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JIM LEHRER [voice-over]: El Salvador -- a major story for the U.S. press. How well are they covering it? Not well at all, say the critics.
LEHRER: Good evening. Two of the three network news broadcasts contain stories tonight on El Salvador, and it's a safe bet the newspaper we each read tomorrow will have at least one El Salvador story. There are several to pick from: "Leftist guerrillas blew up seven buses in the capital city of San Salvador and briefly occupied two suburbs;" "Fierce fighting erupted as guerrillas and government troops clashed in an eastern province along the Pan American highway;" "An American general in El Salvador on a fact-finding tour said the government is winning the war against the rebels." Also, here in Washington, The Washington Post reported the administration may soon allow U.S. military advisers in El Salvador to carry automatic rifles for protection. And the administration revealed today mail to the White House and the State Department has been running from 10 to one to 20 to one against the Reagan policy toward El Salvador. There are those who claim there is a strong connection between those negative public feelings and the extensive press coverage El Salvador is receiving, coverage they charge is biased toward the leftist guerrillas and against the government because American reporters are innately biased toward all revolutionaries and against all U.S. government policies and statements. It's that war of words over the coverage of the real El Salvador war that we explore tonight.Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, that war of words you just mentioned heated up in the last few weeks on a variety of media fronts. Some of it was prompted by news reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post of the killing of hundreds of civilians in a small mountain village in El Salvador. Surviving witnesses told reporters that hundreds of men, women and children were murdered in an assault by government soldiers. Salvadoran officials denied the act; U.S. government officials cast doubt on the reports. A New York Times columnist cast doubt on the U.S. official, and the Wall Street Journal, in rather strong terms, took The New York Times to task both for its reporting and its columnist. The media war, as the Wall Street Journal called it, was the subject of a more extensive critique published in January by Freedom House, a nonpartisan national organization based in New York. With us tonight is the executive director of Freedom House, Leonard Sussman. Mr. Sussman, your report states that reporting on El Salvador has been marred by political bias, ideology, poor sources, and deliberate misinformation. Starting with political bias, can you give me an example or expand on that a little bit?
LEONARD SUSSMAN: Well, I think the problem in El Salvador is not unique to the reporting of complex situations involving fighting, involving bloodshed, and particularly involving strong ideologies. And El Salvador is a perfect example of all of this intertwined. As a consequence, one comes to it either without understanding of all of these complex backgrounds, or with some feeling on one side or another, or as a journalist, perhaps, an effort to try to balance these. The problem as I see it is one that I come against very often these past seven years. In dealing with the challenges to the Western news media in UNESCO and other places, where the Third World claims that Western journalists inevitably come with biases of various kinds, inevitably stereotype the Third World situations they're covering.
HUNTER-GAULT: But aren't these journalists, according to your report, being accused of bias that would lead to that side -- the left?
Mr. SUSSMAN: Yes, I'm not suggesting that I accept all the complaints. In fact, I'm usually there trying to defend the free press in these situations, but I do recognize some of the valid charges, and I think some of them do come down to this -- that in a fighting situation, particularly with rebels and guerrillas, there is certainly the effort to romanticize, to attempt to show them, many times, in contrast to the war machine, presumably, of the defending government. Governments generally are suspect as far as Western journalists, certainly American journalists, are concerned. The American government is suspect, and for good reasons many in the Salvador government are certainly suspect. So it's a ready-made situation for suspicion on the part of the visiting journalist. The problem, however, it seems to me, is to try to get the kind of balance in the selection of events and the selection of a particular story that will indicate all the way through that there are indeed complex ideological situations, not simply the one day's story of who killed whom and how many bodies are there.
HUNTER-GAULT: But you're saying in your report that that isn't happening, and part of the reason it's not happening is because of the political biases and the ideology of the reporters. You also say poor sources. Now, you've just dealt to a certain extent with the political bias and the ideology; what about poor sources and deliberate misinformation?
Mr. SUSSMAN: Well, I would stress the poor sourcing much more than some of the other charges. I would say, for example, that certainly in the El Salvador situation, the land reform effort that's been underway there for some time now is crucial to an understanding of the problem. Indeed, it's been a social revolution. Indeed, what we see are the counterrevolutions by the left and the right, in quite different efforts, to stop that social revolution. This doesn't come through most of the time in the coverage, so that I would say --
HUNTER-GAULT: How do you attribute it to poor sourcing?
