MediaWatch: May 1988

Vol. Two No. 5

Study: Contra-Dictiction, Media Style

The Contras "should be thankful that we're not offering them the guillotine or the firing squad, which is what they deserve," Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega proclaimed in his May Day speech. The city of Managua, Ortega sneered, would have to be "disinfected" after the Contra negotiators left. But virtually every major media outlet, including all four TV networks, ignored Ortega's mockery of the Central American "peace process."

In late March, however, when the Sandinistas were touting the Sapoa accord promises of free speech, amnesty for the Contras, and the release of political prisoners, ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News all covered the story. In fact, a MediaWatch Study reveals that the four network evening newscasts have routinely covered Sandinista promises for reform since last fall. In contrast, official Sandinista pronouncements and actions which show contempt for the peace process or human rights are routinely ignored.

To conduct the Study, MediaWatch examined how the networks covered six official Sandinista statements promising compliance with peace accords versus ten instances when the regime violated peace plan agreements or publicly rejected democratic reforms. News about pledges for improvement were covered by at least three of the four networks every time, but actions which contradicted those pledges were either barely mentioned or completely ignored. Consequently, viewers saw more than five times as many stories portraying the Sandinistas as earnestly trying to develop a pluralistic society than instances when they reaffirmed their totalitarian nature. Demonstrating what concerned the media, all 13 feature length stories by reporters in the field dealt with Sandinista moves to comply with peace process. Contempt for the accords never received such substantial coverage.

Some examples. When the opposition newspaper La Prensa was finally reopened last year, anchor Sam Donaldson led the September 19 World News Sunday with the announcement. In April, when the Marxist government withheld newsprint from La Prensa, forcing it to close again, the TV newscasts remained silent. On September 22 ABC, CBS, and NBC carried a story that Radio Catolica could resume broadcasting. However, when Radio Catolica was censored a month later the networks ignored the story.

On December 13 Ortega vowed to "never give up power." Tom Brokaw overlooked that in announcing on December 14 that Sandinistas had plans for a Christmas cease-fire if the Contras would also agree. CNN's Lou Waters chose to report Ortega's charge that the U.S. is "not interested in peace." In January the networks all reported that the Sandinistas lifted the state of emergency, which again supposedly ended all radio censorship. But on May 1, The Miami Herald's Sam Dillon reported that Interior Minister Tomas Borge "punched on the forehead and chin" anti-government radio operator Jose Castillo. The networks once again failed to pick up on the contradiction.

The Arias group monitoring commission released a report on January 4 detailing Sandinista non-compliance. On February 21, The Washington Times carried a front-page story quoting Ortega's vow to "crush the Contras." Television news ignored both stories. The Sandinistas have pledged to free 10,000 political prisoners; 985 were let go on November 22 and 100 more were released on March 27. The networks faithfully covered the events. But in early March, when Sandinista mobs attacked a peaceful march by mothers protesting the military draft, no network even mentioned it. In another obvious display of oppression, hoodlums threw rocks and violently disrupted a meeting of opposition leaders on January 23. Only NBC's Ed Rabel found time to make a brief reference to this incident.

Even an apparent exception to this trend reinforces MediaWatch findings. When Ortega asked Cardinal Obando y Bravo to mediate Contra-Sandinista talks, CNN, NBC, and ABC ran on-location reports to tell the November 6 story. But when Ortega fired the cardinal on March 3, CBS, CNN, and NBC anchormen gave it brief mention. ABC, which had sent John Quinones to Managua to report on Obando's appointment, spiked the story completely.