacking, all the things we’ve been talking about this, this segment.

And in, in, since, State of the Free Press 2024, the news about the news still needs to be told. And that’s what students working with the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program have been doing since 1976, that 48th cohort that helped contribute to this year’s book. And that’s what the Project will continue to do.

And I think that’s a niche that, that story needs to be told more than ever in 2023, as we head into an election year, as we know, what’s happening in Gaza, and Ukraine and places all over the world, and indeed here in the United States, the news about the news. So that’s, I think, as good a note as I can think of to end this segment on.

Mickey Huff: Andy Lee Roth thanks so much for joining us again on the program. Indeed. The news about the news needs to be told and we certainly will continue to do our part trying to tell it here at the Project Censored show. Andy Lee Roth. Thank you so much for your important work and for joining us on the program today.

Andy Lee Roth: Thanks. Mickey.

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Steve Macek

Mickey Huff: Welcome back to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today in the program, we’re looking at the State of the Free Press over the past year, and we’re looking at Project Censored State of the Free Press 2024. We were just joined by the Associate Director, Andy Lee Roth, and we are now joined by another member of our crew here at Project Censored, longtime contributor, Dr. Steve Macek. He’s professor of communication and media studies at North Central College outside of Chicago. He serves as co coordinator of Project Censored’s Campus Affiliates Program. He writes very frequently about censorship and First Amendment issues for Truthout, Common Dreams, and other independent outlets.

Of course, Steve Macek also has been, as I mentioned earlier, long time contributor to our work at Project Censored, particularly around validated independent news, research of the Top 25 Censored Stories. This is all around our critical media literacy, education and pedagogy and our curricula that Steve has been a big part of.

He also co-authors and researchers our Déjà Vu chapter in the books every year, which is Déjà Vu news. In other words, what has happened to previously censored or underreported stories? Have they been picked up by the corporate media or do they continue to languish in obscurity? Later in the program, we’re going to talk too about an unfortunately recurring topic and that’s banned books.

Steve Macek has written a brilliant op ed reminding us of the significance of this issue. We’re only a couple of months past the official Banned Books Week. But we’re in crisis mode as far as, record challenges and bans to books and curricula across the country. Well, Steve Macek, again, couldn’t think of, of someone much better than you to join us to talk about all things censored media literacy, banned books and the like.

Welcome back to the Project Censored Show.

Steve Macek: Hey, thanks so much, Mickey. Thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be on the show.

Mickey Huff: Indeed, Steve and I know you had a big hand in putting together a couple of the chapters in the Project Censored annual report on the State of the Free Press and people can see that information freely at projectcensored.Org.

Steve in the Top 25, I just talked to Andy Roth a little bit about that. And we talked about some of the stories, some of the. Trends and the patterns, and I know that’s something that you’re very keen on. And that’s something that you do in the Déjà Vu chapter is there are themes and patterns to the kinds of stories that are underreported and the longevity that they’re often, languishing.

And Steve,

Steve Macek: Absolutely. If you look at the corporate news coverage, there are these areas that are, I don’t want to say they’re completely blacked out, or that they’re 3rd rails, but they tend to be under investigated, under reported and under covered. I understand that Andy talked to you a lot about the way that the establishment press misses important environmental stories that are included in this year’s Top 25, under reported story list. That, that is an important theme that the, the, the theme of government censorship itself or government censorship by proxy, another important theme that I understand you and you and Andy talked about. I’d just like to just touch on one topic that he may not have explored in, in, in, in a lot of detail, which is, under coverage of, important stories about economic inequality, workers rights and the labor movement because the, and it’s not a surprise.

This is, this is a trend going back a hundred years. The, the corporate owned, big commercial media tend to have, tend to either ignore, labor issues, or they cover them from a, sort of pro business. Pro business perspective. So one of the stories on this year’s list that I think is really interesting is story number six.

“Unions won more than 70 percent of their elections in 2022.” This is sort of a continuation of a trend that we’ve seen, which is that unions, there has been a resurgence of labor union activity. Right? In the past couple of years, a couple of years ago, the corporate media was talking about Striketober, because there were so many walkouts and strikes.

