Editorial

MEDIA AND CENSORSHIP
A PROJECT CENSORED AWARD IS A DUBIOUS ACHIEVEMENT

by Lisa Chamberlain
Published April 12 - 18, 2000

This week in New York City, Project Censored holds its annual awards ceremony. The ceremony is to honor writers whose work has been selected for a list of the year's 25 most censored stories. Often touted as the Pulitzer Prize of alternative journalism, the awards are the result of this 24-year-old program run by a professor at California's Sonoma State University, which arguably has done more to amplify important work than any other organization.

People unfamiliar with Project Censored, however, inevitably wonder how a story can be considered "censored" if it's been published. As the saying goes, the best way to censor a story is to only publish it once. In other words, without the necessary echo effect, important pieces get sucked into the memory hole, never to be seen or heard from again. As Milan Kundera once wrote, "[T]he struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Last June, the Cleveland Free Times published one such story; it made it onto this year's list and consequently into the book, Project Censored 2000 (Seven Stories Press). The Free Times' publisher and editor at the time were the only people in the entire United States brave enough to print "The Crohn's Connection," a difficult piece about the possible link between a bacterium in milk and Crohn's disease -- a debilitating gastro-intestinal disorder that is spreading rapidly throughout the population.

The dairy lobby is notoriously powerful inside the Washington, D.C., beltway. And a tax on dairy farmers helps the dairy industry spread its advertising dollars around generously (most notably with the "got milk?" ad campaign), to the point where the wholesomeness of milk goes virtually unquestioned in the media. How else can it be explained that the possible link between a bacterium in milk and Crohn's disease is virtually unknown in the United States, despite front-page coverage in England and other places around the world?

No doubt, it is difficult to report on an unproven scientific theory (pardon the redundancy) of which there is much debate. But even a cursory look at recent scientific reporting on far less significant issues -- from the fat content of margarine to the harmful effects of dietary supplements -- shows that the media routinely covers far more questionable research. And that is precisely the point. When the stakes are high, the mainstream media is rightly careful. When the stakes are too high, the mainstream media is downright cowardly, using the lack of "proof" as a means to avoid even raising the question.

But with the publication of Project Censored 2000, the issue is beginning to percolate. The echo effect from just a six-minute radio interview on the local NPR station, WCPN 90.3 FM, resulted in phone calls, e-mails and an untold number of hits on our website from people looking for more information. Less than two weeks in print, the book itself has brought dozens more responses from across the country. Invariably, the inquirer has a child or a family member who is suffering terribly from this disease, which results in rapid weight loss, excruciating abdominal pain and, ultimately, surgery to remove inflamed portions of the intestine.

Though you can't get much from the mainstream media, nor the dairy industry or the federal government charged with regulating that industry, there are places to go for information. Most notable is the advocacy group known as PARA (Paratuberculosis Awareness and Research Association), which has a website (http://www.crohns.org/), the result of years of unpaid research, advocacy and sheer tenacity. In fact, it is this small group of people that is largely responsible for advancing this issue farther in two short years than it had gotten in almost two decades.

As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

P.S. The [Cleveland, Ohio] Plain Dealer has known about the story reported on page 10 for more than a year, but chose not to report on it.

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