Reed Irvine - Editor
|July B 1982|
THE RAY BONNER DIVISION
Raymond Bonner is the New York Times correspondent in E1 Salvador. During the June 17th meeting between the two top officials of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Sydney Gruson, and the two top officials of AIM. Reed Irvine and Murray Baron. Mr. Irvine made the statement that Mr. Bonner had been worth a division to the communists in Central America. He pointed out that Bonner had a rather odd background for a New York Times correspondent. He was a lawyer by training and had worked for Ralph Nader and Consumers Union for a time. Then Bonner showed up in Latin America. Unconfirmed information from two different sources indicated that during this period he had some connection with the Pacific News Service, a spin-off from the radical Institute for Policy Studies.
With no newspaper background, Bonner had secured a job with The Times, which is unusual, since Mr. Sulzberger had earlier said that The Times hires only journalists with proven experience on other newspapers. Neither Mr. Sulzberger nor Mr. Gruson was aware of the allegation that Bonner had some tie to the Pacific News Service, but they promised to look into it. The discussion did not bring forth any explanation of how Bonner had come to be hired by The Times despite his lack of newspaper experience.
Mr. Irvine said that he was more interested in Bonner's performance than in his background. He presented a list of the services that Bonner had rendered to the guerrillas in El Salvador, through his stories in The Times. The list included the following.
1. The now-discredited story run on page 2 on January 11, 1982 charging that American military advisers in El Salvador had observed a torture-training session conducted by the Salvadoran military. This was discussed in the AIM Reports of March-I, March-II and April. The top officials of The Times had all admitted that the story had lacked any corroboration and that it had been given far more play than it deserved. Irvine stressed the fact that Bonner's sole source for the story, a Salvadoran army deserter named Gomez, had told others that the American advisers were teaching torture tactics, not merely observing them. His statement to that effect had been recorded over two months before Bonner's story appeared in The Times. Irvine said no one had yet explained how the story had been 'sanitized" for publication in The Times. He said that he personally suspected that Bonner himself was responsible for the sanitization, knowing that the New York Times would resist publishing a story charging that American soldiers were teaching torture tactics unless there was better evidence than the word of a young Salvadoran deserter living in Mexico. Irvine also noted that when Bonner's story came under fire, he had sought assistance from Larry Birns of the leftwing Council on Hemispheric Affairs, apparently hoping that Birns could find some evidence that would help him substantiate the story.
2. Bonner's stories about his guided tour through guerrilla territory in Morazan Province in December that were published in The Times in late January. We focused especially on the January 28 story alleging that government troops had massacred either 733 civilians or 926, depending on whose figures you accepted. We noted that these were uncorroborated claims made by the guerrillas. The State Department had pointed out that the population of the village where the massacre allegedly occurred was only 300, and many of them were still there, alive and well. This was covered in the AIM Report of February-II.
3. Bonner's failure to report on the radical composition of the human rights groups he was using as a source for data on the number of civilians killed in El Salvador.
4. Bonner's efforts to discredit the election results. 5. Bonner's misrepresenting what has happened to the land reform program.
Daniel James, a journalist and author with long experience in Central America. has analyzed for AIM all of Bonner's stories about El Salvador published in The Times in the first half of 1982. James confirmed our critical analysis of Bonner's torture and massacre stories. We present below his findings on points 3 to 5.
It is evident in reading the 51 stories by Raymond Bonner that were published in The New York Times during the first half of 1982 that one of his main objectives was to discredit the government and the military forces that were standing in the way of a communist takeover of El Salvador. At the same time he sought to portray the communist-backed guerillas favorably. One thing that Bonner has refused to do is label the guerrillas as Marxists. He explained in a symposium at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. "I have always stayed away from calling groups Marxist-led, because I don't know exactly what that means." (The Center Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1982). Bonner usually simply uses the terms "rebels" or "guerillas," but, he says, even "calling them 'guerrillas' has negative connotations." For that matter, he says "calling them 'leftists'... has negative connotations."
Bonner has sought to discredit the government and the military by focusing on their alleged responsibility for civilian deaths. He has relied heavily on statistics from the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador and the Legal Aid Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador on the number of civilians that have died from the violence in El Salvador. He has also cited figures provided by the University of Central America, but he has never presented his readers with the evidence that casts serious doubt on the reliability of these sources.
Bonner has sought to portray all three of these sources as connected in some way with the Catholic Church. He described the Human Rights Commission as a group that "works with the Roman Catholic Church," the Legal Aid Office as being "of the Church." and the University of Central America as "also known as the Catholic University.' These descriptions are false or misleading.
The Legal Aid Office formerly had a church connection, but it was disavowed by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, the Apostolic Administrator, as early as May 31, 1981. The bishop found it necessary to denounce it again on November 15, 1981, charging that its publications "create confusion." The bishop subsequently pointed out that the Legal Aid Office had never attributed any deaths to guerrilla forces even though the guerrillas had claimed they had killed people. None of this was ever reported by Bonner, who continued to cite the office as if it were speaking for the Church.
On December 2, 1981, the Episcopal Conference gave full support to the criticisms the bishop had made of the Legal Aid Office charging that it was spreading "confusing information... abroad." It disavowed any statement that the Legal Aid Office had made or would make in the future "in the name of the Church." This was not reported by Bonner either. He continued to treat its statistics as credible and continued to refer to the office as if it were an operation of the Catholic Church. Finally, in May 1982 the Church evicted the Legal Aid Office from the small office it occupied in a Church-owned building. That story was also not reported by Bonner.
Captured documents have shown the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador to be under the control of Marxists. Its head, Marianela Garcia Villas, has long supported the violent left. It is hardly an impartial source of information. Although, Bonner has tried to imbue this group with an aura of ecclesiastical blessing, it never enjoyed any formal relationship with the Church.
Quite apart from the pro-guerrilla sympathies of these two bodies, they never had the technical, material and human resources needed to investigate thoroughly the thousands of civilian deaths that they were reporting. However. Bonner never questioned their investigative capabilities in his stories. Only once did he offer any information that showed how limited they were, in a November 17, 1981 story he referred to "the spare Human Rights Commission office, cramped with simple desks, manual typewriters" with only a "man and woman (trimming) the glossy black and while photographs of recent victims." This was actually a reference to the Legal Aid Office. The Human Rights Commission didn't even have that much.
The third source, the University of Central America, also has close ties to the guerrillas that cast doubt on its credibility, as will be discussed below.
The March 28 elections in El Salvador were a tremendous blow to the guerrillas who had vowed to disrupt them and prevent the people from voting. Despite all their efforts, over 1.5 million Salvadorans cast their ballots, shocking those in the media who had been giving the impression that the public was mainly sympathetic to the guerrillas.
The 17 articles Bonner wrote on the elections seemed to impugn the very electoral process itself. At the same time, he thought the guerrillas would poll 25-30% of the vote had they participated. He never criticized their boycott of the elections. He also insisted "that they will not engage in any acts of violence on electron day or otherwise try to prevent Salvadorans from voting" (March 19), although FMLN propaganda organs issued threats to cut off the inked fingers of those who voted and guerrilla bands burned buses and firebombed polling places to intimidate voters.
Finally forced to acknowledge, on April 4, that it was "probably the country's most democratic election," he gloomily predicted that it would only result in "more bloodshed." He quoted one of his many anonymous sources, a "university professor," as predicting that the elections would mean "another year of war."
By early June, Bonner and The Times belatedly discovered that the elections were "fraudulent." On June 3, an Op-Ed piece by a Loyola University professor named Thomas Sheehan was published, charging that, "fraud was perpetrated" on March 28. The next day Bonner weighed in with another article making this charge. He said that the Salvadoran Central Elections Council president, Dr. Jorge Bustamante, "conceded that 'there might have been a l0 percent error' in the total number of people who went to the polls." But Bustamante charged that Bonner had "misquoted" him and sent The Times an article for the Op-Ed page in which he said, "I told your reporter that in any country--especially one without sophisticated electoral technology--an error of as much as 10 percent might be expected. We believe the margin of error in our March 28 elections to have been much less--perhaps as little as one percent."
