On November 29, the de facto authorities in Honduras held a blatantly fraudulent election—complete with state violence against dissidents in the run-up to the voting, ballot irregularities, and manufactured turnout numbers.1 Sadly, some countries are recognizing these elections, giving unwarranted legitimacy to former de facto president Roberto Micheletti and the other coup leaders who took power in June.2
The mainstream news coverage has been a significant factor in portraying the Honduran election as a peaceful, legitimate exercise in democracy. By ignoring the abuses and corruption of the coup leaders before and during the election, the U.S. media in particular became complicit in thwarting Honduran democracy.
The coverage of the Honduran elections is especially interesting since it came on the heels of the uprising in Iran, which was triggered in June by an election widely denounced as fraudulent. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was accused of rigging the election to secure his victory over an opposition candidate who was less hostile toward the United States.3 In this case, The New York Times’ coverage was exhaustive; its editorials loudly condemned the Iranian leadership for abuses and fraud.4
But in the Honduran election—where those accused of fraud are advocates of the dominant neoliberal ideology of the United States—the Times’ editorial standards were dramatically different. There was barely a mention of the charges of election fraud and the crackdown on dissidents widely reported by human rights groups and independent media outlets across the globe.5 The U.S. media unflinchingly accepted the coup leaders’ versions of events, including their exaggerated turnout figures. The stark contrast between the coverage of Honduras and Iran is in keeping with a long-standing and well-documented systematic bias in the U.S. media’s coverage of governments that do not conform to Washington’s political and economic dogmas.6
As the election came to a close, news outlets were in virtual lockstep, along with U.S. officials and Honduran coup leaders, in portraying the election as an unabashed success that took place amid peace and tranquility. The winner, cattle rancher and coup supporter Porfirio Lobo, was the clear choice of the Honduran people, the narrative went. Honduras was finally moving on after its months of conflict stemming from the coup.
The Washington Post called the election “mostly peaceful.”7 Lobo was “elected president in a peaceful vote” that could “overcome a five-month political crisis,” reported Bloomberg News, which then quoted political analyst Heather Berkman: “Honduras is definitely getting toward the end of the crisis.”8The New York Times said in an editorial that there was “wide agreement” the election “was clean and fair.”9
The near monolithic consistency with which U.S. media outlets heralded the “peaceful” and “fair” election dramatically conflicts with the many reports of voter intimidation, violent repression, and the large boycott of opponents of the coup who did not even run a candidate. Amnesty International released several reports of voter intimidation and other such problems.10 The vast majority of foreign governments, as well as virtually every election-monitoring agency in the world, refused to accept the results of the election.11 Video footage plainly showing state violence against protesters demanding the return of their democratically elected leader were circulated widely on the Internet.12
“Since Zelaya was overthrown by the military in June, 4,000 [Hondurans] have been arrested, hundreds beaten and hospitalised and dozens charged with sedition,” noted Calvin Tucker in the U.K. Guardian. “Yet more have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and assassinated.”13 Those relying solely on U.S. mainstream media outlets, however, would likely have no idea how brazenly corrupt the election was.
Further, media outlets like Bloomberg reported the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s grossly exaggerated turnout numbers of about 61%. The correct number, it would later be revealed, would turn out to be below 50%.14 But by the time the truth came out, these false numbers had already been used to justify recognition of the sham elections by some nations, including the United States. The “turnout appears to have exceeded that of the last presidential election,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “This shows that given the opportunity to express themselves, the Honduran people have viewed the election as an important part of the solution to the political crisis in their country.”15
Few media outlets provided any of the crucial context for understanding the coup and its aftermath. Few noted that the Honduran military that carried out the coup is funded and trained by the United States. Nor did many outlets report that during the coup, the plane carrying the kidnapped Zelaya—still in his pajamas—landed and refueled at Soto Cano, a military base shared by the United States and Honduras.16 While the media did report on the occasional condemnations of the coup made by U.S. leaders, it downplayed the U.S. decisions to treat the coup authorities as legitimate political actors, to continue providing them with the flow of substantial aid, and to refuse to use its significant diplomatic muscle to assure Zelaya’s return to power.17 Moreover, according to a report by the Institute for Southern Studies, General Romeo Vásquez, a leader of the Honduran armed forces and a political opponent of Zelaya, was trained at the School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation)—the Georgia-based military school well-known for training Latin American authorities who have been charged with various human rights abuses.18 But despite these clear connections between the United States and the coup government, the media continued to report as if the United States were not enabling it and its many abuses.
