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 E1 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 lose “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 E1 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 E1 Salvador qualifies this for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 19800
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.