But one of the aspects of this story, the fact that unions are winning their, certification elections in workplace after workplace that isn’t being sort of covered very well by the corporate media, is that 70 percent of those victories were driven by workers of color. Most of the unions that most of the unionization drives that are successful, have been, for unions that are representing workers of color who tend to be in, industries that are lower paid.

And in particular, as you know, as the stories that we flagged, you know, the independent news out stories that we flagged, in this, in, in this report, point out, from Payday Report and The New Republic, they tend to be locat, these successful union drives have been in the south among public sector workers of color.

And that is completely overlooked because the way that corporate media have covered this sort of unionization trend is makes it seem like it’s sort of universal or that it’s mostly involved involving graduate students or people working in the entertainment industry. But in fact, that’s, that’s not, that’s not the case.

And, it’s important because, I think, oftentimes when the corporate media cover the, cover, cover the labor movement, they, they, you know, they don’t really try to explain why the, even though vast majority of workers say they want to join a union. There, there isn’t higher levels of unionization in the United States.

And some of the articles that we, that we highlight here, especially some articles from Payday Report, kind of highlight the obstacles that exist to union drives and which makes the, you know, the success of union unionization drives led by people of color. All the more remarkable, right?

Because they’re up against huge obstacles that we have documented in in Project Censored stories in the past. Right?

Mickey Huff: Yeah. I mean, it goes back decades. I mean, and I mean, again, I know you also as a media historian and and I’m also an historian and going back and looking at labor history. A lot of that history is, is suppressed literally for the same reasons that you’re pointing out that it’s underreported now.

Steve Macek: Right?

Exactly. Yeah. A lot of that history. And it’s, you know, it’s either suppressed or it’s, you know, I would say like actively forgotten, right? Push down, push down the memory hole.

Mickey Huff: Or as Gore Vidal would have it, the United States of amnesia of amnesia, although I do suggest sometimes that it’s hard to forget things that people weren’t taught in the first place and note.

Yeah. That leads us to the topic that we’re going to be getting to later in the program on banned books and attacks on curricula. But Steve, you already brought up a little bit. You’ve already piqued our interest about history, and that of course comes to the Déjà Vu segments here that Project Censored does.

Steve Macek: Yeah, absolutely. So every, so every, every, for the past, I think, four or five books, we, we have had a chapter, called the Déjà Vu chapter, where we look back on previous, the stories that were previously included in Project Censored’s list of underreported, undercovered stories to find out what’s happened with them.

Because in fact, one of the motives originally for the Project Censored list that, you know, that Carl Jensen came up with was to get, to garner more attention for these stories that were being reported by the alternative or independent media or smaller local media, by, by the, you know, the, the, you know, the larger national media.

And so. It is always interesting to track what, which of the stories that we’ve identified as underreported end up getting more attention from the establishment press and which ones continue to be forgotten. And when those stories are, you know, are, are, covered, how they’re covered and what sort of inconvenient facts, or perspectives get left out of the coverage.

So this year we took four stories from, past year’s lists. The first one was a story from the 2015 list about, about the, the, the media’s under reporting of rape and the euphemistic reporting of sexual violence and rape. The fact that the news media often don’t call you know, instances of sexual violence, things that meet the legal definition of rape.

They don’t call them rape. And secondly, the kind of under reporting of, of, of, of, of rape, in the, in the news media. The second one that we, we looked at, and, and kind of updated had to do with laws on the books that criminalize, it was just, this was from a couple of years ago, one of the lists, one of the stories on the list that criminalize, miscarriage basically.

Mickey Huff: Right. That’s from Censored 2020. Right.

Steve Macek: Censored 2020. These fetal, it was number, I guess the number eight story in 20, in 2020 that criminalize these fetal protection laws that potentially could send, we were saying at the time, could potentially result in women being sent to jail. Right.

Mickey Huff: Here we are post Roe, Steve Macek.

Steve Macek: Right, right. Exactly. And so let me just talk a bit more about this, a bit more about this particular story. So when it was originally included on our list it was somewhat a speculative story. That is to say, it was, it was originally reported by Ms. Magazine and what it was warning is that this spate of laws called fetal protection laws that, were being passed, you know, in, you know, states like Alabama and Oklahoma and so on could potentially be used to send women to jail, right, for miscarriages, and for losing their pregnancies.

