Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2023, edited by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff, is available now. Published in collaboration with Random Lengths News, this is the second of two parts. Read the first five stories on the list here. 

6) Corporate Consolidation Causing Record Inflation in Food Prices

“Corporate consolidation is a main driver of record inflation in food prices, despite claims by media pundits and partisan commentators to the contrary,” Project Censored reports. “The establishment press has covered the current wave of inflation exhaustively, but only rarely will discuss the market power of giant firms as a possible cause, and then usually only to reject it,” as they did when the Biden administration cited meat industry consolidation as a cause of price increases in September 2021, “treating administration attempts to link inflation to consolidation as a rhetorical move meant to distract from conservative critiques of Biden’s stimulus program.”

But as Food and Water Watch reported in Nov 2021, “while the cost of meat shot up, prices paid to farmers actually declined, spurring a federal investigation.” That investigation is ongoing, but meat conglomerates Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Smithfield Foods and JBS have paid just over $225 million to settle related civil suits in the poultry, beef and pork markets.

That’s just part of the problem. A July 2021 joint investigation by Food and Water Watch and the Guardian “reported that a handful of ‘food giants’ — including Kraft Heinz, General Mills, Conagra, Unilever, and Del Monte — control an average of 64 percent of sales of sixty-one popular grocery items,” Project Censored noted. Three companies own 93% of carbonated soft drink brands; while another three produce 73% of the cereals on offer, and a single company, PepsiCo, owns five of the most popular dip brands — 88% of the market. Altogether, “four firms or fewer controlled at least 50% of the market for 79% of the groceries,” the Guardian reported.

It’s not just producers: “In an October 2021 article for Common Dreams, Kenny Stancil documents that food producers, distributors, and grocery store chains are engaging in pandemic profiteering and taking advantage of “decades of consolidation, which has given a handful of corporations an ever-greater degree of market control and with it, the power to set prices,” according to research by the Groundwork Collaborative.

As for grocers, “Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the country, cited rising inflation as the reason for hiking prices in their stores even as they cut worker pay by 8 percent,” Project Censored noted. “Yet, as Stancil explained, Kroger’s CEO publicly gloated that ‘a little bit of inflation is always good for business.’ That CEO earned 909 times what the median worker earned, while worker pay decreased by 8% in 2020, and “the company spent $1.498 billion on stock buybacks between April 2020 and July 2021 to enrich its shareholders,” the Groundwork Collaborative reported. Kroger was one of just four companies that took in an estimated two-thirds of all grocery sales in 2019, according to Food and Water Watch.

More broadly, “A report for the American Prospect by Rakeem Mabud, chief economist at the Groundwork Collaborative, and David Dayen revealed that one of the most common inflation scapegoats, supply chain problems, is itself a consequence of consolidation,” Project Censored noted. “Just three global alliances of ocean shippers are responsible for 80 percent of all cargo…  These shippers raked in “nearly $80 billion in the first three quarters of 2021, twice as much as in the entire ten-year period from 2010 to 2020,” by increasing their rates as much as tenfold.

Supply chain consolidation reflects a broader shift in the global economy, the Prospect argued. “In 1970, Milton Friedman argued in The New York Times that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Manufacturers used that to rationalize a financial imperative to benefit shareholders by seeking the lowest-cost labor possible.” This led to a surge in outsourcing to East Asia, and eventually China. “This added new costs for shipping, but deregulating all the industries in the supply chain could more than compensate.”

Occasionally articles touched on the issue of consolidation (mostly to debunk it), though there are a couple of opinion pieces to the contrary. “But these isolated opinion pieces were far out-numbered by the hundreds, even thousands, of reports and analyses by commercial media outlets that blamed everything but oligopolistic price gouging for the rising cost of groceries,” Project Censored concluded.

7) Concerns for Journalistic Independence as Gates Foundation Gives $319 Million to News Outlets

The list of billionaires with media empires includes familiar names like Rupert Murdoch, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, most recently, Elon Musk. But, “While other billionaires’ media empires are relatively well known, the extent to which [Microsoft co-founder Bill] Gates’s cash underwrites the modern media landscape is not,” Alan MacLeod wrote for MintPress News in November 2021.

MacLeod examined more than 30,000 individual grants from the the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and found it had donated “more than $319 million to fund news outlets, journalism centers and training programs, press associations, and specific media campaigns, raising questions about conflicts of interest and journalistic independence,” Project Censored summarized.

“Today, it is possible for an individual to train as a reporter thanks to a Gates Foundation Grant, find work at a Gates-funded outlet, and to belong to a press association funded by Gates,” MacLeod wrote.

“Recipients of this cash include many of America’s most important news outlets, including CNN, NBC, NPR, PBS and The Atlantic. Gates also sponsors a myriad of influential foreign organizations, including the BBC, The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom; prominent European newspapers such as Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel (Germany) and El País (Spain); as well as big global broadcasters like Al-Jazeera,” he reported.

