Peter Phillips, director of Project Censored, says it’s impossible to make major news media outlets to deliver relevant news stories that serve to strengthen democracy.

“I really think we’re beyond reforming corporate media,” said Phillips, a sociology professor at Sonoma State University and Project Censored director for the past 13 years. “We’re not going to break up these huge conglomerates. We’re just going to make them irrelevant.”

Since 1976, Project Censored has annually spotlighted the 25 most significant news stories largely ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream press. Now the group is expanding its mission — to promote alternative news sources.

The term “censored” doesn’t mean some government agent stood in newsrooms and stopped publication — or even that the information was completely out of the public eye. The stories Project Censored highlights didn’t get the type of attention they deserved.

Project staff started by sifting through hundreds of stories nominated by individuals at Sonoma State, where the project is based, and 30 affiliate universities. Articles are verified, fact-checked and winnowed by a team of students, faculty and community evaluators, then sent to a panel of national judges to be ranked. The end product is a book, co-edited this year by Phillips and Associate Director Mickey Huff, which summarizes the top 25 stories, provides in-depth media analysis, and includes resources for readers hungry for more substantive reporting.

Phillips, who is stepping down this year as director of Project Censored, says, “The biggest question I got asked for 13 years was, who do you trust? So we’ve really made an effort in the last three years to try and address that question, in a very open way, in a very honest way, and say, these are [the sources] who we can trust.”

Benjamin Frymer, a sociology professor at Sonoma State who is stepping into Phillips’ role, says he believes the time is ripe for this kind of push. “The actual amount of time that people spend reading online is increasing,” Frymer points out.

“It’s not as if people are just cynically rejecting media — they’re reaching out for alternative sources. Project Censored wants to get involved in making those sources visible.”

The Project Censored book this year uses the term “truth emergency,” because “it’s a democratic emergency,” Huff asserted. In this media climate, he said, “We’re awash in a sea of information. But we have a paucity of understanding about what the truth is.”

This year’s No. 1 story details the financial sector’s hefty campaign contributions to key members of Congress leading up to the financial crisis, which coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations. Another story points out that in even in the financial tumult following the economic downturn, special interests spent more money on DC lobbyists than ever before.

1. Congress sells out to Wall Street
The total tab for the Wall Street bailout, including money spent and promised by the United States government, works out to an estimated $42,000 for every man, woman and child, according to American Casino, a documentary about sub-prime lending and the financial meltdown. The predatory lending free-for-all, the emergency pumping of taxpayer dollars to prop up mega-banks, and lavish bonuses to Wall Street execs all made headlines.

But a related story received scant attention in the mainstream media: The unsettling combination of lax oversight by national politicians with campaign mega-contributions from financial players.

“The worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’état,” Matt Taibbi wrote in “The Big Takeover,” in March’s Rolling Stone. “They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.”

In the 10-year period beginning in 1998, the financial sector spent $1.7 billion on federal campaign contributions and another $3.4 billion on lobbyists. Since 2001, eight of the most troubled firms have donated $64.2 million to congressional and presidential candidates and both major parties.

Wall Street’s political contributions spree coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations, which opened the door for the high-risk financial games that sent the global economy reeling.

Sources: “Lax Oversight? Maybe $64 Million to DC Pols Explains It,” Greg Gordon, Truthout.org and McClatchey Newspapers, Oct. 2, 2008; “Congressmen Hear from TARP Recipients Who Funded Their Campaigns,” Lindsay Renick Mayer, Capitol

Eye, Feb. 10; “The Big Takeover,” Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, March.

2. De facto segregation deepening in public education
Latinos and African Americans attend more segregated public schools today than they have for four decades, Professor Gary Orfield notes in “Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge,” a study conducted by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Using federal data, Orfield shows that about 44 percent of students in the nation’s public school system are children of color — but this racial diversity isn’t reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African-American and Latino youth attend schools that are more than 90 percent people of color.

For Latinos, this reflects growing residential segregation. For African Americans, the study attributes a significant part of the reversal to the ending of school desegregation plans. Schools segregated by race and poverty often have much higher dropout and crime rates and more teacher turnover, all barriers to effective education. The most severe segregation is in Western states, including California.

Fifty-five years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Orfield wrote, “Segregation is fast spreading into large sectors of suburbia, and there is little or no assistance for communities wishing to resist the pressures of resegregation and ghetto creation.”

Source: “Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge,” Gary Orfield, The Civil Rights Project, UCLA, January.

3. Somali pirates: the untold story
Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa were gold for mainstream news this year — surprise attacks on shipping, daring rescues and ragtag bandits extracting multimillion ransoms flooded airwaves and front pages.

But as pirate tales captured attention, little ink was devoted to why Somalis desperately resorted to piracy in the first place: the dumping of nuclear waste and rampant overfishing in their coastal waters.

