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The Press And Central America

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ANN ARBOR--On Thursday, April 24, Irish-bom journalist Alexander Cockburn lectured a large audience in the Rackham Ampitheater on the University of Michigan campus. Mr. Cockburn is currently a columnist for The Nation and Wall Street Journal. The introduction as well as the speech was very long, and thus we are Introduction by Alan Wald, Professor of English Lterature, U-M: Today's meeting is very much like the one we held for Noam Chomsky about a year-and-a-half ago in that no official departments or programs at the University of Michigan would contribute financially to help this meeting come off. We are grateful to the Program in American Culture once again for going against the current and becoming a co-sponsor and securing this nice ampitheater for us. The groups that contributed the money to make this meeting possible are all essentially student-based groups with the solé honorable exception of the Faculty Committee for Human Rights in El Salvador and Central America, FACHRES C.A., which is the initiating sponsor of this event. We are especially indebted to the Latin American Solidarity . Committee, to our good friends in Guild House, the Michigan Alliance for Disarmament, the National Lawyers Guild, Rackham Student Government, New Democratie Movement, Hispanic Law Students, Arab-American Association of University Graduates, and the Detroit Left Unity Committee. Finally, I will just say that when we learned that our sponsorship and financial report for today's meeting were turned down by what seemed to us to be the appropriate departments and programs here at the University, on the grounds that Cockburn was "not a good role model," at that point I knew at once that we were going to have a fine afternoon, and I'd like us to welcome Alexander Cockburn. Alexander Cockburn: The other day I wrote in The Nation that, since people I met seemed to have concluded from my prose style that I'm incredibly old, I was going to reveal that I was bom just about the time that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. A reader (see THE PRESS and CENTRAL AMERICA, page 12) The Press and Central America ALEXANDER COCKBURN (continued from page one) promptly wrote in that it wasn't because of my prose style that people thought I was old, it was rather that someone so filled with hate must have lived a long time. Press critics have to be filled with hate. Well, when we talk about the press coverage of Central America, like the press coverage of almost everything else in Reagan's America, we're talking about unrcality. So I'd like to begin by talking about the fundamental pattera in terms of the press reaction to the propositions of the Reagan Administration, which pattem summed up satirically, shows how the press comes to agree with the President that black is the same as white. What happens is as follows: The president gives a press conference or makes a speech in which ' he says that in his judgement, matured over many years, he has come to the general view that white is the same as black. The first reaction of the press is usually not immediate acceptance. They say that while the president is very insistent on emphasizing this position and has made it a major priority of his administration, there are many experts backed by widespread public opinión who believe that white is not the same as black and indeed is differenLThey will even quote a few authorities to that effect Reagan's genius has been to understand that this kind of resistance is not deep, and he promptly insists in even more dogmatic terms than before that, contrary to disinformation campaigns by the Soviet Union and the Nicaraguan government and the like, white is very definitely the same as black. At which point the press begin to waver. They say that on second thought, there first of all seems to be widespread and growing popular support for this position. They then say that in the view of some experts, black is somewhat akin to gray, gray is somewhat akin to white and so you could say-in a way- that black and white are more or less the same thing. Then they need to have a validating poll. The use of the poll is very important at this point. ABC news actually do it while the president is talking.They say that now the position that black and white are the same and not different seems to be held by the majority of the American people. At this point dissent becomes harder and harder to find. Of course MacNeill-Lehrer has a couple of programs about it, so does Ted Koppel, but after a three or four days the blackdifferent-from-white position becomes a minority one and then is exilcd into the oped pages, the letters column and that's it That is the basic pattem of the press under Reagan and has been from the word go. I think the quality of difference between Reagan and his predccessors, or at least his immediate predecessor, is his rcalization that if you emphasize something long enough and loud enough the press will certainly cease to question in any fundamental sense what you've been saying, and antagonism to your position will be rapidly marginalized. Cartographic Genocide The press approached Central