The media world has changed dramatically over the past decade. The Internet is increasingly delivering more information in new, faster and more efficient ways. As a result, the alternative media has more opportunities to break through the corporate media's traditional stranglehold on information. At no time was this more apparent than at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, when the alternative media reached international audiences with fresh, dynamic information.
In fundamental ways, we in the progressive, independent media world are stuck in the past, with very little capacity to make effective use of new media. A case in point is Project Censored, which compiles a list of the top 10 censored stories every year.
Flawed in its process to begin with, Project Censored tends to reinforce fundamentally self-marginalizing, defeatist behavior while ignoring the role new media is playing in communicating information.
Instead of honoring timely, investigative-oriented, breakout stories that move from the alternative press to mainstream media, Project Censored chooses to recognize only those stories that remain buried. Part of the problem with Project Censored is the procedure by which stories are selected. PC's excellent panel of judges does not select the stories; rather they are asked only to rate a list of 25 picked by students and faculty from Sonoma State University.
Absolutely, there are some very important stories among the PC content every year, written by incredibly good journalists about terribly important subjects. And there are some lame ones as well. But the point is we should not be celebrating the failure to get those stories out to larger audiences. We need new awards. Let's call them the Project Big Audience Awards -- recognition for stories dug out, documented, brilliantly rendered and expertly promoted so that they got through the corporate media haze and became part of the public knowledge. That's worth a celebration.
Let's not be naive here -- we're dealing with a mainstream media system that exists to protect a wide range of corporate interests and to make a lot of money. Today there are more PR agents than journalists writing the news.
According to Project Censored culture, the way to get an award is if your story doesn't get advanced or echoed in the mainstream media. Sure, it could have been censorship that stopped or slowed the story. But it also could have been that the article was badly written, had facts wrong, had bad timing or wasn't placed or promoted. None of these causes is really factored in PC's subjective process of choosing its stories.
What we need to do is invest time and resources in helping journalists get their important stories more attention, rather than sitting back and offering a Project Censored award as consolation.
Yet PC has its moments. It still can serve a useful purpose. As one of this year's awardees, Ron Nixon, explains, "Yes, they are awards in a way, but they are really a PR effort to expand the story. Once the Project Censored book comes out (a compilation of the top 25 stories) and articles about the awards appear in a number of alternative papers, the stories get more attention. It gives the stories an extra push."
Fair enough; these stories need all the pushing they can get. But I also agree with Ron's partner, Makani Themba, a well-known author, trainer and organizer, who calls Project Censored "awards for people not reading your stuff."
"Project Censored has been invaluable over the years, but I have to wonder if some review of its selection and vetting procedures is in order," said award winner Jason Vest. "Also, I have to wonder if calling it 'Censored' limits its impact on the mainstream that needs to be the most aware of it. Perhaps it should be renamed."
I agree. It's time for a change.
-- Don Hazen is the President of the Institute for Alternative Journalism in San Francisco.