1. DISTORTED REPORTS OF THE EL SALVADOR CRISIS
The outbreak of civil war in tiny El Salvador was given ample attention
by the U.S. media in 1980. But the nature of the coverage, on the whole,
was dangerously misleading. Through either willful misinformation or
ignorance, the major media contributed to a misguided U.S. foreign policy
that threatened to embroil Americans in another Vietnam war.
A popularly promoted myth was that the current government of the tiny
Central American country in a "moderate" junta, struggling
to maintain order in the face of left and right-wing extremist minorities.
But according to Murat Williams, a former U.S., ambassador to El Salvador,
and others, the "left" is more accurately a heterogeneous
mix of peasants, students, teachers, priests, nuns, and middle-class
businessmen, comprising about 80 percent of the population. What remains
is less "center" than "right," comprised chiefly
of the military and the oligarchy. The few "moderates" of
the civilian-military junta and Cabinet of 1979 had resigned by January,
1980, despairing of any real governmental reforms. Subsequent participation
in the junta by members of the Christian Democrat party is perceived
by the majority of Salvadorans as a facade for international opinion,
while governmental repression has increased.
Furthermore, the U.S. press has generally perpetuated the belief that
the bulk of El Salvador's estimated 10,000 assassinations in 1980 were
the work of "Marxist-inspired guerillas" or reactionary right-wing
forces. But records of the Legal Aid Office of the Catholic Archdiocese
of San Salvador show that government military units themselves were
responsible for 80 percent of the country's political assassinations.
Following is one brief example of how America's major news media failed
to cover important events when they happened in El Salvador:
On February 22, 1981, the London Sunday Times ran a long story about
the May 1980 massacre at El Salvador's Rio Sumpul, headlined "VICTIMS
OF THE MASSACRE THE WORLD IGNORED." Hundreds of unarmed Salvadoran
peasants were gunned down in a joint action by Salvadoran and Honduran
forces. While that story hadn't appeared in the New York Times or the
Washington Post, it had been the lead in an article which appeared in
Inquiry, a small circulation semimonthly magazine published in San Francisco
-- on November 10, 1980.
Another fallacy commonly put forth was that Cuban or Russian-inspired
guerillas were the cause of El Salvador's social upheaval. This simplistic
theory dangerously diverted attention from tackling the country's real
enemy -- a century of poverty, hunger, and economic and social injustice.
Nearly 91 percent of El Salvador's 4.5 million inhabitants live in poverty
under an archaic feudal system whereby 2 percent of the population controls
60 percent of the land. Prime agricultural lands are used for raising
luxury export crops such as cotton and coffee, at the expense of subsistence
crops which could better meet local needs. Certainly Communism will
feed on these problems, but to cite the Russians or Cubans as the source
of El Salvador's turmoil is a myopic view that promotes hysteria, engenders
militarism, and short-circuits compassionate reform efforts.
A "land to the Tiller" program, similar to that which failed
in Vietnam, was being touted by both the U.S. government and much of
the major media in 1980 as proof that the "centrist" Salvadoran
junta was sincerely working towards land reform. But human rights offices
of both the Organization for American States and the United Nations
report that such "reform" is more often a pretext for the
murderous extermination of organized peasant groups in rural areas as
government troops move in to supervise the expropriation process. And
85.5 percent of proposed land redistribution remains on the drawing
boards as continued violence betrays government lip-service to reform.
There also was much media-induced paranoia regarding Cuban or Russian
arms shipments to the "leftist guerillas."' This misdirected
public scrutiny from an alarming U.S. military buildup in El Salvador.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, U.S. security assistance
to El Salvador between 1950 and 1979 totaled $16.72 million. In 1980,
over $5.7 million in U.S. military aid was sent to El Salvador, in addition
to the stationing of U.S. military advisers in that country.
The U.S. media, rather than parroting governmental policy, should have
been seriously questioning our involvement in El Salvador. Why should
a purported defense of democracy take the form of financial and military
aid to a repressive regime? Why has 80 percent of El Salvador's population
joined in opposition to the so-called "reform" government?
How can meaningful economic and social reform be accomplished with the
exclusion of the disadvantaged from the government? What possible goodwill
can the U.S, hope to generate throughout Latin America by pursuing a
blatantly unpopular foreign policy in El Salvador's struggle for self-determination?
The media's inadequate and distorted coverage of the crisis in El Salvador
qualifies this for nomination as one of the "best censored"
stories of 1980.
America, April 26, 1980, "El Salvador's Agony and U.S. Policies,"
by James L. Connor; The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 29, 1980, "El
Salvador Land Reform May Bite the Dust," by Clifford Krauss, and
Jan. 1, 1981, "Rights and Wrongs in El Salvador"; Christianity
and Crisis, May 12, "El Salvador: Reform as Cover for Repression,"
by William L. Wipfler; Inquiry, May 5, 1980, "The Continuing Calamity
of El Salvador," and Nov. 10, 1980, "Central American Powder
Keg," both by Anne Nelson; The Nation, Dec. 13, 1980, "El
Salvador's Christian Democrat Junta," by Penny Lernoux, and Dec.
20, 1980, "The Junta's War Against the People," by James Petras.