Jan 1 1990

How Television Sold the Panama Invasion

The media go to war

Panama Invasion (photo: Morland/DoD)

Panama, December 21, 1989 (photo: Morland/DoD)

Two weeks after the Panama invasion, CBS News sponsored a public opinion poll in Panama that found the residents in rapture over what had happened. Even 80 percent of those whose homes had been blown up or their relatives killed by U.S. forces said it was worth it. Their enthusiasm did not stop with the ousting of Gen. Manuel Noriega, however. A less heavily advertised result of the poll was that 82 percent of the sampled Panamanian patriots did not want Panamanian control of the Canal, preferring either partial or exclusive control by the U.S. (“Panamanians Strongly Back U.S. Move,” New York Times, 1/6/90).

A “public opinion poll” in a country under martial law, conducted by an agency obviously sanctioned by the invading forces, can be expected to come up with such results. Most reporters, traveling as they did with the U.S. military, found little to contradict this picture. Less than 40 hours after the invasion began, Sam Donaldson and Judd Rose transported us to Panama via ABC‘s Prime Time Live (12/21/90). “There were people who applauded us as we went by in a military convoy,” said Rose. “The military have been very good to us [in escorting reporters beyond the Canal Zone],” added Donaldson.

While this kind of “Canal Zone journalism” dominated television, a few independent print journalists struck out on their own. Peter Eisner of Newsday’s Latin America bureau, for example, reported (12/28/89) that Panamanians were cursing U.S. soldiers under their breath as troops searched the home of a neighbor–a civilian–for weapons. One Panamanian pointed out a man speaking to U.S. soldiers as a “sapo” (a toad–slang for “dirty informer”) and suggested that denouncing people to the U.S. forces was a way of settling old scores. A doctor living on the street said that “liberals will be laying low for a while, and they’re probably justified” because of what would happen to those who speak out. All of Eisner’s sources feared having their names printed.

The same day’s Miami Herald ran articles about Panamanian citizen reactions, including concern over the hundreds of dead civilians: “Neighbors saw six U.S. truck loads bringing dozens of bodies” to a mass grave. As a mother watched the body of her soldier son lowered into a grave, her “voice rose over the crowd’s silence: ‘Damn the Americans.'”

Obviously there was a mix of opinion inside Panama, but it was virtually unreported on television, the dominant medium shaping U.S. attitudes about the invasion. Panamanian opposition to the U.S. was dismissed as nothing more than “DigBat [Dignity Battalion] thugs” who’d been given jobs by Noriega. And it was hardly acknowledged that the high-visibility demonstration outside the Vatican Embassy the day of Noriega’s surrender had been actively “encouraged” by the U.S. occupying forces (Newsday, 1/5/90).

Few TV reporters seemed to notice that the jubilant Panamanians parading before their cameras day after day to endorse the invasion spoke near-perfect English and were overwhelmingly light-skinned and well-dressed. This in a Spanish-speaking country with a largely mestizo and black population where poverty is widespread. ABC‘s Beth Nissen (12/27/89) was one of the few TV reporters to take a close look at the civilian deaths caused by US bombs that pulverized El Chorillo, the poor neighborhood which ambulance drivers now call “Little Hiroshima.” The people of El Chorillo don’t speak perfect English, and they were less than jubilant about the invasion.

“Our Boys” vs. Unseen Civilians

US Army Rangers, El Chorrillo (photo: DoD)

US Army Rangers invading the Panamanian neighborhood of El Chorrillo (photo: DoD)

In the first days of the invasion, TV journalists had one overriding obsession: How many American soldiers have died? The question, repeated with drumbeat regularity, tended to drown out the other issues: Panamanian casualties, international law, foreign reaction. On the morning of the invasion, CBS anchor Kathleen Sullivan’s voice cracked with emotion for the U.S. soldiers: “Nine killed, more than 50 wounded. How long can this fighting go on?” Unknown and unknowable to CBS viewers, hundreds of Panamanians had already been killed by then, many buried in their homes.

Judging from the calls and requests for interviews that poured into the FAIR office, European and Latin American journalists based in the U.S. were stunned by the implied racism and national chauvinism in the media display. The Toronto Globe and Mail, often referred to as the New York Times of Canada, ran a front-page article (12/22/89) critiquing the United States and its media for “the peculiar jingoism of U.S. society so evident to foreigners but almost invisible for most Americans.”

