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Weapons of Mass Distraction 

U.S. arms dealing leads Project Censored’s list of the Top 10 underreported stories of 1997

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
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The latest crisis in Iraq brought some long-overdue media attention to the U.S. government’s dangerous habit of providing weapons of mass destruction to unstable, undemocratic regimes. For a few minutes.

As media outlets rushed off to cover more pressing threats to national security, such as welfare cheats, illegal immigrants and Linda Tripp, the Clinton administration continued to promote U.S. arms sales to undemocratic governments to the tune of $10 billion a year.

America’s role as arms supermarket to the world was the number-one underreported news story of 1997, according to the 22nd annual survey by the media-watch program Project Censored. Based at Sonoma State University, the student-faculty program chooses the 25 most significant but underreported stories each year.

One of the few outlets that did justice to the U.S. arms story was In These Times, the source of the top two censored stories this year. The magazine’s August 11 story, Martha Honey’s "Guns ‘R’ Us," reported that America’s share of the global arms market has grown from 16 percent to 63 percent in the last 10 years.

"Arguing that arms exports are a boon to the U.S. economy, the president, along with the Defense, Commerce and State departments, is aggressively promoting the arms trade at every opportunity," Honey wrote.

"Costly Giveaways," a story on the same topic by Lora Lumpe, appeared in the October 1996 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. U.S. arms sales threaten the safety of our troops abroad and drain money from Third World economies, Lumpe reported, and the Pentagon is giving away still-useful equipment to justify its requests for deadly new toys.

"Every time I ask the media why they don’t run these stories, they say, ‘We give the public what it wants,’" says Carl Jensen, retired professor of communications at Sonoma State and Project Censored’s founder. "But journalism is the only business I know of where the public doesn’t know what it wants until it gets it."

Other top underreported stories last year include evidence of carcinogens in cosmetics and personal-care products and the auctioning off of American academia to the highest big-business bidders.

Project director Peter Phillips, who took over from Jensen last year, says that nearly 1,000 news stories were screened by Sonoma State students and faculty over the past year. The stories were nominated by project supporters from around the world, as well as from DataCenter in Oakland, which monitors more than 700 alternative and independent media sources.

The final 25 stories were ranked in order of national significance by a panel of 22 national judges, including Jensen; Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus and former dean, Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley; Pulitzer Prize–winning author Susan Faludi; syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux; author Michael Parenti; Barbara Seaman, co-founder of the National Women’s Health Network; and Dr. George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Jensen, who ran the program for 20 years, says he had a sense of déjà vu when going through this year’s list. Variations on the U.S.-arms-dealing, carcinogenic-cosmetics and Norplant stories have all appeared on previous Proj-ect Censored lists.

"It is absolutely necessary to keep pointing out these stories," Jensen says, adding that some stories take years to reach the surface. Take the article featured on the proj-ect’s 1986 list that revealed that the U.S. government had performed radiation tests on unwitting citizens. The issue finally caught fire in 1994 after Eileen Welsome of the Albuquerque Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.

A Word From Our Censors

Phillips says the project defines censorship broadly. "Censorship to us is interference with the free flow of information in our society," he says.

The top "censored" stories weren’t necessarily suppressed by any government agency — or even by the media itself. In some cases the stories even appeared in one or two major news outlets — but according to Phillips, they never got the ongoing attention they deserved.

Still, some mainstream-media veterans take issue with the project’s title and with the implication that they intentionally suppress stories that are too controversial.

"I don’t believe there is some grand conspiracy or plot," says Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "I don’t believe that editors get together in some corner room with every issue and decide what’s ‘clean’ and what isn’t."

Frank McCulloch, former managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Examiner, says that the reason important stories get lost is not censorship but a combination of factors, including ownership of media by corporations that reward and promote those who focus on the bottom line.

"That creates a climate in the newsroom where you don’t have anyone pushing for those big, difficult and sometimes dull stories," McCulloch says. "It’s a much more subtle, pervasive influence than something you would call censorship."

