Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 4: Adjuncts of Government Segment 2/10
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Turning to El Salvador, we find that the pattern is sharply reversed. Here, the guerrillas were castigated as Marxist terrorists, and the official line, as laid forth in New York Times editorials, was that things were improving under the democratic government of "the honorable Mr. Duarte," "the honest, reform-minded Christian Democrat," who is desperately trying to lead his people to a better life while "beset by implacable extremes," though he may have been "less than rigorous in bringing death squad operatives to judicial account" (in translation: he has done nothing to curb the security forces he praises for their "valiant service alongside the people against subversion" while conceding quietly that "the masses were with the guerrillas" when he assumed the role of front man for the war against the population). News reporting was similar in style. Duarte was portrayed in the major media as a victim, not as the willing agent whose role was to ensure adequate congressional funding for the state terrorists whom he protected. Analyzing over 800 articles in the major dailies from March 1984 through October 1985, journalist Marc Cooper found a consistent pattern of suppressing massive atrocities and "singing the praise of Administration policy." There were hundreds of column inches lauding Duarte's promises to end the rampant state terror conducted under his aegis, but virtually nothing on his actual record of apologetics for state terror and service to it, and not a single article "analyzing the nature of Duarte's alliance with the military establishment," the effective rulers.11

In the editorials reviewed over six and a half years, the Times never mentioned such matters as the assassination of Archbishop Romero or the raid by the security forces on the legal aid office of the archbishopric to destroy evidence implicating them in the assassination; the destruction and closure of the university by the army, with many killed; the physical destruction of the independent media and the murder and expulsion of their editors and publishers; or the Salvadoran state of siege from March 1980 when Duarte joined the junta, under which the atrocities were conducted with his backing and constant apologetics. In contrast, when Nicaragua declared a state of siege on October 15, 1985, the Times bitterly condemned this demonstration of Nicaragua's lack of "respect for democracy and human rights," dismissing with contempt "President Ortega's claim that the crackdown is the fault of `the brutal aggression by North America and its internal allies'"; the renewal of El Salvador's far more draconian state of siege two days later received no mention. The events ignored in the editorials were also largely suppressed or falsified in the news columns.

There was no hint or concern in the editorials, and little (if any) reporting, about the fact that "since 1981 the Salvadoran press has either supported the government or criticized it from a right-wing perspective," avoiding "stories critical of government forces from a human rights standpoint," as observed in an Americas Watch review of freedom of the press. The political opposition had been murdered by Duarte's security forces or had fled the country, so there was no need to report or comment on their problems.12 Similarly, no second thoughts were aroused by the fact that one of the leading murderers was selected to be Duarte's Minister of Defense, having completed his service as director of the National Guard. Earlier, he had coolly explained that "the armed forces are prepared to kill 200,000-300,000, if that's what it takes to stop a Communist takeover," and he had acted accordingly as the Guard under his command administered its "pedagogy of terror." When he was named Defense Minister, this mass murderer and torturer was described by the New York Times as "a soft-spoken, amiable man who has a reputation as an excellent administrator." Conceding that the Guard under his command had been responsible for horrible atrocities, including the rape and murder of four American churchwomen and the assassination of two U.S. labor advisors, the Times adds that "in his defense, others contend that under his command the National Guard's reputation has improved to the point where it is no longer considered the most abusive of Salvador's three security forces" -- an impressive achievement, doubtless.13

With regard to Nicaragua, in contrast, the typical pattern was for the state propaganda services to concoct some charge that the media would then prominently and uncritically relay. Occasionally, when the charges were recognized to be too outlandish, a mild disclaimer might appear on the inside pages. Often the charges persisted even when they were acknowledged to be groundless or even sheer fabrication, a pattern that has also been well documented in the case of other official enemies.14

To fully appreciate the dichotomous treatment, we must bear in mind what had been happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador during these years, facts that I presume are familiar and so will not review here.15 The disgrace of the Free Press could hardly be more dramatic.

