Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 2/15
Previous segment | Next segment | Contents | Overview | Archive

Comparison of elections in enemy Nicaragua and the client states of El Salvador and Guatemala yields similar results, as has been shown by several studies. One approach has been to compare the U.S. coverage of the two cases; another, to compare U.S. and European coverage of the same case. The results provide a dramatic indication of the subordination of the U.S. media to the goals established by the state authorities.6

By any reasonable standard, the elections in Nicaragua were superior in circumstances, conditions, and procedure to those in El Salvador; the media overcame these facts by adopting the U.S. government agenda, which differed radically in the two cases. Freedom of speech, association, and organization, even massive state terror, were all off the agenda for the elections in client states, while attention was focused on long lines of patient voters (in elections where voting was obligatory, and the penalties for not participating could be severe), on alleged guerrilla threats (often fabricated), and so on. The very fact that elections were held at all under conditions of strife was considered a triumph of democracy. In the case of Nicaragua, the agenda was reversed: terrorist actions of the U.S.-run proxy forces to disrupt the elections were off the agenda, as were proper procedures, far less repression than in the client states, broad participation with no compulsion, and a wide range of choices constrained by no serious interference apart from U.S. pressures to induce its favored candidates to withdraw so as to discredit the election as "lacking any real choice." Any deviations from the performance of advanced industrial democracies under peacetime conditions were scrutinized and angrily deplored, and the only serious issue was the prospects for the U.S.-backed candidate for president, taken to be the measure of democracy. Apart from the U.S. government, the major news sources were the U.S.-backed opposition, who, along with the contra "civilian directorate" established and lavishly supported by the CIA, received extensive and favorable press; the fact that the U.S. candidates appeared to have little popular support, and little in the way of democratic credentials so far as was known, was also off the agenda.7 In the client states, there was no need to report on any domestic opposition, since they had not been able to survive the conditions of democracy, U.S.-style. Close analysis of coverage reveals these and related patterns quite dramatically.

The 1984 elections in Nicaragua were dismissed with derision or ignored, while studies by highly qualified observers and analysts were, and remain, beyond the pale, because they consistently reached the wrong conclusions: for example, the detailed examination by a delegation of the professional association of Latin American scholars (LASA), probably the most careful study of any Third World election, and the supporting conclusions by an Irish Parliamentary delegation drawn primarily from the center-right, among many others, all passing without mention.

The media even permitted themselves to be duped by a transparent fraud, the well-timed "discovery" of a shipment of MiG fighter planes to Nicaragua, which predictably turned out to be fanciful and was later attributed to Oliver North's shenanigans, but which admirably served its purpose of helping to efface the unwanted Nicaraguan elections. When it had become obvious that no MiGs had arrived, a new phase of disinformation began, shifting attention to the leak of secret information (that is, to the planned release of intelligence fabrications, so it appears), condemned as "criminal" by Secretary Shultz. The press again went along, taking the issue to be the alleged leak and not the propaganda exercise in which they had participated, even claiming that the MiG pretense had harmed the U.S. and anti-Sandinista groups. In reality, the exercise had succeeded in every achievable aim, helping to bury the results of the election "under an avalanche of alarmist news reports," as the LASA report observed. The media never returned to the matter to provide a meaningful report or analysis of the elections. Cooperation in the MiG fraud was, of course, only one ancillary device employed to eliminate the unwanted elections from official history, but it played its useful role.8

In contrast, elections at the same time in the terror state of El Salvador were effusively lauded as a bold and courageous advance towards democracy, on the basis of reporting of shameful bias and superficiality reflecting the U.S. government agenda and reliance on official observers who made barely a pretense of inquiry. There was virtually no concern over the fact that the political opposition had been murdered and the independent media physically destroyed by the U.S.-organized security forces while the population was thoroughly traumatized by extraordinary terror, and surely no mention of the conclusion by observers from the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group that the elections were held in an "atmosphere of terror and despair, of macabre rumor and grisly reality," or the evidence that justifies this conclusion. The same was true in the case of the elections in Guatemala, where state terror had reached even more extreme heights with constant U.S. support. New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer even suggested that the Guatemalan election offered a model for Nicaragua.9

Subsequent commentary, virtually exceptionless in the mainstream, contrasts the "fledgling democracies" of the client states and their "elected presidents" with totalitarian Nicaragua, run by the dictator Ortega, placed in power in a sham election, hence unelected. The performance merits comparison with the official media of totalitarian states.