America with its familiar fust attribute, which of course is profound ignorance. They barely knew where it was. The first engagement of the U.S. press in some new area of imperial exploitation usually takes the form of a small and rather bad map. In this case the map of Central America actually has been more creative than usual. You'll remember that in the efforts to show that Nicaragua has been supplying El Salvador over the years, many press maps actually performed cartographic genocide- they removed Honduras altogether, and Nicaragua and El Salvador carne to enjoy a common border. I've actually got quite a good little collection of about ten maps to this degree. This is in the early Reagan phase, you remember, of the "big arrow" school of political analysis. The whole world was having these swooping red arrows. I remember a Libyan one, a red arrow that went right down into Angola, a crescent of catastrophe right down. And then you had the arrow going from Nicaragua, or from Cuba to Nicaragua, and then of course the abolition of Honduras which simplified matters greatly, since if you removed Honduras, with its U. S. Surveillance Center, advisers, etc: it was easier to argue that Nicaragua was smuggling arms to the FMLN. Left is Right El Salvador was the first major preoccupation of the press in the Reagan period and the press's first major and ongoing failure. In the first two years of the Reagan administration, the main activity in El Salvador was that of the dcath squads who managed to murder somewhere between thirty and forty-thousand people. This is the phase of joumalism when you heard a lot about "the violcnce of left and right alikc." Very wcll judged fonnulation of joumalism. Journaliste like it because it keeps them in the supposcd middle-and journaliste love the middle, however you define it. Of course the middle has been defined further and further towaid the right Which leaves the left in a "mad dog" role. I'm often asked to go on TV and be a mad dog. That means you're meant to defend murdering small children. "What are you going to say7' they ask. You say, "I don't know. I'm going to say that the Reagan administration should have read the UN charter." They look very distressed and say, "But aren't you going to justify terror?' The joumalism from El Salvador in that period was "the terrorism of the left and right alike." You may remember when Archbishop Romero was killed on Maren 24, 1980, shot by someone probably hired by Roberto D'Aubuisson. The press couldn't come out flatly and say that the left had done it. What they did say was that the left was "benefitting from the chaos." Which of course somehow indicated that-in a way--the left had been behind iL This is a trusted journalistic technique. Here is another good example of this I just read the other day. These are reporte from Honduras about the growing popular indignation over the behavior of U.S. troops stationed there. This is a report from the Boston Globe: 'The local school teacher in Honduras reported Onding evidence that boys in her class had been sexually molested by soldiere," - that's U.S. soldiers - "and several children were found to have VD." Listen to the next sentence: "The story was quickly broadcast in Managua, Cuba.and European countries critical of the U.S. military presence." Another report said that the U.S. was conducting chemical warfare tests in remote arcas causing "yellow rain" to fall on peasants. Said a U.S. spokesman: "These reports are entirely untrue, just as it's false to say that the U.S. spread Chemicals in Vietnam." You'll remember that the U.S. dropped more chemicals on Vietnam than at any time in the history of the world previously. Career FeariThe Case of Raymond Bonner This phase of the "terrorism of left and right alike" as terrorists really came to an end with the murder of the nuns, when Ambassador Robert White said: "They," meaning the right, "are not going to get away with this." And thereafter followed a period where the coverage of El Salvador was, from the point of view of the left, actually not too bad. It was the period when the Reagan White Paper, essentially claiming Soviet, Cuban, and Nicaraguan sponsorship of the Salvadoran revolution, was effectively discredited in fairly quick order. It was the period when Ray Bonner of the New York Times was doing excellent reporting from El Salvador. It was excellent to the extent that he went to El Salvador, he actually went into the hills, he actually looked at a group of guerrillas and camc to the sound investigative conclusión that they weren't Russians. But you have to be highly "professional" for that kind of thing. His reports aroused fantastic indignation, as you might remember, and that fantastic indignation fairly rapidly resulted in the rather abrupt departure of Raymond Bonner from El Salvador, charged with unprofessionalism in sources. At this time, with the case of Bonner in mind, it would be appropriate to raise the issue of the intimidation and fear of journalists in Central America. I'm not talking about the fear of getting shot, which of course is another risk, but the fear of career. Newspapers in general are incredibly authoritarian organizations, much more authoritarian in terms of ability to protest than the