If the press is awaiting a declaration of war before it imposes the self-discipline of combat conditions, then I can only say that no war ever posed a greater threat to our security.... Conflict between the media and presidential administrations over foreign policy is nothing new. The early escalation of American involve- ment in Vietnam, as is now well known, pro- voked a particularly intense conflict. 2 Reports from the field in 1962-63 contradicted official optimism, and tensions rose to the point that the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations carried out a public campaign to discredit the Saigon press corps. The New York Times refused a re- quest from the White House that it remove its Saigon correspondent, David Halberstam; Time correspondents Charles Mohr and Mert Perry resigned when their own organization failed to back them in the dispute over the accuracy-or patriotism-of Vietnam reporting. But as intense as these conflicts seemed to those involved in them, they took place within the narrow bounds of a powerful consensus. Even in the later part of the Vietnam war, when journalists were disillusioned with American policy, discussion about the origins of revolu- tion or the basic outlines of the U.S. relation- ship to the third world were not a part of the news agenda. Debate concerned the pace and terms of American withdrawal, not the ideolog- ical underpinnings of U.S. policy. This was the so-called bi-partisan consensus of the Cold War, a consensus the Reagan Administration has John Kennedy, 1961' been striving mightily to rebuild. Consider the following background report on Southeast Asia from The New York Times Sunday edition, Feb- ruary 18, 1962: HONG KONG, February 17-...As the richest non-Communist power and as the prin- cipal Western nation with a Pacific Ocean fron- tier, the United States has inherited the chief responsibility for confining Communist rule in Eastern Asia to its present boundaries.... U.S. Problem In none of these endangered nations can the United States rely upon internal stability as a Dan Hallin is assistant professor ofpolitical science and communications at the University of California, San Diego. This in- terim report is based on an ongoing study, and includes the monitoring of about 30 hours of television coverage beginning with the October 1979 coup in El Salvador, as well as a less systematic monitoring of major print media and interviews with more than 30journalists, both in Central America and in Washington, New York and Miami. The decision to focus somewhat more on television is motivated by studies which show that it is the most important influence on the perceptions of the mass public, especially in the area offoreign policy. 2 NACLAReandJuly/Aug 1983 The White Paper was swallowed whole and regurgitated in a fashion not equaled since the Johnson Administra- tion's White Paper on Vietnam 15 years ago. Hodding Carter basic source of strength in the free world's fight to contain aggressive Communism. South Vietnam and South Korea are ruled by authoritarian regimes whose roots haven't sprung from the people.... While the Kennedy Administration consid- ered the media's focus on "domestic instability" a major political liability, at least the media were not about to question the ideological assump- tions that underlay U.S. involvement in Viet- nam-i.e., that the question was fundamentally one of outside Communist aggression, and the role of the United States was to contain it. The Turning of the News? It is commonly assumed today that the media were transformed over the course of the Viet- nam-Watergate era from a relatively docile and conservative institution to an assertive and gen- erally critical one. In 1976, when the Trilateral Commission released a report on the "govern- ability of democracy," the section on the United States, authored by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, called the media "the most important new source of national power in 1970 as opposed to 1950.... In recent years there has come into existence a national press with the... independence... to play a role with respect to the President that a local paper plays with re- spect to the mayor. This marks the emergence of a very significant check on presidential power. 3 The popular press has been full of such com- mentary lately, and a good deal of it has focused on the issue of Central America. Last August, for example, TV Guide ran an article on Central America coverage entitled "Patriotism to Skep- ticism: The Turning of TV News." 4 And indeed, it is harder today for a President to "manage" the news than it was in the early 1960s. Journalists have in fact become more skeptical and more sophisticated. But the "turning of the news" should not be exaggerated. In many ways, the political as- sumptions and journalistic routines that made it possible in the early 1960s for foreign policy elites to finesse the country into one major war and many minor interventions with hardly a ripple of public debate have persisted remark- ably intact. The President still possesses enor- mous power to shape the news. 1965: "Framing" the Issue A starting place that is as relevant as it is poet- ically symbolic is a comparison of two adminis- tration "White Papers"-one in 1965 