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A one-sided press.

The Reagan Administration (and conservatives in general) frequently rail against the reporting from Central America, charging that it does not reflect the reality of the situation. The charge is accurate, but the distortions favor the Administration's policies rather than the other way around.

Compare the coverage of the 1982 Salvadoran and the 1984 Nicaraguan elections. The Administration heralded the Salvadoran vote as a giant step forward for democracy and condemned the Nicaraguan polling as a "sham." Although neither was democratic by U.S. standards, neither was a sham. But the reporting reinforced the Administration's characterization in several ways. First, the amount of coverage given each differed. More than 700 journalists poured into El Salvador in 1982: major newspapers dispatched two and three reporters; networks fought for space on the roof of the Camino Real Hotel in the capital to film interviews; election stories made the front pages and led off the evening news for days. By contrast, the media provided only minimal coverage of the Nicaraguan elections.

Second, many of the stories about the Nicaraguan contest focused on the parties that were not participating. Nearly every article noted--prominently--that Arturo Cruz was not on the ballot. The fact that F.D.R. leader Guillermo Ungo was not permitted to participate in El Salvador was omitted from most stories, or mentioned only toward the end. (Atlhough it was sometimes reported that he "boycotted" the election, confidential documents show that the army would not permit him or other leftist candidates to run.)

The coverage of Nicaragua also stressed that press censorship and a state of emergency which restricted political activities were in effect. Stories about the Salvadoran election rarely, if ever, noted that there is no opposition press in that country, that opposition editors and reporters have been murdered and their plants bombed. Nor did many stories of the Salvadoran elections mention that a state of siege limiting political activity was also in effect there during most of the campaign. (The same situation prevailed during the 1984 elections.)

A major theme in reports on the Salvadoran elections was news of guerrilla attacks aimed at disrupting the voting. In contrast, contra raids in Nicaragua were rarely reported, although at least two election officials were killed while registering voters, another was kidnapped and seven soldiers were killed while transporting election-day materials.

The bias is reflected in more than just the election coverage. Since 1980, attacks on the economic infrastructure by Salvadoran insurgents, which has been roundly condemned by the Administration, have been regularly reported. Yet the bombing of fuel depots, sabotage of port facilities, dynamiting of bridges, destruction of farm cooperatives and burning of crops carried out by contras bave been reported only sporadically.

Although the contras have killed civilians--children, schoolteachers, health workers and political leaders--the U.S. newspapers rarely mention such incidents. When Salvadoran guerrillas kill noncombatants, however, it is frequently front-page news. Asked why the contra atrocities were not being reported, a U.S. journalist in Nicaragua explained that it was impossible to get to the scene until a day or two later and by then it was stale news. Yet, reports about atrocities committed by Salvadoran guerrillas have appeared weeks and, in some instances, months after the event.

Journalists in Nicaragua have climbed aboard a bandwagon, reporting that the Sandinistas have lost considerable popular support. That happens to be true, but much of the people's dissatisfaction stems from the shortages of basic goods, such as toothpaste, toilet paper, batteries and soap, and the necessity of standing in long lines when they are available. The shortages are attributable, in part, to the government's economic policies and its mismanagement of the economy, which reporters are quick to note. What they frequently overlook is that the shortages are also the direct and intended result of the U.S.-backed war--economic as well as military--against Nicaragua.

Nicaragua under the Sandinistas is not a liberal democracy, and it is possible that someday it will become a communist state, but both the former and current U.S. Ambassadors to that country have said privately that it is not one yet. Nevertheless, reporters routinely label Nicaragua as "communist" or "Marxist-Leninist." Those terms trigger negative responses among readers and oversimplify the complex debate going on within the Sandinista leadership about the future political and economic structure of Nicaragua.

At a recent discussion about press coverage of Central America sponsored by the Media Forum in New York City, panelist George Melloan of The Wall Street Journal declared, "I don't have the foggiest idea what Marxism-Leninism is." It was an important admission froma senior editorial writer of a paper whose editorials routinely apply the phrase to the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas. As Harrison Salisbury noted recently in a New York Times Magazine article on China, it is possible to find "a quotation from Marx or Engels or Lenin to justify just about any policy."

Melloan's and Salisbury's observations suggest that reporters should be extremely careful about the descriptive phrases they use, unless they can define them and are confident that the definition fits those to whom the phrases are applied.

Documenting the double standard in reporting on Central America is easier than understanding why it is so prevalent. One reason is that journalists, like politicians, don't want to be labeled as jeftists, or as being "soft on communism." Reporters in Central America Don't worry about being attacked by press columnists like Alexander Cockburn in The Nation or Geoffrey Stokes in The Village Voice. Indeed, such criticism may enhance the reporter's status within his or her organization. And many reporters are familiar with the way that The New York Times's Herbert Matthews was vilified for having reported too sympathetically about Castro in the 1950s. If Nicaragua should go communist, journalists who have written anything favorable about the Sandinistas will be treated harshly. If it does not, who will criticize the journalists who reported so negatively on the revolution?

At I asserted during a recent panel discussion, the bottom line is that the Administration is getting more than a fair shake from the reporting in Central America. A Reagan Administration official who was present agreed. The audience was clearly stunned by his admission. It might not shock journalists in Central America, but it ought to cause them to re-examine their biases and their dispatches.
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Author:Bonner, Raymond
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Dec 8, 1984
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