Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 27/33
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The vast array of daily examples of the relatively subtle means employed to establish the required version of reality should not obscure the more direct contributions, as in the fabrications about Nicaraguan support for Colombian terrorists or the case of Radio Católica, and numerous others. To take merely one additional case, consider Kinzer's report on the attempted assassination of contra leader Edén Pastora at La Penca on May 30, 1984. In his June 1 report of the bombing, Kinzer quoted Pastora as blaming the Sandinistas. Pastora, however, says that he blamed the CIA: "I never said it was the government of Nicaragua. I would feel ashamed if I had said that."155
James LeMoyne's reporting in the Times provides many other examples, some already discussed.156 Another is his report of the contra attacks on three mining towns in northeastern Nicaragua in late December 1987, close to the contra supply lines from Honduras. This account appeared while great efforts were being made to depict the contras as a serious military force with growing political appeal. LeMoyne was one of several journalists flown to the site. His version of the incident, which happened to accord with the requirements of State Department propaganda, was challenged in a story by journalist Mark Cook, who was in the same party. Cook's account found no media outlet, but parts appeared in a column by Alexander Cockburn. LeMoyne responded to the criticisms by "someone named Mark Cook" (whom he knows perfectly well) in a long letter, citing eyewitnesses who, he claimed, substantiated his account. These sources, however, explicitly denied LeMoyne's version of what had happened and what they had said.157
LeMoyne's reporting from El Salvador, where the priorities are reversed (we support the "democratic" government and oppose the terrorist guerrillas), is no less suspect. I have already mentioned a number of examples, including his loyalty to State Department propaganda on the "symmetry" between the contras and the FMLN in El Salvador, which he claims, could hardly survive without the constant flow of (undetectable) arms from Nicaragua; and his attempts to conceal and downplay state terror either by refusing to report it, or attributing it to right-wing extremists, or describing it as a response to the guerrilla terror on which he focuses attention. To demonstrate the political weakness of the Salvadoran guerrillas, LeMoyne reported that the 1988 May Day parade of the UNTS labor federation declined sharply from 40,000 in 1986 to "perhaps 3,000 supporters." He had given the figure of about 20,000 in attendance, not 40,000, in his report of the 1986 march, and journalists from AP, UPI, PBS Frontline (public TV), and the newspaper of the Jesuit University estimated the crowd at 20,000, not 3,000, in 1988, up from half that in 1987. LeMoyne's story also avoided the fact that the army blocked major roads to keep campesinos away and the violent government attacks on labor in preceding months, including bombing of the UNTS office two days before the march. An accurate headline would have read "Support for Rebel-Linked Union Doubles Despite Army Scare Tactics," Alexander Cockburn observes, reviewing these facts.158
The systematic evasion of government repression is the most striking feature of LeMoyne's reporting on El Salvador, but his accounts of guerrilla atrocities also merit some skepticism. Direct evidence is rarely offered, and attempts to check his stories raise questions, to say the least. In the course of its campaign to prove that the guerrillas were disrupting the 1988 elections in El Salvador, the State Department circulated a February 29 story by LeMoyne in which he reported that "villagers say guerrillas publicly executed two peasants...because they had applied for and received new voter registration cards... According to the villagers, the guerrillas placed the voting cards of Juan Martin Portillo and Ismael Portillo in their mouths after executing them as a warning to others not to take part in the elections."
