When elections were held in El Salvador on March 28, 1982, over 700 reporters were there to record the event through their unfamiliar eye. It has become particularly important to examine media coverage of that phenomenon, since new elections are projected for November 1983. The Reagan Administration is already beginning to gear up for another propaganda victory, making it quite likely that again a swarm of reporters will descend on that war-torn country, and equally likely that we can expect no better reporting than last time around. This examination is condensed from a longer article titled "Media Coverage of El Salvador's Election," which appeared in the March- April 1983 issue of Socialist Review. Jack Spence is professor of political science at the University of Mas- sachusetts, Boston. Dan Rather called it "a triumph." Frank Reynolds found it a "gratifying, even inspiring ... exercise in democracy." The U.S. media story of El Salvador's 1982 election was that massive numbers of citizens, braving guerrilla attacks on polling places, cast their vote in democratic and honest elections, in a clear and profound repudiation of the left.' "Thousands Vote Despite Rebel Threats," ran the Washington Post subhead. "Salvadorans Defy Bullets to Vote," headlined the Boston Globe. "The guerrilla tactic," said Hillary Brown of ABC, "was to so terrify the people that they would stay away from the polls." 2 Exceptionally extensive coverage hammered home the theme of rebel attacks, fair voting procedures and a record turnout. Three major dailies ran a total of 34 front-page stories in the seven days surrounding the election, and on election day and the day after, net- work TV stories averaged eight minutes out of 22. By contrast, the networks devoted about one-third as much time to Mitterand's election and failed to cover the watershed 1972 Salvadorean elections at all. For all this attention, however, the major conclusions of the coverage do not hold up under close examina- tion, even by the media's own evidence. Election Violence or War as Usual? Time and The Washington Post had voters "dodg- ing guerrilla bullets." Extensive footage of fighting and the aftermath of a firefight filled the nightly news. But on examination, the three dozen print and TV reports of election day fighting all came from the same eight places. Given that there were 300 polling places, that amounts to at most 2% to 3% of the nation's total. Furthermore, there were no reports of civilians killed at them and only two reports of slightly wounded voters. The number of civilian deaths for the day. in fact, would appear to have been well below the grue- some daily average in El Salvador. In a country torn by civil war, the story line could easily have been about a voting day enjoying relative peace. Even the reports of the eight confirmed firefights offer, at best, weak support for the intimidation theme. In the large city of Usulut&n, voting did not occur because guerrillas had taken over the city several days earlier. In four of the eight, the fighting was either distant or had stopped before the polls opened. Four were also poor neighborhoods on the north side of San Salvador, regarded as centers of political sup- port for the Left. 3 Why would guerrillas seek to terrify their supporters? Reporters did not ask. Only the attack on Apopa, according to interviews with guerrillas on Guazapa Volcano right before the election, make it apparent that it was designed to disrupt the elections.' But there was evidence, some of it in media reports well before the election, sug- gesting that guerrilla actions at election time could have varying motives. Ideas of the different groups in the FMLN ranged from fomenting a general insurrec- tion, to continuing the fight "before, during and after the elections," thus denying the elections the dignity of special attention, to focusing attacks on cities in order to "showcase" their strength. 5 For ABC's Hillary Brown, the occupation of UsulutBn was designed solely to stop the elections. Had her viewers been informed that while the Left was united against partici- pation in an electoral "farce" but divided over how to respond to the elections, they might have concluded as easily that Usulutin was a "showcase" battle, or simply continued fighting. The media also said destruction of buses before election day was intended to prevent voters from getting to the polls, but it was also true that guerrillas had been attacking the transportation system, includ- ing buses, for months, and continued to do so after the elections. An attack on a military convoy, and even one which destroyed a soft drink truck, were part of the reporters' absurd efforts to fit military acts into this news frame. Jack Smith of ABC featured a close-up of a "captured" box of explosives intended, he said, to disrupt the elections. Did the box tell him? The media reported that guerrillas threatened vot- In Santa Clara itself the national election, now two weeks away, is of little interest to the people. Most do not know the issues, the candidates, or what's at stake. If they vote at all it will be at the suggestion and direction