CASH? OUT: This still from the film 'American Casino' shows how Wall Street's misuse of financial tools literally hit home.
Edited by Rebecca Bowe
Every year since 1976, Sonoma State University's Project Censored has spotlighted the 25 most significant news stories that were largely ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream press. Now the group is expanding its mission—to promote alternative news sources. But it continues to report the biggest national and international stories that the major media ignored. Here are their top 10 underreported stories of 2008–'09.
1. Congress Sells Out
The total tab for the Wall Street bailout, including money spent and promised by the U.S. government, works out to an estimated $42,000 for every man, woman and child, according to American Casino, a documentary film about sub-prime lending and the financial meltdown. But another twist in the story has received scant attention from the mainstream news media: the unsettling combination of lax oversight from national politicians with high-dollar campaign contributions from financial players.
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 candidates, presidential candidates, and the Republican and Democratic parties.Wall Street's spending spree on political contributions coincided with a weakening of federal banking regulations, which in turn created a recipe for the astronomical financial disaster 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, 2009; 'The Big Takeover,' Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, March 2009.
2. School Segregation
Latinos and African Americans attend more segregated public schools today than they have for four decades, professor Gary Orfield notes in a study conducted by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA. Orfield's report used federal data to highlight deepening segregation in public education by race and poverty.About 44 percent of students in the nation's public school system are people of color, and this group will soon make up the majority of the population in the U.S. Yet this racial diversity often isn't reflected from school to school. Instead, two out of every five African-American and Latino youth attend schools that Orfield characterizes as "intensely segregated," comprising 90 to 100 percent people of color. For Latinos, the trend reflects growing residential segregation. For African Americans, the study attributes a significant part of the reversal to the ending of desegregation plans in public schools nationwide. Schools that are segregated by race and poverty tend to have much higher dropout rates, higher teacher turnover and greater exposure to crime and gangs, placing students at a major disadvantage in society. The most severe segregation is in western states, including California.
Source: 'Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge,' Gary Orfield, the Civil Rights Project, UCLA, January 2009.3. Somali Pirates Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa were like gold for mainstream news outlets this past year. Stories describing surprise attacks on shipping vessels, daring rescues and cadres of ragtag bandits extracting multimillion-dollar ransoms were all over the airwaves and front pages.
However, very little ink was devoted to factors that made the Somalis desperate enough to resort to piracy in the first place: the dumping of nuclear waste and rampant overfishing in their coastal waters.
In the early 1990s, when the government of Somalia collapsed, foreign interests began swooping into unguarded coastal waters to trawl for food—and venturing into unprotected Somali territories to cheaply dispose of nuclear waste. Those activities continued with impunity for years. The ramifications of toxic dumping hit full force with the 2005 tsunami, when leaking barrels were washed ashore, sickening hundreds and causing birth defects in newborn infants. The uncontrolled fishing harvests, meanwhile, damaged the economic livelihoods of Somali fishermen and eroded the country's supply of a primary food source. That's when the piracy started.
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, 2009; 'The Two Piracies in Somalia: Why the World Ignores the Other,' Mohamed Abshir Waldo, WardheerNews, Jan. 8, 2009.
4. Nuclear Nightmare
The Shearon Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina's Wake County, located in a backwoods area, bears the distinction of housing the largest radioactive-waste storage pools in the country. Spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants are transported there by rail, then stored beneath circulating cold water to prevent the radioactive waste from heating. The hidden danger, according to investigative reporter Jeffery St. Clair, is the looming threat of a pool fire. A possible 140,000 people could wind up with cancer. Contamination could stretch for thousands of square miles. And damages could reach an estimated $500 billion.
When a study was sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission highlighting the safety risks and recommending technological fixes to address the problem, St. Clair noted, a pro-nuclear commissioner successfully persuaded the agency to dismiss the concerns.
Source: 'Pools of Fire,' Jeffrey St. Clair, CounterPunch, Aug. 9, 2008.
5. EPA and Toxins
Two years ago, the European Union enacted a bold new environmental policy. The story that's gone unreported is how this game-changing legislation might impact the United States, where chemical corporations use lobbying muscle to ensure comparatively lax oversight of toxic substances, with the EPA lagging far behind in its own scrutiny of insidious chemicals. Just one-third of the 267 chemicals on the EU's watch list have ever been tested by the EPA, and only two are regulated under federal law. Meanwhile, researchers estimate that 42 billion pounds of chemicals enter American commerce daily, and only a fraction of them have ever undergone risk assessments.