Coverage of the 1982 Salvadoran elections was comparable. The three U.S. TV networks devoted over two hours to upbeat and enthusiastic coverage (the Nicaraguan elections of 1984, in contrast, merited fifteen minutes of skepticism or derision). The British networks had eighty minutes of coverage but the character was radically different. The U.S. networks reported with much fanfare the conclusions of the official U.S. government observers, who, after a cursory look, reported in a press conference their amazement at this thrilling exercise in democracy. In contrast, BBC's Martin Bell in his summary report commented that a fair election under the circumstances of state terror that BBC had reviewed was completely out of the question, while the commercial TV channel ITN featured Lord Chitnis of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group, speaking not in a plush hotel but in a Salvadoran slum, where he pointed out that what observers see under army guard is hardly worth reporting under the prevailing conditions of hideous repression and trauma.10

More generally, the U.S. and European media gave radically different accounts of the Salvadoran elections. Analyzing the comparative coverage, Jennifer Schirmer concludes that the enthusiastic U.S. coverage was "remarkably different" from the reaction of the European press, which focused on the circumstances of terror that made an election meaningless, coerced voting, and other crucial factors suppressed in the euphoric U.S. commentary. She observes that "the major difference is that while the European press consistently emphasized the political context of fear and the climate of official terror in which the elections took place, the U.S. press predominantly focused on electoral mechanics and theatre, echoing U.S. and Salvadoran officials in labelling those who were legally and physically excluded from the contest as marxist, anti-democratic and violent." New York Times Paris Bureau Chief John Vinocur added to the deception by falsifying the European reaction to bring it into line with the upbeat U.S. response. Schirmer's conclusion is that the picture provided by the European media, apart from being accurate, was virtually barred in the United States, where "the `reality' created and assumed by the U.S. press is so one-sided and partisan that the U.S. government shall not need to censor its press in future coverage of the Third World."11

Go to the next segment.

6 For detailed examination by the former method, see Manufacturing Consent, chapter 3; also Spence, op. cit.. On the second method, see the references of notes 7, 8, below.

7 On popular support for the opposition parties even after years of war and suffering, see appendix IV, section 5.

8 Alfonso Chardy, Miami Herald, July 19, 1987, citing "an intelligence source familiar with North's relationship with" the Office of Latin American Public Diplomacy, the main propaganda agency of the Reagan administration, later more fully exposed. For further comment, see Manufacturing Consent, 137f. See also Walter LaFeber's review of the book, NYT Weekly Book Review, Nov. 6, 1988, and an exchange of letters with Edward Herman, Dec. 11. LaFeber describes the later phase of the disinformation effort as a "key exception" to the propaganda model; as just discussed, it fits the model closely. He notes that a later Newsweek article (Nov. 26) "did question the MIG mirage" -- well after it was agreed, from top government on down, that there were no MiGs. That the media questioned what was openly conceded by the government to be false is not a very persuasive demonstration of their independence from power.

9 NYT, Dec. 27, 1985.

10 See a forthcoming study by Dennis Driscoll, Faculty of Law, University College, Galway, Ireland, for comparative analysis of the U.S. and foreign media in this and other critical cases.

11 Jennifer G. Schirmer, "What You See Is What You Get: Comparing Realities of the U.S. and European Press Coverage of the 1982 and 1984 Elections in El Salvador," forthcoming in Creating Reality: Media Coverage of International Affairs, based on Summer Seminar presentations at Center for International Affairs, Harvard (CFIA Publishers, Cambridge Mass., 1989), directed by Dennis Driscoll.