ACTION ALERT: Reviving Cold War Reporting on Nicaragua



Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Media analysis, critiques and activism

April 5, 2005

As the Bush administration carries out what the New York Times (4/5/05) describes as a “concerted effort” to block the return of the left-wing Sandinista party to power in Nicaragua, U.S. media are returning to the kind of distorted reporting on Nicaragua that characterized coverage during Washington’s war against that country in the 1980s. The New York Times’ April 5 article on the administration’s anti-Sandinista campaign provides a prime example of this one-sided and inaccurate media treatment.

The article, by Ginger Thompson, characterized the U.S. attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government as part of “the global struggle against Communism”— though Nicaragua under the Sandinistas had a mixed economy, multiple opposition parties and a very active opposition press, features that were not found in actual Communist countries. She refers to Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president of Nicaragua, as a “revolutionary strongman,” even though he was elected to the presidency in 1984 with 67 percent of the vote, in balloting that international observers found to be “free, fair and hotly contested” (Extra!, 10-11/87).

Referring to the Sandinista-led government of the 1980s and the U.S.-sponsored Contra rebels as opposing “armies,” Thompson wrote, “The armies fought each other to a standstill, until both sides agreed to elections in 1990, which Mr. Ortega lost.” This summary leaves out the election that Ortega won in 1984, and wrongly suggests that the 1990 elections were held because of Contra pressure, when the Nicaraguan constitution at that time required elections to be held every six years. (That sentence also implies that the Contras directed their fight against the Nicaraguan army, although in fact they chiefly targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure— see Nicaragua: The Price of Intervention, Peter Kornbluh, pp. 39-50.)

Though the article’s focus is on the United States’ opposition to Ortega, Ortega is never quoted; the article says that he “did not accept several requests for an interview.” Despite a reference to “extensive talks with Mr. Ortega’s supporters,” no members of this group are quoted either. (A supporter of a Sandinista rival to Ortega is quoted at the end of the piece, explaining why in his view Ortega is not likely to ever be re-elected.)

The piece does, however, repeatedly quote an anonymous “senior State Department official” who makes unsubstantiated charges about Ortega and the Sandinistas (e.g., “The Sandinista Party that Daniel Ortega represents is not a democratic party,” the Sandinistas are using their influence to “extort the country.”).

New York Times policy supposedly discourages the use of anonymous sources.

“We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack,” a February 25, 2004 statement released by the paper declared. “If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor.” When an anonymous source is attacking an official enemy, it appears, the rules do not apply.

ACTION: Please contact the New York Times and urge them to correct the inaccurate history of Nicaragua contained in this article. Encourage the paper to quote more than one side of a story, even when reporting on people or parties that are seen as enemies by the U.S. State Department.

CONTACT: New York Times Daniel Okrent, Public Editor Phone: (212) 556-7652

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc with your correspondence.

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