Flat Earth News

Churnalism and propaganda

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Tagged: / Posted: 7 May 2008

A loyal reader of Flat Earth News sent in the following short extract from "Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism" by Greg Grandin. You'll see that it merges some of the book's themes about the pressures of churnalism with the production of propaganda.

The extract deals with the Reagan government's extensive attempts during the 1980s to influence news coverage in favour of the Contras, who were waging a military and political campaign to unseat the democractically-elected Sandanista government of Nicaragua; and also in support of the military in El Salvador who were using imprisonment without trial, torture and murder to suppress political opposition.

"The point of all this activity [in favour of the Contras and the Salvadorean military] was not to create majority support for Reagan's Central American policy.... The goal rather was to prevent an oppositional consensus from forming.

"To that end Public Diplomacy, much like rational choice counterinsurgency , helped shift the debate in favour of the White House not by winning over domestic hearts and minds but by making it too costly for mainstream journalists and politicians to challenge policy.

"Confronted by government spokespeople and sympathetic experts ready to rebut unfavourable coverage, no matter how slight the criticism or how marginal the source, reporters came to dread the amount of fact checking it took to cover Central America.

"'I work for a network very concerned with cost and image', complained Karen Burnes of ABC News in 1987.

"'It takes months and months' she said to do a critical story on Reagan's Central American policy. Spending that much prep time on a story that would take up only five minutes of airtime , she said, was 'not a way to be successful'."

The same reader also sent a summary of a second extract from Greg Gandin's book, which is an interesting example of the workings of what Flat Earth News calls 'the electric fence' - the way in which aggressive lobbying by a powerful interest group not only suppresses targetted stories but tends to deter other journalists who are tempted to approach similar stories, just as an electric fence stings one or two cows in a field and then deters all the others in the herd from crossing that line, even when the fence itself is removed. It goes to one of the central quesions in Flat Earth News: how a constitutionally free press can nevertheless end up performing as though it were the subject of formal state censorship.

In a section of Grandin's book titled A Return to Deference, he describes how on December 11 1981, the Atlacatl regiment of the Salvadorean army entered a village called El Mozote and over the next two days killed at least 794 civilians - some villagers, others people who had fled to seek refuge in the village, many of them children. Two journalists wrote it up: Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post.

The US State Department denied that it was true. The Reagan administration used a battery of organisations, including a group called Accuracy in Media, to orchestrate an onslaught. The Wall Street Journal fell into step, leading a media campaign of outrage against the two journalists. Bonner was discredited and taken off the story. Guillermoprieto was reassigned to some suburban Washington beat and left the paper two years later.

This was part of a pattern of stomach-churningly inaccurate and unfair reporting by US news media, who all too often were content to enjoy the safety of adopting the US governments official version of events in central America. (For some raw material on this, see Herman and Chomsky's book, Manufacturing Consent.)

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, a peace was negotiated and the truth came out: the Bonner/Guillermoprieto stories had been accurate. Nobody knows for sure how many were killed, the remains of 794 people have been found. Nobody has been convicted of any crime. Nobody has apologised to the journalists involved - least of all the Wall Street Journal.
 

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