Fast forward to, where we are now post the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and a woman’s, you know, a constitutional recognition of women’s, you know, of women’s right to an abortion, and reproductive freedom. And, and where we’re at is that dozens of women have now been sent to jail, in states across the country for having a miscarriage. Now, in most cases it’s because they have, you know, they’re, they either confessed drug users or they’re, you know, they’re, they, they’ve been subjected to some sort of blood test that proves, or the, their, their miscarried fetus has been subjected to a blood test, right? They, they’ve done a blood test on the re the remains of the fetus that show that there’s some presence of say, methamphetamines or some other drugs.

And on the basis of those tests, women are being sent to jail and they’re being sent to jail, for, for longer sentences than are some than are sometimes given, for like murder and, and, and manslaughter or manslaughter and other serious crimes. It is a scandalous. So The Marshall Project has done a report.

So more recently has done a, a series of stories about these, about, about, about women in most of them tend to be impoverished, poor women who have drug, who have, who have drug abuse problems who are getting sent to jail because they simply had a miscarriage, even though the medical consensus is, is you can’t even, you can’t, there’s no way of really demonstrating that drug use caused it.

Right. The miscarriage. There are many women who are heavy drug users who, who give birth to, healthy babies, right? In the end, my favorite example of a case of a woman who got arrested and potentially and was, you know, was being charged with criminally endangering her fetus, was a, was involved a woman in Alabama who wasn’t even pregnant.

So this was reported by Newsweek. The woman was not even pregnant. She was being investigated for something. And her daughter, and she was being investigated for drug for using drugs. Her daughter told the police that her mom was pregnant when in fact she was not. And then on that basis, and in fact, not only wasn’t she pregnant, she was menstruating at the time.

And she said, I’m not pregnant. They still hauled her off to jail, subjected her to a pregnancy test. And it was only after the pregnancy test came back negative that they released her from jail. So it was like she was being charged under these fetal endangerment laws. When she wasn’t even carrying a fetus.

So, so I think that this, that this particular Déjà Vu story was, really kind of amazing because the instances of, of people being charged under these laws, since the Dobbs decision, since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, have, you know, have skyrocketed.

Mickey Huff: So,

Steve Macek in this segment, we have a couple of minutes left before we want to change topics.

One of the stories, an important one that relates to a theme here that we’ve been hitting on a couple of years now. Certainly been mentioning it, for longer than that at Project Censored, but it’s certainly creeped into the books. “Shadow Network of Conservative Outlets Emerges to Exploit Faith in Local News.”

This is a news desert story in some ways, because you’re gonna talk about, well, if we have this crisis of news deserts and local journalism, what’s filling them up, Steve Macek?

Steve Macek: Okay,

so, I don’t know how many of your listeners have, are familiar with the idea of pink-slime

news outlets. But, it has become a trend, over the past few years for, kind of conservative, PACs, lobbying groups, activists, organizations, especially supporting, you know, particular candidates to create websites and actual print newspapers that look like legitimate local news outlets, they, they have the exact form of legitimate local news outlets. They have, you know, the same kind of, you know, it looks like photojournalistic pictures, headlines, you know, bylines from reporters and so on, but they are really just propaganda. And they’re mostly created by, conservative activists. And this was originally reported by, Columbia Journalism Review did a pretty, you know, extensive exposé about the growth of these pink-slime sites. And they’re especially, popping up. In kind of rural areas of Midwestern states, right where again,

Mickey Huff: Yeah, Michigan,

Steve Macek: Illinois out, you know, outstate Illinois,

Mickey Huff: And Arizona as well.

Steve Macek: Yeah. Arizona and the, and places where a lot of a lot of local news outlets have, have, have collapsed, right?

Mickey Huff: Disappeared.

Steve Macek: Have disappeared, have closed up their, have closed up their doors because they’re, you know, they don’t have any advertising revenue anymore, et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, we flagged this as one of the underreported stories of the year, or among the underreported stories of the year a couple of years ago.

