CBS & USA Today Say Good Riddance to the 1980's
RENOUNCING THE REAGAN DECADE
Many will remember the 1980's as a decade
of American renewal sparked by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was
marked by a renewal of prosperity, with the creation of more than 17
million new jobs, and a renewal of generosity, as charitable giving more
than doubled to over $100 billion in 1988. But history is in the eye of
the beholder, and in the journalist's corner, where the first drafts of
history are written daily, the Reagan era symbolized nothing but greed,
sleaze and decline.
CBS This Morning began a
week-long series on the coming decade with a look back. "The
1980's," co-host Kathleen Sullivan intoned on November 13, was
"a decade dominated, in politics and in style, by the Reagans...While
the wealthy got most of the attention, those who needed it most were
often ignored. More homeless, less spending on housing. The gap between
the top and the bottom grew in the '80's....The AIDS crisis began in the
'80's. Some say the decade's compassion gap made it worse." Among
those used on camera to support Sullivan's thesis was Time
Senior Writer Walter Shapiro.
Born in the 1980's, USA Today
might have been kinder, but instead featured a front-page analysis from
Debbie Howlett on November 27: "The '80s were the years of excess.
We swaggered through the portals and grabbed as much as we could. We
were greedy and gluttonous. As long as we wore starched shirts, we could
belch at the dinner table. And Ronald Reagan led us."
USA Today's eternal
"we" only applied to liberals. "We joined Greenpeace and
MADD." ("We" did?) "Our heroes were figments: E.T.,
Batman, Bernhard Goetz. Some real heroes died. John Lennon was shot to
death...Abbie Hoffman killed himself with a drug overdose." Howlett
also played fast and loose with the sleaze report: "Even our
politics were excessive. More than 100 top- level Reagan Administration
officials were tainted by illegal and unethical conduct." She
ignored the number of officials convicted rather than
"tainted" and overlooked Democratic models of ethical purity,
such as Jim Wright and Barney Frank, as if they belonged to another
Both saw hope in the post-Reagan 1990's. USA
Today's subheadline read: "The decade of the '90s will emerge
as a decade when people began to care." Indeed, equating more
government spending with a better future, Sullivan predicted, "In
the '90s, the situation may improve. By next year, Congress will pass
nearly $4 billion in child care subsidies and tax credits."
Taking on a New Project.
Liz Galtney, a reporter in the now defunct U.S. News & World
Report investigative unit, is the new Director of the Project on
Military Procurement (PMP). Galtney joined U.S. News in
mid-1988 after several years with UPI in Austin, Texas. Founded in 1981
by Dina Rasor, an ABC News Washington bureau editorial assistant in
1978-79, PMP is funded by the liberal Fund for Constitutional
Government. "I find weapons repulsive," Rasor told the Christian
Science Monitor in 1982.
Switching to City Hall.
December 8 was Albert Scardino's last day as a New York Times
"Business Day" section reporter covering magazine publishing.
On January 2, after a few weeks of vacation, he begins work as Press
Secretary to New York City's newly elected Mayor, liberal Democrat David
Dinkins. The New York Post reported that Scardino, who began
his reporting career with the Associated Press in the early 1970's,
participated in a "brainstorming session" with Dinkins in
Since 1983 Jack Burby has served as Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Los
Angeles Times. In November, the Press Secretary to former
California Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, switched jobs with editorial
writer Frank del Olmo. After Ronald Reagan beat Brown in 1966, Burby
moved to Washington to become a special assistant to Alan Boyd, the
first Secretary of Transportation in the department created by President
Johnson. Before jumping into politics, Burby was a reporter for the San
Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Advertiser and United Press
Bush's Democratic Choice.
President Bush's choice to fill a Federal Communication Commissioner
slot reserved for a Democrat, Ervin S. Duggan, reported metro and
feature pieces for The Washington Post in 1964 and 1965
according to Washington's City Paper. Duggan has also served as
a special assistant to Senator Adlai Stevenson from 1971 to 1977 when he
began writing speeches for HEW Secretary Joseph Califano. From 1979
until Carter left office Duggan worked in the State Department policy
The White Stuff. John C.
