May 1 2009

Salvador Votes, Media Yawn

No return to the scene of 1980s cheerleading

Mauricio Funes--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador

Mauricio Funes–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador

El Salvador just had a historic election —but it was hardly noted by the same U.S. newspapers and TV organizations that gave Salvadoran elections saturation coverage back in the 1980s.

On March 15, Salvadoran journalist Mauricio Funes won the presidency for the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which had already won a plurality in the legislature in a January vote. The FMLN was once a guerrilla movement that fought a 12-year war until 1992 against a right-wing Salvadoran military government backed by the United States with nearly $4 billion in military and other aid (New York Times, 10/21/88). That government and its death squad auxiliaries were found responsible for 95 percent of the approximately 75,000 deaths during the war (Revolution in El Salvador, 1985).

Back in the 1980s, the Salvadoran war attracted hordes of American mainstream journalists, few of whom effectively challenged the Reagan administration’s contention that the U.S.-backed government was heroically battling stand-ins for Cuba and the Soviet Union who represented only a small minority of the Salvadoran people.

James LeMoyne, the New York Times’ Salvador correspondent for several years back then, estimated that the FMLN had “perhaps some sympathy from up to 10 percent” of the people, but “most Salva-dorans wish the guerrillas would dry up and blow away” (Foreign Affairs, Summer/89).

The U.S. corporate press endorsed the Reagan administration’s euphoric view that the turnout in the 1982 election proved democracy was winning and the FMLN had suffered what Secretary of State Alexander Haig called both “a military defeat” and a “political repudiation” (New York Times, 3/30/82). Raymond Bonner, one of the few mainstream journalists there who maintained his independence as the New York Times’ correspondent in the early ’80s, noted in his book Weakness and Deceit (1984):

On a CBS special Dan Rather exulted, “It’s a triumph! A million people at the polls.” ABC anchorman Frank Reynolds heralded “this exercise in democracy” as “gratifying, even inspiring.” And at NBC Tom Brokaw described it as “one of the most remarkable election days anywhere.”

Bonner and a few others did raise serious doubts about the 1982 vote: Left candidates would have been murdered if they tried to participate, and ordinary people believed that voting was compulsory—in a country where the military and its allies had already committed mass murder (Weakness and Deceit, 1984).

This year, the coverage was barely a whisper. CBS News, NBC News and ABC News broadcast absolutely nothing about the historic election, according to a search of the Nexis database. PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer made only one brief mention of it (3/16/09).

The major newspapers did little better. USA Today did not run a single story on the election. The Washington Post correspondent did not even make it to El Salvador for election day, filing his short, perfunctory story from Miami (3/16/09). The New York Times did have several San Salvador datelines, but its longest story, a few days before the vote (3/12/09), was missing critical facts.

Times reporter Elisabeth Malkin wrote that ARENA, the well-funded right-wing incumbent party, “was founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was accused of organizing death squads during the civil war.” The 1993 U.N. Truth Commission for El Salvador was not so hesitant at characterizing D’Aubuisson, finding that he “gave the order to assassinate” San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed in 1980 while saying mass. The Truth Commission also found that leading government officials, the friends and allies of U.S. officials, were guilty of murdering tens of thousands of other Salvadorans.

The Times article did point out that one-fourth of all Salvadorans are economic refugees in the United States, and that the money they send home accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP. But it ignored a major right-wing tactic: the threat that the U.S. would retaliate for a left-wing victory by blocking remittances or even deporting Salvadoran immigrants.

A Los Angeles Times story (3/16/09) on this year’s election included the tantalizing observation that “thousands of Salvadorans returned to their homeland from the United States to vote,” apparently mainly for the left, but did not explore in detail why someone who cleans houses in Culver City, California, would spend hundreds of dollars to fly home for an election.

Though El Salvador is a short 2- or 3-hour flight from Miami or Texas, Americans who have come of age since the 1980s are more aware of the killings in far-off Rwanda or Darfur than they are of their own government’s role in murder just to the south of us. Their ignorance is the consequence of corporate media’s cowardice and moral failure.