James is joined on this week’s Real Politik by Mickey Huff, director of the internationally-recognized media education and activist organization Project Censored,. Huff is professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay area. He is also co-host with former Project Censored director Dr. Peter Phillips of the Project Censored Show. The program airs weekly as part of The Morning Mix on Pacifica’s KPFA Free Speech Radio in Berkeley, CA. He is also on the steering committee of the Media Freedom Foundation, Banned Books Week, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. Huff has been interviewed by affiliates of NPR, PBS, ABC, Pacifica, The New York Times Co., Russia Today, Progressive Radio Network, Republic Broadcasting, and many other commercial and independent news media outlets. He has been a lecturer at numerous colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, including in sociology at Sonoma State University. Huff speaks regularly at venues in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the US on issues of censorship, propaganda, media literacy, and historiography.
Huff’s work has appeared in numerous academic journals and books and has been published by many online news and commentary sites including Global Research, Truthout, Buzzflash, Dissident Voice, Lew Rockwell, The Daily Bell, Information Clearinghouse, and The Daily Censored, among others.
Mickey Huff’s interest in journalism and history first developed from his family’s involvement in art and public life.
As a youth I grew up in a working class environment in Pennsylvania. My parents were readers and artists, in addition to other things. So I grew up around a lot of books and current events magazines. That was in the seventies, certainly before the advent of cable, 24/7 news and so forth. I was always struck by what the narratives were, and when I became a teenager I sort of started to play closer attention. I’ve been a musician for 30 years. Some of the music I listened to had lyrics with people critiquing news and these media narratives. So it really started to pique my attention, and I got really interested in things like history and philosophy and sociology, and the more I started to read the more I started to question, “Who controls these narratives?”
Interestingly enough, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I stumbled on a book. It was actually at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore. I was walking by a shelf and the spine of the book said, “Censored: The News that Didn’t Make the News,” and of course that was Carl Jensen’s first book-length effort at publishing his work at Censored. Carl Jensen was the professor of communications who founded Project Censored at Sonoma State University in California in 1976, and had done annual reports. But the first full-length book for Project Censored came out in 1993, and then it was subsequently picked up by Seven Stories Press and has been a book per year ever since. I became involved with Project Censored as an associate director through 2007-08, and became director in 2010.
Huff met then-director of Project Censored Peter Phillips, a sociology professor also at Sonoma State, at an alternative media conference at San Francisco State University in 2001. “This was before the so-called media reform movement took off,” he recalls.
In fact, there were a couple thousand people there. Again, the term was ‘alternative news media,’ and what that implied was non-corporate. I know often people use the term ‘mainstream media.’ At Project Censored we don’t use that terminology because it hides the fact that these are private, for-profit entities, six of which now own 90 percent of the media in the United States. ‘Mainstream’ implies that they somehow are telling people what’s going on, and they have a narrative of [protecting] the people and public interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And the point of the alternative press, then, is to call attention to that. It’s not to imply that the alternative media is any more objective, potentially, than their corporate media counterparts. The interesting thing is that by using terms like, ‘mainstream,’ the corporate news media like to masquerade as if they have some high-principled objectivity behind their reporting. Of course, at Project Censored we’ve been analyzing that for decades, clearly illustrating that nothing could be further from the truth.
Project Censored’s analyses, compiled in their annual reports, highlight news stories culled from alternative media outlets that put corporate-owned media to shame simply through genuine investigative and analytical work. Further, the alternative media’s output is typically produced with far fewer personnel and resources than their corporate media counterparts. “In a very broad sense alternative media means news outlets that provide, literally, alternatives to the viewpoints, the perspectives, and even some of the facts that are commonly heard and seen in the so-called corporate press,” Huff explains.
I know alternative media sometimes also takes on the cache, potentially, of being anti-establishment. Of course, the term “alternative media” has for years been used with left or left-progressive media outlets. There are, however, some right-leaning [alternative] outlets, or I would suggest more libertarian outlets. The right-conservative outlets in the United States tend to have some of the same problems as the corporate news media because they are deeply ensconced in the capitalist system, and they’re often funded by the same owners and same corporations and foundations.
That doesn’t mean that left-progressive outlets are immune from potential influence from any kind of funding or foundations, but there seems to be far less of it, at least on the significant “alternative media publications.” One of the names that always comes up on the progressive end of the spectrum is George Soros. George Soros does Media Matters and funds [others]. George Soros does fund a number of things, but I find his influence in media pales compared to some of the efforts we’ve seen by major corporate outlets, whether they be Disney, or Time-Warner, or Comcast, and of course “philanthropists”–I’m using aerial quotes around that–David and Charles Koch–the Koch Brothers–and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Those have a lot of influence on media as well.
As a historian Huff recognizes the close association between journalism, history and popular memory–in short the ways a society can understand yet also misinterpret and forget its own past through a broader process of political and cultural censorship.
I’m very interested in [examining] how dominant emerging patterns of historiography and interpretation take hold. Well, in part its institutionally through publishing houses dominated by major corporations. It is also through news media and what is the interaction between news media, the reporting of news and information, and how does that impact history in the making; journalism is oft referred to as the first draft of history. But how does that subsequent journalistic reporting impact the way people understand the past or think about the past? How does it shape people’s view the past. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have a whole book and series called The Untold History of the United States. We know, of course, about Howard Zinn and The People’s History, and these alternative narratives. These are things that are factually supported. These are stories that are available for people to see. However, they’ve largely been crowded out of historical discussions. Again, most of what people know about the past they either know from their schooling, or their training in school or college, and from the corporate news media.
Huff developed historical research in graduate school on the May 4, 1970 Kent State University massacre, when four Kent State students were killed and nine injured as National Guard troops opened fire on students protesting President Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia. That episode has continuing resonance especially today since police in America have become increasingly militarized and hostile toward the citizenry.
In the case of Kent State it was very curious because the whole affair was treated as if it was some kind of tragic accident. My research on the matter from graduate school was on how the shootings were interpreted through public artwork, commemorations, through the politics of memory. At every turn either the State of Ohio or the university administration at Kent, also working in conjunction [was Ohio] Governor Rhodes with Richard Nixon to suppress dissent and protest movements, along with the FBI’s counterintelligence program.
So from the inception there was an attempt to control the narrative. Subsequently through the decades of the 1970s and the 1980s at every turn the university and the state made sure that at the very least blame would not be cast against the guard or the state … The historical narrative kind of goes, “Protesters are hippies, protesters are unruly, protesters have it coming, etc.” But in this case what we see emerging over decades is this narrative of state control, state violence, in violation of not only people’s civil rights, but taking people’s lives. So, history matters. It’s very important to investigate and get these narratives correct on the basis of factual evidence because it’s very illuminating in the present.