and the other in 1981-each aimed at building public consensus for an escalation of U.S. interference in a third world conflict. On February 27, 1965, the State Department issued a White Paper entitled "Aggression from the North-the Record of North Vietnam's Campaign to Conquer South Vietnam." The Johnson Administration had concluded that U.S. involvement would have to be escalated dramatically if the "loss" of South Vietnam were to be prevented. Officials were busy plan- ning the exact timing and form of the escalation and worrying about public opinion. The Administration's public relations strategy had two components. First, it was essential to rally support by raising the specter of Commun- ist aggression. This was the purpose of the White Paper: to "frame" the conflict in South- east Asia as a confrontation between East and West, and thus a matter of national security. At the same time, it was important not to arouse what could be called the "Korea Syndrome"'- the fear of another inconclusive land war in Asia. Thus, officials kept as quiet as possible about the contemplated extent of U.S. involve- ment. "The focus of public attention," read a Department of State cable sent to nine U.S. posts in the Far East shortly after the White Paper was released, "will be kept as far as possi- ble on [North Vietnamese] aggression; not on [U.S./South Vietnamese] military operations. There will be no comment of any sort on future actions except that they will be adequate and measured and fitting to aggression." 5 The New York Times of February 6, 1965, led with a straight account of official statements: The United States issued today a detailed, documented indictment charging North Viet- nam with flagrant and increasing aggression against South Vietnam. The charge was accom- panied by a warning that the United States might be compelled to abandon its policy of "restraint" and to expand the war in Vietnam if the Com- munist aggression from the North did not cease. The rest of the story summarized the State De- partment document. It questioned neither the 3NACLA Report accuracy of official information nor the motiva- tions or implications of its release. This was the standard convention of "objective" reporting, making it easy most of the time for officials to control the content of foreign affairs coverage. 1981: The Same Frame Sixteen years later, the three-week-old Rea- gan Administration released its own White Paper, "Communist Interference in El Salva- dor."6 How did the media respond? Nearly a decade after Watergate and the Pen- tagon Papers, it was, for the most part, striking- ly similar to the period of U.S. escalation in Vietnam. 7 On February 6, for example, The New York Times carried a lead story pre-dating the official release of the White Paper which began: Indications that the Soviet Union and Cuba agreed last year to deliver tons of weapons to Marxist-led guerrillas in El Salvador are con- tained in secret documents reportedly captured from the insurgents by Salvadorean security forces. The documents, which are considered genuine by United States intelligence agencies, say the weapons came from stockpiles of American arms seized in Vietnam and Ethiopia. The documents, which were part of the White Paper, had in fact been "leaked" to the Times by the Reagan Administration. This is a tactic familiar to journalists. Why settle for a day of publicity when one can easily stretch it out for several weeks? The Administration thus not only got more mileage out of the documents themselves, but set itself up for several weeks of public statements about Communist interven- tion which would be legitimized by a body of evidence most of the media had not yet seen. On February 12, for example, CBS State Department correspondent Diane Sawyer reported: U.S. officials say the evidence is unmistakable that the Cubans are re-supplying the guerrillas in El Salvador under the direct sponsorship of the Soviet Union .... Some of the evidence has come from weapons and documents captured in El Sal- vador [video coverage of weapons].s This acceptance of the leaked documents at more or less face value was typical. By the day the White Paper was released, Barrie Duns- more's ABC report included an animated map showing the countries of Central America turn- ing red one by one. In decidedly unqualified language, Dunsmore summarized the White The press play in the opening weeks of the campaign to convince us that E Salvador is the place to roll back the Iron Curtain demonstrated that big government sets the terms of public discussion about major issues far more often than the press likes to admit or the public understands. Hodding Carter Paper as containing "documents, photographs and letters captured in November andJanuary, which firmly establish the links between leftist insurgents in El Salvador and Communist gov- ernments worldwide." Dunsmore, like other re- porters, had not had time to read the docu- ments, which were released just a few hours be- fore his deadline; he was relying on an eight- page summary released along with them by the State Department. It should be noted that it was possible, even at this early date, to investigate the arms issue in- dependently. The Times of London, for exam- ple, sent a reporter to inspect captured weapons displayed in El Salvador (the same ones shown by Diane Sawyer): "...many were home- made," reported the Times, "belying the notion of a sudden rush of sophisticated arms." 9 More important, few reporters questioned the relevance of the whole issue of "outside arms" for understanding the insurgency in El Salvador. President Kennedy addresses reporters, 1961. 