White, Press Secretary to District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry from
May 1987 until he grew tired of denying allegations of Barry's cocaine
use in September of this year, has signed on with Washington's ABC
affiliate, WJLA-TV, as Director of Investigations. White came to D.C.
from City Hall reporting for the Philadelphia Daily News.
He previously held reporting jobs with the Chicago Tribune,
Washington Star and Baltimore Evening Sun.
Time Serves Presidents. Henry
Anatole Grunwald, Editor in Chief of all Time Inc. magazines from 1979
until his late 1987 ambassadorial appointment by President Reagan,
resigned as U.S. Ambassador to Austria as of January 1. At Time, he
succeeded Hedley Donovan, who left the publishing conglomerate after 15
years to become a Senior Adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
Janet Cooke Award
PBS: AMERICA'S CENTURY
When most Americans look back at the last
ninety years, they see a period of greatness which could rightly be
labeled "America's Century." American soldiers fought in two
world wars to preserve freedom, then showered the benefits of our
thriving free market on friend and former foe alike to rebuild from the
devastation of war. The U.S. fostered democracy and free enterprise
around the world, lifting millions from misery and political oppression.
The Soviets, of course, have a radically
different view of the 20th Century. America waged imperialist wars in
the Third World, oppressed the working class around the world, and
ignored the voice of its own people. Americans might not begrudge the
Soviets their opinion, but they would be shocked to find those same
arguments promoted on public television. But the fact is that America's
Century, a PBS series aired in October and November, advocated such
opinions with vigor.
Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham,
the writer and narrator of the six- part series, lashed out at almost
every U.S. foreign policy action and leader since the Spanish-American
War. In short, Lapham's America's Century displayed utter
contempt for America's role in the world, earning MediaWatch's
Janet Cooke Award for December.
Lapham's selection of "experts"
for the series was indicative of his perspective. Liberal establishment
figures such as George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and Clark Clifford appeared
41 times in the series and leftist ideologues such as IPS Senior Fellows
Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky showed
up another 55 times. Soviets and North Vietnamese made nine appearances.
However, conservatives such as Caspar Weinberger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and
Milton Friedman made only 20 appearances. Together, liberals and
leftists appeared five times as often as conservatives. Even Alger Hiss
served as an expert. Viewers were not informed that he spied for the
As radical as Lapham's choice of experts
was, what he and his "experts" said was even more disturbing.
In the first episode, "Coming of Age," Lapham attacked the
rise of "militarism and imperialism" under Teddy Roosevelt.
Lapham condemned Roosevelt as "intensely nationalistic,"
suspecting "that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. He took
pleasure in the killing of Spaniards and big game and to a friend he
once boasted that he had killed a Spaniard with his bare hands, like a
"Familiar Enemies," the second
show, traced the development of the superpower conflict. "What
would we do without the Russians?" Lapham wondered, "Now that
the Cold War is over, on whom can we blame our own and the world's
unhappiness?" Lapham saw May Day as a "day on which the Soviet
Union glories in its own socialist achievement and proclaims the triumph
of the working classes... Like the United States, the Soviet Union
presented itself as a shining example to oppressed peoples everywhere in
Like other leftists, Lapham blamed the
Cold War on the U.S.: "The Americans made a poor beginning of their
relations with the new Soviet state. In 1918 they intervened on the
wrong side of the revolution." In doing so, "the Americans did
nothing except identify themselves as reactionaries and
In "The Limits of Power," the
third segment, Lapham traced America's slide toward the "national
security state." He blamed this development on the National
Security Act and the rise of McCarthyism: "As the reasons of state
gradually superseded the wishes and interests of the people, the
post-war governments came increasingly to rely on the CIA, the doctrines
of covert action, and the uses of secrecy."