In the early 1990s, when Somalia’s government collapsed, foreign interests swooped into unguarded coastal waters to trawl for food — and invaded unprotected Somali territories to cheaply dump nuclear waste. The ramifications of toxic dumping hit home with the 2005 tsunami, when leaking barrels washed ashore — sickening hundreds and causing birth defects in newborns. Uncontrolled fishing harvests, meanwhile, undermined livelihoods for Somali fishermen and eroded the country’s primary food source. That’s when piracy started.

“Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome?” asked journalist Johann Hari in a Huffington Post article.

Sources: “Toxic waste behind Somali piracy,” Najad Abdullahi, Al Jazeera English, Oct. 11, 2008; “You are being lied to about pirates,” Johann Hari, The Huffington Post, Jan. 4; “The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other,” Mohamed Abshir Waldo, WardheerNews, Jan. 8.

4. North Carolina’s nuclear nightmare
The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina’s Wake County isn’t just a power generating station. The Progress Energy plant houses the nation’s largest radioactive-waste storage pools. Spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants are stored beneath circulating cold water to keep the radioactive waste from heating.

The hidden danger, explains investigative reporter Jeffery St. Clair, is the looming threat of a pool fire. Citing a study by Brookhaven National Laboratory, St. Clair highlighted in Counterpunch the catastrophe that could ensue if a pool were to ignite. Contamination could stretch for thousands of square miles. Cancer could afflict 140,000. Damages could reach an estimated $500 billion.

“Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly and catch fire,” noted former Department of Energy adviser Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies in a study about waste pool safety. “The fire could well spread to older fuel. The long-term contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than Chernobyl.”

When a risk study was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommending technological fixes, St. Clair noted, a pro-nuclear commissioner persuaded the agency to dismiss the concerns.

Source: “Pools of Fire,” Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch, Aug. 9, 2008.

5. U.S. fails to protect consumers against toxics
Two years ago, the European Union enacted bold new environmental policy requiring close scrutiny and restrictions of toxic chemicals in everyday products. Invisible perils, such as lead in lipstick, endocrine disruptors in baby toys and mercury in electronics, can threaten human health, and European legislation is aimed at gradually phasing out these toxic materials, substituting safer alternatives.

Unreported by mainstream American news media, however, is how this game-changing legislation might impact the U.S., where chemical corporations’ lobbying muscle ensures lax oversight of toxic substances. As global markets shift toward safer consumer products, our Environmental Protection Agency lags behind in scrutinizing insidious chemicals.

As investigative journalist Mark Schapiro pointed out in Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, the EPA’s tendency to accommodate big business could backfire here, placing U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage because American products will be regarded with increasing distrust.

Economics aside, the implications of loose restrictions on toxic products are chilling: Just one-third of the 267 chemicals on the EU’s watch list have ever been tested by the EPA, and only two are federally regulated. UC Berkeley researchers estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily — few ever subjected to risk assessments.

Sources: “European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic,” David Biello, Scientific American, Sept. 30, 2008; “How Europe’s New Chemical Rules Affect US,” Environmental Defense Fund, Sept. 30, 2008; “US Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products,” Mark Schapiro, “Democracy Now!” Feb. 24.

6. As economy shrinks, D.C. lobbying grows
In 2008, as the economy tumbled and unemployment soared, Washington lobbyists were paid $3.2 billion — a new yearly record. Special interests spent a collective $32,523 per legislator per day Congress was in session.

Partially triggering the lobbying boom, says Center for Responsive Politics Director Sheila Krumholz, was the federal bailout. With the U.S. government shelling out stimulus billions, industries wanted to snare their piece of the pie. Ironically, some of the first in line were the same players who helped precipitate the nation’s sharp economic downturn with high-risk, speculative lending.

“Even though some financial, insurance and real estate interests pulled back last year, they still managed to spend more than $450 million as a sector to lobby policymakers,” Krumholz noted. “That can buy a lot of influence, and it’s a fraction of what the financial sector is reaping in return through the government’s bailout program.”

Topping the list of highest-ranking spenders on D.C. lobbying was the health sector, which spent $478.5 million lobbying Congress last year. Close behind, the finance/insurance/real-estate sector spent $453.5 million. Pharmaceutical companies plunked down $230 million, electric utilities $156.7 million and oil and gas companies paid lobbyists $133.2 million.

Source: “Washington Lobbying Grew to $3.2 Billion Last Year, Despite Economy,” Center for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets.org.

7. Obama’s controversial defense appointees
Although the news media haven’t paid much attention, President Obama’s Defense Department appointees carry controversial histories and conflicts of interest due to close ties to contractors.

Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, marks the first time in history that a president has opted to keep a defense secretary of an outgoing opposing party in power.

Gates, a former CIA director, has faced criticism for allegedly spinning intelligence reports for political ends. In Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman described him as “the chief action officer for the Reagan administration’s drive to tailor intelligence reporting to White House political desires.” Gates was scrutinized over whether he misled Congress during the ’80s Iran-Contra scandal and was accused of withholding information from intelligence committees when the U.S. provided military aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

Critics are also uneasy about new Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, a former vice president at defense giant Raytheon and its registered lobbyist until July 2008. Lynn, previously Pentagon Comptroller under President Clinton, came under fire at confirmation for “questionable accounting practices.” The Defense Department under Lynn’s leadership was unable to properly account for $3.4 trillion in financial transactions.

