Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War 1980 to 1983

By John F. Kirch, 204 Crestmoor Circle
This paper was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in Toronto, Canada, August 2004.

Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
Background of El Salvador's Civil War
Reagan's View of the War
New York Times Coverage: 1983

        Carrying his clothes high above his head, Raymond Bonner forded a rushing
river in eastern El Salvador, a full moon hanging in the sky.  When he
reached the far shore, the New York Times correspondent quickly dressed,
then slung on his backpack and followed his guides into Morazan Province, a
stronghold of the leftist guerillas then fighting the civilian-military
government in San Salvador.[1]
        On the third day of hiking, the rebels he was traveling with took Bonner
to the village of El Mozote,[2] where a few weeks before the U.S.-trained
Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran army had conducted a
search-and-destroy mission against the insurgents.[3]  The town had been
the home of roughly 300 people, but what Bonner found when he arrived there
in January 1982 were the "charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies
buried under burned-out roofs, beams and shattered tiles."[4]
        "From interviews with people who live in this small mountain village and
surrounding hamlets," Bonner wrote later, "it is clear that a massacre of
major proportions occurred here last month."[5]  According to witnesses, he
reported, Salvadoran government soldiers had killed 733 peasants during a
two-day rampage in December 1981, with most of the victims being women,
children, and the elderly.  The few peasants who survived, he wrote, now
walked through the village looking for their possessions, all the while
holding "handkerchiefs or oranges … against their noses to help block the
stench" of decaying corpses.[6]

Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
        The story, which appeared on the front page of the New York Times on
January 27, 1982, was one in a string that Bonner would write about the
human rights abuses then being committed by the American-supported
government in El Salvador.[7]  Because of these reports, Bonner came under
sharp attack from the Reagan administration and others on the political
right.  He was called "an advocate journalist,"[8] "overly credulous,"[9]
and a propagandist who was "worth a division to the communists in Central
        In August 1982, after months of criticism, Bonner was pulled out of El
Salvador and reassigned to the metro desk in New York.  Editors at the
Times denied that his transfer was connected to the criticism from the
White House, claiming instead that the foreign correspondent (who had only
been reporting for two years at that time) needed additional training to
meet the newspaper's reporting standards.  But to other journalists
covering the conflict, Bonner was a victim of the Reagan administration—and
it sent a chill through much of the press.[11]  Robert Parry, who covered
U.S. policy in Central America as a reporter for the Associated Press,
summed up the feelings of many journalists at the time when he said,  "The
message was quite clearly made apparent to those of us working on this
topic that when you tried to tell the American people what was happening,
you put your career at risk."[12]
        The Raymond Bonner story has taken on almost legendary status over the
past two decades as journalists have debated why he was pulled out of El
Salvador and what impact his reassignment had on press coverage of Central
America during the 1980s.  Some reporters have suggested that the New York
Times caved in to pressure from U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton and others
in the administration, and they have pointed to Bonner's fate as an example
of how the White House is able to win favorable coverage of
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
its policies by intimidating the news media.  But while these assertions
have been repeated many times over the past 20 years, there has never been
a textual analysis to document how Bonner covered the conflict in Central
America and how the New York Times's coverage changed after he was reassigned.
        The historical narrative that follows will provide just such an analysis
by telling Bonner's story through his dispatches for the New York
Times.  This paper will briefly discuss the history and roots of El
Salvador's civil war as well as Reagan's view of the conflict and how that
shaped the administration's foreign policy. Finally, this paper will focus
on reports that appeared in the New York Times before and after Bonner was
reassigned to see if America's "paper of record" backed off of critical
coverage of a war that would last 12 years and cost the lives of 75,000

Background of El Salvador's Civil War
        The seeds of El Salvador's civil war were planted in the middle and late
19th century, when a series of government "land reforms" transferred
thousands of acres from the peasant population to a handful of rich
families.[14]  The oligarchy that was created by these policies built its
fortune in the coffee plantations, then moved into cotton and sugar cane
before opening banks and insurance companies.  The government helped along
the way, paving roads and building rail lines to connect the plantations
with San Salvador, the nation's capital, and the ports along the
coast.[15]  Whenever the peasants began to stir or demand reforms, they
were brutally suppressed by the military, which kept the peace and the
profits flowing for the oligarchy.[16]
        By the 1970s, the richest 5 percent of the population earned 38 percent of
the national income while the poorest 40 percent earned about 7.5