Lapham eyed every post-war policy with
suspicion. Lapham denounced Kennedy's stand during the Cuban Missile
Crisis: "On a question of whether a few missiles should be placed
on a not very important tropical island, the United States had staked
the life of the human race. The risk was taken without the knowledge or
consent of the American people and it expressed the arrogance of
While Lapham eyed policies such as the
Marshall Plan warily, he apologized for Stalin's effort to seize Berlin:
"Stalin perceived the rebuilding of Europe as the revival of
Germany. The Russian fear of another war with a German enemy prompted
Stalin to blockade Berlin in June 1948."
Part four, "Imperial
Masquerade," matched its title. Lapham believed involvement in
Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam demonstrated American imperialism. For
Lapham, "Guatemala was one of the first countries to bear the
weight of America's experiment with secret wars. The United States
organized a coup d'etat in 1954, as a result of which Guatemala was
condemned to 30 years of despotism." The lesson of Guatemala:
"The United States, in the name of making the world safe for
democracy, had subverted not only a freely elected government, but also
its own constitutional principles....The American government was
confirmed in its disastrous belief that the cause of liberty could be
made to stand on the pedestals of criminal violence."
Lapham had bizarre recollections of the
Bay of Pigs. "The lesson implicit in the images was not lost on the
peoples of the Third World," Lapham asserted, "America had
intervened with force on the side of what it thought was the future. By
so doing, it had proved itself the agent of the reactionary past."
Leftist linguist Noam Chomsky thought that "right after the Bay of
Pigs, the Kennedy Administration launched what was certainly the world's
largest international terrorist operation against Cuba."
Lapham's assessment of Vietnam was even
more fantastic. Ho Chi Minh's ideology was "local and expedient, in
no way connected to a global conspiracy." Lapham revoked South
Vietnam's status as a nation: "By investing the government of South
Vietnam with the symbols of democracy and the trappings of legitimate
office, the Americans comforted themselves with a catalogue of welcome
lies." To Lapham, war protesters were paragons of virtue. Comparing
radicals such as Abbie Hoffman to the Founding Fathers, he declared:
"On both occasions an aroused people took into its own hands the
shaping of its own destiny. On both occasions the Americans voted in
favor of their own best hopes."
Part five, "Blowing the
Fortune," examined the American economy in the post-war years.
Lapham was upset by U.S. aid to Third World countries. George McGovern
explained: "We were willing to back almost any scoundrel anywhere
around the globe, providing he waved an anti-communist banner." For
Lapham, Chiang Kai-Shek was "a retired bandit who had imposed on
Taiwan a military despotism" and was an "exemplar of the kind
of Third World dictator whom the United States chose to support."
The final segment, "The Next
Century," consisted of an hour of attacks on anti-communism and
conservatives. Lapham's thesis: The state was withering away, leaving
America's leaders scrambling to maintain the Cold War and their grip on
the past. Lapham offered an amusing contrast of Presidents Carter and
Reagan. "At a time when America doubted its faith in its own
virtue," Lapham proclaimed, "Carter offered himself as the
candidate chosen by Providence to lead the country back into the paths
of righteousness." David Rieff (identified only as a
"writer") added, "The malaise speech...was of course as
close as any senior public figure has ever come in the last 35 years or
so to tell the American people the truth about anything."
Lapham provided a less affectionate
assessment of Reagan: "The new President was elected on the promise
to make time stand still ...The seeming agelessness of Ronald Reagan,
joined with the confidence of his belief in all the American fairy
tales, made it possible to imagine that nothing important had changed in
the world since the glorious victories of 1945." Lapham compared
Reagan to John Wayne, because both somehow could be counted on to
"defend the sanctity of myth against the heresy of fact."
