SPACE JUNK: The corporate media’s fawning coverage of billionaires’ space tourism is one of the best examples of junk food news of the past year, written by Jen Lyons, Marcelle Swinburne, Sierra Kaul, Gavin Kelley, and Mickey Huff

Adapted from Project Censored’s “State of the Free Press 2023”

Remember the Cold War Space Race between the former Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s? During the past year, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk went ahead and turned that into a modern-day dick-measuring contest, for lack of a better phrase, to see who could get there first for the longest. Their space outfits, extensively reported on by CNN Science, received more attention than the pollution caused by this narcissistic billionaire power competition, in which one rocket launch produced an estimated 300 tons of carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere, where it can remain for years.

It was the “year of space tourism,” “the year of the billionaires,” the year space became “sexy all over again.” Between summer 2021 and spring 2022, there were hundreds of news stories across corporate media outlets celebrating and/or criticizing the billionaire space race. While this rich dude bratwurst dish appears filling, it turns out that all this news is about as nourishing as a tin of Vienna Sausages.

The corporate news media’s coverage of the billionaire space race epitomizes what Project Censored calls Junk Food News, a term coined in 1983 by its founder, Carl Jensen, to criticize the type of sensationalist and inconsequential (but undeniably delicious in the moment) news stories that receive substantial coverage by corporate news outlets, thus distracting audiences from more significant, newsworthy stories.

The news of the billionaire space race launched in the summer of 2021 with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group boldly going where no one could afford to go before—all vying to buy a spot in history. CNN was one of the main media outlets covering this new space race in detail, centering its reports on the dick-measuring contest between the three magnates. In its business pages, CNN covered the sword fight between Bezos and Branson vying to be the first to launch themselves into Earth’s upper atmosphere, with Branson scooping Bezos by nine days to be the first of the billionaires to take a sub-orbital flight, via his company Virgin Galactic, on July 11, 2021. Not only was Bezos’s Blue Origin flight upstaged by Branson, but Bezos also lost a $2.9 billion government contract from NASA to build the next lunar lander module, prompting Bezos to go to court to cry about it. If we’re taking out the old measuring tape and doing this, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 flight in September 2021, bankrolled by another man with too much money, did measure bigger and longer than both Bezos’s and Branson’s sub-orbital flights, going higher than the International Space Station and orbiting Earth several times in a three-day period. Musk’s SpaceX has since transported astronauts to the International Space Station, while Bezos’s Blue Origin has mostly made news for shuttling PR-grubbing celebrities and rich brats into space for mere minutes. Since the failures and mistakes reported in Branson’s short flight, the media have reported that Branson plans to fly next on a SpaceX vessel, while also scolding the vassals back on Earth to slow down while driving to decrease European fuel demand from the West’s continued and renewed Cold War enemy, Russia.

Of particular interest to the New York Times was Star Trek’s William Shatner launching into space in October 2021, on Bezos’s Blue Origin flight. The New York Times alone published stories on October 4 and October 7, several on October 13, and another on October 14 on this specific topic. News outlets gushed as the famous “Captain Kirk,” known on television in the 1960s for his own virility and libido in space, became the oldest man to journey into real-life space.

Throughout this modern-day, privatized space race, there have been a multitude of stories regarding what these billionaire astronauts were wearing. These news pieces weren’t confined to Entertainment and Style sections but often appeared on the Science and Technology pages of historic publications. For example, the New York Times Science pages offered a story about the designs of the uniforms worn by self-styled space cowboy Jeff Bezos and his crew. Any chance those space diapers can be retrofitted for your Amazon workers and delivery drivers denied bathroom breaks, Jeff ? Talk about averting a modern Triangle Shi[r]twaist Factory fire! We also learned that Elon Musk hired the costume designer for movies like Batman v Superman and The Avengers to create functional space suits worthy of Hollywood red carpets. He realizes those are movies, right? Bringing sexy back, indeed.

The billionaire space race has not been without its criticisms, from realistic analyses of the dangers of space travel in the hands of civilians to warnings from the New York Times and Washington Post against the further expansion of unregulated Big Tech into space. Joining critics of this “cosmic country club,” notable silver-spoon monarch Prince William weighed in, earning himself several fawning news pieces by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. But with the royal family’s history of environmental exploitation and degradation, it doesn’t appear that Prince William has a third leg to stand on. We get that you were a “real” pilot, but if you want to enter this contest, you’ll need to whip out something bigger than the private jets you normally charter. Only one independent news source, Truthout, reported on a Media Matters for America study that found that morning TV shows gave as much airtime to Bezos’s 2021 space launch as they did to all climate crisis news in 2020. Maybe Prince William forgot his place in the global elite, the top 1 percent, that Oxfam showed in late 2020 emitted more than double the carbon pollution of 3 billion of the world’s poorest people.

While Bezos bobs around in space, the behemoth creature he left behind, the Amazon corporation, made its own news as its package-packed vans swarmed across the Earth. Legacy media outlets such as the New York Times have covered the battle between the Amazon corporation and its employees. We know of the years-long new stories about the pissy labor conditions of delivery driving for Amazon, but more recent news has focused on the efforts of warehouse workers to unionize in Alabama and New York. A New York Times report published around the time of Bezos and Shatner’s little voyage headlined a story “How Amazon Crushes Unions.” We’re truly living in a post-apocalyptic movie, one that feels like it was written by Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Beavis and Butt-Head) and directed by John Carpenter (They Live). Corporations are allegedly persons before the law, but ones with limitless protections. The rich are cosmonauts escaping Earth to people new planets. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be left here on Earth eating Soylent Green, which, if you didn’t know, is made out of people.

Jen Lyons is a history instructor at Diablo Valley College and the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Marcelle Swinburne teaches women’s, California, and US history at Diablo Valley College and Solano Community College.

Sierra Kaul is a senior at UC Davis, majoring in history and minoring in museum studies.

Gavin Kelley is a graduate of Cal State Long Beach with a degree in creative writing. He is currently director of operations for the Colburn School’s dance program.

Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and president of the Media Freedom Foundation. He is also a professor of social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College, where he co-chairs the history area and is chair of the Journalism Department.

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