TV’s continuous focus on the well-being of the invaders, and not the invadees, meant that the screen was dominated by red, white and blue-draped coffins and ceremonies, honor rolls of the U.S. dead, drum rolls, remarks by Dan Rather (12/21/89) about “our fallen heroes”…but no Panamanian funerals. This despite the fact that the invasion claimed perhaps 50 Panamanian lives for every U.S. citizen killed.

When Pentagon pool correspondent Fred Francis was asked on day one about civilian casualties on ABC‘s Nightline (12/20/89), he said he did not know, because he and other journalists were traveling around with the U.S. army. Curiosity didn’t increase in ensuing days. FAIR called the TV networks daily to demand they address the issue of civilian deaths, but journalists said they had no way of verifying the numbers.

No such qualms existed with regards to Rumania, where over the Christmas weekend CNN and other U.S. outlets were freely dishing out fantastic reports of 80,000 people killed in days of violence, a figure–greater than the immediate Hiroshima death toll– which any editor should have dismissed out of hand. Tom Brokaw’s selective interest in civilians was evident when he devoted the first half of NBC Nightly News (12/20/89) to Panama without mentioning non-combatant casualties, then turned to Rumania and immediately referred to reports of thousands of civilian deaths.

Not until the sixth day of the Panama invasion did the U.S. Army augment its estimated dead (23 American troops, 297 alleged enemy soldiers) to include a figure for civilians: 254. The number was challenged as representing only a fraction of the true death toll by the few reporters who sought out independent sources: Panamanian human rights monitors, hospital workers, ambulance drivers, funeral home directors. These sources also spoke of thousands of civilian injuries and 10,000 left homeless. Many journalists, especially on television, were too busy cheerleading “the successful military action” to notice the Panamanians who didn’t fair so successfully.

TV correspondents, so incurious about civilian casualties, could not be expected to go beyond U.S. military assurances about who was being arrested and why. As the Boston Globe noted (1/1/90), U.S. forces were arresting anyone on a blacklist compiled by the newly installed government. Newsday‘s Peter Eisner reported (1/7/90): “Hundreds of intellectuals, university students, teachers and professional people say they have been harassed and detained by U.S. forces in the guise of searching for hidden weapons.”

The “Objective” Reporter’s Lexicon: We, Us, Our

In covering the invasion of Panama, many TV journalists abandoned even the pretense of operating in a neutral, independent mode. Television anchors used pronouns like “we” and “us” in describing the mission into Panama, as if they themselves were members of the invasion force, or at least helpful advisers.

NBC‘s Tom Brokaw exclaimed, on day one (12/20/89): “We haven’t got [Manuel Noriega] yet.” CNN anchor Mary Anne Loughlin asked a former CIA official (12/21/89): “Noriega has stayed one step ahead of us. Do you think we’ll be able to find him?” After eagerly quizzing a panel of U.S. military experts on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (12/21/89) about whether “we” had wiped out the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), Judy Woodruff concluded, “So not only have we done away with the PDF, we’ve also done away with the police force.” So much for separation of press and state.

Nightline‘s Ted Koppel and other TV journalists had a field day mocking Noriega’s Orwellianly titled “Dignity Battalions,” but none were heard ridiculing the invasion’s code name: “Operation Just Cause.” The day after the invasion began (12/21/89), NBC Nightly News offered its own case study in Orwellian newspeak: While one correspondent referred to the U.S. military occupiers as engaged in “peacekeeping chores,” another correspondent on the same show referred to Latin American diplomats condemning the U.S. at the Organization of American States as a “lynch mob.” After the Soviet Union criticized the invasion as “gunboat diplomacy” (as had many other countries), Dan Rather (CBS Evening News, 12/20/89) dismissed it as “old-line, hard-line talk from Moscow.”

Journalism gave way to state propaganda when a CNN correspondent dutifully reported on the first day of the invasion (12/20/89), “U.S. troops have taken detainees, but we are not calling them ‘prisoners of war’ because the U.S. has not declared war.” (That kind of obedient reporter probably still refers to the Vietnam “conflict.”) Similarly, on day one, many network correspondents couldn’t bring themselves to call the invasion an invasion until they got the green light from Washington; instead, it was referred to variously as a military action, intervention, operation, expedition, affair or insertion.

Where Did Our Love Go?

Many reporters uncritically promoted White House explanations for its break-up with Noriega. Clifford Krauss reported (New York Times, 1/21/90) that Noriega “began as a CIA asset but fell afoul of Washington over his involvement in drug and arms trafficking.” ABC‘s Peter Jennings told viewers on the day of the invasion, “Let’s remember that the United States was very close to Mr. Noriega before the whole question of drugs came up.”