To Lapham, Grenada represented one more
example of U.S. imperialism: "As a military exercise, the invasion
was as clumsy as it was unconstitutional." Walter Russell Mead of
the World Policy Institute declared: "The Reagan people seemed to
think that American supremacy was like Tinkerbell, that it would live
forever if we would all just watch television, clap our hands and
The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters were, of
course, evil incarnate. "For the most part, the Nicaraguan Contras
burned villages and murdered civilians. On behalf of their cause, Reagan
sold out his oath of office and subverted the Constitution," Lapham
asserted. Oliver North served as a symbol of everything Lapham despises:
"Oliver North presented himself as the immortal boy in the heroic
green uniform of Peter Pan. Although wishing to be seen as a humble
patriot, the Colonel's testimony showed him to be a treacherous and
lying agent of the national security state, willing to do anything asked
of him by a President to whom he granted the powers of an Oriental
Contacted by MediaWatch,
Lapham admitted America's Century was "opinion...written
as an essay in television documentary form" but insisted that
Americans would agree with most of his assessments. Does the public
believe that North is "a treacherous lying agent? Lapham asserted:
"I think a majority wouldn't take it quite [as far as I did], but I
don't think the majority would regard North as a hero in any
sense." Do Americans believe Reagan was an "Oriental
despot" who "subverted the Constitution?" Lapham claimed:
"I still do think he subverted the Constitution and he was a
wretched President." Backing off his original claim, Lapham
admitted: "That's not the majority opinion."
Strangely, Lapham said he views himself
as "some form of a conservative" and maintained that
"public television tends to be predominantly more right than
left." But he admitted America's Century "tends to
the left" of the political spectrum. PBS Director of National Press
Relations Mary Jane McKinven told MediaWatch
that Lapham's description of the series as an "essay" was
"[PBS'] conception of it as well." McKinven, however, rejected
the writer's ideological assessment: "It's not our business to
label our programs like that. Over the wide range and scheme of things,
we have exhibited balance in programming."
Lapham freely admitted his production was
not balanced, but "left -of-center" opinion. Instead of
rejecting ideological labeling, it's time for PBS to inform the viewing
public of every production's political agenda.
Series sponsor DHL Worldwide Express
stands by America's Century. Manager of Public Relations Dean
Christon declared: "I think generally speaking we're happy with
Fewer and fewer Americans believe reporters are fair and balanced. The
latest public opinion poll by the Times Mirror Center for People &
the Press, released in November, found 68 percent think the media
"tend to favor one side" in news "dealing with political
and social issues." That's up 11 points from the 1988 survey and 15
points from the first one in 1985.
Asked "to what extent do you see
political bias in news coverage?" 76 percent answered "a great
deal" or "a fair amount." Even a sizeable minority (42
percent) of the 508 members of the press community polled, which
included network executives, managing editors, news directors and
reporters, offered the same assessment. Of those members of the media,
10 percent identified the bias as "liberal/left," barely 2
percent as "conservative/right."
PARTY POLITICS. The
liberal Children's Defense Fund, the major interest group behind the
fashionably federalized Act for Better Child Care (ABC) bill calling for
subsidies and regulation of day care, raised $400,000 at an enormously
successful fundraiser November 30. Among the media bigwigs who graced
the $300-a-ticket bash for babysitting regulations: from CBS, 60
Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley and Sunday Morning host
Charles Kuralt; Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham; MacNeil-Lehrer
NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer; Today co-host Jane Pauley; and
National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg.
Dan Rather had also agreed to attend, but
couldn't make the festivities thanks to the summit in Malta.
"Journalists rarely get a chance to express approval of good
things," said former U.S. News & World Report Editor
Roger Rosenblatt. "It's an opportunity to put our voices behind a
ADOPTING ONE SIDE. For
CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, there's only one side to the
adoption-over-abortion debate. On the November 3 Evening News,
Stahl reported, "Justice Department lawyers expressed outrage"
when the received a memo from the Attorney General "urging them to
adopt a child." But if you believe Newsweek's story,
"officials say they haven't received any employee complaints about
the memo." Moreover, said Newsweek, "Some adoption
advocates see the administration's support as a real boost." Stahl
didn't bother to mention that.