Phillips agrees that censorship is not the result of some hidden conspiracy but, as McCulloch suggests, of the ownership structure of the news industry. The country’s 11 major media corporations — which control the majority of the news Americans see, hear and read — had 155 directors on their boards in 1996. Between them, those 155 people also hold 144 directorships on the boards of Fortune 1,000 corporations in the United States.

"It’s not in any way a conspiracy theory to suggest that this small group of people decides what type of news most Americans see," Phillips says. "It’s verging on monopoly, a monopoly driven by self-interest and the pursuit of corporate profits."

Loeb also says he wasn’t surprised by the revelation that the United States sells arms abroad. He pointed to a powerful three-part series on the subject by Rolling Stone writer William Greider.

But the fact that some aspects of a story have appeared in print somewhere, Bagdikian says, does not mean that it has been adequately reported.

"It isn’t a question that [a story] never appeared in the major media," Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, told us. "It’s just that it appeared and quickly disappeared. And we all know that you don’t impact the political process or public opinion with a single story."

Following are the Top 10 underreported stories of 1997:

1. Clinton administration aggressively promotes U.S. arms sales worldwide.

Lora Lumpe, "Costly Giveaways," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 1996.

Martha Honey, "Guns ‘R’ Us," In These Times, August 11, 1997.

On June 7, 1997, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Arms Transfer Code, prohibiting U.S. commercial arms sales or military aid and training to foreign governments that are undemocratic, abuse human rights or engage in aggression against neighboring states. Yet, Honey reported, the Clinton administration is moving in the opposite direction. During 1993, at the peak of the post–Gulf War arms-buying frenzy, U.S. military contracts soared to $36 billion, a level never reached during the Cold War.

The United States has also handed out $7 billion since 1990 in shipments of free American weapons to countries short on cash, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — often to justify the procurement of new weapons.

This massive unloading of arms abroad has led to the so-called boomerang effect, putting U.S. troops at risk.

"The last five times that the United States has sent troops into conflict — in Panama, Iraq-Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia — American forces faced adversaries that had previously received U.S. weapons, military technology, or training," Honey wrote.

Honey noted that the 1996 federal welfare-reform law cut federal support by $7 billion annually — an amount almost equal to the yearly government subsidies given to U.S. weapons manufacturers.

2. Personal-care and cosmetic products may be carcinogenic.

Joel Bleifuss, "To Die For," In These Times, February 17, 1997.

Joel Bleifuss, "Take a Powder," In These Times, March 3, 1997.

Joel Bleifuss started "To Die For" with the description of a hypothetical beauty regimen: Clairol hair color, Vidal Sassoon shampoo, Cover Girl makeup, Lubriderm lotion, Crest toothpaste, Massengill douche and Johnson & Johnson talcum powder. By the time a woman has completed such a regimen, Bleifuss wrote, she will have absorbed into her body five chemical compounds that are known carcinogens and exposed herself four times to a group of chemicals that are often contaminated with a carcinogenic byproduct.

Didn’t know those products were hazardous? You might have thought they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But, as Bleifuss reported, the agency classifies cosmetics but does not regulate them. An FDA document posted on the agency’s World Wide Web site explains that "a cosmetic manufacturer may use any ingredient or raw material and market the final product without government approval."

The culprit in many cosmetics is nitrosamines, a group of potent carcinogens. The FDA issued a warning in 1979 instructing the industry to take immediate steps to eliminate nitrosamines from cosmetic products. "In the 18 years since the FDA issued that warning, cosmetics manufacturers have done little to remove nitrosamines from their products, and the FDA has done even less to ensure that the industry does so," Bleifuss wrote. "All the while, evidence mounts that nitrosamines are a danger to public health."

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3. Big business seeks to control and influence U.S. universities.

Lawrence Soley, "Phi Beta Capitalism," CovertAction Quarterly, spring 1997.

Lawrence Soley, "Big Money on Campus," Dollars and Sense, March-April 1997.

In 1996 British pharmaceutical company Boots gave $250,000 to UC San Francisco for research comparing its hypothyroid drug, Synthroid, with lower-cost alternatives. Instead of demonstrating Synthroid’s superiority, as Boots had hoped, the study found the drugs to be bioequivalents. Release of that information could have saved consumers $356 million annually (they could have switched to a cheaper alternative) but would have undermined Boots’ domination of the market.