“MacLeod’s report includes a number of Gates-funded news outlets that also regularly feature in Project Censored’s annual Top 25 story lists, such as the Solutions Journalism Network ($7.2m), The Conversation ($6.6m), the Bureau of Investigative Journalism ($1m), and ProPublica ($1m) in addition to the Guardian and the Atlantic,” Project Censored noted. “Direct awards to news outlets often targeted specific issues, MacLeod reported. For example, CNN received $3.6 million to support ‘journalism on the everyday inequalities endured by women and girls across the world,’ according to one grant. Another grant earmarked $2.3 million for the Texas Tribune ‘to increase public awareness and engagement of education reform issues in Texas.’ As MacLeod noted, given Bill Gates’ advocacy of the charter school movement — which undermines teachers’ unions and effectively aims to privatize the public education system — ‘a cynic might interpret this as planting pro-corporate charter school propaganda into the media, disguised as objective news reporting.’”

“[T]here are clear shortcomings with this non-exhaustive list, meaning the true figure is undoubtedly far higher. First, it does not count sub-grants  —  money given by recipients to media around the world,” because there’s no record of them, MacLeod reported. 

“For a tax-privileged charity that so very often trumpets the importance of transparency, it’s remarkable how intensely secretive the Gates Foundation is about its financial flows,” Tim Schwab, one of the few investigative journalists who has scrutinized the tech billionaire, told MintPress.

Also missing were grants aimed at producing articles for academic journals, although “they regularly form the basis for stories in the mainstream press and help shape narratives around key issues,” he noted. “The Gates Foundation has given far and wide to academic sources, with at least $13.6 million going toward creating content for the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.” And more broadly “even money given to universities for purely research projects eventually ends up in academic journals, and ultimately, downstream into mass media. … Neither these nor grants funding the printing of books or establishment of websites counted in the total, although they too are forms of media.”

“No major corporate news outlets appear to have covered this issue,” only a scattering of independent outlets, Project Censored noted. This despite the fact that “As far back as 2011, the Seattle Times published an article investigating how the Gates Foundation’s ‘growing support of media organizations blurs the line between journalism and advocacy.’”

8) CIA Discussed Plans to Kidnap or Kill Julian Assange

The CIA seriously considered plans to kidnap or assassinate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in late 2017, according to a September 2021 Yahoo News investigation, based on interviews with more than 30 former U.S. officials, eight of whom detailed U.S. plans to abduct Assange and three of whom described the development of plans to kill him. If it had been up to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, they almost certainly would have been acted on, after WikiLeaks announced it had obtained a massive tranche of files  —  dubbed “Vault 7”  —  from the CIA’s ultra-secret hacking division, and posted some of them online.

In his first public remarks as Donald Trump’s CIA director, “Pompeo devoted much of his speech to the threat posed by WikiLeaks” Yahoo News noted, “Rather than use the platform to give an overview of global challenges or to lay out any bureaucratic changes he was planning to make at the agency.” He even called it “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia,” a designation intended to grant the CIA wide latitude in what actions it took, while shielding it from congressional oversight.

Potential scenarios proposed by the CIA and Trump administration officials included crashing into a Russian vehicle carrying Assange in order to grab him, shooting the tires of an airplane carrying Assange in order to prevent its takeoff, and engaging in a gun battle through the streets of London,” Project Censored summarized. “Senior CIA officials went so far as to request ‘sketches’ or ‘options’ detailing methods to kill Assange.”

WikiLeaks was a complete obsession of Pompeo’s,” a former Trump administration national security official told Yahoo News. “After Vault 7, Pompeo and [Deputy CIA Director Gina] Haspel wanted vengeance on Assange.” It went so far that “Pompeo and others at the agency proposed abducting Assange from the embassy and surreptitiously bringing him back to the United States via a third country  —  a process known as rendition,” they reported. (Assassination entered the picture later on.) Since it would take place in Britain, there had to be agreement from them. “But the British said, ‘No way, you’re not doing that on our territory, that ain’t happening,’” a former senior counterintelligence official told Yahoo News.

There was also push-back from National Security Council, or NSC lawyers and the Department of Justice, which wanted to put Assange on trial. But the CIA continued to push for capturing or killing Assange. Trump’s “NSC lawyers were bulwarks against the CIA’s potentially illegal proposals, according to former officials,” Yahoo News reported, but the CIA’s own lawyers may have been kept in the dark. “When Pompeo took over, he cut the lawyers out of a lot of things,” a former senior intelligence community attorney told them. “Pompeo’s ready access to the Oval Office, where he would meet with Trump alone, exacerbated the lawyers’ fears. [The NSC’s top lawyer John] Eisenberg fretted that the CIA director was leaving those meetings with authorities or approvals signed by the president that Eisenberg knew nothing about, according to former officials.”

US plans to kidnap or assassinate Julian Assange have received little to no establishment news coverage in the United States, other than scant summaries by Business Insider and The Verge, and tangential coverage by Reuters, each based on the original Yahoo News report,” Project Censored notes. “Among US independent news outlets, Democracy Now! featured an interview with Michael Isikoff, one of the Yahoo News reporters who broke the story, and Jennifer Robinson, a human rights attorney who has been advising Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since 2010. Rolling Stone and The Hill also published articles based on the original Yahoo News report.”