The Times has not published Bustamante's article.
Bonner then cited the magazine, Central American Studies, to charge, "There are serious indications that lead to the confirmed reasonable conclusion that there was massive fraud in the number of voters." The magazine belongs to The University of Central America, the same source used by Thomas Sheehan, only now the fraud was "massive." It asserted, reported Bonner, that only "between 600,000 and 800,000 people voted," not 1,551,687, as the Elections Council had reported. But the latter figure was doubtful, in any case, added Bonner, because Bustamante had revealed two days after the elections, with 80% of the vote tallied, that the total then was 881,883, which "would indicate a final total of 1,091,330, or about half a million fewer than the official tally."
Bustamante's unpublished rebuttal to The Times, however, stated: "At noon two days after the election we announced that 881,883 ballots had been counted and that they represented 80 percent of the results from the voting tables. Because people were allowed to vote anywhere in the country, some voting tables were much busier than others. Thus the percentage of tables counted at any given moment did not correspond to the percentage of the votes counted at that time. For example, at the time of the announcement we had not yet counted the Department of San Salvador, which by itself produced about one-third of the total vote."
Adding another dimension to the "massive fraud" charge. Bonner revealed that Central American Studies had reached the "conclusion that there was a pact between the United States, El Salvador's political parties and the army high command to respect the proportionality of the votes" notwithstanding the "fraud." The alleged pact's purpose, "above all", was to, "prove the fundamental thesis that the Salvadoran people were against the guerrillas"--a "thesis" Bonner was apparently intent on disproving.
Continuing to milk the fraud-charge issue, Bonner on June 14 dwelt upon the UCA's now-released study, it charged that "the number of voters in the March elections was at least 270,000 fewer than the Government has reported." It contended that the 'maximum number of votes' could not be more than 1,281,600--a total considerably larger than its own magazine's 600-800,000 estimate. That discrepancy should have aroused an objective reporter to raise some questions--but not Bonner.
In any case, the UCA magazine had acknowledged that the "proportionality" of the final voting among the contending political parties would have remained the same, fraud or no fraud. Why, then, the hullabaloo over a "massive fraud" nobody could prove? The answer, as given by both Central American Studies and Bonner, was that the consensus that the elections were a defeat for the guerrillas must be proven wrong.
Some checking by a fair and objective reporter would have revealed that both UCA and Central American Studies had a vested political interest in disproving the consensus, but since Bonner shared that interest he did not check their bona fides. Otherwise, he would have discovered the following:
1. UCA is a member-observer of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the guerrillas' political arm. 2. The FDR's president, Guillermo Ungo, had sat on the Board of Advisors and Editors of Central American Studies, and had edited a UCA series on Election Structures and Processes. 3. A member of the FDR-FMLN diplomatic committee, Salvador Samayoa, had also been on the Board of Advisors and Editors and is, besides, a leader of the Popular Liberation Front faction of the FMLN. 4. A top member of the guerrilla military command called the United Revolutionary Directorate, Roberto D. Roca, was a Central American Studies writer.
Why did Bonner--and his paper--fail to publish these facts? Why did they seek, instead, to mislead their readers by giving them the impression that UCA and its magazine were respectable, academic sources of "Catholic" origin? Above all, why did neither Bonner nor his editors check the "massive fraud" charges with recognized election experts?
Dr. Howard Penniman, a student of elections and an official U.S. observer of the Salvadoran balloting wrote a letter to The Times rebutting the Sheehan article. He said the vote-doubling charge was absurd. To carry out such a fraud, "a giant conspiracy of silence would have been required, involving all members of the National Elections Council and its staff, the leaders of all political parties, and perhaps as many as a quarter-million precinct officials and poll watchers."
