Corporate Media Fiddle as the Planet Burns
Editor’s note: We invited Project Censored to highlight five environmental news stories that should have made headlines.
Since its establishment in 1976, Project Censored has tracked pervasive patterns of omission in corporate news coverage, including how the nation’s most prominent news outlets fail to inform the public about systemic social inequalities, consolidation of corporate power, and alternatives to neoliberal economic policies. Important environmental stories are often omitted or covered only partially owing to a combination of these factors.
Although the corporate media do cover environmental issues, these reports seldom emphasize the connections between environmental issues — many of which are global in scope — and the everyday workings of the U.S. economy, which emphasizes corporate pursuit of profits on one hand and a culture of consumerism on the other. Environmental stories that do not fit into a tidy “red versus blue” political framework are even less likely to be covered by the nation’s largest news outlets.
For nearly 50 years, Project Censored has published an annual report on the most important but underreported news stories. These lists, published in our yearbook series and archived on the Project Censored website, demonstrate both the gaps in corporate news reporting and the importance of independent journalism that informs the public about these otherwise neglected issues. (Read our complete explanation of the Project’s story identification and vetting process.)
This year’s story list, published in State of the Free Press 2023, includes five significant environmental stories that were only brought to light by the dogged work and dedication of independent journalists and news outlets. Here we provide the sources of and capsule summaries for each story.
“Smart Ocean” Technology Endangers Whales and Intensifies Climate Change
Koohan Paik-Mander, “Whales Will Save the World’s Climate—Unless the Military Destroys Them First,” BuzzFlash (via the Independent Media Institute’s Local Peace Economy project), December 13, 2021.
Joint military and industry efforts to develop new ocean technologies and infrastructure — which engineers and advocates call the “smart ocean” — will have lethal consequences for whales, significantly undermining their “indispensable role” in sequestering carbon and mitigating climate catastrophe.
A number of corporate news outlets, including Newsweek and Slate, have covered scientific reports on the role of whales in capturing carbon and mitigating climate change. But Koohan Paik-Mander’s report is unusual for showing the links between new “smart ocean” technologies, catastrophic declines in whale populations, and the climate crisis.
Wealthy Nations Continue to Drive Climate Change, With Devastating Impacts on Poorer Countries
Sonja Klinsky, “Climate Change Is a Justice Issue—These 6 Charts Show Why,” The Conversation, November 3, 2021.
Tawanda Karombo, “These African Countries Are Among the World’s Worst Hit by Climate Change,” Quartz Africa, January 27, 2021.
In a November 2021 article for The Conversation, Sonja Klinsky outlined how and why poorer regions of the world are disproportionately affected by climate change. Wealthier nations, such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia, release roughly 100 times the per-capita greenhouse gas emissions as many African countries, yet the impacts of this damage have long fallen on the shoulders of the most vulnerable victims of climate change.
In 2019, according to a Quartz Africa report by Tawanda Karombo in 2021, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Niger all experienced drastic, unpredictable changes in temperature and precipitation, causing food shortages, economic disasters, and hundreds of avoidable fatalities. These countries bear little responsibility for perilous greenhouse gas emissions but have the fewest resources available to cope with the consequences of climate change.
Corporate news outlets such as Time and the New York Times have started covering environmental racism in the United States. This coverage, however, typically fails to address how the U.S. and other countries in the Global North have effectively “colonized” the global atmosphere, promoting their own economic growth at the expense of basic living conditions in other nations.
At Least 128 Members of Congress Invested in Fossil Fuel Industry
David Moore, “Senators Cling to Fossil Fuel Stocks as World Heats Up,” Sludge, November 5, 2021.
David Moore, “GOP Rep Picks up Millions in Pipeline Stock,” Sludge, December 10, 2021.
David Moore, “At Least 100 House Members Are Invested in Fossil Fuels,” Sludge, December 29, 2021.
Julia Rock and Andrew Perez, “Lauren Boebert’s Anti-Climate Legislation Is a Self-Enrichment Scheme,” Jacobin, September 13, 2021.
