Cook and Cohen, "How Television Sold the Panama Invasion"

The following article, reprinted here with permission, appeared in the January- February 1990 issue of Extra!, a publication of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting), and examines the role played by mainstream US media in selling the invasion of Panama to the American public and performing in their expanding function as state propagandists.

The Media Goes to War:


by Mark Cook and Jeff Cohen

TWO weeks after the Panama invasion, CBS News sponsored a public opinion poll in Panama that found the residents in rapture over what happened. Even 80 percent of those whose homes had been blown up or their relatives killed by US forces said it was worth it. Their enthusiasm did not stop with the ousting of Gen. Manual Noriega, however. A less heavily advertised result of the poll was that 82% of the sampled Panamanian patriots did not want Panamanian control of the Canal, preferring either partial of exclusive control by the US ("Panamanians Strongly Back US Move," New York Times, 1/6/90).

A "public opinion poll" in a country under martial law, conducted by an agency obviously sanctioned by the invading forces, can be expected to come up with such results. Most reporters, traveling as they did with the US military, found little to contradict this picture. Less than 40 hours after the invasion began, Sam Donaldson and Judd Rose transported us to Panama via ABC's Prime Time Live (12/21/90). "There were people who applauded us as we went by in a military convoy," said Rose. "The military have been very good to us [in escorting reporters beyond the Canal Zone]," added Donaldson.

While this kind of "Canal Zone journalism" dominated television, a few independent print journalists stuck out on their own. Peter Eisner of Newsday's Latin American Bureau, for example, reported (12/28/89) that Panamanians were cursing US soldiers under their breath as troops searched the home of a neighbor--a civilian--for weapons. One Panamanian pointed out a man speaking to US soldiers as a "sapo" (a toad--slang for "dirty informer") and suggested that denouncing people to the US forces was a way of settling old scores. A doctor living on the street said that "liberals will be laying low for a while, and they're probably justified" because of what would happen to those who speak out. All of Eisner's sources feared having their names printed.

The same day's Miami Herald ran articles about Panamanian citizen reactions, including concern over the hundreds of dead civilians: "Neighbors saw six US truck loads bringing dozens of bodies" to a mass grave. As a mother watched the body of her soldier son lowered into a grave, her "voice rose over the crowd's silence: `Damn the Americans.'"

Obviously there was a mix of opinion inside Panama, but it was virtually unreported on television, the dominant medium shaping US attitudes about the invasion. Panamanian opposition to the US was dismissed as nothing more than "DigBat [Dignity Battalion] thugs" who'd been given jobs by Noriega. And it was hardly acknowledged that the high-visibility demonstration outside the Vatican Embassy the day of Noriega's surrender had been actively "encouraged" by the US occupying forces (Newsday 1/5/90).

Few TV reporters seemed to notice that the jubilant Panamanians parading before their cameras day after day to endorse the invasion spoke near-perfect English and were overwhelmingly light-skinned and well-dressed. This in a Spanish-speaking country with a largely mestizo and black population where poverty is widespread. ABC's Beth Nissen (12/27/89) was one of the few TV reporters to take a close look at the civilian deaths caused by US bombs that pulverized El Chorillo, the poor neighborhood which ambulance drivers now call "Little Hiroshima." The people of El Chorillo don't speak perfect English, and they were less than jubilant about the invasion.

"Our Boys" vs. Unseen Civilians

In the first days of the invasion, TV journalists had one overriding obsession: *How many American soldiers have died?* The question, repeated with drumbeat regularity, tended to drown out the other issues: Panamanian casualties, international law, foreign reaction. On the morning of the invasion, CBS anchor Kathleen Sullivan's voice cracked with emotion for the US soldiers: "Nine killed, more than 50 wounded. How long can this fighting go on?" Unknown and unknowable to CBS viewers, hundreds of Panamanians had already been killed by then, many buried in their homes.


* "[The invasion was legal] according to all the experts I talked to."--Rita Braver (CBS Evening News, 12/20/89)

* "As far as international law is concerned, even sources in the US government admit they were operating very near the line."--John McWethy (ABC World News Tonight, 1/5/90)

* "The territory of a state is inviolable. It may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or other measures of force taken by another state directly or indirectly on any grounds whatsoever."--Article 20, OAS Charter

Judging from the calls and requests for interviews that poured into the FAIR office, European and Latin American journalists based in the US were stunned by the implied racism and national chauvinism in the media display. The Toronto Globe and Mail, often referred to as the New York Times of Canada, ran a front-page article (12/22/89) critiquing the United States and its media for "the peculiar jingoism of US society so evident to foreigners but almost invisible for most Americans."

TV's continuous focus on the well-being of the invaders, and not the invadees, meant that the screen was dominated by red, white and blue draped coffins and ceremonies, honor rolls of the US dead, drum rolls, remarks by Dan Rather (12/21/89) about "our fallen heroes"...but no Panamanian funerals. This despite the fact that the invasion claimed perhaps 50 Panamanian lives for every US citizen killed.

When Pentagon pool correspondent Fred Francis was asked on day one about civilian casualties on ABC's Nightline (12/20/89), he said he did not know, because he and other journalists were traveling around with the US army. Curiosity didn't increase in ensuing days. FAIR called the TV networks daily to demand they address the issue of civilian deaths, but journalists said they had no way of verifying the numbers.

No such qualms existed with regards to Rumania, where over the Christmas weekend CNN and other US outlets were freely dishing out fantastic reports of 80,000 people killed in days of violence, a figure--greater that the immediate Hiroshima death toll--which any editor should have dismissed out of hand. Tom Brokaw's selective interest in civilians was evident when he devoted the first half of NBC Nightly News (12/20/89) to Panama without mentioning non- combatant casualties, then turned to Rumania and immediately referred to reports of thousands of civilian deaths.

Due Process Mugged

You've seen it everywhere. It made the cover of Newsweek, the front page of the New York Times' "Week in Review", and the CBS, NBC and ABC news: Manual Noriega's mug shot, looking just like the criminals at the end of each "Dragnet" episode after Sgt. Joe Friday had brought them to justice.

But what you didn't often see is an acknowledgement that the release of such mug shots is highly unusual, and may threaten Noriega's already slim chances of getting a fair trial. The Miami U.S. Attorney's office claims to have released it "under pressure from the press," according to the New York Times (1/14/90). "We will not comment very frequently on this case," U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen said, calling that "the key to success." Sure, as long as the media are willing to publish prosecution leaks without regard to the defendant's constitutional rights.

[Below this are two covers:] Newsweek (1/15/90) has "NORIEGA'S NEXT HOME? America's New Alcatraz" at the top; followed by "EXCLUSIVE The Noriega Files; His Treacherous Links With the Drug Cartel, Castro, Bush and the CIA", accompanied by a picture of a Noriega mug shot--he in a T-shirt holding the sign:
"U.S. MARSHAL, MIAMI, FL, .0.0.4. '90"

New York Post (1/5/90) has "CANNED PINEAPPLE" covering half it's cover, with a subhead "Arrogant Noriega: I'm a political prisoner"; the bottom half shows two photos: one of Noriega surrounded by three police officers restraining him, and the other, the same mug shot as Newsweek.

Not until the sixth day of the Panama invasion did the US Army augment its estimated dead (23 American troops, 297 alleged enemy soldiers) to include a figure for civilians: 254. The number was challenged as representing only a fraction of the true death toll by the few reporters who sought out independent sources: Panamanian human rights monitors, hospital workers, ambulance drivers, funeral home directors. These sources also spoke of thousands of civilian injuries and 10,000 left homeless. Many journalists, especially on television, were too busy cheerleading "the successful military action" to notice the Panamanians who didn't fare so successfully.

TV correspondents, so uncurious about civilian casualties, could not be expected to go beyond US military assurances about who was being arrested and why. As the Boston Globe noted (1/1/90), US forces were arresting anyone on a blacklist compiled by the newly-installed government. Newsday's Peter Eisner reported (1/7/90): "Hundreds of intellectuals, university students, teachers and professional people say they have been harassed and detained by US forces in the guise of searching for hidden weapons."

CENSORED NEWS: Drug Links of Panama's New Rulers

The Bush White House justified the invasion by claiming that overthrowing Noriega was a major victory in the war on drugs. If journalists had reported the backgrounds of the new Panamanian leaders installed by the US invasion, and their connections to drug-laundering banks and drug traffickers, a primary rationale for the invasion would have been shredded.

But few journalists scrutinized Panama's "new democrats" from the country's banking and corporate elite. One who did was Jonathan Marshall, editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune. In a series of editorials, "Panama's Drug, Inc." (1/5 & 1/22/90), Marshall reported the following:

PRESIDENT GUILLERMO ENDARA is a wealthy corporate attorney for several companies run by Carlos Eleta, a Panamanian business tycoon arrested in Georgia last April for conspiring to import more than half a ton of cocaine each month into the US. The Brazilian daily, Jornal do Brasil, reported that Endara was Eleta's lawyer for 25 years and a direct stockholder in one of his companies. Endara's political mentor and idol is former President Arnulfo Arias, who reportedly amassed $2 million from smuggling contraband, including hard drugs.

VICE PRESIDENT GUILLERMO "BILLY" FORD is a co-founder and part owner of the Dadeland Bank, in Miami, a repository for Medellin drug cartel money. One of Ford's co-owner's, Panamanian Steven Samos, used the bank in the late 1970s to launder millions of dollars in drug money for a CIA-trained Cuban American. Panama's new ambassador to the US, Carlos Rodriguez, is also a co-founder of the Dadeland Bank. (The New York Times on Jan. 28 mustered up Roberto Eisenmann, the publisher of Panama's La Prensa, to deny allegations linking Ford to money laundering. The Times didn't mention that Eisenmann is another co-founder of the bank.)

ATTORNEY GENERAL ROGELIO CRUZ served as a director of the First Interamericas Bank. The bank, closed down for drug- related "irregular operations" in 1985, was owned by the leader of Columbia's Cali cocaine cartel and reportedly laundered money for Jorge Ochoa of the Medellin cartel. Panama's new chief justice of the supreme court and new treasury minister were also members of the bank's board.

Marshall concluded: "President Endara's appointments read like a who's who of Panama's oligarchy. Many have personal or business associations with the drug-money laundering industry." Portraying Noriega's replacement by the Endara clique as a strike against drug dealing is a cruel joke.

The importance of Panama to the international narcotics trade has long revolved around its supersecret banks--cool places to launder "hot money." In December 1986, Noriega's legislature pushed through a rollback in the country's bank secrecy law. In May 1987, when Noriega's government froze accounts in 18 banks as part of an anti-drug operation mounted by the DEA, it sparked a massive banking crisis in Panama. The actions were vigorously opposed by Noriega's foes in the banking elite. These foes now run Panama's government thanks to the US invasion. The "war on drugs" continues.

The "Objective" Reporter's Lexicon: We, Us, Our

In covering the invasion, many TV journalists abandoned even the pretense of operating in a neutral, independent mode. Television anchors used pronouns like "we" and "us" in describing the mission into Panama, as if they themselves were members of the invasion force, or at least helpful advisors. NBC's Brokaw exclaimed, on day one: "We haven't got [Noriega] yet." CNN anchor Mary Anne Loughlin asked a former CIA official (12/21/89): "Noriega has stayed one step ahead of us. Do you think we'll be able to find him?" After eagerly quizzing a panel of US military experts on "MacNeil/Lehrer" (12/21/89) about whether "we" had wiped out the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), Judy Woodruff concluded, "So not only have we done away with the PDF, we've also done away with the police force." So much for the separation of press and state.

Ted Koppel and other TV journalists had a field day mocking the Orwellianly-titled "Dignity Battalions," but none were heard ridiculing the invasion's code-name: "Operation Just Cause." The day after the invasion, NBC Nightly News offered its own case study in Orwellian Newspeak: While one correspondent referred to the US military occupiers as engaging in "peacekeeping chores," another correspondent on the same show referred to Latin American diplomats at the OAS condemning the US as a "lynch mob." After the Soviet Union criticized the invasion as "gunboat diplomacy" (as had many other countries), Dan Rather dismissed it as "old-line, hard-line talk from Moscow" (CBS Evening News, 12/20/89).

Journalism gave way to state propaganda when a CNN correspondent dutifully reported on the day of the invasion: "US troops have taken detainees but we are not calling them `prisoners of war' because the US has not declared war." (That kind of obedient reporter probably still refers to the Vietnam "conflict.") Similarly, on Day 1, many networks couldn't bring themselves to call the invasion an invasion until they got the green light from Washington: instead, it was referred to variously as a military action, intervention, operation, expedition, affair, insertion.


For sheer propaganda, high marks go to Newsweek's Noriega cover story (1/15/90) featuring excerpts from a book about Noriega by Wall Street Journal reporter Frederick Kempe. The book and its author were much touted by the media during the invasion. Some highlights:

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST ELLIOTT ABRAMS. "By the summer of 1985, the State Department's new Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, Elliott Abrams, began to believe that Noriega's help for the Contras was overestimated and his general harm to democracy and human rights was underestimated. Abrams had come out of State's human rights office..."

Abrams hardly "came out" of a human rights office. He was put there to disseminate anti-Nicaragua war propaganda as human rights information, an operation repeatedly exposed and denounced by Americas Watch. Abrams "human rights" work included attacks on the church-based Sanctuary movement, which offered refuge to Central Americans fleeing death squads.

A careful reading of the Newsweek article leaves the sneaking suspicion that much of the material was provided by Abrams himself. "[Abrams] argued at several interagency meetings that backing the Contras could only be one part of an overall strategy of promoting democracy in the region. He wanted more pressure on Panama to democratize--without endangering the good relationship that existed."

FIRM, REFINED BRAHMIN VS. LIMP, MESTIZO BASTARD. "The two intelligence chiefs contrasted in style and substance: Bush was lanky and refined, raised by a Brahmin New England family. He towered over the five-foot five-inch Noriega. Noriega was mean-streets Mestizo, the bastard son of his father's domestic. Noriega offered his usual damp, limp handshake to Bush's firm grip. They were clearly uncomfortable with each other." Aside from the racism of the piece, the line about the two being uncomfortable with each other is significant- -primarily to protect Bush. A second later: "Only in the twisted mind of Manuel Antonio Noriega could that 1976 luncheon with George Bush be construed as the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Though it lasted for more than ten years.

BUT IT WAS ALL CASEY'S FAULT. George Bush wasn't responsible for the ongoing ties to Noriega. The guy to blame, according to Kempe, was--as usual--the CIA director William Casey. Casey met often with Noriega to discuss aid to the contras.

AND CASTRO'S, OF COURSE. Kempe makes a herculean effort with scant evidence to implicate Fidel Castro in all the drug dealing. But as other journalists have pointed out, Castro's main need for Noriega and Panama was as a haven for Cuban front companies to engage in legitimate trade with Western countries in circumvention of the US economic blockade (Miami Herald, 12/28/89). An editorial in Kempe's Wall Street Journal (1/8/90) called on the US to cut a deal with Noriega if he'd implicate Castro.

A WALK ON THE HOMOPHOBIC SIDE. Perhaps aimed at bolstering the anti-gay vote in support of the invasion, Newsweek ran a sidebar from Kempe's book under the headline, "A Walk on the Bisexual Side": "The macho officer [Noriega], proficient in judo and parachuting, would perfume himself heavily on off hours and wear yellow jump suits with yellow shoes, travel the world with a male pal with whom he was widely rumored to be having a torrid affair, and surround himself with openly gay ambassadors and advisers...Armchair psychiatrists credit Noriega's sexual confusion to his gay brother, Luis Carlos Noriega, the only person Noriega ever trusted completely."

Where Did Our Love Go?

Many reporters uncritically promoted White House explanations for its break-up with Noriega. Clifford Krauss reported (NY Times, 1/21/90) that Noriega "began as a CIA asset but fell afoul of Washington over his involvement in drug and arms trafficking." ABC's Peter Jennings told viewers on the day of the invasion, "Let's remember that the United States was very close to Mr. Noriega before the whole question of drugs came up." Actually, Noriega's drug links were asserted by US intelligence as early as 1972. In 1976, after US espionage officials proposed that Noriega be dumped because of drugs and double-dealing, then-CIA director George Bush made sure the relationship continued (S.F. Examiner, 1/5/90; New Yorker, 1/8/90). US intelligence overlooked the drug issue year after year as long as Noriega was an eager ally in US espionage and covert operations, especially those targeted against Nicaragua.

Peter Jennings' claim that the US broke with Noriega after the "question of drugs came up" turns reality upside down. Noriega's involvement in drug trafficking was purportedly heaviest in the early 1980s when his relationship with the US was especially close. By 1986, when the Noriega/US relationship began to fray, experts agree that Noriega had already drastically curtailed his drug links. The two drug-related indictments against Noriega in Florida cover activities from 1981 through March 1986 ("Analysts Challenge View of Noriega as Drug Lord," Washington Post 1/7/90).

Objective Journalists of State Propagandists?

* "one of the more odious creatures with whom the United States has had a relationship."--Peter Jennings (ABC, 12/20/89)

* "At the top of the list of the world's drug thieves and scums."--Dan Rather ( CBS, 12/20/89)

* Q: "Do we bring him here and put him on trial...or do we just neutralize him in some way?"--John Chancellor
A: "I think you bring him here and you make it a showcase trial in the war on drugs and justice prevails."- -Tom Brokaw ( NBC, 12/20/89)

*"We lose numbers like that in large training exercises."- -John Chancellor, commenting approvingly upon hearing only nine US soldiers had died ( NBC, 12/20/89)

* "Noriega's reputation as a brutal drug-dealing bully who reveled in his public contempt for the United States all but begged for strong retribution."--Ted Koppel ( ABC Nightline, 12/20/89)

* "Noriega asked for this. President Bush listed all the things Noriega had done to force him to take this action. Why does Noriega do these things?"-- CNN anchor Ralph Wenge, interviewing a former US military commander (12/21/89)

* "Noriega seemed almost superhuman in his ability to slither away before we got him."--Anchor Bill Beutel ( WABC-TV, New York, 1/3/90)

* "[George Bush has completed] a Presidential initiation rite [joining] American leaders who since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood to protect or advance what they construe as the national interest...Panama has shown him as a man capable of bold action."--R.W. Apple ( New York Times, front page news analysis, 12/21/89)

When, as vice president, Bush met with Noriega in Panama in December 1983, besides discussing Nicaragua, Bush allegedly raised questions about drug money laundering. According to author Kevin Buckley, Noriega told top aide Jose Blandon that he'd picked up the following message from the Bush meeting: "The United States wanted help for the contras so badly that if he even promised it, the US government would turn a blind eye to money-laundering and setbacks to democracy in Panama." In 1985 and '86, Noriega met several times with Oliver North to discuss the assistance Noriega was providing to the contras, such as training contras at Panamanian Defense Force bases ("Noriega could give some interesting answers," Kevin Buckley, St. Petersburg Times, 1/3/90). Noriega didn't fall from grace until he stopped being a "team player" in the US war against Nicaragua.

Democracy had as little to do with the break-up as drugs. If Noriega believed Bush had given his strongarm rule a green light in 1983, confirmation came the next year when Noriega's troops seized ballot boxes and blatantly rigged Panama's presidential election. Noriega's candidate, Nicolas Ardito Barletta, was also "our" candidate--an economist who had been a student and assistant to former University of Chicago professor George Shultz. Though loudly protested by Panamanians, the fraud that put Ardito Barletta in power was cheered by the US Embassy. Secretary of State Shultz attended his inauguration. (See "The Press on Panama," Extra! , Mar/Apr 88; Richard Reeves, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/25/89)

As the Noriega case progresses toward trial, the media's treatment of key witnesses against the General may offer a case study in bias. Several of the witnesses have already testified on these matters in a very public forum--hearings before Senator John Kerry's Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Narcotics. At that time, February 1988, they fingered Nicaraguan contras as cocaine cohorts of Noriega operating under the umbrella of the CIA and Ollie North. The hearings were ignored or distorted by national media outlets, with Reagan/Bush officials and CIA dismissing the witnesses as drug trafficking felons. ( Extra!, Mar/Apr 88; Warren Hinckle, S.F. Examiner, 1/11/90). In a predictable turnaround, as soon as Noriega was apprehended, TV news brought forth experts to explain that "when one prosecutes someone like Noriega for drug dealing, witnesses will of necessity be drug dealers."

Reporters Rallying Round The Flag

Journalists justified their role as distributors of government handouts in different ways. Asked on Day 1 why US opponents of the invasion were virtually invisible on-the-air, a CBS producer (who declined to give her name) told Extra! : "When American troops are involved and taking losses, this is not the time to be running critical commentary. The American public will be rallying around the flag."

Some TV reporters claimed they were forced to rely on official US versions because they had nothing else. As Newsday reported Jan. 14, "Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize- winning combat journalist, was reduced to reporting on Noriega's alleged pornography collection. `They [the Pentagon] got away with it again,' Arnett said of the initial press blackout."

Arnett, who covered the invasion for CNN, was complaining that Pentagon officials failed to provide photo opportunities of wounded soldiers, suffering civilians and general bang- bang. Naturally the Pentagon did everything possible to prevent such shots, keeping with its belief that the Vietnam War was lost in American living rooms. "Two things that people should not watch are the making of sausage and the making of war," Newsday (1/4/90) quoted an Air Force doctor as saying. "All that front-page blood and gore hurts the military."

Experienced combat journalists like Arnett should know that the Pentagon's aim is to manipulate the pictures and stories that get out. "If you just looked at television, the most violent thing American troops did in Panama was play rock music," political media consultant Robert Squier told Newsday. "They feel if they can control the pictures at the outset, it doesn't make a damn what is said now or later."

Unhappiness with the Pentagon did not keep reporters from promoting the US Army-approved image of Noriega as a comic strip arch-villain. The Southern Command told reporters soon after the invasion that 110 pounds of cocaine were found in Noriega's so-called "witch house," and this played big on TV news and the front-pages. When, a month later the "cocaine" turned out to be tamales ( Washington Post, 1/23/90, page A22), the government's deception was a footnote at best. The initial headlines of Noriega as drug-crazed lunatic had served their purpose: to convince the American people that he represented a threat to the Canal.

Provocations of Pretexts?

The US media showed little curiosity about the Dec. 16 confrontation that led to the death of a US Marine officer and the injury of another when they tried to run a roadblock in front of the PDF headquarters. The officers were supposedly "lost." In view of what is now known about the intense pre-invasion preparations then underway ( NY Times, 12/24/89), is it possible the Marines were actually trying to track Noriega's whereabouts?

The Panamanian version of the event was that the US soldiers, upon being discovered, opened fire--injuring three civilians, including a child--and then tried to run the roadblock. This version was largely ignored by US journalists even after the shooting two days later of a Panamanian corporal who "signaled a US serviceman to stop," according to the administration. "The US serviceman felt threatened," the administration claimed, after admitting that its earlier story that the Panamanian had pulled his gun was false ( NYT, 12/19/89)

As for the claim that a US officer had been roughly interrogated and his wife had been sexually threatened, the administration provided no supporting evidence ( NYT, 12/19/89; Newsday, 12/18/89). Since the Marine's death and the interrogation were repeatedly invoked to justify the invasion, the lack of press scrutiny of these claims is stunning.

For months, US forces had been trying to provoke confrontations as a pretext for an attack. In response to an Aug. 11 incident, Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter asked that a UN peacekeeping force be dispatched to Panama to prevent such encounters. The US press largely ignored his call ( El Diario/La Prensa, New York's Spanish-language daily, 8/13/89).

Fighting in Panama: The Home Front

The President


Bush Reportedly Felt That Noriega
'Was Thumbing His Nose at Him'

If the news of the invasion wasn't favorable enough to the administration, the New York Times sometimes fine-tuned it between editions. Above are headlines over the same story in two editions on Dec. 24--the earlier one (left) was apparently changed because it implied that the invasion was an act of personal vengeance by Bush. Another headline in the same early edition read, "U.S. Drafted Invasion Plan Weeks Ago," accurately describing the article's evidence that the invasion was scheduled before the "provocations" that justified it ever occurred. The headline changed to the more innocuous "U.S. Invasion: Many Weeks of Rehearsals."

The "Declaration of War" That Never Was

"When during the past few days [Noriega] declared war on the United States and some of his followers then killed a US Marine, roughed up another American serviceman, also threatening that man's wife, strong public support for a reprisal was all but guaranteed," Ted Koppel told his Nightline audience Dec. 20.

Noriega never "declared war on the United States." The original Reuters dispatches, published on the inside pages of the New York Times (12/17-18/89), buried the supposed "declaration" in articles dealing with other matters. In the Dec. 17 article headlined, "Opposition Leader in Panama Rejects a Peace Offer from Noriega," Reuters quoted the general as saying that he would judiciously use new powers granted to him by the Panamanian parliament and that "the North American scheme, through constant psychological and military harassment, has created a state of war in Panama." This statement of fact aroused little excitement at the White House, which called the parliament's move "a hollow step."

The day after the invasion, Los Angeles Times Pentagon correspondent Melissa Healey told a call-in talk show audience on C- SPAN that Noriega had "declared war" on the United States. When a caller asked why that hadn't been front page news, Healey explained that the declaration of war was one of a series of "incremental escalations." When another caller pointed out that Panama had only made a rhetorical statement that US economic and other measures had created a state of war, the Pentagon correspondent confessed ignorance of what had actually been said, and suggested that it was certainly worth investigating.

The incident symbolizes media performance on the invasion--dispense official information as gospel first, worry about the truth of that information later. It's just what the White House was counting on from the media. The Bush team set out to control television and front page news in the first days knowing that exposes of official deception (such as Noriega's 110 pounds of "cocaine" that turned out to be tamales) would not appear until weeks later buried on inside pages of newspapers. Rulers do not require the total suppression of news. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: It's sufficient to delay the news until it no longer matters.

Besides uncritically dispensing huge quantities of official news and views, the TV networks had another passion during the first days of the invasion: polling their public. It was an insular process, with predictable results. A Toronto Globe and Mail news story summarized it (12/22/89): "Hardly a voice of objection is being heard within the United States about the Panama invasion, at least from those deemed as official sources and thus likely to be seen on television or read in the papers. Not surprisingly, given the media coverage, a television poll taken yesterday by one network ( CNN ) indicated that nine of ten viewers approved of the invasion."

I'm not Rappaport...I'm Valdez

Extra! usually complains about media outlets relying on the same sources again and again, but KTTV-TV in Los Angeles may have gone too far in the opposite direction.

Seeking a source to comment on the failed October 1989 coup against Manuel Noriega, the station called what they thought was the Panamanian consulate. In fact, it was the home of Kurt Rappaport, a 22-year old prankster. Rappaport, pretending to be an anti-Noriega Panamanian diplomat, "Arturo Valdez," was invited to be interviewed, and showed up at the studio sporting a false moustache.

A sound bite from the 10-15 minute "Valdez" interview was broadcast on KTTV 's evening news, phony Spanish accent and all. ( LA Times, 10/7/89) But Rappaport was not treated any differently than most TV experts: "I get asked tougher questions when I go to cash a check," he told the National Enquirer.

Swallowing Hokum in Central America

During the height of the civil rights movement, Southern authorities frequently reacted to the bombing of a black church or a civil rights leader's home by blaming the act on the Movement: "The Negroes did it themselves. It's a stunt to win sympathy." While the innuendo that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have fire-bombed his own home while his children slept was prominently and uncritically reported in Southern dailies, journalists from national media ignored such hokum or reported it as a way of highlighting how depraved or dishonest the authorities were.

Ironically, the same absurd scenarios dismissed by journalists when uttered by segregationists about Southern blacks are treated as entirely credible when uttered by US officials about Central Americans.


Journalists knew instantly that the US-equipped Salvadoran army, with a history of execution-style slayings, had control of the Jesuit university grounds and that the martyred priests had been outspoken advocates of seating the FMLN guerrillas at the negotiating table. Yet when US officials played dumb, pretending not to know whether the killers were "far rightists or leftists," and when Salvadoran authorities asserted that the FMLN had murdered their advocates, these statements received credible coverage in some media. The fog was still thick a month later when Newsweek reported (12/25/89) that the priests had been murdered "by a presumed rightist death squad." Through such phrases, centrist media obscure the fact that the "rightist death squads" are an integral part of Salvador's military structure. (See Amnesty International's 1988 report, "El Salvador `Death Squads'--A Government Strategy.")


Days after the US relied largely on the death of a single US citizen to justify its invasion of Panama, two nuns--one an American--were killed when their pickup truck was ambushed in northeastern Nicaragua. The attack occurred in an area in which the contras--who have killed dozens of civilians in recent months--were known to freely roam. Initial media coverage gave play to Nicaragua's charges that the contras were responsible and to contra claims that the Sandinistas had impersonated contras killing the nuns.

By Day 2, the murders were not worthy of mention on CBS and ABC nightly newscasts. By then Mexican and Latin American press agencies had found two eye-witnesses who identified the contras as the killers of the nuns. The story took two weeks to break in the US and when it did, the Washington Post broke it in a news story that read like a White House-sanctioned editorial (1/14/90): "There was little doubt that it was contra rebels who killed them. But there is also little doubt that the US-backed guerrillas did not mean to do it." The Post proceeded with an unsourced claim reminiscent of the innuendo once aimed at Martin Luther King: "In Managua, the capital, some suspected immediately after the attack that the Sandinistas might have staged it to appear to be a contra ambush. After all, only the Sandinistas...could benefit from such an atrocity."

By giving credence to claims which obscure the violence caused by US-backed forces in Central America, some in the national media seem to be impersonating the Southern cracker reporters of 30 years ago.

POSTSCRIPT: July 4, 1990

As an indication of the on-going intent to obfuscate the true scope and impact of US military activities in and results of the invasion, the following item appeared in the July 4 issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian :


by Jim Crogan

IN A PANAMANIAN refugee camp last month, soldiers from the U.S. Southern Command confronted a U.S. film crew that was interviewing Panamanian refugees. The soldiers attempted to stop the interviews and confiscate the videotape and equipment. An estimated 500 residents of the camp surrounded and protected the crew and hid its taped footage.

The crew, from Ronin Films (aka the Santa Monica-based Empowerment Project) returned to Los Angeles this week.

Barbara Trent, EP's co-director and the director and co-producer of the Panama film, told the Bay Guardian her crew's confrontation with Southern Command military police and members of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Division [CID] took place at the Allbrook Field Displaced Persons Camp, a civilian war refugee facility administered jointly by the Panamanian Red Cross and the Panamanian government's Office of Disaster Assistance.

"The camp was exclusively a Panamanian facility, and we had permission to be there from Panamanian disaster authorities, the Red Cross and the council set up by the refugees to govern the camp, so I didn't understand why SouthCom people were even there," said Trent. "The refugees saved the day for us," she added. "They got between us and the military, surrounded us and eventually walked us over to the office used by the Disaster Assistance people. They even hid our tapes.

"The people wanted us there," Trent continued, "because they desperately wanted to tell the world about the losses they suffered during the invasion, and the camp conditions they've been forced to live under for the last six months."

During the incident, which she said her crew captured on film, the CID people refused to explain to her or the Panamanian officials why or on whose authority they were trying to stop the filming. Eventually, after a series of negotiations between the Panamanians and representatives from SouthCom, the EP crew finished its interviews and left the camp.

Lt. Col. Robert Donley, deputy director of public affairs for SouthCom, said the MP's actions were "definitely wrong. They are there only to assist the Panamanians and had no authority to intervene."

Asked why Army CID officials were participating in trying to stop the EP crew from filming, Donley said, "That's a good question. I really don't know and haven't been able to find out why."

Gary Meyer, co-director of EP and co-producer of the film, said the crew also brought back several interviews that apparently describe the U.S. use of laser weapons during last December's invasion. One Panamanian said he saw "a bright red light, which made a distinctive sound that he repeated for us on camera, and was then followed by an explosion," Meyer said. Another family said they had an intense white light come through their apartment window and explode whatever object it hit."

Trent added that several people said they had seen "a Panamanian soldier killed by a laser beam."

Trent reported that she had questioned General Maxwell Thurmond, head of SouthCom, about the reports that laser weapons were used. "He responded by saying that was crap, and that lasers were only used by the U.S. Air Force to pinpoint targets," Trent recalled.

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New York, NY 10001

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