It is worth stressing that far more is at issue here than dereliction of duty, incompetence, or service to power. The protection afforded to state terrorists in the "fledgling democracies" provides a veil behind which they can pursue their atrocities with crucial U.S. support, while the indignant focus on far lesser abuses in Nicaragua has facilitated the Reagan programs of terror and economic warfare that reversed social and economic progress in Nicaragua and reduced the economy to ruins, permitting regular media gloating over "Sandinista incompetence" and malevolence. The media were willing accomplices in an extraordinary outburst of violence and repression.

The point is more general. The U.S. government has been able to provide crucial support for mass slaughter by its Indonesian client in Timor (with the help of other Western powers) because the media simply refused to investigate the facts or report what they knew. The same was true of the destruction of the peasant societies of northern Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam, among many other cases. To mention only one current example, Israel has been emboldened to conduct its pogroms in the occupied territories by the same indulgence, knowing that all would be explained away as regrettable exceptions by its U.S. apologists: the editorial staff of the New York Times, the U.S. labor bureaucracy, or Elie Wiesel, the noted apostle of the obligation of silence in the face of atrocities by the state one loves, among many others.16

To raise the level of public understanding of Central American affairs during the critical early 1986 period, the Times devoted the cover story in the Sunday Magazine to an analysis by James LeMoyne of the deeper issues behind the rise of the "guerrilla network."17 LeMoyne observes that "virtually every study of the region...has concluded that the revolutions of Central America primarily have been caused by decades of poverty, bloody repression and frustrated efforts at bringing about political reform." Furthermore, every serious study has concluded that the United States bears a certain responsibility for these conditions, hence for the rise of "the guerrilla network," but no hint of that will be discovered in LeMoyne's discussion. He considers the role of Cuba, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the PLO, Vietnam, and so on, but one participant in the drama is missing, except for the statement that in El Salvador, "the United States bolstered the Salvadoran Army, insisted on elections and called for some reforms." Also missing is the fact that the army we "bolstered" conducted a program of slaughter and torture to destroy "the people's organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights," to borrow the words of Archbishop Romero shortly before his assassination as he vainly pleaded with President Carter not to "bolster" these forces, which "know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadorean oligarchy."

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11 For a review of New York Times editorials on El Salvador and Nicaragua from 1980 through mid-1986, see my article in Walker, Reagan vs. the Sandinistas. For comparison of the image of Duarte here and in Latin America, including El Salvador, see Culture of Terrorism, 101f. On Duarte's record and media appreciation for it, see Turning the Tide, chapter 3, sec. 5.2; Cooper, "Whitewashing Duarte," U.S. Reporting on El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, Jan./March 1986.

12 See sources cited above for explicit references and further detail, here and below; appendix V, section 6, on the Central American media.

13 Lydia Chavez, NYT, April 24, 1983. Defense Minister Gen. Vides Casanova cited by Ray Bonner, Weakness and Deceit (Times Books, 1984, 106).

14 See appendix IV, section 1, for a few of the many examples. For many other cases, see Political Economy of Human Rights and other sources cited earlier.

15 For a review of media performance in El Salvador as the terror mounted in 1980 and early 1981, see Towards a New Cold War, introduction; reprinted in part in The Chomsky Reader. For more on the refusal of the media to report government atrocities, see Ed Harriman, Hack: Home Truths about Foreign News (Zed, 1987); Harriman covered El Salvador for British media. There followed a brief period of serious reporting as atrocities reached extreme levels, but when it seemed that U.S.-organized terror might well succeed and demonstration elections were held, the pattern returned to the earlier norm of apologetics and neglect, with sporadic exceptions. The withdrawal of Ray Bonner by the Times was also important. "U.S. embassy officials boasted in 1982 that they had forced [Bonner] out of the country because of his unfavorable [and accurate] reporting on the Salvadoran government," Parry and Kornbluh report (op. cit.).

16 See appendix IV, section 2.

17 NYT Magazine, April 6, 1986.