WALNUT CREEK -- Thirty-eight years ago, Sonoma State University professor Dr. Carl Jensen compiled a journalistic hot dish. The ingredients were the top 25 most censored, underreported news stories of the year.
The methods used to "stir the stew" were critical thinking, multilevel investigation and media literacy. The chefs were students, apprenticing under professors who taught them to identify "junk food news." The aroma was democracy. The aftertaste -- sweet clarity tinged with bitter regret. He named the dish "Project Censored."
At an event presented by Walnut Creek-based Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center in February, an audience of more than 100 proved Project Censored had lost none of its spice. Spilling into overflow rooms and filling doorways as Director Mickey Huff and Associate Director Andy Lee Roth introduced "Censored 2014," the compilation of 2012-13's stories, there was little indication their dream -- Project Censored's demise -- was imminent.
"We'd be happy to be out of business," Roth said. "These stories (in the compilation) should be slam-dunk scoops in corporate media."
Through public advocacy, college and university programs, the Project Censored Show on KPFA Pacifica Radio and the yearly scavenger hunt for examples of "news abuse" for the annual publication, Project Censored represents a mini alternative press empire. Each year's "Censored" book rips through brief summaries of the top 25 before going into depth on each story. Second and third book sections revisit top selections from previous years and instructive "case studies" written by investigative journalists and academicians aim to increase citizens' media literacy.
Mid-stride in a West Coast tour promoting the book -- and a new, one-hour documentary, "Project Censored the Movie" -- Huff and Roth were joined by Diablo Valley College faculty researcher Nolan Higdon and students from DVC and Livermore's Las Positas College.
Huff, co-chair of the DVC history department, said 219 students on 18 college campuses vetted 233 stories for the 2014 edition. Roth said the tour was aimed at PC's new goal, to double its affiliate campuses.
"We're recruiting," he said, "because we think writing in a journalistic form and critical thinking are the answers to the problem."
The "problem," as described by PC, is news reporting bias.
"Look for transparency and for bias," Huff said. "Anyone who says they're not biased, that's when you know they're not telling the truth." Inadvertently proving his own point (that everyone is biased), he suggested "financial interest" would mean local news outlets, including this newspaper, would not give attention to PC's efforts. In post-presentation comments, Huff acknowledge his own bias and said, "Hey, you're here; that's great."
Higdon said he tells students to start by altering their conception of news.
"They can (scrutinize) news through technology and produce movements for change," he said.
DVC students Crystal Bedford and Emilee Mann are using technology to track a money trail connecting financial institutions and mental health hospitals. Another student is comparing American corporate media coverage of the Russian government's spying during the Olympics to how the Edward Snowden saga was portrayed. Brian Roid of DVC is examining the scope and accuracy of the United States' reports on Syria.
"These aren't stories we've broken," Roth emphasized. "We're trying to create a spotlight that holds these stories up above the din of corporate media."
In a clip from the documentary, broadcast journalist Dan Rather summed up PC's purpose: "American journalism has lost its spine and we need a spine transplant."
An audience member suggested PC expand its scope to address Internet tracking; objecting to "personalized news" he'd received online.
Roth said PC is already tackling the subject. Holding up a smartphone, he said, "The alternative press tipped the world off about iBeacon. It's our culture to think individually, but the dominant frame works opposite to that."
iBeacon is a positioning system allowing your location to be pinpointed by marketers and advertisers. Roth said iBeacon has been misleadingly portrayed as "streamlined shopping" and "introducing better information for consumers."
Asked about sources for unbiased -- or even less-biased -- reporting, Huff directed people to the Project Censored website, where independent news outlets are listed.
Students, asked if they felt like "islands" operating on campuses, gave mixed answers. Bedford said she tries to spread the word. "I talk about critical reasoning, meeting Mickey Huff: I try to be as shameless and nosy as possible," she said. She finds that people outside of the college environment lack the resources she has, are less apt to seek new information, or that they generally fail to question mainstream media.
Collectively, the students agreed that society "thirsts for information" and information overload doesn't mean people don't want to or can't identify truth for themselves. "We just want to hear the news, the facts," Mann said.