government, and I suspect, even the armed forces. In the government, after all, you can blow a whistle, and although your career usually suffers, there are legal remedies you can take if you think you're being victimized. If you see something that's not so hot on your newspaper and choose to go public with it, your career will usually suffer, and usually not in a way that you'll be able to challenge, because all your superiors need to do is reassign you to progressively more and more unpleasant beats. So from the glory and privilege of your foreign assignment, you can then be reassigned to the night rewrite desk, which is not a very romantic place to be. Bonner was there in a period when there was a very well designed right-wing onslaught against what was perceived to be liberal reporting, particularly from Central America, spearheaded by Accuracy in Media and involving a lot of other right-wing groups. The precedent they always raiscd of course was that of Herbert Matthews, who was the New York Times reporter usually regarded by the right as beirig almost entirely responsible for the Cuban Revolution. The right has an enourmous reverence for the power of the press. They thought that Matthews was responsible for the Cuban Revolution because he went to Cuba in the late 50's, interviewed Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra and failed to report to the readers of the New York Times. and presumably to the President, Secretary of Defense and the Director of the CIA, that Castro was a dedicated Leninist, and thus the Cuban Revolution triumphed over unprepared, unforewarned impcrialism. This is the right-wing view of the situation. Similarly, Shirley Christian wrote a very influential piece in the Washington Journalism Review in 1982 asking the same question: "Who Lost Nicaragua?' Now there are many answers to that question and I'm sure you've probably got them. But you probably haven't got the one she came up with, which was that this dastardly deed was the doing of Alan Riding of the New York Times and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Pjjsi. And what had they done? Well they had done exactly what Matthews had done, same ghastly plot. They'd failed to reveal that the Sandinistas were dedicated members of the international Leninist-Marxist conspiracy and thus once again American imperialism had been deceived. You might think this is preposterous but it was taken extrememly seriously in ncwsrooms and by foreign editors around the country. It was certainly taken seriously by journalists being sent to Central America. For those who follow the career of someone like Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times and ask themselves how the fellow who cowrote Bitter Fruit (rather a good account of the coup against Guatemala in 1954 organized by the CIA, which he did with Stephen Schlesinger), how could this guy have ended up as the cowardly hack who now sits in Managua? And the answer I think is that Kinzer knows very well that in the current political context of the New York Times, in the current political context of mainstream joumalism in America, he cannot afford to give what might be perceived as positive coverage of Nicaragua in the New York Times. Bonner made the mistake that he quoted only one source - can you imagine, only one source - to the effect that a U.S. advisor may have been present when torture was inflicted on a guerrilla or a guerrilla sympathizer, by a member of the Salvadoran military. They said, "Why haven't you got two sources? This is a pretty serious accusation here, Bonner. You probably should have ten sources. You probably should have the whole platoon, you know, get them all to teil you." Of course it's probably difficult to get even one person to teil you that a U.S. advisor was present. But that was the perceived blunder for which Bonner was recalled and reassigned to the financial pages and finally really realizcd that he hadn't a future at the New York Times. The fall of Bonner had a very chastening effect on the reporters in the area. Thus when it came to the elections of March, 1982 in El Salvador, you had a U.S. mainstream press almost unanimously complicit with the process of a demonstration election. I don't know how many of you have read the book Demonstration Elections by Ed Herman and Frank Brodhead, which is about how every now and again the U.S sponsors an election in a third world country and makes much of it as a demonstration election in which very familiar pattems of press coverage always occur. In the case of El Salvador, the image was of enormous lines of Salvadorans rushing excitedly to the polls, with guerrillas scorning the democratie process. Very hard to find the fact in the mainstream press, the fact I'm sure most of you know, that the guerrillas didn't join the democratie process because there was no guarantee they wouldn't be slaughtered if they did. The long lines of voters were not explained by the fact that people who didn't vote would not have their passbooks, their registration books stamped, and that this failure to vote might actually mean a sentence of death, because it could be perceived as being hostile to the government The demonstration election, accepted with rapture by the U.S. press, inaugurated