5. THE REAL STORY OF CENTRAL AMERICA

In late March of this year, New York Times journalist John Corry complained "A month's viewing of the evening news programs suggests that there are shortcomings in the treatment of El Salvador. Sometimes the programs present the news about El Salvador tardily, sometimes they get it confused and sometimes they focus on the rhetoric rather than on the reality."

Corry then documented what he called TV's incompetent coverage of the events in El Salvador and concluded that "The evening news programs are better at reporting what the administration says it is doing rather than what it does. Rhetoric is skimmed off the top; the substance is untouched."

Corry may be correct as far as he goes. However, his charges could be applied to the print media as well as TV and to the rest of Central America as well as El Salvador.

The 1982 media coverage of a deadly and widespread battle taking place close to the U.S. border was indeed confusing.

At one time we are told it is important to support the El Salvador government because it is the first domino in a line heading straight to the United States; then we are warned that El Salvador is another Vietnam and we had better stay out; then President Reagan says there has been an improvement in human rights and we should send them more money and U.S. advisors; but then we are told that two U.S. journalists have been arrested and imprisoned without charges; and finally, the mutilated body of John J. Sullivan III, a free-lance writer who disappeared in El Salvador in 1980, is returned to his family in New York.

The Nicaragua/Honduras situation seems no less confusing. We are told that Nicaragua's Sandinista government is failing; then we hear that it is strong and in charge; Next the country is under imminent danger of war with Honduras; but Hondurans say there are no guerrilla camps in their country attacking Nicaragua; yet a New York Times reporter sends a dispatch from a Honduran guerrilla camp near the Nicaragua border; our ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte, responds to questions with "no comment, no comment, and a big fat no comment;" finally the administration clarifies it all by explaining we are conducting psychological war in the area.

However, even though the reports from E1 Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras may be contradictory and confusing, at least we are aware that serious problems exist there. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, we are aware enough of what is happening there for a majority of Americans to oppose President Reagan's plans to send more money and military advisers to E1 Salvador.

But what do we know about Guatemala ... where the situation may be even worse if possible?

Since General Efraim Rios Montt took power in a military coup on March 23, 1982, he has been seen and promoted by some as a savior. Montt believes that his program is progressive and that he is succeeding in pacifying the country and achieving stability ... a view which has been promoted in the U.S. media. Commenting on the situation in Guatemala, the New York Times said that "left wing terrorism is quiet after a decade and a half of turmoil."

Montt, a born-again Christian, once was forced to leave the country because of public outcry over his repression and bloody campaign against Indian campesinos. Now, with this return, some say the Vietnamization of Guatemala has been stepped up with pacification programs, fortified hamlets, and search-and-destroy missions in what Montt refers to as a "beans and rifles" program.

Recently, just four days before the arrival of Pope John Paul II, the Guatemalan army order a firing squad for six Indians who had been convicted by secret military courts of offenses that under martial law are capital crimes. The Pope asked that the men's lives be spared. They died at dawn. We must ask how concerned is Montt with Guatemala's human-rights reputation?

More important, however, we must ask the press -- just what is the real story in Central America?

Sporadic sensational forays into various countries over a period of time embellished with official handouts from our less-than-lucid State Department is not the way such an important story should be covered. It took us a long time to find out what was really happening in Vietnam; let us not let this happen again.

SOURCES:

Four Arrows: The Horror and the Hope; San Francisco Chronicle, 2/26/83, "Missing American is Salvador Victim;" 3/16/83, "Trouble in 'New Guatemala'," by Dial Torgerson; 3/27/83, "2 U.S. Journalists Arrested in Salvador"(AP); 3/31/83, "Americans Oppose More Salvador Aid," by George Gallup; Santa Rosa Press Democrat, 3/23/83, "How TV Fumbles News from El Salvador, by John Corry, New York Times Service; San Francisco Chronicle, 3/28/83, "Inside a Guerrilla Camp Near Nicaragua's Border," by Stephen Kinzer, New York Times.