SAINT GORBACHEV. The
recent meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II gave CBS
and ABC an opportunity to take moral equivalence to new heights of
absurdity. During the November 29 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather
declared "This week's meeting of Pope John Paul and Gorbachev
brings together two traditional enemies, both of whom have shown, time
and again, that they can rise above the hatreds of history." As if
that weren't enough, Rather went on to relate, "The meeting, said
one priest in Rome, is like the lion lying down with the lamb. But in
this case, he said, it's hard to tell who's the lion and who's the
During the next day's Good Morning
America, ABC correspondent Steve Fox noted the similarity of the
two men: "The Pope is a tough disciplinarian. He will brook no
dissent on doctrinal matters....And if you think about Mr. Gorbachev,
he, early in his career, was the head of the KGB." CBS
correspondent Barry Petersen continued this line of thought, "I
think [Gorbachev's] trying to say to the Pope, listen, communism and
Catholicism, we really have a lot in common. Kind of an astonishing
thought if you think about it." Kind of a ridiculous thought if you
think about it.
MISSING MIKHAIL'S MESSAGE.
In the midst of Eastern Europe's turmoil, the national media have
largely ignored Gorbachev's defense of communism for his own country.
The most egregious example came after the Soviet leader asserted in an
extraordinary November 15 speech that "the October Revolution was
not a mistake." Gorbachev declared his nation's woes were due to
"distortions of socialism" rather than "its very nature
These telling statements attracted the
attention of The Washington Times, which made it the lead story
on November 16. But The Washington Post buried the story as a
small item on page 44 with only four words from the speech. NBC
Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw gave a brief summary. But CNN, CBS,
and ABC ignored the speech, while managing to find space on their
November 15 newscasts for stories on Ringo Starr, luxury trains, and
In late November, Gorbachev went even
further in a Pravda article. He rejected capitalism for the
Soviet Union as "dreaming" and "vigorously defended
one-party rule, making it clear he believes the Communist Party will be
the force that guides the Soviet Union into the next century,"
ABC's John McWethy reported on the November 27 World News Tonight.
CNN and NBC didn't once mention the article. With so much time devoted
to its upbeat "Changing Face of Communism" series, CBS
couldn't find time to mention the article.
FAR LEFT FAVORITES. Two
regular contributors to the "independent socialist newsweekly"
In These Times are popular stringers for the major media.
William Gasperini, currently a reporter for CBS Radio, wrote of the
Sandinista dictatorship in the July 19 issue: "Made by men and
women of socialist inspiration, Central America's first revolution has
consistently found its road blocked by the geopolitical realities of the
'80s...But the biggest roadblock has been the destructive hostility of a
U.S. government never tolerant of change that threatens Washington's
control of Latin America." Gasperini has also reported for UPI, U.S.
News & World Report, The Christian Science Monitor, Macleans,
and the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter.
Chris Norton, in addition to his writings
for In These Times and the pro-Castro North American Congress
on Latin America's Report on the Americas, has been a stringer
for The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday, and
twice this year contributed to Time. While The Nation's
Alexander Cockburn found liberal reporters James LeMoyne and Lindsey
Gruson of The New York Times and Charles Lane of Newsweek
too reminiscent of the "consonance" between Reaganism and the
major media, Cockburn has praised Norton twice this year as one reporter
who "has provided fine reports."
RAY'S RECESSION REFRAIN.
CBS News business reporter Ray Brady has been urging on a recession for
years, and he hasn't stopped yet. On December 8, the Labor Department
reported a 0.1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, which has
hovered between 4.9 percent and 5.4 percent for the past year. He found
two economic "experts" to say this "confirms that the
U.S. economy has slowed," and "the economy is in a
Of course, there's another side to the
story. The same night NBC's Irving R. Levine reported that the low
jobless rate means more opportunities for urban workers, who can make
good wages for unskilled work in the suburbs.