the "extreme popularity" phase of Duarte. In the following two years the U.S. press managed to totally ignore (with the exception of two reporters) the heaviest bombing campaign ever conducted in the Americas, a campaign which started in 1983, continued in 1984, declined somewhat in 1985, and still goes on today. They absolutely ignored it even though they could lie in bed in the hotel in San Salvador and hear the distant vibrations of the bombs falling on the [Guazapa] volcano. That takes a lot of talent to do that, or a lot of intimidation, or a lot of self-censorship. Nicaragua: The Sun Also Rises So far as Nicaragua is concerned in the same period, the fundamental feature of mainstream joumalism is an absolute inability to perceive or accept the reality of the revolution as an event beneficial to the bulk of inhabitants of Nicaragua; certainly an inability to report it 111 give you a rather amusing quote by that same Stephen Kinzer from a chap down there who wrote to me. He said he had interviewed Kinzer and asked him about his failure to report the gains made in health care and education in Nicaragua. Kinzer answered: "It's just not news. Sure they're important and the people appreciate them, but the sun also comes up every morning and the people are happy about that I don't go file a story about the sun rising though." Now that extraordinary statement is basically reflected throughout the mainstream press. You occasionally get articles saying "There would appear..." Journalists love the word "appear." It's a sort of gauze you can place between yourself and reality. It's become increasingly popular throughout the Reagan period. You get "perceptions." So you will hear of "the perceived similarity of white with black." That means you can write those words without feeling that you have subscribcd to the lunacy of President Reagan by saying that white actually is black. You can say there's a "perceived similarity" because it's certainly perceived thus by President Reagan. In the same way you get the "perceived" superiority of the Soviet Union in all forms of conventional and nuclear weaponry, the "perceived" threat of Colonel Khadafy to Western Civilization, and the "perceived" failure of the Nicaraguan rcvolution to live up to expectations. So that is the fundamental reality of mainstream press coverage in Nicaragua. But obviously the record has been marked with conspicuous failures from the word go in very specific and important areas. One was the failure to accurately report the Nicaraguan elections. To compare the coverage in the U.S. press of the Salvadoran elections of 1982 with the Nicaraguan elections of November, 1984 is to move between two extraordinarily different worlds. The fact that this was the first election in Nicaraguan history, that the turnout was extremely large, that the victory of the Sandinistas was extremely impressive, that the view of observers was unanimous that the elections were fairly conducted--all of these facts were virtually concealed in the U.S. mainstream press. Vietnam, Libya, Nicaragua, and Pat Buchanan How many people in this room have been to Nicaragua? I would like to discuss a more positive aspect which 1 think makes the current situation with Nicaragua different from Vietnam and why I think there are reasons for optimism. The innacurate coverage by the mainstream press is contradicted daily on campuses and in towns across the country by the experience of a great many Americans who have actually been to Nicaragua. This was not the case in Vietnam. A lot of people of course went to Vietnam, but they didn't go to spend long hours examining the achievements of the Vietnamese revolution, quite to the contrary. Though I think the Reagan Administration and press propaganda about the Nicaraguan Rcvolution have had substantial successes, in the sense that I doubt veiy much that there is a popular knowledge in the U.S. of what the Nicaraguan rcvolution has achieved. I think that the Reagan Administration has failed so far to incúlcate the same degree of "kneejerk" hostility as has been successfully done in the case of Libya. With the case of Libya, there's been cultural preparation for almost a decade, of converting Colonel Khadafy into a superfiend, into a monster, and this effort has gone on at almost every level of reporting. The racist Arab stereotype of the Khadafy mold has been around in the culture for a long time. You can conclude that the level of fantasy and delirium about Khadafy permitted the raid against Libya, whüe I think that is not true so far in the case of Nicaragua. President Reagan is making many attempts to cash the check of Libya in Nicaragua. He's doing it almost every day now. He's saying that the terrorism he'd tried to extírpate in Libya is the terrorism we have to extírpate in Nicaragua. But I don't think that has taken, for a number of reasons. First of all I think there is a level of popular knowledge about Nicaragua that did not exist in the same way in the Vietnam era. Secondly, the Reagan candidates, the contras, have so far presented the Administration with a series of insoluble problems. They are politically a catastrophe and militarily a failure. The contras are very hard for the mainstream U.S. press to buy for very long. I