Jun 1 2005

Retro Reporting on Nicaragua

As the Bush administration carries out what the New York Times (4/5/05) describes as a “concerted effort” to block the left-wing Sandinista party from returning to power in Nicaragua, U.S. media are themselves returning to the kind of distorted reporting on Nicaragua that characterized coverage during the 1980s as Washington waged war on that country. The New York Times‘ April 5 article on the administration’s anti-Sandinista campaign provided a prime example of this one-sided and inaccurate media treatment.

The article, by Ginger Thompson, characterized the U.S. attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government as part of “the global struggle against Communism”–though Nicaragua under the Sandinistas had a mixed economy, multiple opposition parties and a vocal opposition press, features that were not found in actual Communist countries. She referred to Sandinista President Daniel Ortega as a “revolutionary strongman,” though he was elected president in 1984 with 67 percent of the vote, in balloting that international observers found to be “free, fair and hotly contested” (Extra!, 10-11/87).

Referring to the Sandinista-led government of the 1980s and the U.S.-sponsored Contra rebels as opposing “armies,” Thompson wrote, “The armies fought each other to a standstill, until both sides agreed to elections in 1990, which Mr. Ortega lost.” This summary leaves out the election that Ortega won in 1984, and wrongly suggests that the 1990 elections were held because of Contra pressure, when the Nicaraguan constitution at that time required elections to be held every six years. (That sentence also implies that the Contras directed their fight against the Nicaraguan army, although in fact they chiefly targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure–see Nicaragua: The Price of Intervention, Peter Kornbluh, pp. 39-50.)

Though the article’s focus was on the United States’ opposition to Ortega, Ortega was never quoted; the article said that he “did not accept several requests for an interview.” Despite a reference to “extensive talks with Mr. Ortega’s supporters,” no member of this group was quoted, either. (A supporter of a Sandinista rival to Ortega was quoted at the end of the piece, explaining why in his view Ortega is unlikely to ever be re-elected.)

The piece did, however, quote an anonymous “senior State Department official” who repeatedly made unsubstantiated charges about Ortega and the Sandinistas (e.g., “The Sandinista Party that Daniel Ortega represents is not a democratic party”; the Sandinistas are using their influence to “extort the country”).

New York Times policy supposedly discourages the use of anonymous sources. “We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack,” a February 25, 2004 statement released by the paper declared. “If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor.” But when an anonymous source is attacking an official enemy, it appears the rules do not apply.