In this case there was an independent investigation by journalist Chris Norton, who discovered that the incident never happened. It was "invented by a Salvadoran army propaganda specialist...who placed it with one of his contacts in the local Salvadoran media," from which LeMoyne lifted the story without attribution. The State Department then included the Times story in a pre-election booklet to highlight the guerrilla "campaign of intimidation and terrorism." The booklet was mailed to Congress, newspaper editors, and other opinion makers. The Church human rights office had sent a team to investigate the story, reporting that only one of the two men pronounced dead actually exists while the other is alive and well, according to local sources. We thus have an army allegation, probably fabricated, converted into an authoritative account of guerrilla terrorism via the New York Times, then circulated as State Department propaganda.159
Yet another example appears in a letter to the New York Times Magazine, where Ines Murillo, a Honduran victim of torture, responds to LeMoyne's version of the interview with her that was the basis for an article of his on torture. She notes a series of distortions and falsehoods, which "have caused great damage to me and my family" and "could be used to justify the kidnapping, disappearance and assassination of hundreds of people" in Honduras, a rather serious matter. LeMoyne's response takes up none of her specific points.160
Such particular examples can be placed alongside of the systematic crusades, such as LeMoyne's contributions to undermining the Esquipulas accords and the history of the "ample evidence" for Sandinista arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas on which they relied for survival, already discussed.
What reaches the general public, and establishes the framework of interpretation and discussion, is the version of the facts presented by the Kinzers and the LeMoynes; the refutations and the crucial omissions can be discovered only by those who look beyond, no easy task.
The message is: caveat emptor, particularly when a journal is so fervently committed to some cause: in this case, the cause of "demonizing the Sandinistas" and protecting the U.S. terror state of El Salvador.
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155 Michael Emery, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dec. 3, 1988, quoting La Penca: Pastora, the Press and the CIA by Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, reporting their two-year investigation of the bombing in which Avirgan was wounded and eight people were killed. "Ironically," Emery observes, "Honey's story on Pastora, citing the CIA pressure, had run on the front page of The New York Times May 31st ."
156 For many others, see Culture of Terrorism and my articles in Z Magazine, January, March 1988.
157 NYT, Dec. 25, 1987; Cook, "Nicaragua: the Show Goes On," ms., Managua, Dec. 28, 1987; Cockburn, Nation, Jan. 30, 1988. Letters, Nation, July 2/9, 1988. Background on this remote region, where the war had caused 17,000 people to seek refuge in the towns that were attacked and where the U.S.-run propaganda radio in Honduras is virtually the only source of information, appears in Excelsior (Mexico), Dec. 12, 1987; Central America NewsPak.
158 LeMoyne, NYT, June 26, 1988; Cockburn, Nation, July 30/Aug. 6, 1988.
159159. Chris Norton, Extra! (FAIR), July/August 1988. Alexander Cockburn, Nation, Aug. 27/Sept. 3, 1988, citing a story by journalist Marc Cooper, Los Angeles Weekly, May 27-June 2. After Cockburn's column appeared, the Times published an "editors' note" (Sept. 15) stating that the story "fell short of The Times's reporting and editing standards" because it gave the impression of firsthand interviewing while in fact it "was based on a report in El Mundo, a center-right newspaper, which attributed the information to the Salvadoran military command," and on "a representative of a leading human rights organization," unidentified and unmentioned in LeMoyne's story (and probably nonexistent), who allegedly said she believed the report to be true, later retracting this judgment. The editor's note refers to unnamed "freelance journalists in Central America" who determined that the story was false, and to the LA Weekly account. Interviewed by Newsday (Sept. 21), foreign editor Joseph Lelyveld said that the correction was motivated by Cockburn's story, which is not mentioned in the editor's note. He accused Cockburn of "waging a vendetta against LeMoyne." LeMoyne himself conceded that he was not in the country at the time, but on returning had "noticed a tremendous number of political killings, both by guerrillas and by what they call right wing death squads." On his falsification of the figures for the May Day rally, LeMoyne said his estimate "came from a member of a pro-guerrilla group" whom he would not name because Cockburn would denounce this alleged informant for having "betrayed the cause."
160 LeMoyne, "Testifying to Torture," NYT Magazine, June 5; letters, Sept. 18, 1988. See also Murillo's accompanying letter to the New York Times editors with further clarifications, in which she offers to appear for personal discussion to resolve the issues, printed in Honduras Update, June/July 1988. The Times Magazine editors deserve credit for publishing Murillo's letter. Often, journals do not permit the right of response to dissidents, even in response to direct personal attacks.