4July/Aija 1983 S "Maybe There's Something to It" Most Central American field journalists were extremely skeptical of the White Paper's Cold War rhetoric. Juan Tamayo, formerly UPI bur- eau chief in Mexico City and now with The Miami Herald, describes his reaction this way: When the Administration came out with this White Paper all the news mentioned was Com- munist intervention, Communist intervention. Nobody in Washington bothered to mention that this thing had been going on for years, that the guerrillas have been around for a long time, that the government itself in El Salvador... has been accused of human rights violations and that is in large part why people were rebelling against it.' 0 Field reporters were by no means the only ones who were skeptical. National Wirewatch, a newsletter for the "wire editors" who select na- tional and international news for most daily papers around the country, criticized the wire services for "heeding in lockstep fashion" the "party line from Washington on Communist infiltration."" There were exceptions. For example, the day before the White Paper was released, NBC's Bob Kur "balanced" a story on Administration statements by citing an earlier State Depart- ment report which had concluded that the in- surgency in El Salvador resulted from "genera- tions of inequality and repressive rule." He noted that many U.S. allies were uneasy that the Administration "chooses to view what's happening in El Salvador exclusively in the context of U.S./Soviet relations." And The Washington Post's John Goshko wrote in a news analysis: Inevitably, this move toward increased U.S. involvement in El Salvador's bloody civil war will provoke a major debate in this country about whether Reagan and Secretary of State Alexan- der M. Haig, Jr. are orchestrating the intelli- gence at their disposal to whip up support for their hardline attitudes and push the United States into what many liberals fear could become a Central American miniversion of Vietnam.12 As NBC's Ike Seamans said, "Anybody who'd been to Salvador as much as the people who normally cover it knew it was a pretty sim- plified view of the situation. But if the leader of the Western world makes a statement, it's policy almost. You've got to follow it up ... There's always a thing in your mind, 'Well, maybe there is something to it.' "13 So for all intents and purposes, it was indeed "Communist intervention, Communist inter- vention" that dominated front page coverage. "The whole issue of running the presidency," noted Reagan pollster Richard S. Beal, "... is control of the agenda."' 4 And control was pre- cisely what the Administration had achieved. The content of the news had shifted from The Great Communicators: Reagan on El Salvador, Cronkite on Vietnam. 0 C" 'U a July/Aua 1983 56 NACLARSoOuI questions about right-wing death squads and the degree of popular support enjoyed by the Salvadorean guerrillas to arms supplies and "Soviet expansionism." The locus of coverage had shifted from Central America itself to Washington. This success is perhaps best illustrated by the graphic ABC News adopted a few days before the release of the White Paper: a map of El Sal- vador with the Stars and Stripes on one side, the Hammer and Sickle on the other.15 The networks also began to pair Central America stories with reports on meetings of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union, then taking place in Moscow; Frank Reynolds introduced one ABC report with the words, "And now, for more on El Salvador and other aspects of U.S./ Soviet relations, here is Peter Jennings in Moscow."'16 Turning the Press On Despite this initial success, it quickly became clear that 1981 was not 1965; control of the news on Central America was not going to be easy to sustain. The very day after the release of the White Paper, Administration statements began to take on a distinctly defensive tone. The se- quence of headlines in the Los Angeles Times the week of the White Paper is revealing: The day before: U.S. Warns Cuba to End Subversion; 'Necessary Steps' to be Taken to Stop Arms, Meese Says The day after: Salvador Role 'No Vietnam'--Reagan; U.S. Considers More Military Advisors for Embattled Nation, Pentagon Says Two days later: Given 'Higher Visibility Than It Deserves,' White House Believes; Press Cov- erage Criticized" 1 Walter Cronkite was soon appearing before a graphic not of hammers and sickles but of the ominous profile of Vietnam. LikeJohnson's before it, the Reagan Admin- istration was playing a delicate game, "turning the press on" just enough to revive the faith of the Cold War without raising the specter of a major war. In this sense, its battle in Central America is in part an ideological one, directed at the American public-and media. But the Administration quickly found that the legacy of Vietnam and the changes in American political consciousness that have occurred since then run deep. To a large extent, the Administration's prob- lems with the press have been of its own mak- ing. "We did not appreciate how rapidly El Sal- vador would take off in the minds of the press as a Vietnam," one White House aide admitted. 