The U.S. coverage of the contested Iranian elections was quite different. As soon as anti-government protests erupted in Tehran, the media quickly championed the cause of oppressed Iranians and the country’s “genuine democratic movement.” This movement included “women, young people, intellectuals and members of the moderate clerical establishment” united in “resistance” against Iran’s clerics, who used “overwhelming force to crush the demonstrations,” and against Ahmadinejad, “an intensely divisive figure here and abroad.”19
“Given the government’s even more than usually thuggish reaction,” a Times editorial declared, “it certainly looks like fraud.”20
The Times was certainly justified in bringing attention to legitimate concerns about the fairness of Iran’s election and the human rights violations committed by the state against protesters. The lack of focus and drastically different tone in covering the Honduran election crisis, however, shows an unambiguous double standard.
This was reflected not only in the tone of the coverage, but also the volume. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, the Times> ran 37 news articles on the issue—more than 38,000 words in total, including 15 front-page articles—in the 10 days following the Iranian elections. The paper also published 12 op-eds, six news analysis pieces, two editorials, and more than 2,600 words in letters to the editor.21
In contrast, in the 10 days following the Honduran election, the Times devoted only six stories, included four news articles, one editorial (which, as noted above, called the election “clean” and “fair”) and one news brief. None of the articles were published on the front page, and there were no published letters to the editor or op-eds. In sum, the Times published only about 3,000 words on the Honduran crisis, around 35,000 less than it devoted to the flawed Iranian election.
The skewed coverage of official U.S. enemies in the Times, and the U.S. media in general, is not a new phenomenon. It is a staple of the international pages of elite papers in the United States. When the Honduran coup first took place, the Times painted Zelaya, “a leftist aligned with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela,” as an authoritarian strongman.22 The Chávez reference is indeed telling; the Times has long portrayed him as a reckless tyrant—going so far as to celebrate a near successful coup attempt on him in 2002 in an editorial claiming that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”23 The Times has also referred to Chávez as a “populist demagogue” and an “authoritarian man on horseback” who “has militarized the government, emasculated the country’s courts, intimidated the media, eroded confidence in the economy and hollowed out Venezuela’s once-democratic institutions.”24
So it was no surprise Zelaya painted in much the same light. The Times said Zelaya was ousted after “months of tensions over [Zelaya’s] efforts to lift presidential term limits”—efforts that “critics said [were] part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president.”25 This coverage was highly misleading. Zelaya had merely called for a non-binding referendum that would have asked whether Hondurans supported including a referendum in the November election on convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution. The assembly would not have been held until after long after Zelaya’s term expired.
News media outlets’ coverage seems based not on the level of human rights abuses, but on a particular nation’s geopolitical importance to U.S. policy makers. Honduras, “the second poorest country in Central America,” is of comparatively less strategic value to Washington, since it exports no oil and has a per capita gross domestic product that is about a third of Iran’s, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.
Whereas Iran has long been an area of immense focus by Washington, dating back to 1953, when state planners toppled the country’s democratically elected government and put the Shah in power, forging a crucial strategic alliance that lasted until the Iranian revolution of 1979. Washington has watched nervously ever since, as Iran, blessed with vast oil reserves, has continued to defy Washington in numerous ways, including the funding of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and its insistence on developing nuclear power. As the CIA notes, “Iran occupies a strategic location on the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, which are vital maritime pathways for crude oil transport.” It has been described as the “sole regional power” in the Middle East that “is relatively more powerful today than at any time in modern history.”26 That the injustices inflicted on a nation of little strategic value to the United States are downplayed in the media is a telling indicator of the media’s priorities.
