What Lies Beneath

Two books tease out shadowy subtexts—from the past seven decades to just last year

The outrage and attention focused on the Holocaust led to cries of "never again," until, of course, the tragedies in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The anger and self-criticism sparked by My Lai did nothing to prevent Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay. We may be doomed to re-enact the mistakes of the past, no matter how much we come to terms with it. Knowledge is no prophylactic.

John S. Friedman has more faith in the power of historical revelation. His anthology, The Secret Histories, reads like a hymnal to the power of the exposé. Friedman, a Nationcontributor and documentary filmmaker, has combed through some of the larger events of the post—WW II era and culled 26 stories, books, and congressional reports that together tell an unacknowledged version of the past 65 years. It's a familiar bunch of dark tales: how the FBI launched counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) against left-wingers; how the CIA fomented the 1953 coup in Iran; excerpts from the Watergate and Pentagon Papers stories; a bit from Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago; and part of Seymour M. Hersh's reporting on Abu Ghraib.

Secrets have power, and the power to prevent repeats of history's tragic episodes is one of the collection's unwritten goals. But many of Friedman's histories aren't secrets at all, and while they may have "challenged the past," aside from the occasional Watergate-level stories it's doubtful many of them have "changed the world." Tragically, in many cases, such as the "Genocide Fax" about the coming slaughter in Rwanda, they changed absolutely nothing.

Project Censored Students and Staff at Sonoma State University
photo: Courtesy of Project Censored
Project Censored Students and Staff at Sonoma State University

The inclusion of Eileen Welsome's reporting on "The Plutonium Experiment" focuses not on the event itself—the decades-long cover-up of the intentional exposure of American citizens to lethal doses of plutonium—but on Welsome's attempt to put human faces and names to the experiment's subjects. Welsome dug up the identities of the "unwitting human guinea pigs" for her 1993 series for The Albuquerque Tribune, but the experiments had been revealed in a science journal in 1976, and addressed later in congressional hearings that received a modicum of press coverage in 1986. So Friedman hasn't chosen to highlight the exposure of a secret so much as he's trumpeted the story that brought this ugly atomic secret to the attention of a larger audience. The fact that the plutonium experiments were conducted at all is the rotten meat here; Welsome's stories ran 17 years after the experiments came to light.

If The Secret Histories is a Behind the Music—style collection of underappreciated historical events, then Censored 2006, the latest installment of "the previous year's most important underreported news stories," is the I Love the 00s of the secret-news anthology set. Where Friedman's collection, best for undergrads, seems stale and familiar, Project Censored's 25 most overlooked stories of 2004—2005, selected mainly by undergrads, seems more to the point.

Here are some underreported stories that we can work with: how the Bush administration is undermining open government (#1); how the news media are criminally neglecting to cover the civilian death toll in Iraq (#2); how journalists are facing unprecedented dangers (#7). For the smart and courageous news manager, this annual report is a virtual road map for the coming year's news schedule. Many of these stories should, in an ideal news world, prompt deep and lengthy investigative efforts. That they don't is part of the book's point—the mainstream media, corrupted by profit motives and a fear of an organized right-wing backlash, are often unwilling or unsuited to examine many of these stories. "Project Censored goes where the media's conformist angels fear to tread," writes columnist Norman Solomon in his introduction. (Disclosure: I wrote a story that was included in a past edition of Censored.)

Perhaps it's a product of the pressure to fill out a collection, or maybe a result of the selection processes, but both anthologies risk trivializing their weightier parts by including less substantial offerings. In a fit of lurid excess, Friedman includes an excerpt from Anthony Summers's 1993 J. Edgar Hoover bio, Official and Confidential, detailing Hoover's alleged cross-dressing and mob ties. Similarly, the students and faculty members at Sonoma State University who choose the 25 most "censored" news stories of the year ( Underreported and/or What We'd Emphasize 2006 being deemed, apparently, too precise) display a sometimes frustrating tendency to include the obvious (#13, "Rich Countries Fail to Live Up to Global Pledges") or the confusingly obscure (#24, "Ethiopian Indigenous Victims of Corporate and Government Resource Aspirations").

But chalk any shortcomings up to format. If Friedman's collection works best as a course reading—The Norton Anthology for Vindicated Paranoiacs— it's the perfect inspiration for the healthy skepticism displayed by the students and instructors at Project Censored. Both anthologies inspire a necessary distrust of the news media—and an unhealthy tendency to make us more receptive to conspiracy-theory readings of news and history. If you come away from these collections questioning everything you know, that's part of the point—distrust flourishes when dark corners are illuminated.

 
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