of the Army. It's been a year since moderates won El Salvador's national elections and offered a hope of bringing peace to that Central American nation torn by war. CBS News, March 27, 1983 CBS News, March 14, 198 2 Free and Open Elect:ione? ers and much was made of the government technique of painting voters' fingers with ink visible only to in- frared lamps to protect against such reprisals while preventing double voting. The New York Times and the Post quoted the same 74-year-old woman who claimed to have slammed the door in "subversive" faces when they told her not to vote.' No reporter pointed out that such an example did not render the guerrillas too intimidating. Completely unreported was the FMLN's Radio Ven- ceremos broadcast, two days before the election, advising citizens that it did not matter if they voted or not in the farsical election. Even a month earlier, with a different position, the guerrilla radio had hoped, not demanded, that despite the pressures to vote voters would stay home. It warned only to steer clear of military patrols. President Reagan and Time informed of a wall slogan saying "Vote in the Morning, Die in the Afternoon," but a reporter with extensive experience in El Salvador told me he had been unable to find it. Assuming its meaning was not a sardonic comment on a morning's "democratic" interruption of ongoing death squad activities, it would seem that, at best, it was not a widespread slogan. Intent on celebrating election day as a victory for democracy, the media remained uninterested in the opposition assertion that the election was a "farce." In the days preceding it, a few reports mentioned in passing that the Left felt its candidates would not be safe. These scattered comments, never analyzed, never featured, were forgotten by election day. Lest even this give a false sense of balance, it should be pointed out that ABC's March 26 broadcast had one brief Left assertion that its candidates would have been attacked amidst eight characterizations of Left disruption themes. That night and the next, NBC had 14 assertions of the disrupt and threaten theme and 10 optimistic comments on the elections, and no mention of the Left safety theme. In short, what passed the media examination for a free and open election was one in which State De- partment-invited observers testified that they had seen no signs of fraud, or of voters being intimidated at the polls. Unreported was the massive government media blitz to get out the vote, portraying the election as the only road to peace; and ignored were the explicit statements by military and civilian officials equating failure to vote with "treason," to use the word of then Minister of Defense Garcia, or support for "terrorism," according to Napole6n Duarte. Reporters newly arrived on the scene perhaps didn't know what all Salvadoreans had learned in the preceding two years of civil war: an I.D. card is a document that must be carried at all times and serves as a safe-conduct pass through army checkpoints. Since voting in El Salvador is compulsory, and since the electoral law stipulates that authorities can de- mand proof of having voted for a period of ten days following the election, that I.D. card would be stamped on election day. Moreover, a list of voters would be compiled at each polling place. Given the role of "lists" in El Salvador's history of political assassina- tions, this was one list that everyone wanted to be on. Two days before the elections, NBC's Tom Brokaw did interview a voter who said he felt pressured to vote, and balanced this by saying he also felt pres- sure not to vote. The day after the election, NBC gave two sentences to an FDR/FMLN spokesperson, who said voters had felt afraid not to vote, but Brokaw characterized this as a typical tough propaganda line. The Numbers Game Reporters served up numbers issued by politicians, all of whom shared a common interest in conveying the impression of a high turnout. When Ambassador Hinton said that five or six hundred thousand would be a splendid turnout, it was widely reported without The media zoom in on the elections. 1982. comment. That would be only 38% of the reported 1.3 million eligible voters. Even this eligibility figure was repeated without question, though the World Bank put the over-18 population at 2.2 million. When, three days after the election, the vote total had grown to 1.5 million-exceeding the reported number of eligible voters-very few reported it. Reporters had lost in- terest and many, along with the U.S. election observers, had since gone home, while the Election Commission churned out ever-mounting totals. It took only a few weeks for various political figures to issue statements alleging fraud, and for serious academic institutions to release a major study detail- ing irregularities in voting procedures and tabulations.! But by then the media had long since moved on to the Falklands War or the siege of Beirut. Only the Times gave attention to the claim that vote totals had been inflated-on page 5. Referendum on the Left? By ignoring faults with the election and death-threats to the Left, and focusing instead