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 election periods."

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 on coercion.

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 subordinates.

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.

Russia's "Reformer"

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).

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