Boots blocked UCSF researchers from publishing the results, citing provisions in the research contract dictating that results "were not to be published or otherwise released without [Boots’] written consent." The company went on to smear the never-released study.

That’s just one example of how multinational corporations have bought control of academia, a crisis Lawrence Soley outlined in detail in his two articles.

University presidents, Soley reported, often sit on the boards of directors of major corporations, giving rise to conflicts of interest and in some cases undermining academic freedom.

"Large corporations, conservative foundations and well-heeled executives are buying the ivory tower and transforming it into an annex for industry," Soley wrote.

4. Exposing the global surveillance system.

Nicky Hager, "Secret Power: Exposing the Global Surveillance System," CovertAction Quarterly, winter 1996-97.

Nicky Hager reported in CAQ that in the late 1980s the United States prompted New Zealand to become the latest country to join a new and highly secret global intelligence system known as Echelon.

Designed and coordinated by the U.S. National Security Agency, Echelon allows spy agencies to monitor most of the world’s telephone, e-mail and telex communications. Unlike many of the Cold War electronic spy systems, Echelon is designed primarily to gather electronic transmissions from nonmilitary targets: governments, organizations, businesses and individuals in virtually every country.

Hager blew the lid off Echelon after more than 50 New Zealand intelligence veterans — concerned about the potential abuses of such a system — risked their careers and agreed to talk to him. They leaked to Hager precise information concerning how the system works, its capabilities and shortcomings, and where it operates, and such details as code names.

5. United States companies are world leaders in torture devices.

Anne-Marie Cusac, "Shock Value: U.S. Stun Devices Pose Human-Rights Risk," The Progressive, September 1997.

In its March 1997 report "Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment," Amnesty International listed 100 companies that manufactured push-button electroshock devices. Of those, 42 were based in the United States.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty claim the devices are unsafe and may encourage sadistic acts by police officers and prison guards, Anne-Marie Cusac reported.

Countries that have received stun weapons exported from the United States in the last decade include Yemen, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates and Ecuador.

"Stun belts offer enormous possibilities for abuse and the infliction of gratuitous pain," Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU’s National Prison Project told The Progressive.

6. Russian plutonium lost over Chile and Bolivia.

Karl Grossman, "Space Probe Explodes, Plutonium Missing," CovertAction Quarterly, spring 1997.

On November 17, 1996, when the U.S. Space Command announced that Russia’s Mars ’96 space probe, carrying a half-pound of deadly plutonium, would crash-land in Australia, President Clinton and the mass media responded immediately.

Clinton phoned Australian Prime Minister John Howard and offered "the assets the U.S. has in the Department of Energy" to deal with any radioactive contamination.

Later that day the U.S. Space Command revised its account and mistakenly announced the probe had fallen into the Pacific. Following suit, a number of U.S. media outlets reported the probe had crashed "harmlessly" into the ocean.

On November 29, 11 days later, the U.S. Space Command changed its mind yet again: "It changed not only where but also when the probe fell — not off South America but on Chile and Bolivia, and not on November 17 but the night before," Grossman reports.

This time, there were no calls from the president, and the U.S. government did little to help locate and recover the radioactive canisters.

"You can clearly see the double standard," a Houston aerospace engineer told CAQ. "Australia got a phone call from Clinton; Chile got a 2-week-old fax from somebody."

Grossman says the mainstream media were likewise "blasé" about the implications for Latin America; The New York Times buried the story in a World News Brief.

Some suspected that NASA didn’t want too much attention paid to the crash because it might have affected the agency’s already controversial plan to load a record 72.3 pounds of plutonium on its Cassini probe, which it launched in October 1997.

7. Norplant experiments in Third World lead to forced use in United States.

Jennifer Washburn, "The Misuses of Norplant: Who Gets Stuck?," Ms., November-December 1996.

Rebecca Kavoussi, "Norplant and the Dark Side of the Law," Washington Free Press, March-April 1997.

Joseph D’Agostino, "BBC Documentary Claims That U.S. Foreign Aid Funded Norplant Testing on Uninformed Third World Women," Human Events, May 16, 1997.