Mr. SUSSMAN: Because I think if one had spoken to campesinos, if one had spoken to the land reform people, if one had spoken to the trade union people on the scene, and had given them the equal credence that one gives to some of the military types, both on the left and the right, it seems to me the story would come out differently.
HUNTER-GAULT: And on the deliberate misinformation? Where is that coming from?
Mr. SUSSMAN: I don't stress the deliberate misinformation. I think it's a question of selectivity. For example, if you look at the same story covered the same day or two by two different reporters, you can get quite different, quite different reports. I'm thinking of a story -- of the massacre story some weeks ago. A reporter for one major newspaper traveling with the guerrillas -- this is a guerrilla story -- was very clear about the fact that the guerrillas were poorly armed, that they were badly dressed, they had makeshift weapons and so on, that they were being fed by the local people. The same story covered by another reporter from another paper in another city -- both reporters, incidentally, basically antigovernment in their position in the general thrust of the story. But the second reporter found that the weapons were indeed heavy weapons, well-supplied, Israeli-supplied, Belgiansupplied, German -- lightest, heavy -- the uniforms perhaps makeshift, and the people were giving food much of the time because these were "taxes" that were imposed by guerrillas, and very often at the pain of death or worse treatment. It's --
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, just in a word --
Mr. SUSSMAN: It's quite a different story.
HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah, but just in a word, why do you think that happened? Was that shoddy reporting or ideology or what?
Mr. SUSSMAN: I think very often one covers a story from the standpoint of a preconception. I don't call it a bias necessarily, but a preconception of the way in which the story is setting up. And one then obviously makes his choices on the basis of what he sees, on the basis of the people he talks to. There are 20 different ways to write the same story. My conclusion would be that the editor back home should not only select or direct his own man on the scene, but should counter some of that in a kind of counterpoint with wire copy, with other information that's available, because I think one finds that wire service reporting, by and large, doesn't carry the same kind of political emphasis that one finds in some of the stories by individual correspondents.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, thank you. We'll come back. Jim?
LEHRER: A response to Mr. Sussman now from Karen DeYoung, foreign editor of The Washington Post. She was for several years the paper's Latin American correspondent, and has spent much time in El Salvador as well as the rest of Central America. First, in general terms, is the American press doing as bad a job on El Salvador as Mr. Sussman suggests?
KAREN DeYOUNG: Well, obviously I would disagree with that. I think that after an initial slow start perhaps now we have, I think, maybe even too much coverage by too many organizations there, which is certainly a charge that Mr. Sussman makes in his study that he's put out on El Salvador. But I think that the major newspapers, the major networks, as Mr. Sussman said, the wire services, in fact, I think are doing a pretty good job. I wonder about these charges of poor sourcing, for example. I'm not quite sure what that means. Most of the reporters operate out of the capital. They get their information from the government in large part. It's only recently that you've seen stories of people out with the guerrillas because that was not possible to do for a long time, other than individual reporters who made their way at some physical risk to themselves.
LEHRER: Well, as I understood his complaint there, it was that one reporter out on a story sends a story back to -- in your case, the foreign editor of The Washington Post. What he's suggesting is that you, as the editor back home, ought to make some effort to counter -- to check that through the wire services and through other sources that may be available because one reporter's view may not necessarily be the view.
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, I would ask Mr. Sussman to give us some examples of when the views that have been expressed -- not the views, the information that has been expressed in our story has run counter to the information that's come off the wires on any particular day.
LEHRER: We'll give him a chance in a minute. He also suggests that reporters tend to romanticize guerrillas or romanticize revolutionaries. Is that correct?
Ms. DeYOUNG: That's obviously not a new charge. I think that, first of all, the reporters don't spend very much time with the guerrillas. They spend almost all of their time with the government, with the government soldiers, and I think that you can't report beyond what you see, based on -- filtered through the information that you know in your own experience in an area. You say -- again, I would say that Mr. Sussman talked about -- and I know the two stories he's talking about. One was in our newspaper and the other one was in The New York Times and I think he's confused several stories. What both reporters reported seeing was poorly dressed guerrillas, some of them with no weapons or with shoddy, old weapons, some of them with Israeli weapons, German weapons, more sophisticated U.S. weapons. I think that both reporters reported that the peasants in the area seem to be freely working for the guerrillas, giving them food. There have been separate stories about guerrillas stopping people on the streets and trying to exact taxes from them. That was not, to my recollection, in the story that he referred to.