Well, fast forward to today and the Columbia Journalism Review, did a follow up series, and reported that they found three times the number of, networks of these kinds of pink-slime sites popping up. And they especially, started to pop up around the midterm elections, right around the 20, the 2022 elections.

Here in Illinois, where I am, we had, both fake print out print fake print publications that were mailed out to every voter in my county where I am. I’m one of the collar counties as we call it of Chicago, DuPage County. We got this thing. Got this fake, fake newspaper sent to us, but I’m all over the state and some of them were circulating what was completely preposterous and made up stories.

So I’ll just give you an example. There, there was this site that reported, completely erroneously, it was complete fabrication that there was a school in Oak Park, Illinois, that had decided to award grades to students on the basis of race. This was a complete and utter fabrication. It got reported on some of these pink-slime sites and then it got picked up and recirculated by Newsmax and other, concer- you know, more, more sort of legitimate or mainstream conservative, conservative news sites.

And it, it even got reported, I think on Fox news, if I’m not mistaken. And it was an, an originated with like an utter fabric fabrication.

Mickey Huff: Product of pink-slime times.

Steve Macek: Yeah, product of pink-slime times. So this has actually gotten a little bit of, because it was so egregious during 2022, it did get a bit of establishment news coverage.

And that’s understandable also because they regard these, you know, fake you know, news sites as rivals, right? So the Chicago Tribune ran a couple of stories about the pink-slime sites that were popping up in Illinois. And, and other, you know, I think the Washington Post did stories that I know NPR did a pretty comprehensive story about the rise of these pink-slime sites.

And I want to also point out to your listeners that it’s not just confined. It’s a tactic that is not just used by Republicans and conservatives, right? There, there are people who have studied this, have found some, you know, democratic pink-slime networks where they’re, you know, creating propaganda sites for, for, for democratic causes and democratic candidates that look like or simulate, real news, real news stories, and real news sites. The other interesting thing I think it’s worth pointing out is that there was a study done, by, some, some researchers at Stanford that found that it may not have any impact that, that only like 3. 7 percent of the population have actually been exposed to posts from these pink-slime sites.

And then it has really no influence over how they vote or how they think about the issues, which I think is an interesting finding, right? There there’s millions of dollars. You know,

Mickey Huff: Being poured into this.

Steve Macek: Being poured dark money, you know, activist dollars being poured into these pink-slime sites and it may not have

any impact.

Mickey Huff: Steve Macek before we celebrate the idiocracy saving itself because

Steve Macek: Because people just don’t pay attention.

Mickey Huff: They’re

not paying attention to the fake news and the pink-slime. I’d like to remind our listeners, you’re tuned to the Project Censored Show. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. I’m speaking with Professor Steve Macek, a North Central College contributor to State of the Free Press 2024.

We’re going to continue our conversation after this brief musical break, and we’re going to turn our focus to the attack against the freedom to read and what you can do about it. Stay tuned. Steve Macek.

You recently wrote a dispatch for us at Project Censored at projectcensored.Org, where you can see it for free, “The Attack Against the Freedom to Read and What to Do About It.” Now, Steve at the project here. We’ve been involved in Banned Books Week and part of the National Coalition Against Censorship and so on for over a decade.

But in the last couple of years, we’ve been, quite alarmed to see the number of challenges and book bans accompanying state legislative challenges to curricula across the United States. So, you know, and Banned Books Week was just a couple weeks ago, and you have just delivered this really impactful piece about the significance, the importance. And I think, an all too necessary ringing of an alarm bell. I don’t find this hyperbolic at all. Steve Macek, tell us about this and the challenges, the books going on nationwide.

Steve Macek: Well, I don’t think it’s a, it’s probably any news to your listeners that over the past, I would say three, four years that the US has seen a really dramatic spike in book bans at public and K 12 school libraries. And we’ve seen just a, an, you know, a huge upswing in kind of pro censorship activism by a number of kind of right wing groups. And they’re usually targeting, right, books that are about race, gender identity, or sexuality. So, you know, to, to, to put some numbers to it, I would encourage everybody to look at Pen America’s, September 2023 report, “School Book Bans: The Mounting Pressure to Censor.”

