MediaWatch: December 1989

Vol. Three No. 12

Reporting the War on FMLN Terms

Consider this Latin American scenario: a democratically elected government comes under attack from a band of terrorists. The government, elected six months earlier, had won in a landslide with a higher turnout than in any national election in the U.S. over the last 20 years. The terrorists, who assassinated at least eight mayors and threatened to murder anyone who dared to vote, carried less than 4 percent of the electorate. The election was certified by international observers as one of the freest and fairest in the history of the region.

Having lost this test of the people's support, the terrorists now try to shoot their way to power. They have invaded neighborhoods in the capital city, where they hide behind innocent civilians, and then cynically blame the government's army for civilian deaths.

Does this version of events sound familiar? If not, you've probably been relying on major media sources for your news from the war in El Salvador. Through the subtle use of labeling and cursory reporting of rebel violence, the media indicted the democratic government as a harsh violator of human rights and softpedaled the terror and violence of the Soviet-backed Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency that would overthrow them.

To study the media's El Salvador coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed all news stories from November 11, when the offensive began, to November 30 in newspapers (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times), and on the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening news shows. For Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, analysts studied the issues dated November 27, December 4 and 11. Three themes emerged: the media assumed alleged right-wing assassinations were more important than FMLN killings, described the right as "extreme" but not the left, and rarely noted that El Salvador's government was freely elected.

ASSASSINATIONS. Several hundred civilians were killed in the mid-November FMLN offensive, but when six Jesuit priests sympathetic to the communist rebels were murdered a few days into the fighting, their deaths, immediately attributed to "right-wing death squads," quickly became the pivotal event of the unfolding news story. In typical fashion, CBS reporter Juan Vasquez portrayed the priests as martyrs for the right side of history: "The nation's archbishop said the murdered priests' only crime was being on the side of the poor, a central theme of liberation theology." Not one TV reporter bothered to mention that liberation theology is inspired by Marxism. Time's Jill Smolowe found that of all the killings, "Most cold-blooded was the brutal slayings of six Jesuit priests, which seemed to symbolize all that is wrong in El Salvador." To Smolowe, "all that is wrong" are the misdeeds and alleged misdeeds of the right, and not the left.

This concern wasn't extended to the victims of left-wing violence. Only one story (in the Los Angeles Times) mentioned the FMLN's past assassinations of government officials and mayors while the newscasts and front pages were dominated by the Jesuit murders. Not one contrasted the priests' deaths with reports of the hospital raid in Zacatecouluca, where the rebels killed wounded soldiers in their beds, despite Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson's November 17 Senate testimony on the incident.

When former Supreme Court President Francisco Guerrero was assassinated on November 28, the media demonstrated a noticeable lack of outrage. ABC didn't find it important enough to make the evening news. In their reports the next day, none of the three newspapers reported the killing as a part of a continuing FMLN campaign to assassinate prominent government officials and mayors. The only assassination they reported just happened to be the only one the FMLN has admitted, that of Attorney General Alberto Garcia Alvarado. The three newspapers cited an interview with rebel commander Joaquin Villalobos, who said "Because of his defense of death squads, he was a legitimate target." Guerrero's assassination wasn't played much differently than that: The New York Times described the killing with the subheadline: "An official seen by leftists as a barrier to change is gunned down."

LABELS. The media's point of view also came through in the words used to describe the two sides of the war. By employing a standard right-left road map to describe the war, reporters applied labels that implied pluralism within the FMLN where there is none and denied the kinds of clear comparisons (communist vs. anti-communist, democratic vs. anti-democratic) that would give the Cristiani government any form of moral advantage. In the twenty days after the beginning of the guerrilla offensive, reporters never identified the FMLN as "communist." The media's label of choice for the FMLN was "leftist," applied 123 times. That's mild enough to apply to George McGovern or Jesse Jackson. Another label, "Marxist-led," used 20 times, implies that a few Marxists lead some sort of broad-based coalition.

Contrast the labeling of the FMLN with that of El Salvador's right wing. Especially in the aftermath of the Jesuit murders, the media tossed around terms such as "extreme right," the "violent right," the "far right," and "right-wing extremists" 59 times. "Far left" was invoked only twice and no reporter tried "extreme left," "left-wing extremists," or "violent left" to characterize the communist guerrillas. (Although no reporter ever used the word "terrorist" to describe the FMLN, Dan Rather once used the term "rebel terror squads.") Despite assassinations attributed to both sides, a Nexis search of major newspapers and magazines over the last decade found that no reporter has ever used the term "left-wing death squad."

Time was the champion of labeling imbalance: in three weeks of stories, they never labeled the guerrillas. But in its December 11 issue, Washington reporter J.F.O. McAllister wrote that the "ultra-rightists" of the Cristiani government were "betraying distressingly fascist leanings," and concluded that "The future of El Salvador looks to be a free-for-all between a buoyant and rearmed FMLN and generals willing to make the country a boneyard."

DEMOCRACY. The Cristiani government was elected, but reporters ignored this key point. They allowed U.S. officials to state the point on a few occasions, but made it themselves only five times. Major media reporters never referred to the rebels as "anti- democratic," refusing to note the FMLN's so-called "popular movement" got less than 4 percent of the vote. But amazingly, the government was labeled undemocratic. On CBS, Juan Vasquez reported: "In a country where the powerful consider liberation theology a dangerous idea, the priests dared to speak up for social justice and, frequently, against the U.S. policy of supporting a government they saw as undemocratic." NBC's Jim Cummins repeatedly referred to the government as "military- civilian," making no distinction between the current elected government and the junta that took power in 1979.

The tenor of news coverage was best distilled in Time's December 4 issue. "Washington should rethink its relationship with a democratically elected government that cannot control fanatic right-wing elements in the armed forces. El Salvador's armed forces, nourished by American dollars, bear primary responsibility for the country's scandalous human rights record. Washington should cut off military aid unless travesties like the killing of the six Jesuits are stopped."

Wrapped up in its Vietnam-driven suspicion of U.S. foreign policy and the recipients of U.S. aid, the media crossed the line from skepticism to antagonism, refusing to concede that the Cristiani government is the legitimate voice of its people. The recent weeks of war in El Salvador have demonstrated how the media reserved their harshest scrutiny for Cristiani's elected government, repeating the propaganda themes of an under-investigated FMLN that has little regard for Western democratic values.