illiteracy reached 90 percent among the peasants;[18] more than 40 percent
of the rural population was landless;[19] and medical care was almost
nonexistent, with only one doctor for every 3,592 Salvadorans.[20]  Looking
at the dire conditions that were evident as early as 1931, Major R.A.
Harris, the U.S. attaché for Central American military affairs, issued a
strong warning against continuing the existing inequities.  "A socialist or
communistic revolution in El Salvador may be delayed for several years, ten
or even 20," he said, "but when it comes it will be a bloody one."[21]
        The first major challenge to the government came in May 1930, when under
the leadership of Farabundo Marti an estimated 80,000 people took to the
streets of San Salvador to protest the country's widespread unemployment
and to demand a minimum wage for agriculture workers.[22]  President Don
Pio Romero Bosque reacted by prohibiting worker rallies as well as the
printing and distribution of Marxist pamphlets.  The government rounded up
hundreds of opposition leaders and by February 1931 had imprisoned nearly
1,200 people for left-wing activities.[23]
        Nevertheless, under mounting pressure from all sides, Romero Bosque
announced that the country would hold free elections in January
1931.[24]  The country elected a progressive, reform-minded candidate in
Arturo Araujo, who urged the oligarchy to share its wealth.[25]  But Araujo
lasted less than a year and was overthrown the following December in a coup
by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez.  When peasants rebelled a month
later, Hernandez Martinez unleashed a year-long assault on the population
that left between 10,000 and 30,000 people dead.[26]  Roadways were
littered with bodies, and drainage ditches became burial places.  As one
witness noted, "The pigs and buzzards ate well for a while."[27]
        Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the military-oligarchy coalition ensured
order through force.  Elections were held throughout this period, but the
party that represented the oligarchy used patronage, fraud, and coercion to
guarantee that its candidates would win every time.[28]
        The country was thrust toward all-out civil war in 1972,[29] when the
military intervened to prevent the election of Jose Napoleon Duarte, who
ran for president under the moderate Christian Democratic Party.  No longer
confident in the electoral process, those opposed to the government began
organizing demonstrations, strikes, and sit-ins.[30]  These so-called
popular organizations dominated the opposition movement for much of the
1970s, but as they were violently suppressed by the military the opposition
slowly shifted toward armed insurrection,[31] and by 1977[32] small bands
of guerillas were resorting to occasional raids, bombings, and
        Badly divided by ideology and tactics,[34] the armed insurgents only
became a true force in 1980, when the five separate rebel groups unified
under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which
established a united command structure and a fighting force of roughly
5,000 combatants.[35]  In January 1981, just before Ronald Reagan was sworn
in as president, the FMLN launched what it called the "final offensive"
against the government.[36]  Although this was really the first major
military action by the guerillas,[37] the attack failed to spark a general
insurrection throughout the country.[38]  The offensive was crushed,[39]
but El Salvador was well on its way to the "bloody" civil war that Major
Harris had predicted 50 years earlier.

Reagan's View of the War
        When Ronald Reagan became president, he viewed the revolution in El
Salvador through the prism of the Cold War.  To his administration, the
conflict was not an indigenous fight against decades of injustice, but an
international communist plot funded by the Soviet Union and its proxy in
the region, Cuba.[40]  The leftist Sandinistas had taken over Nicaragua in
1979 when President Jimmy Carter was in office, and Reagan was determined
not to lose another country in America's backyard to communism.  The new
Republican administration planned to draw a line in the Central American
sand, highlighting the strengths of Reagan's philosophy against what was
viewed as the weaknesses of the Carter administration.[41]
        The White House's view of the Salvadoran conflict was first outlined in a
white paper released in February 1981.  The report charged that Cuba had
played a major role in both organizing and arming the leftist insurgents in
El Salvador by helping to usher in nearly 200 tons of weaponry.  In
addition, the report claimed that Salvadoran guerilla leaders had traveled
to Havana, Moscow, and Managua, where they met with Fidel Castro, the
revolutionary leaders of Nicaragua, and Erich Honecker, the leader of what
was then East Germany.  In summarizing its main point, the report said:
The United States considers it of great importance that the American people
and the world community be aware of the gravity of the actions of Cuba, the
Soviet Union, and other Communist states who are carrying out what is
clearly shown to be a well-coordinated, covert effort to bring about the
overthrow of El Salvador's established government and to impose in its
place a Communist regime with no popular support.[42]