In that report they point out that over 3, 300 that, that in the 2022, 2023 school year, there were over 3, 300, reported instances of book censorship in K 12 schools impacting something like over 15,

Mickey Huff: 1500 titles. Yeah.

Steve Macek: Different, different titles. And that, represents a 33 percent increase over the 2021 22 school year.

And a really dramatic increase over the last time they actually looked at this issue, which was back in 2016. Meanwhile, the American Library Association, you know, has been keeping track of book bans, for, you know, for a very long time. And they, and they, they claim that this past year, they had the highest number of book challenges.

That is people trying to keep books off the shelves in, you know, K 12, school libraries, or public libraries that they have ever seen, right, in history, as long as they have been tracking it.

Mickey Huff: And Steve Macek, almost 40 percent of these titles are about race and racism. 37%. Almost, almost 40 percent are about that particular

issue.

Steve Macek: Almost 40 percent are about that, and then a similar number are about the LGBTQ plus community. Those are the two real topics that, these would be censors are, are, are targeting. And what’s been driving this I think it’s important for everybody to know is that, yes, there has been this sort of grassroots right wing activism.

So there are groups like, I’m sure everybody who’s listening to the program have heard of, have heard of Moms for Liberty, right? Which was started by some school board members and Republican party activists in, in the state of Florida, including Bridgette Ziegler, who’s the wife of Chris Christian Ziegler, who’s, who’s gotten into a little bit of trouble.

It’s been in the head and been in the news a lot lately. They started this group up, essentially because they thought that the, the, the, the, you know, originally the group started to protest against, masking, in classrooms and some other measures that were taken during COVID, but they shifted their focus, since the end of the pandemic to kind of, you know, actively campaigning to get information about, about, about sexual identity and gender

Mickey Huff: War on woke, right? The war on woke.

Steve Macek: The war on woke and information about the civil rights movement, race relations in this country out of the classrooms.

Mickey Huff: Which, by the way, I want to suggest very quickly just and I want you to continue, but. Parental rights and parental involvement in school. That, that, that’s a serious issue. It is. And, and, and what, what’s going on here, however, is, is a particular type of involvement that’s really kind of, I’m not sure who’s hijacking whom here, but it, this, it’s disingenuous to suggest that this is just some concerned parents given the astroturfing and all the money that’s going on.

Steve Macek: Absolutely, and I would label Moms for Liberty, an AstroTurf organization. I think they, they claim to have, you know, 280 some chapters and a hundred thousand members. But if you look at who funds them, it’s the same funders who are behind the conservative wing of the Republican party. And nobody had heard of them, right.

Until all of this money started flooding in. And the leaders of the Moms for Liberty started appearing on in right wing media and being, you know, celebrities on, on, on Fox news.

Mickey Huff: And maybe that’s backfiring.

Steve Macek: And then maybe, and maybe that’s backfiring. But in any case, yes, they have been enabled by a series of laws that have been passed in state legislatures and usually Republican controlled state legislatures, like the, like the state legislature in Florida, in Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and other places. And these laws basically like, so for example, in Florida, Florida has a lot adopted a couple of laws that make it possible for parents to very easily challenge, right? Books that are included in school libraries. And, and in the state of Florida, for example, Moms for Liberty has been going around school district to school district presenting basically the same exact list of books that they want taken off the shelves.

And they are books like, Fun Home, Gender Queer, All Boys Aren’t Blue, and I Am Jazz and of course the children’s book and tango make And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins who adopt a penguin chick and they want these books taken off the shelves. And in the case of Florida, Moms for Liberty, you know, members of Moms for Liberty have actually reported school librarians to the police for distributing “child pornography,” because they were handing out books that were on these lists of, I don’t think it was an tango man cause they didn’t go that far, they didn’t go, they didn’t go that far, but they were targeting like a kind of innocuous, you know, fantasy, fantasy book that involves some people who make out,

Mickey Huff: This is a serious issue. And Steve, if you start litmus testing, you’re going to go back and ban most classic books. Most, I mean, why don’t we just stop reading altogether?

Steve Macek.

Steve Macek: There is a, right, well, the state of Florida has adopted a sex education law that depending on how it’s interpreted, it could be used to like, you know, purge from the school’s curriculum Shakespeare, The Diary of Anne Frank and other classic books that, you know, most most Americans of my age grew up reading in school.

