Shams and Triumphs
The New York Times follows the official line
on international elections
by Edward S. Herman
Extra! media magazine, May / June 1998
In an editorial on "Election Risks in Cambodia"
(11/28/97), the New York Times warned that "flawed elections
are worse than none," and that "the international community
must proceed cautiously, lest a rigged election give Mr. Hun Sen
a veneer of legitimacy." Similarly, in writing on "Kenya's
Flawed Election" (12/31/97), the Times' editors noted that
"holding elections is not enough to assure democratic government,"
pointing specifically to the need for "an independent electoral
commission less bound to political parties" and "independent
broadcast media, allowing opposition voices to be heard outside
These are very good points, but regrettably the New York Tunes
applies them selectively, only calling into question elections
whose legitimacy is challenged by the State Department. In the
case of flawed elections sponsored by the U.S. government, the
Times-and the rest of the mainstream media- invariably find them
to be an encouraging "step toward democracy" and hence
legitimizing. Furthermore, the absence of elections in "constructively
engaged" authoritarian states tends to be ignored, downplayed
or subject to gentle chiding by the Times and its media cohorts.
The contrast between the urgent official attention to Cuba's electoral
failings, for example, and the official complaisance at the lack
of elections in Saudi Arabia is rarely noted in mainstream media.
This applied double standard has a long history. In 1947,
under pressure from the West, the Soviet Union organized an election
in Soviet-occupied Poland, which the Soviet-sponsored government
won handily. The U.S. media were indignant, denouncing the incompatibility
of a free election with external sponsorship, the threatening
presence of Soviet and Polish military forces, and other abuses
(New York Times, l/3/47,1/12/47; for details, see Herman and Brodhead,
Demonstration Elections). The high turnout was derided as based
However, in the Dominican Republic in 1966 and Vietnam in
1967, where elections were U.S.-sponsored, U.S. media presented
large voter turnout as a democratic triumph. The massive presence
of U.S. and indigenous security forces was not seen as a coercive
threat-despite considerable violence against the local population
before or during the elections.
In the case of Vietnam, the New York Times (9/4/67) claimed
that the thousands of villagers who were "willing to risk
participating in elections held by the Saigon regime" demonstrated
the government's "popular support"; the editors emphasized
that "most observers believe that on the whole the voting
was fairly conducted." The exclusion of the main opposition,
the National Liberation Front (along with all "neutralists"),
and the presence of vast numbers of foreign troops, did not reduce
the value of this election for the Times-here flawed elections
were better than none.
Central American Laboratory
Central America in the '80s provided an excellent laboratory
for testing media bias in election reporting, as the Reagan and
Bush administrations actively supported elections in E1 Salvador
(1982, 1984, 1989) and Guatemala (1984-85), hoping to legitimize
those governments, while aggressively trying to discredit the
1984 election in Nicaragua.
What makes this test particularly telling is that in El Salvador
and Guatemala, none of the conditions for a free election-free
speech and press, freedom of candidates to run, intermediate support
groups able to mobilize people, and the absence of fear and state
terror-were met, and both states were controlled and traumatized
by army terror. This was not true in Nicaragua, and its 1984 election,
though hardly perfect, was found by observers from the U.S. Latin
America Studies Association and the Irish parliament to be satisfactory
and superior to that of El Salvador in 1982. (See Herman and Chomsky,
Manufacturing Consent. )
Nevertheless, the Times found that the 1984 Nicaraguan election
was a "sham" (11/7/84), while in Guatemala (12/12/85)
the military had "honored its promise to permit the free
election of a civilian president." And in El Salvador "an
impressive majority" went to the polls in 1982 in "E1
Salvador's freest election in 50 years" (3/30/82); while
in 1984 (5/8/84), Duarte's victory represented a "transfer
of power to a centrist committed to human rights, reform and reconciliation."
(In fact, Duarte, a consistent apologist for the military, had
joined the Salvadoran government in 1980 just as it began its
greatest reign of terror-see NACLA Report on the Americas, 1-3/86.)
Just as it had done in the U.S.-sponsored elections in the
Dominican Republic and Vietnam, the New York Times put a positive
gloss on the role of the murderous armies of E1 Salvador and Guatemala.
"Is the military playing any role in the elections?"
Correspondent Warren Hoge asked (3/27/82). "Members of the
military are not allowed to vote, and the armed forces are pledged
to protect voters from violence and to respect the outcome of
the contest." Hoge failed to mention the terror of the prior
30 months that had killed opposition leaders, demobilized and
destroyed virtually all popular organizations, and kept the main
opposition off the ballot. In a favored election, democracy depends
only on what happens on election day-when armies that become "protectors"
of elections (New York Times, 3/14/84).
Reporting from Guatemala, the Times' Stephen Kinzer hardly
mentioned state terror, the unfree press or the exclusion of the
left opposition. He cited an International Human Rights report
saying that the 1984 election was "procedurally correct"
(11/8/85), but he failed to quote the report's statement that
"the greater part of the people live in permanent fear."
The Times gave substantial weight to the censorship of La
Prensa in evaluating the Nicaraguan election, but the far more
severe attacks on journalists and the press in E1 Salvador and
Guatemala were given no attention or weight. Similarly, Conservative
leader Arturo Cruz's voluntary refusal to run in Nicaragua in
1984 discredited that election for the Times, but the exclusion
of the left in E1 Salvador and Guatemala (based on large-scale
terror) failed to tarnish those elections. (A month after the
"sham" Nicaraguan election, the Times-12/1/84- endorsed
an Uruguayan election where 5,000 potential candidates were kept
off the ballot and the leading opposition figure was jailed by
the army: "Uruguay is resuming its democratic vocation....
The generals are yielding to the infectious resurgence of democracy
in much of Latin America.")
