The Times’ selective promotion of democracy
When the results of the June 13 Iranian elections were decried as fraudulent (charges that were later backed up by a detailed study by Chatham House—6/21/09), U.S. media instantly became the champions of the oppressed Iranians who took to the streets in protest. Cries of righteous solidarity echoed from virtually all mainstream outlets, and the large demonstrations were front-page news on every newspaper in the country each day.
The Islamic regime’s harsh suppression of demonstrations was rightfully the focus of prolific news coverage and vigorous editorial discussion. As the pages of the New York Times informed Americans, a “genuine democratic movement…including women, young people, intellectuals and members of the moderate clerical establishment,” had “united” in “resistance” against Iran’s clerics (6/14/09), who used “overwhelming force to crush the demonstrations” (6/16/09), and against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (6/14/09), “an intensely divisive figure here and abroad.”
“Death to the dictator,” the protesters were quoted as crying, after Ahmadinejad’s victory “provoked deep suspicion,” given that Iran had a tendency toward “vote-rigging” that had “often been raised.” Indeed, the Times editorialized (6/15/09), “given the government’s even more than usually thuggish reaction, it certainly looks like fraud.”
By contrast, about two weeks later, demonstrators in Honduras who took to the streets to demand the reinstatement of the democratically elected president who had been violently abducted by soldiers that were armed, trained and advised by the United States received no such media support or attention. Hardly a mention that hundreds of protesters—two of whom were killed and 60 injured, according to the Chinese press agency Xinhua (6/30/09)—were confronting tanks and droves of armed forces in the Honduran capital could be found in mainstream news outlets or editorial pages.
The New York Times (6/29/09) framed its reporting on events in Honduras much differently than those of Iran: President Manuel Zelaya, “a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela,” was ousted by the U.S.-backed Honduran military, which was “acting to defend the law” after “months of tensions over [Zelaya’s] efforts to lift presidential term limits”—efforts that “critics said [were] part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president.”
This version of events, consistently followed by Times reporters and opinion writers, is wildly inaccurate and misleading. In reality, Zelaya had called for a non-binding referendum that would have asked whether Hondurans would support the formation of a convention to rewrite Honduras’ constitution (possibly including a change in term-limit laws); that convention would not have been convened until after the general elections in November 2009, in which Zelaya was not a candidate because his term was expiring (Miami Herald, 7/3/09; Rebel Reports, 7/1/09).
The comparison of Zelaya to Chávez, whose name in the Times has always been a pejorative (Extra!, 11-12/06), is telling. To the Times, Chavez has been a “populist demagogue” and an “authoritarian man on horseback” (12/20/98) who “has militarized the government, emasculated the country’s courts, intimidated the media, eroded confidence in the economy and hollowed out Venezuela’s once-democratic institutions” (9/17/06). The Times celebrated the unsuccessful coup against him, rejoicing that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator” (4/13/02; Extra! Update, 6/02).
The disparity in the amount of attention given to the protesters in each country is striking, as demonstrated by a Nexis search of the first 10 days following both the Iran elections and the Honduran coup. The Times’ first article on the Iran elections (6/14/09) quoted “green revolution” protesters at length, including reformist clerics and students. Op-ed columnist Tom Friedman (6/14/09) that same day wrote: “But for the first time in a long time, the forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs. Good for them.” Two days later (6/16/09), in the online edition, columnist Ross Douthat praised the Iranian upheaval as a happy consequence of the global recession (failing to mention the role played by crippling U.S. sanctions). Likewise, a Times editorial (6/15/09) quickly condemned the shaky election results and Iran’s tepid democracy.
In the days following the military takeover in Honduras, on the other hand, the Times did not condemn the coup in an editorial, nor publish a single op-ed praising the Honduran protesters. In its original report on the coup (6/29/09), the Times acknowledged that “several thousand protesters supporting the president faced off against soldiers outside the presidential palace, burning tires,” but unlike in its Iran stories, the paper failed to quote a single demonstrator rallying to salvage the country’s hijacked democracy. The Times did follow with an article reporting on world leaders’ condemnations of the coup (6/28/09), but the voices of the brave Hondurans, who like the Iranians are fighting for their freedom despite enormous risk, have been conspicuously absent.
The first op-ed in the Times about the coup in Honduras (6/30/09) argued that Zelaya “set a trap for the military” by “pushing the limits of democracy,” and claimed the coup, while not legitimate, “has popular support in Honduras”—citing no evidence and ignoring the thousands who have taken to the street, the election results that put Zelaya in power in 2005, and international law on the matter. Astonishingly, the op-ed—headlined “The Winner in Honduras: Chávez”—linked the whole affair to the Venezuelan president’s “incessant exploitation.”
In the only other op-ed written on the topic (“Who Cares About Zelaya?,” 7/7/09), Roger Marín Neda, a columnist for an anti-Zelaya newspaper in Honduras, argued that the ousted leader was “a typical Honduran politician” with a “lust for power,” whose “goal seemed to be a change from our democratic system into a kind of 21st-century socialism…a Hugo Chávez-type of government.”
After dismissing those “abroad [who] are obsessing over the question of whether Mr. Zelaya’s ouster was legal or a classic military coup,” Neda casually discarded the right of Hondurans to choose their own leaders: “Mr. Zelaya may or may not return to serve the remaining months of his term. But for the future of Honduras, does it really even matter?”
Equally revealing as the Times’ framing of the news was the volume of coverage of the events in Iran and Honduras respectively. In the 10 days following the Honduran coup, the Times devoted 13 news articles to the events unfolding there—only two of which appeared on Page 1—totaling less than 14,000 words. They ran two op-eds, one news analysis piece, no editorials and no letters to the editor. In the 10 days following the Iranian elections, by contrast, the Times ran 37 news articles on the issue—more than 38,000 words in total—including 15 front-page articles. The paper also published 12 op-eds, six news analysis pieces, two editorials and more than 2,600 words in letters to the editor.
The double standard here is clear. Those protesting a regime that is an official state enemy are brave freedom fighters who merit attention and praise, and the official suppression of these protests is amplified. Meanwhile, those protesting a military coup against a leader who had increasingly supported alternatives to the U.S.-dominated economic world order are either ignored or their cause distorted practically beyond recognition.
Michael Corcoran (MichaelCorcoran.blogspot.com) is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He has written for such outlets as the Nation and the Boston Globe. Stephen Maher (rationalmanifesto.blogspot.com) is an MA candidate at the School of International Service at American University.