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The Media: Cynicism, Silence, Amnesia, and Disinformation

by Joe W. Straley



On Saturday, October 15, 1983, I was standing in the press area at the Sandino International Airport waiting to observe the departure of the "Honorable" Henry Kissinger who was soon to terminate an 8-hour visit to Managua where he had conned Nicaraguan officials into the false assumption that anything they had to say about their nation would have one iota of influence on his subsequent Kissinger Commission Report on Central America. I edged over to where Robert Shapley of CBS News was standing and, referring to the dozens of TV-cameras set to roll when Mr. Kissinger should appear, asked innocently, "Will this footage make it into the CBS Evening News?" Mr. Shapley's answer (Honest! I'm not making this up!) was "Only if he gets shot!"


On Friday, January 4, 1985, I was in a conference room of a downtown hotel in Guatemala City with a group of North Americans known as Faculty For Human Rights in Central America to hear reports from GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo - Mutual Support Group), a collection of mothers, wives, children, and fathers united by the fact that each had lost a child, a parent, or a spouse to death squads. It was a serious indictment of Guatemalan justice and of US complicity in Guatemalan repression, which we innocently thought US citizens should know. Armed with information based on this and other interviews we dashed off to contact US press representatives, only to learn that none of the major news media had a stringer in Guatemala.

"Nothing is happening in the region just now," we were told. A portion of our group stopped off in Mexico City on their return flight and scheduled a news conference with representatives of New York Herald Tribune. Although some internationally-known Latin American scholars (Piero Gleijeses and Marvin Gettleman, among others) were with our group, we didn't impress the press enough to get even a word in any US newspaper on the subject of our "findings." It was well-known that "nothing" was happening in the region, so what could these would-be journalists know?


The US has a talent for going into a situation it doesn't understand, making a mess, then tiptoeing away and pretending that nothing happened. Like the child in the cookie jar, our leaders and the media are quite prepared to forget about the whole thing. Their motto might well be "We decide when it's over and when we say it's over, it's over." By this reckoning the war against Iraq ended in 1991; those crazy Iraqis think the war is still going on. How quaint! But is the US war against Iraq over or has it simply assumed another form? Scores of non-governmental agencies, medical & health organizations, and individuals from all over the world have reported the deadly effect of US-managed sanctions on trade with Iraq. More than 1,500,000 Iraqis are already dead as a result of this act of US cruelty, paralleled in US history only by European settlers' treatment of the American Indian. Twenty thousand more will die of hunger and sickness in July and August of this year unless these sanctions are terminated immediately. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark has visited Iraq and has this to say about the situation:

"The consequences of these Security Council Sanctions dwarf the atrocities of Athens' blockade of Melos and Rome's destruction of Carthage."

We in the United States, presumably the greatest democracy in history, with "democratically" elected officials, a costly media, universal public education and towering churches, would like to believe that our citizens are also the best informed and most sensitive people on Earth. The truth is that US citizens are probably as poorly informed as were the Greeks and the Romans to which Ramsey Clark referred. "We, the People" (=the public; leave Joe Straley out of this!) blessed the Gulf War only seven years ago when it was a "hot" war, yet the more deadly "quiet" war can muster barely a line in the media or a mumble from the pulpit!

Disinformation and No Information

The media provides enough information for the public to generate an attitude but insufficient information for the public to generate an informed opinion. Uninformed attitudes are as dangerous as land mines; they lay at the base of the German Holocaust. Can one by any stretch of the imagination say that US policies with respect to Guatemala, Somalia, Chile, El Salvador, Vietnam, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico/Chiapas, Peru, and Nicaragua, to pick only a few cases, have been based on informed public opinion or consideration as to what was best for the people who were on the receiving end of these policies? The doddering policies of our government with respect to these and other nations lead us to ask some (largely rhetorical) questions:

  • Will the criminals in our own government who acted as co-conspirators in the overthrow of elected governments in Guatemala and Chile ever be brought to justice?
  • Is the US public prepared to learn that US-led efforts to privatize everything in Haiti is almost certain to be followed by violent reaction when UN forces leave that beleaguered nation next month?
  • When will it begin to soak in that NAFTA is in fact but another conspiracy whose predictable outcome is more poverty both in the United States and in the participating nations? One needs only to look at the people who were at the table to sign these agreements to become aware of who will be the most likely beneficiaries of "free trade" as now defined.
  • After learning that US attempts to impose US culture and US values on the people of Guatemala produced only death and hunger, why did the American public allow the use of the same formula in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Vietnam?

    A Lesson in Reasoning

    When I was an undergraduate student one of my professors told me that, in his opinion, people do not differ widely in their reasoning ability. "Rather," he said, "people differ widely in the facts available to them." So we come back to the media (and our schools and our churches): If citizens don't have the facts as to what US actions are doing to people elsewhere, how can we expect people to reach logical conclusions based on facts? If our leaders and the media have never provided us with the facts, how can Joe Straley talk about amnesia-can one forget something that s/he never knew?

  Joe Straley is facilitator of Chapel Hill/Carrboro CITCA (Carolina Interfaith Taskforce on Central America).  

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