The U.S. Media and the Crisis in Ecuador

When Rudolfo Muñoz, a reporter working in Ecuador for CNN, resigned from the cable news channel in the immediate aftermath of the September 30 political turmoil, not a single noteworthy U.S. news outlet—including CNN—bothered to report on his departure. Fittingly, Muñoz said that CNN had a “distinct slant” and “acted as if nothing happened” despite “proof that [police forces] tried to kill the president.” While it is still unclear whether the violent events of September 30 constituted an attempted coup, as President Rafael Correa claimed, Muñoz’s critique raises questions about how the crisis was covered in the U.S. mainstream media.

Michael Corcoran

When Rudolfo Muñoz, a reporter working in Ecuador for CNN, resigned from the cable news channel in the immediate aftermath of the September 30 political crisis, not a single noteworthy U.S. news outlet—including CNN—bothered to report on his departure. Fittingly, Muñoz cited the media’s failure to report important information as his primary reason for quitting his job, telling the Latin American media outlet TeleSur that he quit the job because CNN had a “distinct slant” on the deadly police uprising in Ecuador and “acted as if nothing happened” despite “proof that [police forces] tried to kill the president.”

"That same night on Sept. 30 I determined that it was no longer in my interest to continue doing that sort of work,” he said.

While it is still unclear whether the violent events of September 30 constituted an attempted coup, as President Rafael Correa claimed, Muñoz’s critique raises questions about how the crisis was covered in the U.S. mainstream media.

The crisis in Ecuador came less than 18 months after the Honduran military successfully overthrew its democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. If Ecuador’s police uprising was indeed a failed attempt at overthrowing the government, it would mark the fourth coup attempt on left-leaning Latin America leaders in less than a decade — since 2002. The three earlier coup attempts took place in Venzuela, Haiti, and Honduras. The uprising in Ecuador, if it constituted a coup, was the fourth.

Given the long history of U.S. intervention in the region, the crisis in Ecuador should warrant serious examination from the U.S. media. However, not only were relevant historic angles ignored, but, as Muñoz observed, several important events of that day were not seriously covered. The most prominent mainstream media outlets either ignored the incident, or treated it as if it occurred in a vacuum—offering no context about the long history of U.S. involvement in coup attempts in the Americas.

Mainstream outlets did not reference the June 2009 military coup in Honduras in their Ecuador coverage, even though unanswered questions worthy of journalistic examination continue to loom about the U.S. involvement in the ousting of President Zelaya. “As the South American governments feared, Washington's support for the coup government in Honduras over the last year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of right-wing coups against democratic left governments in the region,” wrote Mark Weisbrot in an op-ed for the UK Guardian. In fact, Correa even claimed, following the Honduran coup, that he had “intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next.” This was a quote that no U.S. mainstream media outlets repeated in recent coverage.

Like both Zelaya and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Correa had taken a defiant stance against U.S. hegemony in Latin America, giving U.S. officials ample reasons to dislike him. Correa has shunned the World Bank by removing the Ecuadoran representative and defaulting on foreign debt; he has shut down what the Times called “the most prominent American military outpost in South America;” and he has implemented domestic economic policies that go directly against the directives of the World Trade Organization and other international financial institutions that are largely dominated by the United States.

Prominent newspapers did not address critical questions regarding the United States’ historic role in Latin American coups, and adopted the narrative that the crisis was an uprising of police officers who were upset about benefit reductions. The Washington Post published only one article on the event in its immediate aftermath, which was written by a wire service reporter. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Maria Anastasia O’Grady, which accused Correa of essentially manufacturing a story for political gain. O’Grady was also a staunch supporter of the overthrow of Zelaya, and her favorite target is Venezuela’s Chávez.

Aside from the historic angles, there were many details of the September 30 events, raising questions of a possible coup that the U.S. media did not cover. For example, they mostly ignored the role of Lucio Gutiérrez, the president of Ecuador from 2003-05, whom Correa blamed for the unrest.

The former president had called for the “dissolution” of the Correa government, and his allies were reportedly spotted freely accessing police buildings that were closed off to everyone else. But the Times has not mentioned Gutiérrez in any of their articles on the event—in fact his name has not been printed in the paper since July of 2006.

The media reports in the United States also suggested that the question of whether the rebellion was a spontaneous uprising or an organized event was up in the air. But since the rebellion spanned four provinces, it is not unreasonable to think that it was calculated. O’Grady, however, writing in the Journal, ignored these fundamental circumstances and asserted that “the trouble started on Thursday morning when the police announced a strike to protest cuts in their compensation.” It was then, O’Grady argued, that Correa instigated the violence and unrest when he confronted protesters. The New York Times did quote a Correa aide saying that “intercepted communications from within the police force had indicated in recent weeks that destabilization efforts were being planned and that the protests offered the spark to put them in motion.” But the paper then hedged, saying that “others here beg to differ,” and that “the fog of that day’s events makes various interpretations possible.” There may be various plausible explanations for the day’s events, but the significant evidence showing that the uprising was not spontaneous merited, at the very least, further investigation by journalists.

Media sources, however, did report the deadly consequences of the day—at least five people were killed and gunshots hit the windshield of the car carrying the president. But, despite the violence, the media still did not consider this as evidence of a possible coup attempt. O’Grady, again, gives the most extreme view when she argues that “If the goal was taking out the president, [Correa’s] provocation provided the moment to do it. But it is unlikely that the police had any such thing in mind.” This contradicts the Times, which indicated that the police were shooting to kill, when they reported “president’s armored Nissan sport utility vehicle showed bullet damage, including a shot to the windshield.”

In contrast to the U.S. media coverage of Ecuador, Russia Today, an English-language Russian broadcast network, broadcast several stories, that asked questions that are virtually off-limits in the U.S. media. “Could (Correa’s relationship with Chávez) have something to do with the coup?” asked one anchor, in a story about the lack of U.S. media coverage “There have also been several claims that the coups happening in Latin America are actually supported by the United States.”

U.S. broadcast media outlets, on the other hand, provided almost no coverage at all, as blogger Tom Murphy noted in The Huffington Post “[S]houldn't an attempted coup get a little more notice than it is getting?,” he asked.

When CNN’s Rodolfo Muñoz went so far as to resign because his employer failed to accurately report on the events of that day, he gave us a clear indication of why the U.S. public continues to remain in the dark about key events in Latin America.


Michael Corcoran in a NACLA Research Associate.

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