During the height of the civil rights movement, Southern authorities frequently reacted to the bombing of a black church or a civil rights leader’s home by blaming the act on the Movement: “The Negroes did it themselves. It’s a stunt to win sympathy.” While the innuendo that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have fire-bombed his own home while his children slept was prominently and uncritically reported in Southern dailies, journalists from national media ignored such hokum or reported it as a way of highlighting how depraved or dishonest the authorities were.
Ironically, the same absurd scenarios dismissed by journalists when uttered by segregationists about Southern blacks are treated as entirely credible when uttered by U.S. officials about Central Americans.
Execution of Priests by Salvadoran Soldiers, November 16, 1989
Journalists knew instantly that the U.S.-equipped Salvadoran army, with a history of execution-style slayings, had control of the Jesuit university grounds and that the martyred priests had been outspoken advocates of seating the FMLN guerrillas at the negotiating table. Yet when US officials played dumb, pretending not to know whether the killers were “far rightists or leftists,” and when Salvadoran authorities asserted that the FMLN had murdered their advocates, these statements received credible coverage in some media. The fog was still thick a month later when Newsweek reported (12/25/89) that the priests had been murdered “by a presumed rightist death squad.” Through such phrases, centrist media obscure the fact that the “rightist death squads” are an integral part of Salvador’s military structure. (See Amnesty International’s 1988 report, “El Salvador `Death Squads’–A Government Strategy.”)
Murder of Nuns by Nicaraguan Contras, January 1, 1990
Days after the U.S. relied largely on the death of a single U.S. citizen to justify its invasion of Panama, two nuns–one an American–were killed when their pickup truck was ambushed in northeastern Nicaragua. The attack occurred in an area in which the contras–who have killed dozens of civilians in recent months–were known to freely roam. Initial media coverage gave play to Nicaragua’s charges that the contras were responsible and to contra claims that the Sandinistas had impersonated contras killing the nuns.
By Day 2, the murders were not worthy of mention on CBS and ABC nightly newscasts. By then Mexican and Latin American press agencies had found two eye-witnesses who identified the contras as the killers of the nuns. The story took two weeks to break in the U.S. and when it did, the Washington Post broke it in a news story that read like a White House-sanctioned editorial (1/14/90): “There was little doubt that it was contra rebels who killed them. But there is also little doubt that the U.S.-backed guerrillas did not mean to do it.” The Post proceeded with an unsourced claim reminiscent of the innuendo once aimed at Martin Luther King: “In Managua, the capital, some suspected immediately after the attack that the Sandinistas might have staged it to appear to be a contra ambush. After all, only the Sandinistas…could benefit from such an atrocity.”
By giving credence to claims which obscure the violence caused by U.S.-backed forces in Central America, some in the national media seem to be impersonating the Southern cracker reporters of 30 years ago.