Low-income women in the United States and the Third World have been unwitting targets of a U.S. policy to control birth rates through the use of the drug implant Norplant, according to three stories identified by Project Censored.

Human Events reports that a 1995 BBC documentary accused the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of using uninformed women in Bangladesh, Haiti and the Philippines for tests of Norplant’s effectiveness. Norplant, a synthetic version of a female hormone, is intended to prevent pregnancy for five years. It has been linked with debilitating side effects, and the implant can only be removed through surgery — at a cost far beyond the reach of low-income women.

In the United States, as Jennifer Washburn discovered, state Medicaid agencies often cover the cost of Norplant insertion but don’t cover removal before the full five years. Although Medicaid policy may cover early removal when it is determined to be "medically necessary," medical necessity is determined by the provider and the Medicaid agency, not the patient.

"Most people in this country probably believe that reproductive coercion is a thing of the past," Washburn said. "But as my article demonstrates, there are innumerable ways that coercion continues in America."

Norplant’s side effects have led to the filing of more than 400 lawsuits representing more than 50,000 women against Wyeth-Ayerst, the maker of Norplant.

8. Little-known law paves way for national ID card.

Cyndee Parker, "National ID Card Is Now Federal Law and Georgia Wants To Help To Lead the Way," Witwigo, May-June 1997.

We can thank our own Senator Dianne Feinstein for this scandal. According to Cyndee Parker, Feinstein wrote the law that creates a framework for establishing a national identification-card system.

The law, buried in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, established a "Machine Readable Document Pilot Program." Under the proposed system, according to Parker, the driver’s license would become a national ID card. Employers would have document readers that would be linked to the federal Social Security Administration. When a prospective employee’s driver’s license is passed through the reader, the federal government would have the discretion to approve or reject the applicant for employment.

Parker reported that Feinstein told a Capitol Hill magazine that it was her intention to see Congress immediately implement a national identity system whereby every American is required to carry a card with a "magnetic strip on it on which the bearer’s unique voice, retina pattern or fingerprint is digitally encoded."

9. Mattel cuts U.S. jobs to open sweatshops in other countries.

Eyal Press, "Barbie’s Betrayal: The Toy Industry’s Broken Workers," The Nation, December 30, 1996.

Anton Foek, "Sweatshop Barbie: Exploitation of Third World Labor," The Humanist, January-February 1997.

For many workers around the world, the Barbie doll has become a symbol of the economic havoc wreaked by NAFTA and other free-trade agreements. Mayor Richard Riordan helped bring this story to fruition when, as a member of the board at Mattel in 1984, he pressed to shift U.S. operations to Mexico. In the process, 800 jobs were lost in Southern California.

Eyal Press told the story of Dennis Mears, a Mattel factory worker in Medina, New York, who was laid off after working at the same plant for 23 years. Meanwhile, Press wrote, Delfina Rodriguez, an employee at a Mattel affiliate in Tijuana, was forced to quit or go to jail after being suspected of organizing for workers’ rights.

"Behind the glitter of FAO Schwarz and Toys ‘R’ Us, the toy industry is a showcase for the injustices at the heart of the unregulated global economy," Press wrote. "In 1973 more than 56,000 Americans worked in U.S. toy factories. Today that figure is down to 27,000 as billion-dollar companies like Mattel earn record profits by relocating to countries where workers lack basic rights . . ."

10. Army’s plan to burn nerve gas threatens Columbia River Basin.

Mark Brown and Karyn Jones, "Army Plan To Burn Surplus Nerve Gas Stockpile," Earth First! Journal, March 1997.

Despite widespread opposition from citizens groups, health experts, environmental organizations and Native Americans, last year the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission gave the U.S. Army the green light to build a chemical-weapons incineration facility near Hermiston, Oregon.

Some of the toxins to be burned, Brown and Jones reported, include nerve gas, mustard agent, dioxins, furans, chloromethane, vinyl chloride, PCBs, lead and arsenic.

The health risks such chemicals pose include cancer, birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, immune-system disorders and neurological damage, the story warned.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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