MediaWatch: April 1989

Vol. Three No. 4

Janet Cooke Award: Sunday Today: Salvador Slant

There is cause for both optimism and pessimism in El Salvador today. The densely-populated Central American nation has achieved a milestone: its second national presidential election has put new life into the fledgling democracy. But while democratic principles are being exercised, the now nine year-old civil war rages on. Despite one million dollars a day in U.S. economic and military aid, the government still cannot crush the FMLN communist insurgency, funded and supported by the Soviet Union, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Corruption and mismanagement by the Christian Democratic centrist government and the 1986 earthquake set the economy and democracy back, but the continuous economic sabotage and terrorism by the communist rebels is the root cause of the misery, death and instability.

It was not the decade long crimes of the communists that concerned the networks when covering recent elections. Instead, reporters concentrated almost exclusively on the atrocities of the right. Garrick Utley's March 12 Sunday Today report was the most one-sided and earns the April Janet Cooke Award.

Political murderers by the Salvadoran army and right wing paramilitary death squads are still occurring in El Salvador and Utley certainly had a duty to note it. But his eight and one half minute long report never mentioned the equally bloody murders committed by the FMLN. The opening of his report showed just how selective he planned to be: "The war is still going on there. The right-wing death squads were controlled for a while, but now the number of the victims is increasing again."

Reinforcing his theme, Utley conveyed the story of the death of Miguel Lazo: "Our story is about a body which was dug up. Miguel Lazo was his name, a teacher and a union official, murdered it is believed by one of the death squads linked to the armed forces... he knew that union officials are prime targets for the right-wing death squads."

The number of political deaths has not risen drastically as Utley claimed. In 1980, the number killed by right-wing and left-wing death squads combined was 750 per month; in 1981, it was 444. The number came down steadily throughout the decade and averaged 22 in 1986, 23 in 1987, and 18 in 1988. Human rights groups put the number at 21 per month so far this year. Despite the improved situation, Utley still singled out government forces: "This too was Miguel Lazo's world, a confrontation between union members and their supporters, and the army in the capital San Salvador itself. The armed forces see the unions as allies and sympathizers of the Marxist-led guerrillas. The unions see the armed forces as the force of repression. This soldier wanted to open fire, but was ordered not to. The killing can always be done at night, anonymously, as it happened to Miguel Lazo."

What about the left-wing murders? The U.S. Embassy estimated that of the 185 killings of non-combatants in the first ten months of 1988, 54 were clearly perpetrated by the FMLN; another 60 were probable FMLN murders. The left-leaning and FMLN-sympathetic Salvadoran Catholic Church claimed most 1988 murders were committed by the "security forces (92)," while another 60 were committed by "death squads (not further defined)." It did, however, attribute 44 killings to the FMLN.

While the numbers are conflicting, it is clear the communists are killing and aiming at high profile figures to sabotage local political structures and the democratic process. Among the killings by the FMLN in 1988: eight mayors, one ex-mayor, and one governor. Another 80 mayors received death threats from the communists and were intimidated to resigning.

Utley noted "the increase in violence from the left as the war moves into the city" and showed the rebels making Molotov cocktails, but the 22-year news veteran deliberately left out the FMLN's assassinations and their disruption of the recent elections. Instead, he harped on ARENA founder Robert D'Aubuisson's link to death squads, complaining that "many people see" Arena presidential candidate Cristiani "as the front man for the real power in the party."

MediaWatch asked Garrick Utley to discuss these points, but he repeatedly declined, explaining: "I don't talk about the work. My attitude is that the work has to speak for itself. Every viewer or reader can have their interpretation of it. I can't get into the details of this or that, or it just becomes an open-ended, very subjective approach to it."

When told that MediaWatch wants to provide reporters with the opportunity to defend their stories, Utley responded: "I appreciate you calling, but I don't get into debates on this sort of thing. The report is there. No report is made in heaven." Probably true, at least Utley's report wasn't made there. Unless it was in FMLN-heaven....if there is one.