Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 7/11
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Nevertheless, the media are bitterly condemned as "pro-PLO" and as imposing an unfair "double standard" on Israel. We then debate the sources of this strange malady. As in other cases, attack is the best defense, particularly when dominance over the media and exclusion of contrary views has reached a sufficient level so that any criticism, however outlandish, will be treated with respect.41

Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that "perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy."42 The point is well taken. There is a simple measure of hypocrisy, which we properly apply to our enemies. When peace groups, government figures, media, and loyal intellectuals in the Soviet sphere deplore brutal and repressive acts of the United States and its clients, we test their sincerity by asking what they say about their own responsibilities. Upon ascertaining the answer, we dismiss their condemnations, however accurate, as the sheerest hypocrisy. Minimal honesty requires that we apply the same standards to ourselves.

Freedom of the press, for example, is a prime concern for the media and the intellectual community. The major issue of freedom of the press in the 1980s has surely been the harassment of La Prensa in Nicaragua. Coverage of its tribulations probably exceeds all other reporting and commentary on freedom of the press throughout the world combined, and is unique in the passion of rhetoric. No crime of the Sandinistas has elicited more outrage than their censorship of La Prensa and its suspension in 1986, immediately after the congressional vote of $100 million for the contras, a vote that amounted to a virtual declaration of war by the United States, as the Reaganites happily proclaimed, and a sharp rebuff to the World Court. La Prensa publisher Violeta Chamorro was at once given an award by the Nieman Journalism Foundation at Harvard for her courageous battle for freedom of speech. In the New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton appealed to all those committed to free expression to provide financial aid for the brave struggle of the owners and editors to maintain their staff and equipment; such gifts would supplement the funding provided by the U.S. government, which began shortly after the Sandinista victory, when President Carter authorized the CIA to support La Prensa and the anti-Sandinista opposition. Under the heading "A Newspaper of Valor," the Washington Post lauded Violeta Chamorro, commenting that she and her newspaper "deserve 10 awards." Other media commentary has been abundant and no less effusive, while the Sandinistas have been bitterly condemned for harassing or silencing this Tribune of the People.43

We now ask whether these sentiments reflect libertarian values or service to power, applying the standard test of sincerity. How, for example, did the same people and institutions react when the security forces of the Duarte government that we support eliminated the independent media in the U.S. client state of El Salvador -- not by intermittent censorship and suspension, but by murder, mutilation, and physical destruction? We have already seen the answer. There was silence. The New York Times had nothing to say about these atrocities in its news columns or editorials, then or since, and others who profess their indignation over the treatment of La Prensa are no different. This extreme contempt for freedom of the press remains in force as we applaud our achievements in bringing "democracy" to El Salvador.

We conclude that, among the articulate intellectuals, those who believe in freedom of the press could easily fit in someone's living room, and would include few of those who proclaim libertarian values while assailing the enemy of the state.

To test this conclusion further, we may turn to Guatemala. No censorship was required in Guatemala while the United States was supporting the terror at its height; the murder of dozens of journalists sufficed. There was little notice in the United States. With the "democratic renewal" that we proudly hail, there were some halting efforts to explore the "political space" that perhaps had opened. In February 1988, two journalists who had returned from exile opened the center-left weekly La Epoca, testing Guatemalan "democracy." A communiqué of the Secret Anti-Communist Army (ESA) had warned returning journalists: "We will make sure they either leave the country or die inside it."44 No notice was taken in the United States.

In April great indignation was aroused when La Prensa could not publish during a newsprint shortage. For the Washington Post, this was another "pointed lesson in arbitrary denying La Prensa the newsprint." There were renewed cries of outrage when La Prensa was suspended for two weeks in July after what the government alleged to be fabricated and inflammatory accounts of violence that had erupted at demonstrations.45

Meanwhile, on June 10, fifteen heavily armed men broke into the offices of La Epoca, stole valuable equipment, and firebombed the offices, destroying them. They also kidnapped the night watchman, releasing him later under threat of death if he were to speak about the attack. Eyewitness testimony and other sources left little doubt that it was an operation of the security forces. The editor held a press conference on June 14 to announce that the journal would shut down "because there are not conditions in the country to guarantee the exercise of free and independent journalism." After a circular appeared threatening "traitor journalists" including "communists and those who have returned from exile," warning them to flee the country or find themselves "dead within," he returned to exile, accompanied to the airport by a Western diplomat. Another journalist also left. The destruction of La Epoca "signalled not only the end of an independent media voice in Guatemala, but it served as a warning as well that future press independence would not be tolerated by the government or security forces," Americas Watch commented.46

These events elicited no public response from the guardians of free expression. The facts were not even reported in the New York Times or Washington Post, though not from ignorance, surely.47 It is simply that the violent destruction of independent media is not important when it takes place in a "fledgling democracy" backed by the United States. There was, however, a congressional reaction, NACLA reported: "In Washington, liberal Democratic Senators responded by adding $4 million onto the Administration's request for military aid. With Sen. Inouye leading the way, these erstwhile freedom-of-the-press junkies have offered the brass $9 million plus some $137 million in economic aid, including $80 million cash, much of which goes to swell the army's coffers," while La Epoca editor Bryan Barrera "is back in Mexico" and "Guatemala's press is again confined to rightwing muckraking and army propaganda."48 The vigilant guardians of freedom of the press observed in silence.

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41 See appendix V, section 5.

42 Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 95.

43 Kempton, NYRB, Nov. 26, 1986; Bob Woodward, Veil (Simon & Schuster, 1987, 113); editorial, WP, March 29, 1987. See John Spicer Nichols, Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1988, on the funding for La Prensa by the U.S. government, the North network, and other sources linked to the U.S. government and the contras; also letters, CJR, Sept./Oct. According to sources reported by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Violeta Chamorro was paid a CIA stipend and the journal received at least $500,000 from the CIA and other U.S. sources; Washington Report on the Hemisphere, March 16, 1988.

44 South, Oct. 1988.

45 Editorial, WP, April 25, 1988. See chapter 4 and appendix IV, section 5.

46 Central America Report (Guatemala City), June 10, 17, 1988; Jean-Marie Simon, ed., Guatemala News in Brief, no. 23, May 11-July 1988, Americas Watch; Human Rights Watch, The Persecution of Human Rights Monitors, Dec. 1988.

47 A month later, the seventeenth paragraph of a story on Guatemala by Stephen Kinzer mentions the bombing of La Epoca, which "some diplomats attributed to the security forces," and it was mentioned again in August in the Times book review in a report on a conference of Central American writers. Kinzer, NYT, July 6, 1988; David Unger, NYT Weekly Book Review, Aug. 7, 1988. The home of the TASS correspondent had been firebombed shortly before the destruction of La Epoca, and the correspondents for TASS and the Cuban Prensa Latina had been forced to leave the country after death threats; two traditional death squads, linked to the security forces, took credit.

48 "Freedom of the Press," NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June 1988.