think it's a case where Reaganite hyperbole actually helped. The day when one of Reagan's speechwriters called the contras "freedom-fighters" was a great day for the Nicaraguan revolution in my judgement, because it was such a preposterous statement that journalists who had been to the contra camps, or had seen the contra commander named "Suicide" order his troops to rape and mutílate people, would really find it very hard to refer to them as "freedom-fighters," or even accept that premise, or to do anything othcr than to try to disprove iL (see page 14) (continued from previous page) Similarly, I think Reagan's last major speech in support of contra aid was from their point of view another tactical mistake. It was written by Pat Buchanan. Pat Buchanan is really a very important figure in U.S. political history. It was Pat Buchanan who wrote the speech for Nixon during the invasión of Cambodia. The same man wrote the speech for Reagan on Libya. The same man wrote the speech trying to get the money to invade Nicaragua. That's quite a record. But anyway, the Reagan speech, in which I counted 43 major errors of fact, was so egregious in its lunacy, that even the press had begun to accept the Reagan speech for what it was-fantasy. Presidential Campaigns: Why Not Just Build Sets? To understand the symbiosis of the press and the President you should know how presidential campaigns are really conducted, because we're about to get into them again. If you remember, the candidate speeds around the country in an airplane and then every now and then you see on the seven o'clock news the candidate with some appropriate backdrop. If he's talking about the Rust Belt, there's the Rust Belt, or if he's talking about the Pacific Basin you see a picture of the Silicon Valley. The whole point of the exercise is to get to a place by about twelve o'clock so that film can be taken of the Rust Belt background or the Silicon Valley and rushed back for the seven o'clock news. So the plane lands, the Secret Service get out and clear the area, the network cameras get down in posiüon, the candidate gets out and makes the speech. The shots are taken, rushed off to the studio, and everyone gets back in the plane. I once suggested to Reagan's press guy, "Why don't you just build sets? Then you would save this fantastic expense!" On one such plane trip, the candidate had suddenly decided he wanted to make a statement on the farm crisis, so instead of flying from Washington to Bloomington, Indiana, we were all flown to Nebraska, which was very expensive because it's so much farther. And I said, "Why don't you build it in Washington? You could have a grain field there and we wouldn't have to run like this all over the country, the candidate wouldn't get so tired, and we wouldn't have to spend so much money." He said, "That would be very deceptive, how could you suggest that?" The Fog is Lifting? The press were totally deceived and deceiving by the beginning of the second term, but I think at the present, though not in crisis situations, press coverage is not as bad as it was two years ago. I'll just give you a little smattering of newspaper headlines from the past few days. For example, from the Boston Globe of April 11, you have: "Group's Aid to Contras Probed." The lead here is: "The U.S. Attorney's office in Miami is investigating allegations of extensive criminal activity by a group of Western mercenaries working for the Nicaraguan rebels." A damaging story. Another story, April 11, from the Christian Science Monitor . : 'Top Contras Under Scrutiny for Corruption." A picture of Calero, the "freedom-fighter He says that"charges his group is involved in drug trafficking, terrorist activity and gun-running are absolutely false." That's a pretty good statement - I like that. Here's a story: "Nicaraguan Indians Move to Honduras," from the Boston Globe again. It's a story about 3,500 Miskitos crossing the border into Honduras, but in the third paragraph you have something that you would not have had two years ago: "Their arrival in several refugee camps was orchestrated by U.S. officials to benefit the Miskito exile cause and to bolster the Reagan Administration's portrait of Sandinista repression." These stories indícate that reporters feel it basically reasonable for them to be filing such stuff. When you look at mainstream jounalism and talk to reporters and ask why didn't you do this? If you knew about that cocaine story [an unpublished AP story which linked the contras with cocaine smuggling], why didn't you do it? The first answer is they actually did it, which these guys are now doing. The next question is, why wasn't it published in the paper? So far as I know that story about cocaine smuggling was not published. There is where local pressure on papers, local pressure on the media is extremely important. I think there is a lot to be done in local áreas by way of countervailing pressure from the right which has not been done by the left. The press is to a certain extent, on some issues, vulnerable to pressure, vulnerable to a carefully planned campaign of information, a certain amount of harassment, and a certain amount of pressure from local coalitions. And the same is true of televisión. The Eagle and the Swastika One of