How is the world ruled and led into war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe those lies when they see them in print.
–Austrian scholar Karl Kraus
In March 1982, Congressman David Bonior (D.-Mich.) spoke fervently about Reagan’s Nicaragua policy on the House floor, warning of “a highly orchestrated propaganda effort by the administration, which unfortunately the media of this country to a very large degree is buying hook, line and sinker.” Referring to the legacy of US support for one Nicaraguan dictator after another, Bonior complained about “a notable lack of sense of history in this administration and in the media.”
Citing several examples of “manipulated evidence” behind White House charges against Nicaragua, Bonior concluded: “Mr. Speaker, would ask that the media of this country start focusing in on the evidence, and the manner of its presentation, because I do not think the evidence bears the fruit that the administration wishes for.”
For the most part, reporters have failed to meet Congressman Bonior’s challenge. Even a cub reporter grows skeptical about a courtroom defendant who continually changes his alibi. Yet many veteran journalists hardly blinked at the ever-changing rationale invoked to justify US support for the Contras first to “interdict” Nicaraguan weapons allegedly flowing to Salvadoran leftists, next to force “democratic reforms,” when the real motive should have been obvious all along: to overthrow the Sandinistas. The media were too busy fixating on a White House chimera to notice that the arms were moving in the opposite direction — from El Salvador to the Contras.
In many ways the media have functioned as a sieve for what Abraham Brumberg, former editor of the USIA journal Problems of Communism, described as a “flood of distortions, exaggerations and plain unvarnished lies about the Sandinistas that issue forth almost daily from the administration.”
Why have reporters performed so poorly? In a word, sources. Most reporters rely heavily on partisan US government sources, while slighting critical viewpoints and experts. Most Central America stories don’t originate from the region, but from Washington. The sheer quantity of information churned out by the administration is a major factor in its ability to set the news agenda.
The White House and Pentagon each hold two daily press briefings; the State Department holds one. The State Department and the Pentagon each issue over 600 press releases a year, while the White House produces 1 5 to 20 a day. These are supplemented by interviews, background briefings, leaks and any number of staged events. By sheer force of repetition, the administration has driven home its anti-Sandinista propaganda themes in the media. No matter how outrageous the allegation, few reporters bothered to include a simple disclaimer: “The charge could not be independently verified.”
This reverence for the official source betrays a lack of will, not skill. As former New York Times correspondent Ray Bonner noted, “Journalists, like politicians, don’t want to be labeled ‘leftists’ or as being ‘soft on Communism.’” And if reporters become too skeptical of US claims about Central America, they risk alienating their principal sources, or worse, as in Bonner’s case, being taken off the beat. There are, of course, exceptional journalists who’ve provided painstaking refutations of official deception about Nicaragua. But these rebuttals have run far less prominently than the original lie, and by the time they appeared new lies had already seized the headlines.
Much of the propaganda against Nicaragua was coordinated by the Office of Public Diplomacy. The OPD worked closely with Oliver North, the National Security Council and the CIA, planting dozens of false stories in major media outlets aimed at manufacturing a Nicaraguan threat. A senior US official familiar with OPD described it as “a vast psychological warfare operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in enemy territory” (Miami Herald, 7/19/87).
OPD’s target population was the American people. A March 13, 1985, “Eyes Only” memo to then-White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan described the OPD’s “White Propaganda Operation.” That week OPD helped prepare a Wall Street Journal column about “the Nicaraguan arms build-up,” assisted in “a positive piece” on the Contras by Fred Francis on NBC Nightly News, wrote op-ed columns for the signatures of Contra leaders to appear in leading dailies, arranged a media tour for a Contra leader and prepared to leak a State Department cable to embarrass the Sandinistas. “Do not be surprised.” OPD told Buchanan, “if this cable somehow hits the evening news.”
In view of the media manipulation boasted about in the memo, Buchanan’s whining about “the left-wing media” sounds a bit contrived. But red-baiting has been a conscious part of the White House strategy to bring journalists into line. Ironically. the only time the New York Times (2/20/86) mentioned “disinformation” in the context of Nicaragua was when US officials accused the Sandinistas of mounting a propaganda campaign to dupe reporters and mislead the American public.
From the beginning, this administration has sought to focus media attention on every (real and imagined) peccadillo of the Sandinistas while downplaying the far worse human rights records of other Central American nations. Even after the signing of the regional peace plan, the media continued to reflect Reagan’s obsession by focusing primarily on Nicaragua. When the accord earned President Arias the Nobel Peace Prize, the New York Times (10/28/87) reported that he was honored “for a plan designed to end the war in Nicaragua.”
FAIR analyzed the 90 days of Central America coverage in the New York Times (215 articles) since the Arias plan was signed on August 7. During this period that saw assassination and human rights reversals in El Salvador, nose-thumbing at the peace accord in Honduras, and intensified warfare and rumors of a military coup in Guatemala, the Times devoted 3.6 times more column inches to Nicaragua than to the three other countries combined. The ratio of Nicaragua coverage to that of Salvador was 5 to 1; Honduras, 22 to 1; Guatemala, 26 to 1.
When Nicaragua took steps to comply with the Arias accord, reporters joined US officials in denigrating the moves. “The Sandinistas are on a public relations roll,” announced ABC’s John Quinones. When the Sandinistas reopened media outlets and declared cease fire zones, MacNeil/Lehrer (9/23/87) featured a wide spectrum of comments: 1) a Contra statement; 2) Elliott Abrams (“a trick”); and 3) Phyllis Oakley of the State Department (“just cosmetic”).
Even when reporting from Managua. Juan Vasquez (CBS Morning News, 10/8/87) deferred to Washington sources:
“Reagan says there are over 10,000 political prisoners in Nicaraguan jails.” Citing Amnesty International, Ted Koppel (Nightline, 11/5/87) claimed that most of the 8,000 to 9,000 detainees in Nicaragua were political prisoners. But an Amnesty spokesperson told Extra! that Koppel was “not correct.” According to Amnesty, most of the estimated 4,000 Nicaraguans who could be construed as “political prisoners” were National Guardsmen and Somocistas sentenced for crimes committed prior to the Sandinista regime.
Meanwhile, Contra abuses were whitewashed by a propaganda blitz that hit America’s three most influential dailies on November 5 — a key date in implementing the Arias accord. Based on a three-day trek with the Contras in northern Nicaragua, reporters for the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times wrote front-page stories about the Contras’ new-found popularity, fighting skills and concern for the downtrodden. Lindsey Gruson’s New York Times account ran with an above-the-fold photo of a Contra soldier and an adoring child. Buried near the end of his 50-paragraph article was a reference to a just-released America’s Watch report stating that “the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses…so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war.”
The following day, the House voted $3.2 million in “non-lethal” aid for the Contras. With most media focused on whether the Sandinistas were complying with the Arias accord, few reporters noted that the House vote directly contradicts the accord’s prohibition on all aid — “military, logistical, financial, propaganda” —to irregular forces in the region. US media have repeatedly mischaracterized the terms of the accord as prohibiting only “military aid” to the Contras.
In this issue of Extra!, we focus on some of the more blatant, oft-repeated falsehoods. The short summary of each lie is not meant to be exhaustive, either in tracing media complicity in the lie or in rebutting it. Our hope is to offer a tool that will enable people to assess media coverage of Central America more critically.