LEHRER: What about his point about preconceptions that a reporter carries to a story? He says that Western reporters -- American reporters -- carry to all stories like this -- stories like El Salvador -- they carry a preconception; number one, that the guerrillas are romantics, and that the government is -- whatever government, whether it's the U.S. government or the government in El Salvador as we're talking about here -- are the military machine, the people to be suspect of. Is that true?
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, I think I'd make several points. One is that, yes, there are a lot of inexperienced reporters who go to a place like Central America where you see local TV networks sending people, where you see small newspapers that don't maintain a foreign staff -- in that case I would assume that people go down there with the assumptions that they've gotten from reading other newspapers, from seeing other television shows. In our case I think we take a great deal of care to send experienced correspondents who know the region, who know its history, who act as reporters, the same way they would be reporters anyplace else. I don't think they particularly romanticize one side or the other. I would submit that this situation, as has been pointed out, is so polarized and so political that people tend to accuse the messenger in a lot of cases. If we go to a guerrilla area and people are feeding guerrillas, we report that. If we go to another area where people say that they're afraid of the guerrillas, we report that. If we go to a neighborhood in San Salvador where people have been killed and the people in the neighborhood say, "The soldiers came and killed them," we report that. I mean, I think that a lot of times they don't like the news.
LEHRER: And so they blame the press?
Ms. DeYOUNG: And say that people are going down there with preconceived ideas. I just don't buy that. I don't think it's true.
LEHRER: Thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Now to the perspective of a man who co-authored that highly critical Wall Street Journal editorial I mentioned earlier. He is George Melloan, deputy editor of the Journal, and formerly a foreign correspondent who covered both the Six-Day and the Biafran wars. He visited El Salvador in 1980. Mr. Melloan, do you believe that reporters generally give greater credence to guerrilla sources or that they romanticize any anti-government movement?
GEORGE MELLOAN: I think there is that tendency, Charlayne. Most of us have been brought up in a school of journalism where we tend to support the underdog, and we tend to think of the guerrillas as being the underdogs, and I think some reporters tend to identify with guerrilla revolutionary movements.
HUNTER-GAULT: Can you think of -- can you give me any examples?
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, I think the -- of course, the Biafran war, for example, I think there were reporters who identified very much with the Biafran side because this was the side that was rising up against the government. So I think that this comes partly out of the tradition of American journalism to support the underdog, and sometimes it goes somewhat beyond that into a genuine political orientation that is Marxist in nature, but that's in a very few cases, I think.
HUNTER-GAULT: You mean on the part of the reporter? The reporter becomes a convert to the --
HUNTER-GAULT: You said in your editorial that in situations where both sides are waging propaganda, "in such a whirlpool, the truth is hard to discern." What sources should reporters be going to that they aren't, in your view?
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, I think it's always useful for reporters to go to someone who isn't identified either with the guerrillas or with the government in a situation like that. In other words, go to the people as nearly as you can and try to find out -- it's very difficult to do in Salvador -- but as nearly as you can, try to find sources who are not directly involved -- labor leaders, peasant leaders, businessmen.
HUNTER-GAULT: Of course, Karen DeYoung just said --
Mr. MELLOAN: There are all kinds of sources.
HUNTER-GAULT: Excuse me. Karen DeYoung was just saying that that's the sort of thing that they do.
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, I'm sure that The Washington Post does that. All reporters do that. And I'm not trying to give a lesson in journalism, but I think that it's very useful to do that sort of thing.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you heard what Jim said, that the mail at the White House was running 10 to one and 20 to one against U.S. policy in El Salvador. Is it your view that the public perception about El Salvador is being distorted by the media and the way it covers that situation?
Mr. MELLOAN: I think it is in a certain way. I think there's a great deal of confusion about what is actually happening down there. As Mr. Sussman pointed out, it's -- the coverage sometimes tends to be rather simplistic and sort of one-side-against-the -other when in fact there are all sorts of complex forces at work in that system. I think the public is very confused, and the -- and I'm not at all surprised by that.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Jim?
LEHRER: One of the journalists Mr. Melloan and the Wall Street Journal singled out by name for criticism was Sydney Schanberg, a columnist for The New York Times. Mr. Schanberg, in a recent column, questioned the credibility of U.S. government statements on El Salvador based on his experience as a reporter in Cambodia in the 1970s. Mr. Schanberg, you made a point in your column about possible similarities between U.S. government positions in El Salvador and those in Cambodia. What are the similarities? What struck you, sir?
SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, obviously I have no expertise in El Salvador. I've never been there and I don't pretend to have any, and said so in the column. The resonances that struck me were the remarks about the press -- the attempts to discredit the reporting. It was the same kind of campaign that we heard in Vietnam and in Cambodia. What distresses me, both in the program from Washington and what I hear tonight, is the use of this word "ideology," "political orientation." Mr. Monroe [sic] talks about a few reporters with Marxist orientation. That's a very dangerous charge. I wish he'd put those names on the table so we'd know who those Marxists are without suggesting that they might be on my paper or The Washington Post or any other newspaper. That's a very serious charge. The problem as I see it, and the reason I wrote the column, wasn't to attack a government official, but to point out that the same mind set, the same attitudes were at work.They were ideological attitudes. During Vietnam, on the extremes of the ideologies, on the far right, the good guys were the American troops and their local allies. On the far left, the communists were the good guys. It was entirely possible, and it was my belief after my reporting, that it wasn't a case of good guys and bad guys. It wasn't a matter of ideology. There were people being killed that were victims. Very often there were no good guys or bad guys. It's this attempt to assign morality to one side or the other and, in this case, in this campaign to discredit the press, to assign a bias -- a communist ideology, a revolutionary romanticism -- to the press suggests to me that what's being attempted is an attempt to discredit the messenger. If you can smear the messenger, you can get where you're going ideologically. Because what he's reporting may not fit with where you're going. And that distresses me and it was the reason, when I heard these vibrations, when I heard these same kind of suggestions -- when we reported that refugees were being dislocated and killed by American bombing, that was denied by the American government and by the American embassy in Phnom Penh. It turned out to be true. Mr. Sussman was very happy to quote reporting by me and others about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, and he didn't find any Marxist orientation there. He didn't find us confused in a battlefield situation.He was perfectly satisfied to use my reporting on a complex situation. I don't think anything has changed. I think the reporting by The Washington Post and by The New York Times is solid. I happen to know the Times reporter. He's a fine reporter. And I resent the personalization of this sort of thing. If you can make it personal, if you can make it my column versus an American official, then you can get it away it away from the real issue.
LEHRER: Well, but they say the real -- do you agree with the basic premise that Mr. Melloan just outlined a minute ago, that it is the tradition in American journalism to go for the underdog and that guerrillas or whoever on the anti-government side are automatically seen by most reporters -- not all reporters, but most reporters -- as being the underdog?
Mr. SCHANBERG: With all respect to Mr. Melloan, that's rubbish. When we were in Indochina and Communist forces, terrorists, whatever, threw rockets into cities, we reported it day in and day out. I assume he had no complaint about that. There was no romanticism in that reporting. When a school was hit in Phnom Penh and school kids were killed by the dozens, that was on page one. That's hardly romantic. And for months at a time those rockets would come into Phnom Penh and for months we'd report that. And I don't find that politically oriented or Marxist oriented, and I really think that that sort of conversation, that sort of criticism is very serious and ought to be spelled out in very great detail, and I hope Mr. Melloan will -- Mr. Monroe will.
LEHRER: Okay. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Melloan, will you?
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, let me -- Mr. Schanberg seems to be forgetting what he wrote in his own column, of course. He referred to a desk officer at the State Department, Tom Enders, as the "can-do bomber." I don't think that his own rhetoric in this discussion has been without some emotion. And I don't think the reporting out of Vietnam was always that innocent. I think the reporting out of Vietnam was very good on the whole, and I think there's a lot of good reporting coming out of El Salvador today.
HUNTER-GAULT: But his basic charge --
Mr. SCHANBERG: Can I ask a question of Mr. Melloan? You called Mr. Enders a desk officer, and in your editorial you called him a "briefing officer." At one point in his career in Cambodia he was the number-two in the embassy. Then he became in charge of the embassy. I think it was shameful that you demoted him. He was a very senior person; you made him into a briefing officer.
Mr. MELLOAN: He's in another job; that's what I'm talking about.
Mr. SCHANBERG: You called him a desk officer? He's the assistant secretary of state.
Mr. MELLOAN: Tom Enders is in charge of the hemispheric affairs. [to Hunter-Gault] Okay. I'm sorry.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, basically I'd like to get back to the point that Syd Schanberg raised, that you were doing serious harm to reporters by imputing a Marxist orientation, and he says he's not aware of that.
