Mass Media Helps Keep Americans in the Dark About U.S. Foreign Policy

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Mark Weisbrot
The Guardian Unlimited, August 5, 2013
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The United States still has military spending that is higher in real, inflation-adjusted terms than it was during the peak of the Reagan Cold War build-up, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.  We seem to be in a state of permanent warfare, and – we have recently learned --  massive government spying and surveillance of our own citizens.  This is despite an ever-receding threat to the actual physical security of Americans.  Only 19 people have been killed acts of terrorism in the United States since September 11, 2001; and none or almost none of these were connected to foreign terrorists.  And there are no “enemy states” that pose a significant military threat to the United States – if any governments can be called “enemy states” at all.

One of the reasons for this disconnect is that most of the mass media provide a grossly distorted view of U.S. foreign policy. It presents an American foreign policy that is far more benign and justifiable than the reality of empire that most of the world knows.  In a well-researched and thoroughly documented article published by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Keane Bhatt provides an excellent case study of how this happens.

Bhatt focuses on a very popular and interesting National Public Radio (NPR) show, “This American Life,” and most importantly an episode that won the Peabody Award.  The Peabody Award , for distinguished achievement in electronic journalism, is a prestigious prize; so this makes the example even more relevant.

The episode was about the 1982 massacre in Guatemala. The story gives compelling eyewitness accounts of a horrendous slaughter of almost the entire village of Dos Erres, more than 200 people. The women and girls are raped and then killed, the men are shot or bludgeoned with sledgehammers, and many, including children, are dumped into a dry well – some while still alive – that would become their mass grave.  The broadcast walks the listener through a heroic investigation of the crime – the first ever to win punishment for such murders.  And finally, it provides a moving account of one survivor who was three years old at the time.  Three decades later, while living in Massachusetts, he discovers his roots and his biological father as a result of the investigation. The father lost his wife and his eight other children but survived because he happened to be out of town on the day of the massacre.

The story makes it clear that this bloodbath was one of many: 

“This happened in over 600 villages, tens of thousands of people. A truth commission found that the number of Guatemalans killed or disappeared by their own government was over 180,000.”

But there is one striking omission – the U.S. role in what the UN Truth commission in 1999 later determined to be genocide.  The UN specifically noted Washington’s role and President Clinton publicly apologized for it – the first and to my knowledge the only apology from an American president for U.S. involvement in genocide.  The U.S. role in providing arms, training, ammunition, diplomatic cover, political and other support to the mass murderers is well-documented and has gotten some more documentation and attention as a result of the recent trial of former military dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled from 1982-83.  (As Bhatt notes, the program states that the U.S. embassy had heard reports of massacres during this time but “dismissed” them; but this is very misleading at best -- there are cables showing that the embassy clearly knew what was going on).

In fact, one of the soldiers who participated in the Dos Erres massacre, Pedro Pimentel, who later was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison, was airlifted the day after the mass murder to the School of the Americas, the U.S. military facility known for training some of the region’s worst dictators and human rights violators.

It is astonishing that one of the worst genocides of the post-World War II era was allowed to reach its peak, just a couple of hours of flying time from the U.S. mainland, with almost no media reporting on it. Here you can find investigative journalist Allan Nairn interviewing a Guatemalan soldier in 1982, who describes how he and his comrades murdered whole villages, as in Dos Erres. And yet the major media ignored it, allowing Ronald Reagan to promote Rios Montt as "a man of great personal integrity and commitment."  So the omissions of This American Life are ironic in this historical context as well.

It is clear from the piece that Ira Glass, the show’s host, was well aware of the U.S. role in the Guatemalan genocide.  In the 1980s, it appears, he travelled to Central America and was active against the U.S. –funded wars and war crimes in the region.  In an email correspondence with Bhatt, he acknowledges that “maybe we made the wrong call” in leaving out the U.S. role.

That is an understatement, but a vitally important one.  For a program broadcast in English throughout the United States, this is arguably the most important thing that Americans need to know about the genocide.

I’m not faulting Glass. He may well have guessed that if he had made a point out of the U.S. role, and maybe questioned some of the U.S. officials who were responsible for it, the story would have run into trouble at NPR. It certainly wouldn’t have gotten a Peabody award.

That’s what makes this such a compelling illustration of how censorship and self-censorship operate in the U.S. media.  It demonstrates, at the micro level, something that I have seen countless times in the past 15 years of talking with journalists about these issues.  They have a good idea what the boundaries are and how much truth they can get away with.  I have met many good journalists who try to cross these boundaries, and some succeed -- but they often don’t last very long.

Scott Wilson, who was a foreign editor at the Washington Post and covered Venezuela during the short-lived coup against the democratically elected government of Venezuela in 2002, stated in an interview that “there was U.S. involvement” in the coup.  Yet this important fact never appeared anywhere in the Post, nor was it reported by any of the major U.S. media, despite considerable evidence from U.S. government documents that it was true.  Again, this is arguably the most important part of the story for a U.S. audience – especially since it played a major role in poisoning relations between Washington and Caracas over the past decade, and probably had a significant impact on relations with the whole continent of South America.  But, as in the Dos Erres story, the U.S. role in the crime is considered unmentionable.

The same is true for the U.S. role in the coup that destroyed Honduran democracy in 2009. The Obama administration’s considerable efforts to support and legitimize the coup government were not considered to be newsworthy by U.S. journalists.  (A program on Honduras was Bhatt’s other shot at “This American Life,” where they left the U.S.-supported coup out of a picture in which it should have had a prominent place). But this too, is off limits for the U.S. media.

What would U.S. foreign, military, and so-called “national security” policy look like if the media reported the most important facts about it?  There would be a lot fewer corpses abroad and returning home.  And we wouldn’t be cutting “meals on wheels” or other nutrition programs for the poor or elderly in order to sustain the world’s most fantastically bloated military budget.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy