Press Coverage of 1984 Elections in Panama
[The following ... contains the fruits of some research I did on press
coverage of Panama's last election, or at least the coverage it received here
in Seattle. If anyone finds it interesting, I would be happy to see it
ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS THE AGENDA
"ON HIS WAY OUT -- Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, commander in chief of Panama's
National Defense Forces, [spoke] yesterday on the eve of the end of military
rule in Panama. Nicolas Ardito Barletta, the country's first directly elected
civilian president in 16 years, was inaugurated today." --Seattle Times,
October 11, 1984.
Thus read, in its ludicrous entirety, the Times' coda to Panama's 1984
election. With Noriega's theft of this year's election eliciting a predictable
chorus of self-righteousness from all corners, it pays to compare the current
U.S. posture with the histor ical record.
Five years ago, in a Times pre-election close-up, the soon-to-be-gagged
Emmett Murray* wrote, "Two Central American nations go to the polls today to
elect presidents--El Salvador in the white hot glare of the U.S. media, Panama
in the benign oblivion the U nited States is said to reserve for its
less-troublesome friends." (5/6/84) As it happened, these were about the last
accurate words to be written on the subject.
The next day, predictions of "festive, if feisty" voters going to Panama's
polls were disturbed by news of shootings. The Times UPI story reflexively
blamed the violence on the opposition, offering as "evidence" a photo of a
pro-government thug brandishing a pistol and the testimony of a pro-government
journalist. (5/7/84) So much for evidence. Later, when the government
suspended the vote count after returns showed the opposition
candidate--thrice-elected, thrice-deposed Arnulfo Arias Madrid--again inconve
niently winning, the Times storycharacterized it as a precaution until
"stronger police protection" could be obtained. (5/8/84) And when the
opposition claimed blatant fraud after the final results gave the contest by
1,000 votes to Barletta, their compla ints were relegated to the corner of
page 5. From there Panama was a gimme putt to the memory hole. Overall,
Noriega's name had appeared twice.
Five months later, George Schultz was among the dignitaries at the
inaugural, where he endorsed Barletta's election as offering "Panamanians of
all political persuasions a new opportunity for progress and national
development" (Noriega deposed Barletta a y ear later, while the press slept.)
Interestingly, neither the trip nor the speech was reported by the Times, or
even much publicized by the State Department. With El Salvador recently gone
"democratic" and Guatemala about to, Panama would have made a nice hat trick.
What's more, one month remained until our own presidential elections. Voters
like to hear about democracy on the march, yet the dogs weren't barking. What
was up? No one troubled to ask.
An answer to the unasked question came two years later, and was buried in
the back pages of the Times. Seems the U.S. knew beforehand that "the election
would be phonied up a little bit" (in the words of a U.S. official), but
concealed it because the defr auded Arnulfo Arias was--surprise--a
"nationalist" with "anti-U.S." views." (6/22/86) (Lest anyone think the Times
was finally getting the story right, the story also carried a picture of
screwee Arias, miscaptioned as that of the screwer, Noriega.) Unremarked upon
was the way the 1984 election coverage, or lack of it, obligingly served
precisely this agenda. In retrospect, of course, this latter "revelation"
also served the new U.S. agenda, forming the opening salvo in the subsequent
U.S.-Noriega imbroglio. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s complicity in 1984's electoral
fraud conveniently disappeared from the record.
Today, the amnesia is total. The actual events of 1984 banished from
memory, the press continues absurdly to regard Eric Arturo Delvalle, picked by
Noriega to replace the deposed usurper Barletta, as the constitutional ruler
of Panama. And George Bush can sermonize before the election, without fear of
ridicule, "The United States will not recognize the results of a fraudulent
election engineered simply to keep Noriega in power." (Note that fine-print
"simply.") Meanwhile, the only really interesting question--what did Noriega
do to merit this double cross from his former connivers?--remains helpfully
unasked, let alone unanswered.
* Murray was subsequently forbidden by the Seattle Times to write about
Latin American affairs, on grounds of an unspecified "lack of objectivity."
As we can see, the Seattle Times knows the Real Thing when it see it.