MediaWatch: May 1988

Vol. Two No. 5

Janet Cooke Award: Today on Angola

From April 18 to April 22, NBC's Today aired a five-part series on the continuing civil war in Angola. The 24 minute series was repeatedly billed as an objective analysis yet focused exclusively on the war from the communist government perspective. In fact, only once -- during the final moments of the last segment -- did the show even use the word "communist" to label the regime. This is just one of the many reasons why Today received the May Janet Cooke Award.

Today contributing correspondent Jon Alpert, of New York's Downtown Community TV, traveled to Angola in March. His entire series originated from the area controlled by the communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Alpert painted a mostly negative picture of the pro-U.S. democratic resistance, The Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Dr. Jonas Savimbi. Although it was the MPLA, with the help of Cuban troops and Soviet weapons, that seized power in 1975, Alpert described UNITA as the invader. In part one, Alpert claimed: "To stay in power, the Angolans have invited over 30,000 troops to come and defend their country. Recently, the UNITA forces along with South African troops have pushed into the southern part of Angola."

UNITA has repeatedly signaled its willingness to end the war at any time, by negotiating a cease fire and terms for free and democratic elections. Just May 11, according to Agence France-Presse, the Angolan Foreign Minister again delayed planned negotiations with South Africa over the presence of external forces in the country. But instead of blaming the continuation of the war on the MPLA regime, Alpert adopted the communist propaganda line, characterizing the resistance as the obstacle to peace.

Alpert portrayed a population on the run from UNITA: "The bombardment is constant. Day and night for the past three months, South Africa and UNITA have applied the pressure...and there's no end in sight....There are refugee camps all over Angola. Almost half the population has been displaced by the constant fighting...Ten thousand lost their legs to land mines last year." Alpert also relayed the communist propaganda line on UNITA human rights violations. Despite being in a MPLA-controlled village, he reported as fact that UNITA forces cut off the hands of a villager with a machete.

Much of the remainder of the series was devoted to daily life. Alpert claimed that because of the war "food production is down," and "half the babies in Angola die before five years old." Why? According to Alpert: "Most of Angola's money goes for military equipment and training." Alpert ignored the fact that vast oil reserves generate over $2 billion each year for the regime, but less than $60 million is spent on the people.

When contacted by MediaWatch, Alpert passed off responsibility to Today, declaring: "I told them we had been working on getting into [communist] Angola [only]." Asked why he never contacted UNITA to refute some of the charges, Alpert claimed he was unable to get a visa to South Africa in order to visit the UNITA areas. He later admitted that was two years ago. About ignoring well-documented evidence of torture and imprisonment within the MPLA areas, Alpert snapped: "In any one country there are thousands of things you do and others you can't. You can't cover everything. I think we were much harder than many on showing the inadequacies there. The totality of the coverage was balanced."

Alpert asserted Today ran a story on UNITA in November, a claim denied by Today spokesman John Bianchi. Asked whether a story from the UNITA perspective is planned, Bianchi responded: "I cannot comment on that." In fact, Alpert implied that he and NBC were more interested in giving the communist view, explaining: "People have seen UNITA; we were trying to give a side that few people have actually seen." Alpert noted NBC said "okay" to that slant.