But Brady missed that. His CBS report
featured a Boston unemployment line, where out-of-work computer
technicians said "they'll keep writing resumes, hoping that despite
today's jobless figures, they'll somehow land a job." They needn't
have worried about the "jobless figures," since the
unemployment rate in Massachusetts declined in November. If Brady keeps
predicting a recession, someday he may actually be right.
CLAPPING FOR CANADA.
NBC, which won the June Janet Cooke Award for a favorable story on
Canada's socialized medical system, has once again hopped on that
bandwagon. On the October 30 Today, reporter Henry Champ
compared Canadian and American health care. Anchor Bryant Gumbel set the
tone, introducing the piece by declaring: "America's system is in
trouble. The cost of medical coverage is skyrocketing. 37 million
Americans have no coverage of any kind, and the most needy seem to get
the least care."
Champ began by claiming that in Canada
"you can afford to get sick...Canada's health system is universal
and free." He later dismissed detractors' arguments about the low
quality of care north of the border, saying "all vital statistics
show Canadians enjoy longer life and lower infant mortality than
Americans." He chose to ignore demographic and social factors that
might better explain those statistics. Champ alluded to the long delays:
"It really does operate on the principle: the farm laborer and the
banker are the same. The flipside is both have to wait as long."
But Champ neglected to mention that the undesired delays in diagnosis
and surgery are at best just unsound medical care, at worst fatal.
Keeping up his campaign, Champ concluded
a November 26 Sunday Today story, "there is a cry in the
land for some sort of attention toward a national health plan."
TARNISHED TERENCE. CBS
reporter Terence Smith made his feelings about former Presidents Carter
and Reagan clear in a November 5 New York Times op-ed. Smith
conceded that "the majority of Americans still regard Jimmy Carter
as a failed President" and that "Ronald Reagan...left office
at the pinnacle of his popularity."
"But history is a harsher
judge," Smith asserted. "Historians will note, for example,
that it was Jimmy Carter who focused the nation's attention on the need
for energy conservation and defined human rights as a legitimate
consideration in foreign policy." And what of Reagan's legacy?
"Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and
imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale
abuse. Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan's
laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal
in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of
the nation's nuclear weapon's facilities, the dangerous state of the air
traffic control system -- not to mention the staggering deficit. The
neglect was pernicious, not benign."
Smith's "suspicion is that
hard-headed historical review, when it is finally done, will enhance the
image of the man from Plains, and tarnish that of the squire of Bel
Air." MediaWatch's suspicion is that
Smith's claim to objectivity as a reporter is what's been tarnished.
TED WAVES HIS POM-POMS.
Owning a network has its advantages. Take CNN's recent special
presentation of Ted Turner's November 16 interview with former President
Jimmy Carter. Turner, the would- be-journalist, dismissed all pretense
of objectivity with his introduction about ex-Presidents.
"Well, if you're Ronald Reagan, you
might be traveling on a lucrative lecture circuit, earning a few million
dollars. Or if you're Gerald Ford, there's a good chance you could be
found perfecting your putt on the golf course...But if you're Jimmy
Carter, there's no telling where you could be found. The President is
just as comfortable slinging a hammer in the South Bronx, or prowling
the streets in Panama looking for election fraud. In fact, since Carter
left office in 1981, he's mediated high-level negotiations in China and
taught African farmers to grow better crops."
Turner allowed Carter to do the great
majority of the talking on the hour-long show. But in between Carter's
commentary on current events, the CNN boss turned cheerleader. On
Carter's recent peace efforts in Ethiopia, Turner gushed, "that's
really terrific," and on the Carter Center, "terrific."
When the ex-President applauded Gorbachev and urged more American help
for him, Turner sounded like Carter's potential running mate:
"Well, I couldn't agree with you more." Finally, when the last
Democrat to live in the White House spoke of his upcoming role in
monitoring the Nicaragua elections, we were treated to, "This
sounds terrific, it really does."