The systematic bias is clear. Governments that do not adhere to the Washington-dominated world order are most always portrayed as undemocratic villains, while their opponents—no matter how blatant their assaults on democracy may be—are reported on as respectable and legitimate statesmen.
The recent coverage of elections in Iran and Honduras is an especially useful example of this hypocrisy. In reporting such a misleading picture of the Honduran election crisis, the media assure themselves part of the responsibility for the destruction of Honduran democracy.
Michael Corcoran has written for The Boston Globe, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He blogs at michaelcorcoran.blogspot.com.
1. For incidents of voter intimidation, see Calvin Tucker, “Trampling on Honduran Democracy,” The Guardian (London), November 26, 2009; for the coup government’s inaccurate numbers on voter turnout see, Mariano Castillo, “Honduran Election Turnout Lower Than First Estimated,” CNN.com, December 22, 2009; for ballot irregularities, see Jesse Freeston, “Honduras Elections Exposed,” the Real News Network, December 8, 2009; Laura Figueroa And Frances Robles, “Several Nations Acknowledge Lobo’s Victory in Honduras,” The Miami Herald, December 1, 2009.
2. “Nations Divided on Recognizing Honduran Elections,” CNN.com, November 30, 2009.
3. “Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election,” The Chatham House, June 21, 2009; Freeston, “Honduras Elections Exposed.”
4. Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher, “Iran vs. Honduras: The Times’ Selective Promotion of Democracy,” Extra!, August 2009.
5. “Independent Investigation Needed Into Honduras Human Rights Abuses,” Amnesty International, December 3, 2009; “Stockpile of Tear Gas Grenades in Honduras Triggers Fears of Human Rights Abuses,” Amnesty International, November 27, 2009.
6. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 2nd ed. (Pantheon, 2002).
7. Mary Beth Sheridan, “Hondurans Go to Polls, Hoping to End Crisis,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2009.
8. Helen Murphy and Eric Sabo, “Lobo Wins Honduran Presidency After Peaceful Vote,” Bloomberg.com, November 30, 2009.
9. “The Honduran Conundrum,” The New York Times (editorial), December 5, 2009.
10. For an example, see Amnesty International, “Independent Investigation Needed.”
11. Tucker, “Trampling on Honduran Democracy.”
12. Freeston, “Honduras Elections Exposed.”
13. Tucker, “Trampling on Honduran Democracy.”
14. Murphy and Sabo, “Lobo Wins Honduran Presidency”; for lower turnout, see Castillo, “Honduran Election Turnout.”
15. Ian Kelly, “Honduran Election,” U.S. Department of State, November 29, 2009.
16. Freddy Cuevas, “U.S. Military Denies Role in Honduras Coup Flight,” USA Today, August 16, 2009.
17. Paul Richter, “U.S. Cuts $30 million in Aid to Honduras,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2009. The United States “could have cut as much as $200 million,” the article reports.
18. Chris Kromm, “Key Leaders of Honduras Military Coup Trained in U.S.,” Institute for Southern Studies, June 28, 2009.
19. Robert Worth, “Protests Flare Up in Iran as Opposition Disputes Vote,” The New York Times, June 14, 2009; Neil MacFarquhar, “In Iran, an Iron Cleric, Now Blinking,” The New York Times, June 16, 2009.
20. “Neither Real nor Free,” The New York Times (editorial), June 15, 2009.
21. Corcoran and Maher, “Iran vs. Honduras.”
22. Elizabeth Malkin, “Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup,” The New York Times, June 29, 2009.
23. “Hugo Chavez Departs,” The New York Times (editorial), April 13, 2002.
24. Larry Rohter, “The World: In Latin America, the Strongman Stirs in His Grave,” The New York Times, December 20, 1998.
25. Malkin, “Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup.”
26. Barry Rubin, “Iran: The Rise of a Regional Power,” The Middle East Review of International Affairs 10, no. 3 (September 2006).