They were assigned books, you know.

Mickey Huff: Well, you know, Steve, this has gone so far as, there’s some states, and I may be mistaking this, but it’s either, I think it’s Iowa, if not, apologies to Iowans, but it’s a Midwestern state where they were banning sex ed. They were banning any of these kind of books and any kind of sex ed.

Any kind of sexually explicit material for children before the third grade and according to the state’s

Steve Macek: Florida in Florida,

Mickey Huff: According to the state’s own curriculum they don’t teach that subject before that grade. So it’s totally it was totally political theater. No, this was a state other than Florida.

It was a copycat state.

Steve Macek: Copycat. Yeah, because Florida adopted this rule that said you can’t even mention,

Mickey Huff: But it’s posturing because it doesn’t even apply and again, you know, teachers have enough stress and enough issues to deal with as it is, particularly after the pandemic. And now we see legislative efforts to try to curtail things that they’re not even teaching at all.

Steve Macek: Right, right. No, and let me just, I, I don’t mean to be, I don’t mean to pile on to Florida, but they adopted this law since you reminded me.

Mickey Huff: We only have two minutes, so go ahead, Steve.

Steve Macek: The sex education law that basically would make it illegal to teach about any aspect of sexuality to to girls who are going through puberty right, below the age of 15.

So you would like a teacher if the teacher had a girl in class who is menstruating would not be able to explain to her what what was happening because that would be a violation of state law. That’s outrageous to me that they’re it’s it’s actively promoting ignorance.

Mickey Huff: So, Steve, you you go on. It is true.

You go. I’m just we’re we’re running out of time. We got about a minute left here and you have a lot in your piece. The piece is titled “The Attack Against the Freedom to Read and What to Do About It,” it’s available at projectcensored.Org for free under, dispatches. So you talk about more than Florida, more than Moms for Liberty.

You talk about legal action. And of course you talk about the Da’Taeveyon Daniels, whom we had on this program earlier, the youth honorary chair, Cameron Samuels, a group in Texas called Students Engaged in Advancing Texas, SEAT. So there are, there’s pushback. There are people pushing back against this Steve Macek.

Steve Macek: Absolutely. And let me just highlight a couple of things that have happened. So first of all, there are lawsuits that are being brought to challenge these book bans, by the publishers working together with parents, who want their kids to have access to those books in those school districts. This has happened in Florida.

There are laws that have been adopted at the state level by Illinois and also California. Congratulations, California, that, basically penalize schools that, ban books, from their, from, from their, ban books on the basis of, you know, their treatment of, sexuality, gender, or race. So that engage in discriminatory banning, that, basically prohibited in the state of Illinois, school, school libraries that remove books on that basis will not be allowed to access state funds and in, in, in, in, in California, I think they impose a fine on school districts that do that, that remove books on that basis.

So those are some hopeful signs, but there’s also the grassroots activism of young people who are forming banned book clubs, at their schools to read banned books and banding together to, to speak out at state legislatures and at school board meetings against bans. And that to me is the most, the most encouraging thing of all about this whole saga.

Mickey Huff: It is Steve Macek. And we’re out of time for this segment, but as ever, we could, we could keep going for quite some time. And I’m sure we will into the future. Steve Macek, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, North Central College, outside of Chicago, long time contributor here to Project Censored.

We’ve been talking about State of the Free Press 2024, patterns of underreported stories, and now we were just talking about the ongoing uptick to challenges in books and book bans across the United States. Macek is author most recently of a piece at projectcensored.Org, “The Attack Against the Freedom to Read and What to Do About It.”

You can also learn more by going to the ALA. org, the American Library Association, bannedbooksweek.Org, which is the website for the official Banned Books Week coalition. I’ve had them on the program many, many times. And also, please feel free to check out PEN America that Steve Macek mentioned earlier here.

There are a number of resources, including NCAC or the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Right to Read Project. So there’s a lot of places to get informed, a lot of places to get involved, and we hope our listeners will do just that. Steve Macek, as ever, thanks for joining us on the Project Censorship Show.