my favorite pieces of stupidity lately is from Fred Barnes in The New Republic. Some of you may follow his writing. He went recently to visit the contras. I think one of the reasons the right like the contras and right like "guerillas" like Savimbi is that for years they've watched the left have fun visiting guerrilla campaigns. It's a lot more fun than working at the American Petroleum Institute. You get out in the field, wear some kind of military uniform, maybe get a helicopter if you're lucky and it's fun. Above all it's fun. Which is why I think Jeanne Kirkpatrick called Jonas Savimbi "one of the truly great men in the world today." They've got their guy just like we've got our guys. Anyway, Barnes went down and with no apparent sense of irony described meeting in the contra camp a fellow named Frank. "Frank said he was a designer of coral jewelry which he made in Managua and sold around the country. 'A year ago I got in trouble with the Sandinistas, they searched me, found money, and said I'm a counterrevolutionary because I have too much money.' After a week in jail" - that's not Stalinism is it? - "he headed for contra territory. Frank had a tattoo of a swastika on his arm. He was sheepish about it. It's very bad, I know, but it don't mean nothing. I'm going to put an eagle over it.'" How Barnes can write about the eagle holding the swastika in its claws without realizing that maybe he's not saying a very clever thing - well, no one said he had brains. The Moment of Unanimity If you look at the Libyan case, you have the press in those crucial first two days accepting every proposition of the Reagan Administration and indeed associating themselves with it and promoting themselves. For example, they picked up the President's quote: "irrefutable evidence of Libyan implication" in the blowing up of the Berlín discotheque. Well they may have or may not have had such evidence, but the one thing you think they might have learned after all these years is that the Reagan Administration is composed of fanática] liars. To say the evidence is irrefutable as I heard Sam Donaldson and all these people say, is to breach the most elementary rule of just saying "it is the administration that is saying this." Initially, the press accepted all the arguments about "surgical precisión." The first rule of journalism is whenever you see the words "surgical precisión" you know that nonsense is about to follow. It's always truc without exception. The press is still reluctant to approach the fact that the bombing raid was an attempt to Idll Khadafy, which of course is illegal under U.S. law. But what happened in those first two days was that you had this unanimity where normal seminéis of mainstream liberalism such as Anthony Lewis were going along with the raid, saying it was a fine idea. Two days later amid some efforts to climb down the tree, he still said it was perfectly OK to attempt to kill Khadafy, by which logic yhe was really implying it's perfectly OK to kill President Reagan, so the Secret Service should have arrested hún. In exactly the same way, Torn Wicker carne out for the invasión of Grenada. And Bill Moyers, to complete the trilogy of liberáis of this variety, was the major point man against the Soviet Union in the Geneva meeting last year. That is the fundamental utility of those people. They are like the cattletick in Bleibtreu's The Dav of the Beast that waits 20 years and then jumps on a cow. lts only function in life is to jump on the cow and have a little hit of blood and then do down. These liberáis wait for that all important leap in the service of evil. The Moment to Watch So that was the moment of unanimity. Now I think the moment to watch, the moment of maximum peril is that moment when the administration tríes to engineer it in Nicaragua, because that is quite clearly their intention. You can see very, very clearly what the strategy is because it's just been unfolded for us over Tripoli and over Bengazi. First of all, the cult of terrorism has been an operating political concept over the last six or seven years in which politics, context, meaning, history, and reality is thrown aside and you get the undifferentiated image of terror and the abolition of reason. In the space opcncd up by this abolition of reason, you can expect a statement by Reagan that Nicaraguan terror is suspectedperhaps a Nicaraguan hit squad crossing the border (remember the Libyan hit squad coming down from Canada?). This would be followed by the statement that a U.S. preemptive strike on, say, the deep-water port on the Atlantic Coast at El Bluff has been launched, Congress has been consulted, and planes are in the air. At that moment - despite all the activities, all the organizing one's done - at that moment the game can be lost or at least the situation can get very bad. That is the entire policy of this administration in terms of news media manipulation, in terms of the concepts under which it's been operating. So I think it behooves us at all moments when these news spasms occur to be doubly vigilant and doubly critical in whatever ways we can because those are the moments when the press will perform what is obviously its fundamental role, which is to lend a cheer to the administration and its enterprises.