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, surely --
Mr. SCHANBERG: Well, who are these few? I would like to know?
Mr. MELLOAN: Surely today people go about calling themselves Marxists very openly on university campuses and all sorts of other places. This is not considered to be slander today to call someone a Marxist. And I'm not going to identify someone as that I think is a Marxist, but I think there are some people who would identify with the Marxist line.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Mr. Sussman?
Mr. SUSSMAN: I come to it quite differently. I think Mr. Schanberg is missing the main point of what I was trying to say, and that is, ideology is a major part of that story. Ideology was a major part of the Vietnam story, but we don't see it in El Salvador very much.And not to see that, it seems to me, is a distortion of the story. Every day that passes the big part of the story in Vietnam [sic] has to do with the long-term goals, the long-term objectives, of the various sides, the various actors. We don't see that in most press coverage.
HUNTER-GAULT: But I think you're talking about two separate things. You're talking --
Mr. SUSSMAN: But I'm --
Mr. SCHANBERG: You certainly are. I mean, if we're going to talk about ideology of reporters, Mr. Melloan talks about the genuine political orientation of reporters. Okay, let's get -- he thinks Marxist is benign, so let's go back to his earlier phrase -- "genuine political orientation." Can you tell me some of the reporters you think who have "genuine political orientation" and what that orientation is? I think that's serious, and if you find that "emotional," all right. I think it's serious what you're doing.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let's just let Mr. Melloan respond.
Mr. MELLOAN: Oh, well, Ray Bonner, of course. I mean, obviously Ray Bonner has a political orientation on that story.
Mr. SCHANBERG: What is that orientation that you're assigning to him?
Mr. MELLOAN: Well, he was covering the guerrilla movement in El Salvador without ever telling anyone -- any of his readers -- that he was being conducted around the country on a tour by the guerrillas themselves.
Mr. SCHANBERG: I think that was entirely clear in the stories. Now, what was his --
Mr. MELLOAN: It wasn't clear to me.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, let me just get Karen DeYoung to come in on this. I think -- Karen, you have a point here?
Ms. DeYOUNG: Well, just to follow up on what Syd Schanberg was saying. The story that -- I believe the story Mr. Melloan was referring to -- the story of the massacre -- was the second story in a series of articles. The first article, which was several days before that, was on the front page of The New York Times and in fact talked in quite great detail about the circumstances under which Ray Bonner had come to that area. And I would again agree -- I think the problem is when we don't talk in specifics, and that's why I would object to this Freedom House report. It says some reporters do this, some reporters do that. No names of reporters, no quotes from articles. Nothing specific. It's all this nebulous kind of ideological attack.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, excuse me, Karen. We have just one minute left, and I do want to raise with the two of you the point that both Karen DeYoung and Syd Schanberg made that the main problem here with the criticism of the media is that you don't like the news that the media is bringing so you're beheading the news messenger. What do you think about that charge?
Mr. SUSSMAN: Well, I don't agree with that, and I should say very quickly --
HUNTER-GAULT: You said you do?
Mr. SUSSMAN: No, I said I don't agree with that charge. Very quickly, the -- I was not mentioning The Washington Post earlier. I was referring to another writer on another paper who did cover the guerrillas and who came up with a completely different story.
HUNTER-GAULT: Right, but to the larger question. Mr. Melloan --
Mr. MELLOAN: I don't agree with that, either. I think what I would like to see is better reporting. I'd like to know the facts, and I'm afraid I haven't been getting them from some reporters.
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Schanberg?
Mr. SCHANBERG: Well, I'm afraid that I don't follow, and I don't know how Mr. Melloan judges an individual reporter -- the one he named -- as having a genuine political orientation. And I don't know what that orientation is. And it's perfectly clear what that reporter was doing and why he was in that area.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We have to leave it there.
LEHRER: Yes. Gentlemen in New York, thank you very much. Karen DeYoung, thank you. Good night, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULT: Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: We'll see you on Monday night. Have a nice weekend. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Covering El Salvador '82
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Episode Description
This episode's headline: Covering El Salvador '82. The guests include LEONARD SUSSMAN, Freedom House; GEORGE MELLOAN, Wall Street Journal; SYDNEY SCHANBERG, The New York Times; KAREN DeYOUNG, The Washington Post. Byline: In New York: CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Correspondent; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; PETER BLUFF, Producer; PATRICIA ELLIS, Reporter
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