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Carl Jensen, a retired Sonoma State University sociology professor and media watchdog who founded a nonprofit group that publishes stories it claims are underreported or ignored by mainstream media, has died. He was 85.

Jensen founded Project Censored in 1976 and was its leader for 20 years, publishing an annual list of the top 25 most-censored stories. He was embraced by the alternative press and took aim at newspapers such as the New York Times and The Press Democrat, accusing them of overlooking the most important subjects.

“He was ahead of his time as far as media criticism goes,” said Mickey Huff, who became director of Project Censored in 2010. “He was a pioneer in terms of questioning the efficacy of corporate media.”

Jensen died Thursday at his Cotati home of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, said his wife of 38 years, Sandra Jensen. Memorial services are pending, she said.

“He was a gentle and caring person who truly cared about what was going on with the poor and things politically,” his wife said. “He had a huge, warm heart for people and animals.”

Jensen was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1929, the only child of Danish and Swedish immigrants. His family moved to Northern California at the outbreak of World War II, settling in Arcata in Humboldt County.

Jensen served as an Air Force intelligence officer in Puerto Rico during the Korean War and afterward moved to the Miami area, where he worked on a newspaper, his wife said. He wrote political exposés that angered local mobsters and was forced to leave Florida along with his second wife, who also was a journalist.

“They basically had to pack their bags in the middle of the night and get the hell out of there,” Sandra Jensen said. “Their porch lights were shot out as a warning.”

The couple bounced around after that, living in San Francisco and parts of Europe before moving to Los Angeles, where Jensen worked in advertising. He was employed by a large agency and lived like a character on the TV show “Mad Men,” his wife said.

But a serious car crash near Palm Springs in 1969 prompted Jensen to reconsider what he was doing and “get out of the horrible advertising business,” his wife said.

He quit his high-paying job, sold his Malibu home and enrolled in UC Santa Barbara, where he earned a doctorate in sociology. Jensen was hired as a professor at Sonoma State University in 1973. He divorced three years later and married Sandra Jensen, a former student.

Project Censored was born out of his early journalism experience and a frustration with what he saw as the self-censoring of news by the networks and news outlets, his wife said. Jensen’s work was recognized by Walter Cronkite and Ralph Nader, and received numerous awards, Huff said.

He also had critics, some who claimed he had a left-wing bias. In recent years, Project Censored was jabbed for highlighting 9/11 conspiracy theories. But Jensen never took the negative remarks seriously, his wife said.

“He could laugh it off,” she said. “He had documented cases of things going on.”

Jensen and his successor, former Project Censored director Peter Phillips, formed the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation in 2000. The group expanded its teachings to other campuses and made a documentary of its work in 2013.

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Jensen wrote three books: “Censored — The News That Didn’t Make the News and Why,” “20 Years of Censored News” and “Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century.”

He loved cats and Great Danes and had been a vegetarian for 30 years. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about five years ago.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Sherman Jackson of Crescent City and John Jensen of Lucerne, and two daughters, Lisa Jensen of Monterey and Pia Jensen, former Cotati councilwoman, who lives in Uruguay.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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