Mexico's Latest Democratization
Mexico has long been ruled by a one-party clique, the PRI,
closely linked to Mexican big business and consistently supported
by the U.S. government. The Times has therefore always found Mexican
elections encouraging, emphasizing expressions of benevolent intent
and downplaying structural defects and abuses. The most recent
election is generally contrasted with earlier, admittedly fraudulent
ones- which had themselves each been treated in their day as a
sign of Mexico's progress toward democracy.
Thus, in its first editorial on the 1988 election that brought
Carlos Salinas to power (7/3/88), the Times' noted that prior
elections were corrupt (the PRI "manipulated patronage, the
news media and the ballot box"), but the editors stressed
that PRI candidate Salinas "contends" that political
reform is urgent and "calls for clean elections." The
editors question whether "his party" will "heed
his pleas," a process of distancing reminiscent of the Times'
suggestions in past years that Duarte in El Salvador and the Argentine
generals might not be able to "control" their murderous
In its 1988 editorials on Mexico, the Times did not mention
possible electoral fraud, abuse of patronage, or media controls
and bias. Just three years later, however, '88 had become part
of the bad old days: "As long as anyone can remember, Mexican
elections have been massively fraudulent," the paper editorialized
(8/26/91), preparing the reader for new promises of a cleanup.
The New York Times has also played down the enormous sums
raised by the PRI from its business allies, vastly in excess of
what was legally permissible; and it consistently neglects "the
vast political advantages made possible by Washington's support,
and I the related access to foreign credit, making discussion
of effective political opposition to single party PRI rule an
absurdity," as described by Mexico . analyst Christopher
. Whalen (Financial . Times, 6/12/92). . But for the New York
. Times, U.S. intervention is always justifiable and never makes
for electoral unfairness, whether in Nicaragua, Mexico- or Russia.
The Yeltsin government in Russia has presided over a 50 percent
fall in national output, with large income declines for 90 percent
of the population, while a hugely corrupt privatization process
has provided windfalls to a small minority, including an important
criminal class. There has been a collapse of the social welfare
net and healthcare system, which has contributed to a startling
rise in infectious diseases and mortality rates. Even the military
establishment has deteriorated to the verge of collapse. Just
before the 1996 election campaign, Yeltsin's popularity rating
was 8 percent.
However, the Yeltsin regime was and is strongly supported
by the U.S. government and its Western allies. Yeltsin and the
ruling elite are, in an important sense, joint venture partners
of Western business interests and governments, benefiting from
the "reforms" that are immiserating the Russian majority.
In these circumstances, it was a foregone conclusion that
the New York Times would find the 1996 election "A Victory
for Russian Democracy" (7/4/96). In its editorial and news
coverage, Russia's electoral flaws were slighted or ignored, and
the very fact of holding an "imperfect" election was
hailed (7/4/96) as "a remarkable achievement."
The Times did recognize that it was a "political miracle
that Russians did not throw Mr. Yeltsin out of office" given
his "corrupt" privatization program, the rise of organized
crime, the "incredible wealth" going "to a small
fraction of people." But neither here nor elsewhere does
the Times give a credible explanation of why Yeltsin did win.
Instead, it follows the Yeltsin and U.S. official line that he
won because the Russian people voted for "reform" and
"democracy" over a return to Communism. But the "reform"
was what gave Yeltsin his 8 percent pre-election approval rating,
and no party proposed a return to "Communism." So how
did Yeltsin do it?
* The Russian mass media were dominated by the government
and close business allies and beneficiaries of the "corrupt"
privatization program. They carried out what a political reporter
for Izvestia approvingly called "a propaganda campaign .
. . [as] we are united in the face of a common threat." (Financial
Times, 6/14/96) The New York Times (6/23/96) acknowledged in passing
that "the media were totally rigged in support of Yeltsin,"
but it did not affect their preordained positive assessment. In
fact, the Times' news coverage sometimes echoed the hysterical
tone of the Russian press, with dubious claims that the opposition
Communist Party would return Russia to the Stalinist past (e.g.,
Alessandra Stanley's "Red Scare: Gennadi Zyuganov Threatens
to Take Russia Back to the Old Days of Communists-and Hacks,"
New York Times Magazine, 5/26/96).
* The Yeltsin government used immense sums of government money,
in violation of the law, to buy support and fund propaganda. This
caused it to fall into severe violations of IMF loan conditions,
but the IMF still provided an additional $10.2 billion loan in
the midst of this abusive use of money. Russian analyst Yelena
Dikun estimated that the Yeltsin campaign spent $15 million, or
five times the legal campaign limit, just in bribing those journalists
who still needed to be bribed.
* The West intervened heavily in the election, supplying election
management experts, issuing statements of support, as well as
granting loans despite violations of loan agreements. Numerous
visits were made by Western political leaders-including an international
meeting on "terrorism" in Moscow, held at the same time
that Yeltsin was terrorizing Chechnya.
None of these abuses were given attention and weight by the
Times in this election involving a Western-supported "reformer."
If Yeltsin and the Times were right, that the Communist Party
did threaten a return to Stalinism, then in reality the Russian
people had no party that represented their interests-and the election
would be a sham for that reason alone.
But in the New York Times' view, if an election legitimizes
a government supported by Washington, then one need not look at
whether it is part of a meaningful democratic process. It's only
when the winner is not U.S.-approved that the Times gives attention
and weight to matters of electoral substance, and in these cases,
voting may be "worse than no elections." Is election
coverage based on such a double standard really better than no
coverage at all? R
Edward S. Herman, professor emeritus at the Wharton School
of the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of several books,
including Demonstration Elections (with Frank Brodhead) and Manufacturing
Consent (with Noam Chomsky).
Control and Propaganda