The Consortium

The New York Times Comes Clean, Sort Of ...

By Robert Parry

WASHINGTON -- At esteemed newspapers, such as The New York Times, placement of a story is a carefully weighed message to the reader about the relative importance to attach to the news. So is phrasing about guilt when the paper is assessing responsibility for crimes. If an enemy is called to account, the wording can be explicit. But if the culprit is an ally, the phrasing gets fuzzy, often sliding into a passive tense that disconnects who has done what to whom.

"Words are regularly transformed in the service of the powerful," observed media critic Edward S. Herman in an analysis entitled "Word Tricks & Propaganda" [ Z Magazine, June 1997]. But the Times may have taken these techniques to new heights in the June 7 Saturday editions.

Two stories were separated by 11 pages, though they connected to the same horrendous topic, the slaughter of an estimated quarter million people by the sadistic Guatemalan army, a military that has dominated the Central American country since the CIA sponsored and directed a coup in 1954 to oust a democratically elected government.

Though natural side-bars, the stories were not even cross-referenced. One dealt with the bloody results of the coup (without mentioning the CIA or the U.S. government once); the other was a bloodless account of how The New York Times assisted the CIA (without mentioning the ensuing butchery once).

On page one was a grisly account of how Guatemalans have begun the painstaking process of excavating the hundreds of mass graves that dot the Guatemalan countryside. Though the army's role in the mass murders was not in doubt, the Times chose indirect phrasing that blurred the blame: "More than 100,000 people were killed during the 36-year conflict in Guatemala," stated the article by correspondent Larry Rohter. "Another 40,000 disappeared and are presumed dead."

The army's brutality was also indiscriminate, wiping out whole families. In Rio Negro, a grave site was excavated uncovering the skeletons of more than 100 children as well as 80 women. Another grave containing the army's victims was found inside a 16th century church in San Andres Sajcabaja, along with military gear and pornographic playing cards.

Outside the village of San Martin Jilotepeque, soldiers filled a deep well with their victims. "Relatives of those missing here have been suspicious since the early 1980s of the well and the foul odors that have often wafted from it, but like thousands of others in this country of 10.5 million, they were unable to act," Rohter reported.

The article also described some of the army's grotesque practices, including how executioners entangled their victims with ropes to force them to strangle themselves. Another account explained how soldiers raped young girls in front of their parents as a coercive technique.

Rosa Moreno said that on Dec. 12, 1981, soldiers broke down the doors to her family's home and beat her father. To stop his resistance, the soldiers sexually assaulted his 10-year-old daughter -- Moreno's sister -- until her father surrendered. He was taken away never to be seen again by his family.

Though the mass-grave story was a startling admission about the horror that swallowed Guatemala for more than four decades, the Times article filtered out any reference to the CIA's role in ousting the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and putting the army into power. There was also no mention of President Reagan's renewed support for the Guatemalan army in the early 1980s as the counter-insurgency terror devastated rural Indian communities.

But even more disconnected was the Times editorial decision to tuck away an important side-bar to the page-one story. Off on the edge of page 11, next to the religious news and national briefs, there was a single-column story that helped explain how the CIA orchestrated the 1954 coup with the help of the Times's publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Only a diligent Saturday morning reader would have found it.

Playing Ball

Written by Tim Weiner, the page-11 story recounted how Sulzberger, who was publisher from 1935-61, acquiesced to the CIA's request that the Times black out its independent news coverage of the covert operation. CIA director Allen Dulles asked that the Times keep its Latin American correspondent, Sydney Gruson, out of the way so he could not blow the whistle.

Like Arbenz, Gruson was considered politically suspect. In late May 1954, a CIA officer in Guatemala, Col. Albert Haney, dug through CIA files about the Times correspondent looking for dirt. According to a recently declassified CIA study of the Guatemalan coup, Haney discovered that two years earlier, "Gruson had attended parties in Mexico City at which Czechoslovak diplomats had been present." This information was sent to Sulzberger.

Then, in the days before the coup, Dulles personally appealed to Sulzberger and the Times publisher obliged the CIA. "I telephoned Allen Dulles and told him that we would comply with their suggestion" to keep Gruson in Mexico City, Sulzberger stated in a dictated memorandum. The publisher placed the call to Dulles on or about June 3, 1954, according to the article. In effect, Sulzberger's decision kept the field clear for CIA propagandists to spread disinformation and confusion in Guatemala, crucial elements in the coup's success.

But Sulzberger went even further. He agreed to screen Gruson's future articles "with a great deal more care than usual." The publisher also sent the CIA a copy of an internal Times memorandum outlining the order to keep Gruson in Mexico City.

The page-11 story also acknowledged that previous Times accounts of the Gruson affair were incomplete and misleading. In Without Fear or Favor, published by Times Books, longtime Times correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury portrayed Sulzberger's capitulation as more grudging. That account did not note that Sulzberger personally called Dulles to announce the Times's compliance with the CIA request nor did it include Sulzberger's assurance that he would "watch" Gruson's future work.

But most stunning about the page-11 article was that there was no reference to the carnage that followed in Guatemala. Also, there was no explicit condemnation of Sulzberger's journalistic violations.

The Times handling of the page-11 story was in marked contrast to its harsh criticism of the San Jose Mercury News for a 1996 series about cocaine trafficking by CIA-backed Nicaragua contra rebels. Last fall, the Times joined other major newspapers in front-page broadsides against alleged overstatements in that article. Then, when Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos succumbed to the pressure and distanced himself from the series, the Times splashed that story on page one [May 13, 1997. It followed up with a harsh editorial entitled, "Mercury News Comes Clean." [NYT, May 14, 1997], there was no similar mea culpa from the Times over its behavior 43 years ago.

Pro- or Anti-CIA

The imbalance in the Times placement of stories, depending on whether they are pro- or anti-CIA, has become a recurring event in recent weeks. When the National Archives released Guatemalan coup records showing that the CIA had drawn up a "disposal list" of at least 58 key Guatemalan leaders targeted for assassination, that remarkable news ended up on A5 [NYT, May 28, 1997]. The Times article also reflected no skepticism of the CIA's assurances that the executions were not carried out.

The next day, Times editors stuck on page A19 a story describing how the CIA had destroyed almost all the historical documents from its 1953 Iranian coup which replaced elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. For years, CIA officials have disputed accounts of the agency's behind-the-scenes role in the coup and assured the public that internal documents would set the record straight. But in reality, many of the records had already been destroyed, in the 1960s. [NYT, May 29, 1997]

Though placement of articles may seem like a small point, the decision has practical effects in Washington and inside the broader news media. The page-one handling of the Mercury News retreat, for example, made that a hot topic for TV and radio talk shows as well as coloring the follow-up stories of other journalists. By contrast, inside-the-paper placement effectively guaranteed the opposite result for the story about Sulzberger's collaboration with the CIA. That a story had almost no "bounce" because TV pundits and producers focus on the front-page news almost exclusively.

By burying the Sulzberger story, the Times was burying its complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. The nation's newspaper of record has yet to come completely clean. ~

(c) Copyright 1997

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