1 8 The Administration's errors, in fact, were much more severe than a mere failure to foresee the reaction of the press. It was the Administra- tion itself which first raised the comparison with Vietnam. The week before the White Paper was released, Alexander Haig had declared that Central America would not be another Viet- nam because the "source of supplies" [Cuba] would not remain "outside the target area."'1 The day after its release, the President, award- ing a belated Congressional Medal of Honor to a veteran of Vietnam, made clear his intention to reinterpret the meaning of that war: "They came home without a victory, not because they were defeated, but because they were denied per- mission to win." Ironically, it was only in response to this Cold War rhetoric and the oppo- sition it provoked in Congress that the media be- gan to cover the Central America story heavily. Does this mean that the Administration's ini- tial success with the White Paper was without lasting significance? Does it prove that the news has turned? Not at all. In a sense what is really remark- able is not the degree of skepticism one sees in the press or the public or Congress, but the fact that the Administration has succeeded as well as it has at keeping the spotlight on "Soviet expan- sionism" in Central America, despite the objec- tive weakness of its case. Furthermore, it has been able to add a cluster of related themes to the top of the news agenda that are equally weak-arms supplies to the Sal- vadorean rebels, "totalitarianism" in Nicara- gua, Nicaraguan military aggression, the "democratic" motivation of U.S. objectives. How can this be? Does it imply conspiracy and collusion? Monolithic media? Heavy- handed news management? Does it mean, in short, that nothing is happening and nothing can happen to affect the public news flow in this country? To understand the relationship of change to continuity in the media, it is first necessary to recognize the conventions and routines that have evolved through many years. It is through these that we can record change. references WHITE PAPER, RED SCARE 1. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: 1961, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), p. 336. 2. David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). 3. Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, (New York: New York University Press, 1975), pp. 98-99. 4. Edwin Diamond, "From Patriotism to Skepticism: How TV Reporting Has Changed," TV Guide, August 7, 1982. 5. The Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers, (Bos- ton: Beacon Press, 1971), Vol. III, p. 324. 6. "Communist Interference in El Salvador," Special Report No. 80, Department of State, February 23, 1981. 7. A detailed critique of White Paper coverage can be found inJonathan Evan Maslow and Ana Arana, "Oper- ation El Salvador," Columbia Journalism Review, May/ June, 1981. 8. CBS Evening News, February 12, 1981. 9. Quoted in Maslow and Arana, op. cit., p. 54. 10. Interview, Mexico City, July 15, 1981. 11. National Wirewatch, No. 35, April 30, 1981. 12. The Washington Post, February 22, 1981. 13. Interview, Miami, July 31, 1981. 14. Sidney Blumenthal, "Marketing the President," New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1981, p. 43. 15. ABC first used the graphic on February 18, 1981. 16. ABC World News Tonight, February 25, 1981. 17. Los Angeles Times, February 23, 25, 27, 1981. 18. Blumenthal, op. cit., p. 111. 19. The Washington Post, February 22, 1981. references WHITE PAPER, RED SCARE 1. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: 1961, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), p. 336. 2. David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). 3. Michel J. Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy, (New York: New York University Press, 1975), pp. 98-99. 4. Edwin Diamond, "From Patriotism to Skepticism: How TV Reporting Has Changed," TV Guide, August 7, 1982. 5. The Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers, (Bos- ton: Beacon Press, 1971), Vol. III, p. 324. 6. "Communist Interference in El Salvador," Special Report No. 80, Department of State, February 23, 1981. 7. A detailed critique of White Paper coverage can be found inJonathan Evan Maslow and Ana Arana, "Oper- ation El Salvador," Columbia Journalism Review, May/ June, 1981. 8. CBS Evening News, February 12, 1981. 9. Quoted in Maslow and Arana, op. cit., p. 54. 10. Interview, Mexico City, July 15, 1981. 11. National Wirewatch, No. 35, April 30, 1981. 12. The Washington Post, February 22, 1981. 13. Interview, Miami, July 31, 1981. 14. Sidney Blumenthal, "Marketing the President," New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1981, p. 43. 15. ABC first used the graphic on February 18, 1981. 16. ABC World News Tonight, February 25, 1981. 17. Los Angeles Times, February 23, 25, 27, 1981. 18. Blumenthal, op. cit., p. 111. 19. The Washington Post, February 22, 1981.
Tags: communications, mass media, US foreign policy, red scare, propaganda