Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 26/33
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The device recalls standard Communist Party Agitprop. Given the poll results (which Kinzer did not report) indicating that support for all opposition parties combined amounts to nine percent, less than one-third that of the support for the Sandinistas (and much less than the personal approval for President Ortega), one might suppose that there would be some other reactions, but if so, they are unreported -- just as no opinions were quoted when La Epoca opened in Guatemala or when it was destroyed by terror a few weeks later, or when the independent Salvadoran press was demolished by murder and violence, the agents being the security forces backed by the U.S. government, Congress, the media, and the intellectual community quite generally.146 In some variants, the voices of "the people" are counterbalanced by quotation of some government official, again helping to establish the required image of the oppressive government versus the suffering population.
In fact, readers of the Times could plausibly conclude that support for the Sandinistas is virtually non-existent, outside of the government itself. In a sample of forty-nine Kinzer articles from the signing of the peace accords in August 1987 through mid-December, I found two references to the possible existence of such people. One is in paragraph eighteen of one of the many articles condemning the Sandinistas on the matter of amnesty, where a mother of a Sandinista soldier killed in action is quoted as opposing amnesty for "the people who killed our sons." A second is in an insert in a survey of the land crisis in Central America, quoting cooperative members who express appreciation for land reform measures.147 The articles are largely devoted to diplomatic maneuverings and the tribulations of the internal opposition, who are presented as the true voice of Nicaragua. One learns next to nothing about the country, not an untypical feature of media coverage.
The procedure of highly selective sourcing is second nature even among journalists who take some pains to keep independent of government propaganda. Thus Roy Gutman of Newsday, in a book critical of Reagan administration policy in Nicaragua as flawed and incompetent, reconstructs the events of a highly controversial rally at Chinandega in 1984, when the CIA-subsidized candidate Arturo Cruz was allegedly harassed by Sandinista mobs. This was taken to be a critical event demonstrating Sandinista intransigence, if not totalitarian commitment, by Cruz adviser and contra lobbyist Robert Leiken, who was the New York Review of Books and New Republic commentator on Nicaragua, and by Reaganite propaganda generally. In a footnote, Gutman states that his account is based on interviews with Cruz and five other members of the U.S.-backed political opposition, the U.S. Ambassador and the National Security Adviser, and an unnamed senior U.S. official in Central America.148 Not surprisingly, his account -- stated as fact, with no qualifications -- is very favorable to Cruz and critical of the Sandinistas. Such practice would arouse a storm of protest and derision if the choice of sources were reversed, in an account unfavorable to the U.S. and its clients. In this case, it passes completely without notice on the part of reviewers who praise Gutman's critical and independent stance -- a judgment that is correct, relative to the permissible spectrum.
In yet another variant, a Times photograph of a November 7, 1987 rally in Managua on the completion of the first period of the accords carries the caption: "Nicaraguans cheering President Daniel Ortega Saavedra as he announced that his Sandinista Government would agree to indirect negotiations with the contras on a cease-fire." The reader is to understand, then, that the people of Nicaragua are overjoyed over what the accompanying story by James LeMoyne depicts as a major victory for the contras and the United States.149 The people are indeed cheering, but, to judge by the signs and T-shirts, they are enthusiastic Sandinista supporters. Peter Ford, who covered the rally, reported that "the tens of thousands of Sandinista supporters in Revolution square offered no response when the President announced...talks with the contra leadership," and other steps highly touted here were "met with a baffled silence," though his defiant challenge to "aggression against the Nicaraguan people" received "enthusiastic applause."150 The Newspaper of Record chose to convey a different image.
Similarly, in a sarcastic report on how "in an effort to persuade Congress to defeat President Reagan's request for new aid to the contras, the Sandinista Government has mounted a campaign of good deeds," Kinzer writes that "the Government's campaign against contra aid is receiving strong support from one quarter -- the estimated 2,000 Americans who live in Nicaragua" (my emphasis). He proceeds to quote a number of Americans working in Nicaragua, the insinuation being obvious, though Kinzer knows that opposition to contra aid is overwhelming; the polls that he did not report, after long claiming that polls are illegal, show 85 percent opposed to contra aid and 9 percent in favor -- perhaps the same 9 percent that supported all opposition parties.151
In El Salvador, where the image to be conveyed is the opposite, the method of sampling is reversed. Thus, in discussing growing anxiety in El Salvador, James LeMoyne quotes government officials, an army officer, a young businessman, an unidentified visitor, the guests at "a dinner of upper-class businessmen and their wives," a painter "in his spacious studio," and an American official -- but no one in the slums, refugee camps, or villages, who might have rather different concerns in the "fledgling democracy." Their actual concerns can be discovered outside the bounds of the Free Press, in public opinion surveys and responses to the Church-organized National Debate, unreported as we have seen.152
Rather similar conceptions of "the people" are often to be found in domestic reporting. Clyde Farnsworth reports from Washington on the U.S. embargo against Nicaragua, which "Appears of Little Effect," the headline assures us; in reality, it achieved its predicted effect of destroying private enterprise and reducing the economy to bare survival, but the Party Line requires that all problems be attributed to Sandinista incompetence and malevolence. "Those opposing the embargo," Farnsworth reports, say that it will not achieve U.S. goals. But all agree that the sanctions "will be in place a long time," because "by and large leading multinational companies have not been affected." "No important domestic [U.S.] constituency has been seriously hurt by the trade rupture, and therefore no one is arguing strenuously that it be mended" (my emphasis). Here the phrase "no one" is to be understood in the conventional sense of "no one who counts." A great many people were calling for ending of these -- literally murderous -- measures, not on grounds of harm to themselves, and doing so quite strenuously. They continued to do so after the embargo was declared unlawful by the World Court to no effect and with little notice. But they do not conform to the dictates of the powerful, so they fall under the category of nonpersons for the independent media.153
A related technique is selective quotation of such figures as Oscar Arias. He receives wide coverage when he denounces the Sandinistas. Sometimes, however, he joins José Figueres beyond the pale. During the government-media campaign to focus the peace accords on negotiations between what the Times calls the two Nicaraguan "factions," Stephen Kinzer reported that neither side shows a "willingness to compromise," noting Ortega's insistence that "the negotiations would cover only technical aspects of how the contras would lay down their weapons and receive supplies while they prepare to stop fighting" -- exactly as required by the peace accords, he failed to add. He did not report Arias's view that "the agenda should be restricted to reaching a ceasefire. It will not be a political dialogue in which you can introduce any topic." Kinzer is, of course, aware that "the Central America peace accord signed in August does not require governments to negotiate political matters with armed groups," as he had observed a few weeks earlier, but these facts were quite regularly omitted in commentary on Sandinista "intransigence."154
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146 Kinzer, NYT, Oct. 3, 1987; on the polls, see p. 242.
147 "Full Amnesty Seen as Test for Managua," Sept. 10, 1987; "Life on a Cooperative: `A Little Better Off'," Sept. 7, 1987. On fact and fancy concerning political prisoners, see my article in Z Magazine, Jan. 1988.
148 Gutman, Banana Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1988, 371).
149 NYT, Nov. 8, 1987.
150 Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 9, 1987.
151 Kinzer, NYT, Jan. 31, 1988.
152 See appendix IV, section 5. LeMoyne, NYT, June 15, 1988.
153 NYT, Nov. 10, 1985.
154 Kinzer, Dec. 4; Jonathan Steele, interview with Arias, Guardian (London), Nov. 17; Kinzer, Nov. 15, 1987.