Sources: “The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates,” Robert Parry, ConsortiumNews.com, Nov. 13; “Obama’s Defense Department Appointees — The 3.4 Trillion Dollar Question,” Andrew Hughes, Global Research, Feb 13; “Obama nominee Admiral Dennis Blair aided perpetrators of 1999 church killings in East Timor,” Allan Nairn, “Democracy Now!” Jan 7; “Ties to Chevron, Boeing Raise Concern on Possible NSA Pick,” Roxana Tiron, The Hill, Nov 24.

8. Big business cheats the IRS
The Cayman Islands and Bermuda are magnets for financial giants such as Bank of America, Citigroup, American International Group, and 11 other beneficiaries of the government’s 2008 Wall Street bailout, providing safe offshore oases to stash cash out of Uncle Sam’s reach.

According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office that was largely ignored by the media, 83 top publicly held U.S. companies, including some receiving substantial federal bailout dollars, operate in tax havens that let them avoid paying their fair share to the IRS.

In December, banking giant Goldman Sachs reported its first-ever quarterly loss, then followed up with a statement that its tax rate would drop from 34.1 percent to 1 percent, citing “changes in geographic earnings mix” as the reason. The difference: instead of paying $6 billion in total worldwide taxes as it did in 2007, Goldman Sachs would pay a total of $14 million in 2008. The same year, it received $10 billion and debt guarantees from the U.S. government.

“The problem is larger than Goldman Sachs,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, told Bloomberg News. “With the right hand out begging for bailout money, the left is hiding it offshore.”

Sources: “Goldman Sachs’s Tax Rate Drops to 1% or $14 Million,” Christine Harper, Bloomberg, Dec 16; “Gimme Shelter: Tax Evasion and the Obama Administration,” Thomas B. Edsall, Huffington Post, Feb 23.

9. U.S. connected to white phosphorus strikes in Gaza
In mid-January operations, Israeli Defense Forces hit the headquarters of a United Nations relief agency in Gaza City with shells containing white phosphorous, a smoke-producing, spontaneously flammable agent designed to obscure battlegrounds that can also ignite buildings or cause grotesque burns if it touches the skin.

The relief-agency is but one example of a civilian structure that researchers discovered had been hit during the air strikes.

Human Rights Watch says Israeli use of white phosphorus violated international law, which absolutely prohibits deliberate, indiscriminate attacks that produce civilian casualties.

Amnesty International, another human-rights organization, called upon the U.S. to suspend military aid to Israel — but to no avail.

The US provided Israel with F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles and a wide array of munitions, including white phosphorus.

Sources: “White Phosphorus Use Evidence of War Crimes Report: Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” Fred Abrahams, Human Rights Watch, March 25; “Suspend Military Aid to Israel, Amnesty Urges Obama after Detailing US Weapons Used in Gaza,” Rory McCarthy, Guardian/UK, Feb. 23; “US Weaponry Facilitates Killings in Gaza,” Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service, Jan 8; “US military re-supplying Israel with ammunition through Greece,” Saed

Bannoura, International Middle East Media Center News, Jan. 8.

10. Ecuador says it won’t pay illegitimate debt
When President Rafael Correa announced in December that Ecuador would default on its foreign debt, he didn’t say Ecuador couldn’t pay. Rather, he framed it as a moral stand: “As president, I couldn’t allow us to keep paying a debt that was obviously immoral and illegitimate,” Correa told an international news agency. Stories, mainly reported in financial publications, tended to quote harsh critics tagging Correa an extreme leftist linked to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

But there’s much more to the story. The announcement followed an exhaustive audit of Ecuador’s debt. Correa’s newly created debt audit commission documented hundreds of alleged irregularities and illegalities in the decades of debt collection by international lenders. Although Ecuador made payments exceeding the value of the principal since its 1970s’ borrowing, its foreign debt had nonetheless swelled three times that high due to extraordinarily high interest. With a huge percentage of the country’s resources devoted to paying debt, little was left over to combat poverty in Ecuador.

Ecuador eventually agreed to restructure its debt at about 35 cents on the dollar, but the move served to expose deficiencies in the World Bank system, which provides little recourse for countries to resolve disputes over potentially illegitimate debt.    

Sources: “As Crisis Mounts, Ecuador Declares Foreign Debt Illegitimate and Illegal,” Daniel Denvir, Alternet, Nov. 26; “Invalid Loans to Ecuador: Who Owes Who,” Committee for the Integral Audit of Public Credit, Utube, Fall 2008; “Ecuador’s Debt Default,” Neil Watkins and Sarah Anders, Foreign Policy in Focus, Dec. 15.