9) New Laws Preventing Dark Money Disclosures Sweep the Nation

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United relaxing campaign finance regulations, dark money spending has exploded, and now Republican lawmakers across the U.S. are pushing legislation to make it illegal to compel nonprofit organizations to disclose who the dark money donors are. Recently-passed laws in Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia are based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which brings together corporate lobbyists and conservative lawmakers to advance special-interest business-friendly legislation.

“ALEC is deeply enmeshed with the sprawling political influence networks tied to billionaire families like the Kochs and the Bradleys, both of which use non-disclosing nonprofits that help to conceal how money is funneled,” Donald Shaw reported for Sludge on June 15, 2021. “Penalties for violating the laws vary between the states, but in some states could include prison sentences.”

“Shaw explained how these bills create a loophole allowing wealthy individuals and groups to pass ‘dark money’ anonymously to 501(c) organizations which in turn can make independent expenditures to influence elections (or contribute to other organizations that make independent political expenditures, such as Super PACs), effectively shielding the ultimate source of political funds from public scrutiny,” Project Censored summarized. “‘These bills are about making dark money darker,’ Aaron McKean, legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, told Shaw.”

The South Dakota law was overwhelmingly passed by the GOP-dominated legislature despite the fact that voters passed a 2016 ballot measure requiring disclosure of “the identity of donors who give more than $100 to organizations for the purpose of political expenditures,” a requirement the legislature repealed a year later, Shaw reported in February 2021.

There’s a federal impact as well. “In a March 2022 article for Sludge, Shaw documented that the federal omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022 contained a rider exempting political groups that declare themselves “social welfare organizations” from reporting their donors, and another preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from ‘requiring corporations to publicly disclose more of their political and lobbying spending,’” Project Censored noted, going on to cite a May 2021 article from Open Secrets about Senate Republicans’ “Don’t Weaponize the IRS Act,” that “would prevent the IRS from requiring that 501(c)(4) nonprofits disclose their top donors.”

Democrats and good government groups have pushed back. “On April 27, 2021, thirty-eight Democratic senators sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig urging them to roll back an anti-disclosure rule put in place by the Trump Administration,” Project Censored reported. “In addition, the Democrats’ comprehensive voting-rights bill, the For the People Act, would have compelled the disclosure of all contributions by individuals who surpass $10,000 in donations in a given reporting period. The bill was passed by the House but died in the Senate.”

While there’s been some coverage of some aspects of this story — a Washington Post story about Democrats pressuring the Biden administration, the Associated Press reporting on South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s defense of her state’s law — except for regional papers like the Tampa Bay Times, Project Censored reports, “There has been little acknowledgment in the establishment press of the stream of ALEC-inspired bills passing through state legislatures that seek to keep the source of so much of the money spent to influence elections hidden in the shadows.”

10) Major Media Outlets Lobby Against Regulation of “Surveillance Advertising”

“Surveillance advertising” — collecting users’ data to target them with tailored advertising —  has become a ubiquitous, extremely profitable practice on the world’s most popular social media apps and platforms —  Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc. But now, as Lee Fang reported for the Intercept in February 2022, the Biden administration’s Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is seeking to regulate user data collection. Lobbyists for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, or IAB are pushing back.

“In a letter, IAB called for the FTC to oppose a ban on data-driven advertising networks, claiming the modern media cannot exist without mass data collection,” Fang reported.

“The IAB represents both data brokers and online media outlets that depend on digital advertising, such as CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, Vox, the Orlando Sentinel, Fox News, and dozens of other media companies,” Fang explained. “The privacy push has largely been framed as a showdown between technology companies and the administration,” but “The lobbying reveals a tension that is rarely a center of the discourse around online privacy: Major media corporations increasingly rely on a vast ecosystem of privacy violations, even as the public relies on them to report on it.” As a result, “Major news outlets have remained mostly silent on the FTC’s current push and a parallel effort to ban surveillance advertising by the House and Senate by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.,” Fang concluded.

“The IAB argues that targeted advertising — and, by extension, the siphoning of user data — has become necessary due to declining revenues from print sales and subscriptions,” Project Censored summarized. “Non-digital advertising revenue decreased from $124.8 billion in 2011 to $89.8 billion in 2020, while digital advertising revenue rose from $31.9 billion to $152.2 billion in the same period, according to Pew Research.” Complicating matters, “The personal information collected by online media is typically sold to aggregators, such as BlueKai (owned by Oracle) and OpenX, that exploit user data — including data describing minors — to create predictive models of users’ behavior, which are then sold to advertising agencies. The covert nature of surveillance advertising makes it difficult for users to opt out.” In addition, “The user information collected by media sites also enables direct manipulation of public perceptions of political issues, as famously happened when the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica tapped into personal data from millions of Facebook users to craft campaign propaganda during the 2016 US presidential election.”

“The corporate media have reported the FTC’s openness to new rules limiting the collection and exploitation of user data, but have generally not drawn attention to IAB lobbying against the proposed regulations,” Project Censored noted, citing articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post as examples. “[N]either outlet discussed IAB, its lobbying on this issue, or the big media clients the organization represents.” 



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