Dr. Penniman dealt next with the key UCA charge that it was "physically impossible" for 1.5 million people to vote at 4.021 ballot boxes, since the average voter required three minutes to cast a ballot and the polls were open for only nine to 12 hours. Even if each voter took three minutes to vote, Penniman assumed. "an assembly-line process" permitted as many as six voters to participate simultaneously in the process of voting-- a fact ignored by UCA, Sheehan and Bonner.
"By my check in several places," Penniman added, "one voter was finishing up every 45 to 65 seconds. So most voters had cast their ballots by midafternoon."
Still another election authority available to Bonner and his newspaper was the generally respected Freedom House, which had sent a five-person mission to observe the Salvadoran elections and published a report, which appeared about the same time as UCA's. Yet Freedom House was never contacted by The Times or Bonner and neither has even mentioned its report. Freedom House had concluded that the election "was not marred by gross fraud."
Having tried to discredit the elections, Bonner next tried to show that they had resulted in an increase in the violence. On April 25, he wrote: "The killing goes on despite hopes that the March 28 elections... would be the beginning of a nonviolent democratic solution to the killings." This was based on Bonner's usual sources-- the discredited human rights groups, rehashing their old data. However, on May 6, another Times reporter, Richard Meislin, took issue with Bonner, writing, "There has been little talk of the violence in recent weeks... partly because it has fallen off sharply in San Salvador since the elections last month..."
Bonner's latest service to the cause of the guerrillas has been to portray the new conservative government in El Salvador as moving full steam ahead to undo the land reform that was adopted by the previous government under American guidance. Bonner's stories on the land reform have been so inaccurate and misleading that the American ambassador, Deane Hinton, personally issued a denunciation of them on June 11, saying of Bonner, "He does not hide the fact that he's engaged in advocacy journalism."
The foreign editor of The Times, Craig Whitney, responded, "We have full confidence that Mr. Bonner has been reporting the situation in El Salvador in a fair and objective manner. We have seen no evidence that he has been engaging in advocacy journalism, as Mr. Hinton charges."
One of the stories that provoked Hinton's unusual public criticism of an American reporter was published in The Times on May 24 under the headline: "Salvador Blocks The Enforcement of Land Program; Constituent Assembly Annuls Second Phase of the Plan and Suspends the Third.' This and similar reports played havoc with U.S.-Salvadoran relations, with influential members of Congress wrathfully threatening to cut off all aid to El Salvador if the government did not stop doing what Bonner was alleging.
The embassy in El Salvador responded to Bonner's damaging May 24 story with a detailed paragraph-by- paragraph analysis of its inaccuracies. It found that the headlines and the lead paragraph were all factually incorrect. No action had been taken, said the embassy, to block enforcement of the land redistribution program.
What the government had done was make changes that were, in the view of the experts in our embassy, essential if a large part of El Salvador's farm land was to be put back into production this year. The law had provided that persons who rented farm land for a minimum of three years would be entitled to buy the land they were renting at a low price. As a result of this provision, land was being taken out of cultivation, to the great detriment of the economy. Landowners simply did not want to rent their land to anyone who would extend his occupancy beyond three years. The government therefore decreed that after May 18, the rental of land would not be a basis for claiming title to the land. However, those who had already qualified by having rented land for three years or more were not deprived of their right to claim title to the rented land.
Bonner did not explain that. Nor did he report that in the first days of June, the President of El Salvador had given out 2,000 titles to peasants, including 200 definitive titles to land that had been redistributed. That did not fit with Bonner's claim that enforcement of the land reform had been blocked. It was simply ignored by Bonner.
Whatever his reasons may have been, Bonner succeeded in exciting Senator Charles Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was quoted in his story as saying. "Not one cent of funds shall go to the Government of El Salvador" if it suspended the land redistribution program. Bonner said it had. The embassy said it had not.
The conclusions that emerge from an examination of Raymond Bonner's 51 articles on El Salvador published in The Times from January through June 30, 1982, are:
1. They contain a paucity of hard facts and an abundance of partisan views.
2. Political predilections often take precedence over journalistic balance.
3. Doubtful, in some cases discredited, and frequently anonymous sources are heavily relied upon.
4. Failure to report the Catholic Church's disavowals of some of those sources deprived readers of pertinent information, while camouflaging their real motives betrayed the readers' trust.