Another PBS Showcase
Taxpayer-supported liberal advocate Bill
Moyers was at it again in November in a new four-part series, Bill
Moyers: The Public Mind. This latest PBS poutfest was dedicated to
the shopworn idea that style and symbolism fooled people into electing
Ronald Reagan even though they disagreed with his policies. Repeating
the old style-over-substance thesis, Moyers went on to discuss how this
meant the "hard reality" of a decaying America was lost in the
"illusion" of prosperity.
"Beneath the distortion and
deception of life in America today, there is hard reality. Our Earth is
threatened with pollution. Nuclear weapons have been accumulating
worldwide at a cost of one million dollars a minute. And the United
States is sliding into an inferior status in the global economy. Yet our
public mind is filled with an America where the vending machines are
always full, the wounded always recover, and the bills never come
On board to testify for the Moyers
theory: a whole roll call of left-wing media critics, including Ben
Bagdikian, Stuart Ewen, Todd Gitlin, Mark Crispin Miller, Neil Postman,
Herbert Schiller, and Mark Hertsgaard, author of On Bended Knee: The
Press and the Reagan Presidency. No right-wing critics got any air
This latest Moyers crusade would qualify
as classic PBS yawn-a- minute programming if not for the amusing irony
of watching a guy who orchestrated LBJ's anti-Goldwater campaign
commercials complain about Willie Horton ads.
REPORTING THE WAR
ON FMLN TERMS
Consider this Latin American scenario: a
democratically elected government comes under attack from a band of
terrorists. The government, elected six months earlier, had won in a
landslide with a higher turnout than in any national election in the
U.S. over the last 20 years. The terrorists, who assassinated at least
eight mayors and threatened to murder anyone who dared to vote, carried
less than 4 percent of the electorate. The election was certified by
international observers as one of the freest and fairest in the history
of the region.
Having lost this test of the people's
support, the terrorists now try to shoot their way to power. They have
invaded neighborhoods in the capital city, where they hide behind
innocent civilians, and then cynically blame the government's army for
Does this version of events sound
familiar? If not, you've probably been relying on major media sources
for your news from the war in El Salvador. Through the subtle use of
labeling and cursory reporting of rebel violence, the media indicted the
democratic government as a harsh violator of human rights and
softpedaled the terror and violence of the Soviet-backed Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency that would overthrow them.
To study the media's El Salvador
coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed all
news stories from November 11, when the offensive began, to November 30
in newspapers (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the
Los Angeles Times), and on the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening
news shows. For Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World
Report, analysts studied the issues dated November 27, December 4
and 11. Three themes emerged: the media assumed alleged right-wing
assassinations were more important than FMLN killings, described the
right as "extreme" but not the left, and rarely noted that El
Salvador's government was freely elected.
hundred civilians were killed in the mid-November FMLN offensive, but
when six Jesuit priests sympathetic to the communist rebels were
murdered a few days into the fighting, their deaths, immediately
attributed to "right-wing death squads," quickly became the
pivotal event of the unfolding news story. In typical fashion, CBS
reporter Juan Vasquez portrayed the priests as martyrs for the right
side of history: "The nation's archbishop said the murdered
priests' only crime was being on the side of the poor, a central theme
of liberation theology." Not one TV reporter bothered to mention
that liberation theology is inspired by Marxism. Time's Jill
Smolowe found that of all the killings, "Most cold-blooded was the
brutal slayings of six Jesuit priests, which seemed to symbolize all
that is wrong in El Salvador." To Smolowe, "all that is
wrong" are the misdeeds and alleged misdeeds of the right, and not
This concern wasn't extended to the
victims of left-wing violence. Only one story (in the Los Angeles
Times) mentioned the FMLN's past assassinations of government
officials and mayors while the newscasts and front pages were dominated
by the Jesuit murders. Not one contrasted the priests' deaths with
reports of the hospital raid in Zacatecouluca, where the rebels killed
wounded soldiers in their beds, despite Assistant Secretary of State
Bernard Aronson's November 17 Senate testimony on the incident.
