Project censored, sins of omission and the hardest “W” of all – “why”

By Carl Jensen

Carl Jensen, the founder and director of Project Censored, is a professor of communication studies at Sonoma State University in California. He plans to launch “America’s CENSORED NEWSletter” next April.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 10 (November/December 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Why did we hear so little about the savings and loan and banking scandals when they began? Because they didn’t pass the National Enquirer Litmus Test: no sex, no star, no violence — no story.

While journalists and scholars debate about the ethics of what is published in the mainstream media, little is written about the ethical implications of what isn’t and why it isn’t.

For 16 years, I have been exploring these sins of omission in American journalism through a national research effort called Project Censored.

I have discovered that there are a plethora of important issues that are overlooked, under-covered, or just plain censored by the media every year.

I also discovered that the mainstream media reject out of hand the notion that they self-censor, and refuse to explore or even acknowledge their sins of omission.

The usual explanations of why vital stories are not covered — or, just as important, contextualized — include reliability of the source, complexity of the subject, the fact that controversial issues often are potentially libelous, and a perceived risk to their chimerical objectivity.

But there are other, less acceptable, explanations for the media’s failure to cover important stories. For example:

  • It probably took the “October Surprise” so long to be discovered by the mainstream media for the same reason it took Seymour Hersh more than a year to get the My Lai story published: Both stretch the bounds of credibility and therefore present a discomfiting challenge.
  • Our Vice President’s guileless appearance has the press less interested in what he’s doing than what he’s saying. While reporting on Quayle’s every faux pas, the press overlooked [until mere days ago] his misnamed Council on Competitiveness, which has seriously undermined federal health and safety programs on behalf of big business since 1986.
  • It was difficult to understand why the Congressional press corps took so long to report all the perks our elected representatives enjoy until we realized that reporters feed at the same trough.

But perhaps the most blatant example of media self-censorship is an incident which occurred last summer. The Bohemian Grove encampment, which draws the cream of America’s male power elite — including press moguls — to northern California each year, is one of the media’s best known, best kept secrets.

Dirk Mathison, San Francisco bureau chief for People magazine, managed to surreptitiously infiltrate the encampment in search of a good story. And he got it.

He recorded a variety of newsworthy items, including a previously unpublicized Gulf War Iraqi casualty count of 200,000 reported to the Bohemian Club by former Navy Secretary John Lehman. Unfortunately, Mathison was spotted by a Time Inc. executive and quietly ordered to leave.

The article, which Mathison said was scheduled to run for four pages, was suddenly killed.

When I asked People managing editor Lanny Jones whether the fact that Time Inc. owns People had anything to do with killing the story, he said no.

Since his magazine had obtained the story by illegal trespass, he said, running it would have been unethical.

Think about it. Peeping People magazine — they of the hovering helicopters at rock stars’ weddings plead ethics to explain why they spiked a story the American people should hear!

When I took exception to Jones’s response, he asked me what I would have done without violating the publication’s guidelines. I said, at the very least, I’d have Mathison write a straight news article describing exactly what happened. Jones said it was a good idea and he’d think about it. That was August 6, 1991.

Television journalists are as culpable of the sins of omission as their print colleagues. But it was not always so. Where we once had the NBC White PaperCBS Reports, and ABC’s Close-up, today we have A Current AffairUnsolved Mysteries and Inside Edition. Where we once had See It Now with Edward R. Murrow, today we have  Now It Can Be Told with Geraldo Rivera.

While the media moguls squander their resources hounding Donald Trump, Pee Wee Herman and William Kennedy Smith, they ignore the economic, environmental, political and social ills that profoundly threaten the nation.

The media’s love affair with sensationalism, combined with its sins of omission, leaves the American people uninformed and ill-prepared for the 21st century.

While the press generally does a good job in answering the first four W’s of journalism — who, what, where, and when — it often fails to even address the hardest W of all: why.

On this, the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment, it would be fitting for the nation’s press to start asking why and to acknowledge its ethical responsibility for keeping the American people adequately informed.