on guerrilla military actions, it was easy for the media to characterize the election as a referendum on the Left. The highly dubi- ous conclusion: every vote of the "record" turnout was a vote against the Left. The media's "ballots over bullets" news frame could not encompass an analysis suggesting that a civil war distorts the election process in the direction of those who control the polling places. In Rhodesia, Bishop Muzorewa, a "moderate" anti-guerrilla black, gained 67% of the vote in an election controlled by the white government, which The New York Times head- lined a 65% turnout. When guerrilla victories pres- sured a new election the next year, with guerrilla candidates, Muzorewa won 8% of the vote. Guerrilla leaders Mugabe (63%) and Nkomo (24%) won 87% of the vote and 77 out of 80 seats in Parliament. The Times did not headline that 50% more votes had been cast than in 1979.8 The media did not ignore the war in El Salvador, or the desires of the Reagan Administration, but reporters failed to report facts which would have provided news consumers the opportunity to see the election in a broader framework. Rather, the FDR/FMLN emerged in this phase of the Salvador story as the sole per- petuators of violence and inherently opposed to elec- tions. Those participating in elections tended toward "moderation" even if from "extreme" parties. Thus, even Roberto D'Aubuisson, burdened by the media be- fore the election with ex-Ambassador White's "patho- logical killer" tag, became a "bom-again politician," "legitimized" by the voters in post election analyses (though the media certainly had reservations about his success). As long as votes were cast and candi- dates received their fair share, the election became an exercise in democracy. In this sense, the media's analysis of the elections paralleled precisely that of the Reagan Administra- tion. This was reinforced by innumerable "straight" reporting of statements from a wide variety of Ad- ministration officials and U.S. election observers. For the Reagan Administration, this was perhaps the most crucial juncture to have the media "on board." In addition to the Cold War framework, the chief ideo- logical prop the President has used to support U.S. intervention in El Salvador is that of support for a democratically elected government. By contrast, he justifies support for contras invading Nicaragua with the notion that the Sandinista government is illegitimate.
THE GREAT SALVADOR ELECTION BLITZ 1. The review analyzes election coverage of the Boston Globe, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and videotapes of the evening news shows, March 25-30, of the three major networks, plus the 30-minute election specials of NBC and CBS. 2. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982; Boston Globe, March 29, 1982. 3. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982. 4. Boston Globe, March 29, 1982. 5. The Washington Post, March 6, 1982; The New York Times, March 2, 1982; CBS News Special, March 30, 1982. (The quote is from Ruben Zamora on the CBS special and is the only expression of an opposition viewpoint on the 30-minute show. It is portrayed in a context that makes him appear to contribute to an analysis that the guerrillas were fighting against the people and against the elections. 6. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982; The New York Times, March 29, 1982. 7. A comprehensive evaluation of the March 1982 elections was conducted by the Documentation and INfor- mation Center at the Central American University in San Salvador. See "Las elecciones de 1982: Realidades detras de las apariencias," in Estudios Centroamericanos, no. 403-404 (May-June, 1982), Universidad Centroameri- cana, San Salvador. 8. The New York Times, April 15 and 22, 1979, March 4 and 5, 1980. THE GREAT SALVADOR ELECTION BLITZ 1. The review analyzes election coverage of the Boston Globe, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and videotapes of the evening news shows, March 25-30, of the three major networks, plus the 30-minute election specials of NBC and CBS. 2. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982; Boston Globe, March 29, 1982. 3. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982. 4. Boston Globe, March 29, 1982. 5. The Washington Post, March 6, 1982; The New York Times, March 2, 1982; CBS News Special, March 30, 1982. (The quote is from Ruben Zamora on the CBS special and is the only expression of an opposition viewpoint on the 30-minute show. It is portrayed in a context that makes him appear to contribute to an analysis that the guerrillas were fighting against the people and against the elections. 6. The Washington Post, March 29, 1982; The New York Times, March 29, 1982. 7. A comprehensive evaluation of the March 1982 elections was conducted by the Documentation and INfor- mation Center at the Central American University in San Salvador. See "Las elecciones de 1982: Realidades detras de las apariencias," in Estudios Centroamericanos, no. 403-404 (May-June, 1982), Universidad Centroameri- cana, San Salvador. 8. The New York Times, April 15 and 22, 1979, March 4 and 5, 1980.