5. Bonner s output betrays a basic sympathy for the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. He reflects a passionate opposition to both the Salvadoran Government and U.S. policy in El Salvador, which inhibits fair and objective coverage of both.
In sum, Bonner's writings on El Salvador to date add up to what is called "advocacy journalism."
Write to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Chairman and President, The New York Times, New York, N.Y. 10036. Suggest that he re-examine Raymond Bonner's performance in the light of the facts cited in this article.
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AS PROMISED IN OUR LAST ISSUE, WE HAVE REPORTED IN DETAIL IN THIS ISSUE THE CRITICISMS that Murray Baron and I made of Raymond Bonner in our meeting with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Sydney Gruson of The New York Times on June 18. I asked Daniel James, an authority on Central America who had covered the March 28th elections in El Salvador; to prepare a detailed critique of Bonner's stories on El Salvador published in The Times in the first half of 1982. While we did not have Mr. James's final product in hand at the time we talked to the officials of The Times, much of our indictment of Bonner was based on what he had reported to me orally. We were not able to go into as much detail in our discussion with Messrs. Sulzberger and Gruson as we have in this AIM Report, and we did not have the space here to tell you about their response. Neither Mr. Sulzberger nor Mr. Gruson had much to say about the specific complaints that we advanced. They knew nothing about Bonner's alleged connection with Pacific News Service. I hope they are looking into it, but I have not yet been able to get back to them to see what, if anything, they have found. Our two sources for that information are a journalist who met Bonner in Bolivia and a State Department official. The journalist said Bonner had told him that he was in South America on a "fellowship" from PNS. The State Department official said he had heard that Bonner had written stories for PNS under a pen name. He also said that he had heard that Bonner had offered to work for The Times for very little money. PNS has denied that it employed Bonner, but if there were a connection they might want to conceal it. Before accepting that, I would prefer to learn what The Times knows about Bonner's means of support in the period after he left Consumers Union and before he went on the payroll of The Times.
DAN JAMES IS STRONGLY OF THE OPINION THAT BONNER'S STORIES ARE ENOUGH TO SHOW WHAT he is. The pattern is overwhelmingly clear. His initial analysis was twice as long as we could print, because of our limited space. Perhaps we can arrange to have the complete article published and made available to those who want more detailed information on this subject. James thinks, and I agree, that Bonner's statement at the symposium of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions is also highly significant. Bonner was quoted in The Center Magazine as saying, "I have always stayed away from calling groups Marxist-led, because I don't know exactly what that means." That is a most astonishing admission for a correspondent of The New York Times covering a country that is full of Marxist-led guerrillas. Shirley Christian of the Miami Herald has published an article criticizing another Times correspondent, Alan Riding, for failing to tell his readers that the guerrillas in Nicaragua were Marxist-led. That article was published in the Washington Journalism Review. The burden of Christian's criticism was that both Riding and Karen DeYoung, the correspondent for The Washington Post during the Nicaraguan rebellion, had failed to prepare their readers for the takeover of Nicaragua by hard-line, Castro-backed Marxists. Riding's response was that such a takeover had not yet happened, and therefore he should not be criticized for not foretelling it.
WE POINTED OUT IN OUR LAST ISSUE THAT THE NEW YORK TIMES HAD NOT TOLD ITS READERS about the strong condemnation of the Nicaraguan regime by Alfonso Robelo, the businessman who helped bring the Sandinistas to power and who until very recently had been telling foreign reporters that there was still hope for pluralism in Nicaragua. On July 2, The Times finally got around to mentioning that Robelo had allied himself with Eden Pastora, the charismatic Sandinista "Commandante Zero," in an effort to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Both, of course, are in exile. The July 2 article was mainly about Eden Pastora, who fled Nicaragua in June 1981 but did not publicly denounce the regime until last April.