Actually, Noriega’s drug links were asserted by U.S. intelligence as early as 1972. In 1976, after U.S. espionage officials proposed that Noriega be dumped because of drugs and double-dealing, then-CIA director George Bush made sure the relationship continued (San Francisco Examiner 1/5/90; New Yorker, 1/8/90). U.S. intelligence overlooked the drug issue year after year as long as Noriega was an eager ally in U.S. espionage and covert operations, especially those targeted against Nicaragua.

Peter Jennings’ claim that the U.S. broke with Noriega after the “question of drugs came up” turns reality upside down. Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking was purportedly heaviest in the early 1980s when his relationship with the U.S. was especially close. By 1986, when the Noriega/U.S. relationship began to fray, experts agree that Noriega had already drastically curtailed his drug links. The two drug-related indictments against Noriega in Florida cover activities from 1981 through March 1986 (“Analysts Challenge View of Noriega as Drug Lord,” Washington Post, 1/7/90).

When, as vice president, Bush met with Noriega in Panama in December 1983, besides discussing Nicaragua, Bush allegedly raised questions about drug-money laundering. According to author Kevin Buckley, Noriega told top aide Jose Blandon that he’d picked up the following message from the Bush meeting: “The United States wanted help for the Contras so badly that if he even promised it, the U.S. government would turn a blind eye to money-laundering and setbacks to democracy in Panama.”

In 1985 and ’86, Noriega met several times with Oliver North to discuss the assistance Noriega was providing to the Contras, such as training Contras at Panamanian Defense Force bases (“Noriega Could Give Some Interesting Answers,” Kevin Buckley, St. Petersburg Times, 1/3/90). Noriega didn’t fall from grace until he stopped being a “team player” in the U.S. war against Nicaragua.

Democracy had as little to do with the break-up as drugs. If Noriega believed Bush had given his strongarm rule a green light in 1983, confirmation came the next year when Noriega’s troops seized ballot boxes and blatantly rigged Panama’s presidential election. Noriega’s candidate, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, was also “our” candidate–an economist who had been a student and assistant to former University of Chicago professor George Shultz. Though loudly protested by Panamanians, the fraud that put Ardito Barletta in power was cheered by the U.S. embassy. Secretary of State Shultz attended his inauguration. (See “The Press on Panama,” Extra!, 3-4/88; Richard Reeves, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/25/89.)

As the Noriega case progresses toward trial, the media’s treatment of key witnesses against the general may offer a case study in bias. Several of the witnesses have already testified on these matters in a very public forum–hearings before Sen. John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Narcotics. At that time, February 1988, they fingered Nicaraguan contras as cocaine cohorts of Noriega operating under the umbrella of the CIA and Oilie North.

The hearings were ignored or distorted by national media outlets, with Reagan/Bush officials and CIA dismissing the witnesses as drug trafficking felons (Extra!, 3-4/88; Warren Hinckle, San Francisco Examiner, 1/11/90). In a predictable turnaround, as soon as Noriega was apprehended, TV news brought forth experts to explain that “when one prosecutes someone like Noriega for drug dealing, witnesses will of necessity be drug dealers.”

Provocations or Pretexts?

The U.S. media showed little curiosity about the December 16 confrontation that led to the death of a U.S. Marine officer and the injury of another when they tried to run a roadblock in front of the PDF headquarters. The officers were supposedly “lost.” In view of what is now known about the intense pre-invasion preparations then underway (New York Times, 12/24/89), is it possible the Marines were actually trying to track Noriega’s whereabouts?

The Panamanian version of the event was that the U.S. soldiers, upon being discovered, opened fire–injuring three civilians, including a child–and then tried to run the roadblock. This version was largely ignored by U.S. journalists even after the shooting two days later of a Panamanian corporal who “signaled a U.S. serviceman to stop,” according to the administration. “The U.S. serviceman felt threatened,” the administration claimed, after admitting that its earlier story that the Panamanian had pulled his gun was false (New York Times, 12/19/89).

As for the claim that a U.S. officer had been roughly interrogated and his wife sexually threatened, the administration provided no supporting evidence (New York Times, 12/19/89; Newsday, 12/18/89). Since the Marine’s death and the interrogation were repeatedly invoked to justify the invasion, the lack of press scrutiny of these claims is stunning.