Sources: 'European Chemical Clampdown Reaches Across Atlantic,' David Biello, Scientific American, Sept. 30, 2008; 'How Europe's New Chemical Rules Affect U.S.,' Environmental Defense Fund, Sept. 30, 2008; 'U.S. Lags Behind Europe in Regulating Toxicity of Everyday Products,' Mark Schapiro, Democracy Now! Feb. 24, 2009.
6. D.C. Lobbying Grows
In 2008, as the economy tumbled and unemployment soared, Washington lobbyists working for special interests were paid $3.2 billion—more than any other year on record. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, special interests spent a collective $32,523 per legislator, per day, for every day Congress was in session.
The list of highest-ranking spenders on D.C. lobbying reads like a roster of some of the most powerful interests nationwide. Topping the list was the health sector, which spent $478.5 million lobbying Congress last year. A very close runner-up was the finance, insurance and real estate sector, spending $453.5 million. Pharmaceutical companies plunked down $230 million, electric utilities spent $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, OpenSecrets.org.7. Obama Appointees President Barack Obama's appointments to the U.S. Department of Defense have raised serious questions. Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under 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.
Critics are also uneasy about the appointment of Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who formerly served as a senior vice president at defense giant Raytheon and was a registered lobbyist for the company until July 2008.
Sources: 'The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates,' Robert Parry, ConsortiumNews.com, Nov. 13, 2008; 'Obama's Defense Department Appointees—The 3.4 Trillion Dollar Question,' Andrew Hughes, Global Research, Feb. 13, 2009; 'Obama Nominee Admiral Dennis Blair Aided Perpetrators of 1999 Church Killings in East Timor,' Allan Nairn, Democracy Now! Jan. 7, 2009; 'Ties to Chevron, Boeing Raise Concern on Possible NSA Pick,' Roxana Tiron, the Hill, Nov. 24, 2008.
8. Big Biz Cheats the IRS
According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office—and largely ignored by the mainstream media—83 of the top publicly held U.S. companies, including some receiving substantial portions of federal bailout dollars, have operations in tax havens that allow them to avoid paying their fair share to the Internal Revenue Service. The report also spotlighted the activities of Union Bank of Switzerland, which has helped wealthy Americans use tax schemes to cheat the IRS out of billions in recent years.
Sources: 'Goldman Sachs's Tax Rate Drops to 1% or $14 Million,' Christine Harper, Bloomberg, Dec. 16, 2008; 'Gimme Shelter: Tax Evasion and the Obama Administration,' Thomas B. Edsall, The Huffington Post, Feb. 23, 2009.
9. White Phosphorous
In mid-January, as part of a military campaign, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired several shells that hit the headquarters of a United Nations relief agency in Gaza City, destroying provisions for basic aid such as food and medicine.
Human Rights Watch says that IDF's use of white phosphorous violated international law, which absolutely prohibits deliberate, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks that result in civilian casualties. The United States was a primary source of funding and weaponry for Israel's military campaign.
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, 2009; 'Suspend Military Aid to Israel, Amnesty Urges Obama After Detailing U.S. Weapons Used in Gaza,' Rory McCarthy, Guardian UK, Feb. 23, 2009; 'US Weaponry Facilitates Killings in Gaza,' Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service, Jan. 8, 2009; 'U.S. Military Resupplying Israel with Ammunition Through Greece,' Saed Bannoura, International Middle East Media Center News, Jan. 8, 2009 10. Ecuador Won't Pay When President Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador would default on its foreign debt, he framed it as a moral stand. The announcement came in the wake of an exhaustive audit of Ecuador's debt documenting hundreds of allegations of irregularity and illegality in the decades of debt collection from international lenders. Although Ecuador had made payments exceeding the value of the principal since the time it initially took out loans in the 1970s, its foreign debt had nonetheless swelled to levels three times as high due to extraordinarily high interest rates.Sources: 'As Crisis Mounts, Ecuador Declares Foreign Debt Illegitimate and Illegal,' Daniel Denvir, Alternet, Nov. 26, 2008; '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, 2008.