When former Supreme Court President
Francisco Guerrero was assassinated on November 28, the media
demonstrated a noticeable lack of outrage. ABC didn't find it important
enough to make the evening news. In their reports the next day, none of
the three newspapers reported the killing as a part of a continuing FMLN
campaign to assassinate prominent government officials and mayors. The
only assassination they reported just happened to be the only one the
FMLN has admitted, that of Attorney General Alberto Garcia Alvarado. The
three newspapers cited an interview with rebel commander Joaquin
Villalobos, who said "Because of his defense of death squads, he
was a legitimate target." Guerrero's assassination wasn't played
much differently than that: The New York Times described the
killing with the subheadline: "An official seen by leftists as a
barrier to change is gunned down."
LABELS. The media's
point of view also came through in the words used to describe the two
sides of the war. By employing a standard right-left road map to
describe the war, reporters applied labels that implied pluralism within
the FMLN where there is none and denied the kinds of clear comparisons
(communist vs. anti-communist, democratic vs. anti-democratic) that
would give the Cristiani government any form of moral advantage. In the
twenty days after the beginning of the guerrilla offensive, reporters
never identified the FMLN as "communist." The media's label of
choice for the FMLN was "leftist," applied 123 times. That's
mild enough to apply to George McGovern or Jesse Jackson. Another label,
"Marxist-led," used 20 times, implies that a few Marxists lead
some sort of broad-based coalition.
Contrast the labeling of the FMLN with
that of El Salvador's right wing. Especially in the aftermath of the
Jesuit murders, the media tossed around terms such as "extreme
right," the "violent right," the "far right,"
and "right-wing extremists" 59 times. "Far left" was
invoked only twice and no reporter tried "extreme left,"
"left-wing extremists," or "violent left" to
characterize the communist guerrillas. (Although no reporter ever used
the word "terrorist" to describe the FMLN, Dan Rather once
used the term "rebel terror squads.") Despite assassinations
attributed to both sides, a Nexis search of major newspapers and
magazines over the last decade found that no reporter has ever used the
term "left-wing death squad."
Time was the champion of
labeling imbalance: in three weeks of stories, they never labeled the
guerrillas. But in its December 11 issue, Washington reporter J.F.O.
McAllister wrote that the "ultra-rightists" of the Cristiani
government were "betraying distressingly fascist leanings,"
and concluded that "The future of El Salvador looks to be a
free-for-all between a buoyant and rearmed FMLN and generals willing to
make the country a boneyard."
DEMOCRACY. The Cristiani
government was elected, but reporters ignored this key point. They
allowed U.S. officials to state the point on a few occasions, but made
it themselves only five times. Major media reporters never referred to
the rebels as "anti- democratic," refusing to note the FMLN's
so-called "popular movement" got less than 4 percent of the
vote. But amazingly, the government was labeled undemocratic. On
CBS, Juan Vasquez reported: "In a country where the powerful
consider liberation theology a dangerous idea, the priests dared to
speak up for social justice and, frequently, against the U.S. policy of
supporting a government they saw as undemocratic." NBC's Jim
Cummins repeatedly referred to the government as "military-
civilian," making no distinction between the current elected
government and the junta that took power in 1979.
The tenor of news coverage was best
distilled in Time's December 4 issue. "Washington should
rethink its relationship with a democratically elected government that
cannot control fanatic right-wing elements in the armed forces. El
Salvador's armed forces, nourished by American dollars, bear primary
responsibility for the country's scandalous human rights record.
Washington should cut off military aid unless travesties like the
killing of the six Jesuits are stopped."
Wrapped up in its Vietnam-driven
suspicion of U.S. foreign policy and the recipients of U.S. aid, the
media crossed the line from skepticism to antagonism, refusing to
concede that the Cristiani government is the legitimate voice of its
people. The recent weeks of war in El Salvador have demonstrated how the
media reserved their harshest scrutiny for Cristiani's elected
government, repeating the propaganda themes of an under-investigated
FMLN that has little regard for Western democratic values.
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