For months, U.S. forces had been trying to provoke confrontations as a pretext for an attack. In response to an August 11 incident, Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter asked that a U.N. peacekeeping force be dispatched to Panama to prevent such encounters. The U.S. press largely ignored his call (El Diario/La Prensa, New York’s Spanish-language daily, 8/13/89).

The “Declaration of War” That Never Was

“When during the past few days [Noriega] declared war on the United States and some of his followers then killed a U.S. Marine, roughed up another American serviceman, also threatening that man’s wife, strong public support for a reprisal was all but guaranteed,” Ted Koppel told his Nightline audience December 20.

Noriega never “declared war on the United States.” The original Reuters dispatches, published on the inside pages of the New York Times (12/17-18/89), buried the supposed “declaration” in articles dealing with other matters. In the December 17 article headlined “Opposition Leader in Panama Rejects a Peace Offer from Noriega,” Reuters quoted the general as saying that he would judiciously use new powers granted him by the Panamanian parliament and that “the North American scheme, through constant psychological and military harassment, has created a state of war in Panama.” This statement of fact aroused little excitement at the White House, which called the parliament’s move “a hollow step.”

The day after the invasion, Los Angeles Times Pentagon correspondent Melissa Healey told a call-in talk show audience on C-SPAN that Noriega had “declared war” on the United States. When a caller asked why that hadn’t been front-page news, Healey explained that the declaration of war was one of a series of “incremental escalations.” When another caller pointed out that Panama had only made a rhetorical statement that U.S. economic and other measures had created a state of war, the Pentagon correspondent confessed ignorance of what had actually been said, and suggested that it was certainly worth investigating.

The incident symbolizes media performance on the invasion–dispense official information as gospel first, worry about the truth of that information later. It’s just what the White House was counting on from the media. The Bush team set out to control television and front-page news in the first days, knowing that exposes of official deception (such as Noriega’s 110 pounds of “cocaine” that turned out to be tamales) would not appear until weeks later, buried on inside pages of newspapers. Rulers do not require the total suppression of news. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: It’s sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters.

Besides uncritically dispensing huge quantities of official news and views, the TV networks had another passion during the first days of the invasion: polling their public. It was an insular process, with predictable results. A Toronto Globe and Mail news story summarized it (12/22/89):

Hardly a voice of objection is being heard within the United States about the Panama invasion, at least from those deemed as official sources and thus likely to be seen on television or read in the papers. Not surprisingly, given the media coverage, a television poll taken yesterday by one network (CNN) indicated that nine of 10 viewers approved of the invasion.


You Be the Judge

* “[The invasion was legal] according to all the experts I talked to.”
–Rita Braver (CBS Evening News, 12/20/89)

* “As far as international law is concerned, even sources in the U.S. government admit they were operating very near the line.”

–John McWethy (ABC World News Tonight, 1/5/90)

* “The territory of a state is inviolable. It may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or other measures of force taken by another state directly or indirectly on any grounds whatsoever.”

–Article 20, OAS Charter


Objective Journalists or State Propagandists?

“One of the more odious creatures with whom the United States has had a relationship.”

–Peter Jennings (ABC, 12/20/89)

“At the top of the list of the world’s drug thieves and scums.”

–Dan Rather (CBS, 12/20/89)

John Chancellor: “Do we bring him here and put him on trial…or do we just neutralize him in some way?”

Tom Brokaw: “I think you bring him here and you make it a showcase trial in the war on drugs and justice prevails.”

NBC, 12/20/89

“We lose numbers like that in large training exercises.”

–John Chancellor, commenting approvingly upon hearing only nine U.S. soldiers had died (NBC, 12/20/89)

“Noriega’s reputation as a brutal drug-dealing bully who reveled in his public contempt for the United States all but begged for strong retribution.”

–Ted Koppel (ABC‘s Nightline, 12/20/89)

“Noriega asked for this. President Bush listed all the things Noriega had done to force him to take action. Why does Noriega do these things?”

CNN anchor Ralph Wenge, interviewing a former U.S. military commander (12/21/89)

“Noriega seemed almost superhuman in his ability to slither away before we got to him.”

–Anchor Bill Beutel (WABC-TV, New York, 1/3/90)

“[George Bush has completed] a presidential initiation rite [joining] American leaders who since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood to protect or advance what they construe as the national interest…. Panama has shown him as a man capable of bold action.”

–R.W. Apple (New York Times, front-page news analysis, 12/21/09)