At least 100 U.S. Representatives and 28 Senators have financial interests in the fossil fuel industry. While more Republicans than Democrats are invested in the fossil fuel industry, “Senate Democrats own up to $8,604,000 in fossil fuel assets, more than double the Senate Republicans’ $3,994,126 in fossil fuel assets,” David Moore reported. Many of the Congressional leaders with investments hold seats on important committees, multiplying both their influence and the extent of the conflicts between their financial interests as investors and their responsibilities as elected representatives of the public.
Corporate news outlets report that clean energy legislation is “stalled” in Congress, but not the financial conflicts of interest that are the likely cause of this lack of progress.
EPA Withheld Reports on Dangerous Chemicals
Sharon Lerner, “EPA Withheld Reports of Substantial Risk Posed by 1,240 Chemicals,” The Intercept, November 1, 2021.
A. Crunden, “EPA’s Failure to Disclose Chemical Health Risks Draws Ire,” E & E News, January 5, 2022.
Between January 2019 and November 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received more than 1,200 legally required disclosures about chemicals that present a “substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.” All but one of EPA’s reports on these chemicals were withheld from the public, Sharon Lerner reported in a November 2021 Intercept article. E.A. Cruden of E&E News was the first to report on a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), pressuring the EPA to publicly reveal TCSA section 8(e) reports under the Freedom of Information Act.
Notably, in February 2022, after PEER’s complaint was filed, the EPA announced that it would resume publishing 8(e) substantial risk reports. Had it not been for the work of the Intercept’s Sharon Lerner, EPA whistleblowers would not have had a platform to share concerns that ultimately led the agency to resume these critical public disclosures.
Fossil Fuel Industry Subsidized at Rate of $11 Million per Minute
Damian Carrington, “Fossil Fuel Industry Gets Subsidies of $11M a Minute, IMF Finds,” The Guardian, October 6, 2021.
Eduardo Garcia, “Fossil Fuel Companies Receive $11 Million a Minute in Subsidies, New Report Reveals,” Treehugger, October 21, 2021.
A comprehensive study of 191 nations, published by the International Monetary Fund in September 2021, found that globally the fossil fuel industry receives subsidies of $11 million per minute. Fossil fuel companies received $5.9 trillion in subsidies in 2020, with support projected to rise to $6.4 trillion by 2025, according to the IMF report.
Some of the subsidies are direct — including policies that reduce prices and provide tax exemptions — but the significant majority of subsidies are indirect, including lack of liability for the health costs of deadly pollution and damages caused by extreme weather events linked to climate change.
“It’s critical that governments stop propping up an industry that is in decline,” Mike Coffin, a senior analyst at Carbon Tracker, told the Guardian, which reported that ending fossil fuel subsidies would prevent “nearly a million deaths a year from dirty air” and raise “trillions of dollars for governments.”
As Project Censored finalized its 2021-2022 story list, not one corporate news outlet had covered the IMF’s report on the negative social and environmental consequences of increasingly massive government subsidies for Big Oil.
What Can You Do?
How might our shared prospects for 2023 and beyond look different if the establishment press did a better job of informing the U.S. public about environmental issues? Answers to that question will take time because they depend on systemic changes in corporate news coverage, beginning with more inclusive working definitions of who and what count as “newsworthy.”
In the meantime, beyond calling on corporate news outlets to do better, people seeking trustworthy and engaging journalism should direct their attention — and support — to independent news outlets, such as those highlighted here and in previous editions of Project Censored’s annual story lists. By consistently connecting the dots between corporate influence, consumer culture, and environmental issues, independent news outlets play a vital, if indirect, role in helping to build broad, inclusive movements for progressive social change, including solutions to our most pressing environmental issues.
About the Authors
Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored, where he coordinates the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, a research network of several hundred students and faculty at two dozen colleges and universities across North America. He is the coauthor of The Media and Me, a book on critical media literacy for young people.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and coauthor of United States of Distraction, Let’s Agree to Disagree, and The Media and Me. He co-hosts the Project Censored Show and teaches social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College.