        Although the white paper came under sharp criticism from opponents of
Reagan's policies in the region, it nevertheless continued to be a part of
the administration's thinking for most of Reagan's first term.  A year after the report was
released, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O.
Enders reiterated the basic assumptions underlying the White House's
policy, telling a Senate subcommittee that El Salvador was the target of a
communist insurrection that could pose a major threat to U.S. national
security.  "The decisive battle for Central America is underway in El
Salvador," Enders said.  "If, after Nicaragua, El Salvador is captured by a
violent minority, who in Central America would not live in fear?  How long
would it be before major strategic U.S. interests—the [Panama] canal, sea
lanes, oil supplies—were at risk?"[43]
        Based on this philosophy, Reagan sought a total military victory in El
Salvador,[44] passing up five opportunities between March and December 1981
to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the war.[45]  Military aid jumped
from $6 million in 1980 to $81.3 million in 1983, while economic assistance
during this time increased from $58.2 million to $245.5 million.[46]
        As U.S. aid poured into the country, human rights abuses continued to be a
major problem in the region. According to the human rights group Americas
Watch, the period between 1980 and 1983 saw some of the worst violence
against civilians during the war.  Government security forces
systematically tortured detainees, the group said, while the number of
people killed by the military and the death squads "registered in the
        The oppression was widely known.  In January 1982, for example, Americas
Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a 275-page report
that accused the government of El Salvador of using murder and torture to
silence political opponents.
The report said the government was responsible for the disappearance of
more than 600 people, adding that there was also repression against the
Catholic Church and the local press.[48]
        Although it publicly condemned the violence, the Reagan administration
turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses.  As long as the leftist
insurgents remained a threat, the White House sent clear signals to the
Salvadoran military that repression against the opposition could continue.[49]
        Outraged by the administration's conduct of foreign policy, members of
Congress began expressing deep reservations about the U.S. role in Central
America.  U.S. Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., reflected the sentiment of
many of those in the opposition when she called the administration's
Salvadoran policy "morally wrong" and "wrongheaded," adding that:
…the uniformed military forces of El Salvador are using American equipment
to carry out a deliberate policy of terror against an unarmed civilian
population.  The soldiers of El Salvador arrive in American helicopters to
kill and torture men, women, and children.  They use rape as a weapon of

        With criticism of the Reagan administration mounting, Congress
established a certification process in December 1981 that tied U.S.
military aid to the progress El Salvador made towards improving human
rights and implementing political and economic reforms.  These reforms
included the establishment of democratic elections and the implementation
of a stalled land reform program started in 1980 to redistribute the
country's wealth.  Under this new law, the Reagan administration would have
to monitor events in El Salvador and report to Congress once every six

        Faced with such harsh criticism from Congress, the White House began
placing less emphasis on its military strategy and started promoting the
political components of its policy.[52]  The administration denied that its
primary objective was military victory, claiming instead that its main goal
was to push the Salvadoran government into implementing land reform, ending
human rights abuses, and scheduling free elections,[53] which were
eventually held on March 28, 1982.[54]
        As it tried to convince the public and Congress to stay with its policies
in El Salvador, the White House made five arguments about the conflict in
1982 and 1983.  First, it continued its assertions that events in El
Salvador were the latest Cold War battleground between the United States
and the U.S.S.R.[55]  Second, the administration said that while the
government of El Salvador still had a long way to go in curtailing human
rights abuses, the army had made progress in slowing the number of civilian
deaths and so deserved U.S. military assistance.[56]  Third, Reagan
officials insisted that the people and government of El Salvador were
committed to democracy as evidenced by the large voter turnout during the
March 1982 election, which Secretary of State Alexander Haig interpreted as
"an unmistakable repudiation of the [left]."[57]  Fourth, the
administration said the government in San Salvador was committed to social
and economic reforms, including the three-phase land reform program and
other measures designed to transform the economy.[58]  And fifth, the
administration argued that while its military strategy was limited to
holding off a leftist victory so that the country's political and economic
reforms could be firmly established, the Salvadoran military was capable of
defending the people against the guerillas as long as the United States
continued to fund and train the Salvadoran army.[59]
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
Ray Bonner in El Salvador: 1980-1982
        It was into this volatile situation that Bonner entered when he arrived in
El Salvador in December 1980 at the age of 38.  A former U.S. Marine who
had spent a year in Vietnam, Bonner had been a lawyer through most of the
1970s, working first as a litigator for Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C.,
and later in the district attorney's office in San Francisco.  He became a
freelance journalist in 1979 when he went to Bolivia, where he wrote as a
stringer for Newsweek and the Washington Post.  His reporting there angered
the ruling junta, and Bonner was forced to flee the country after he
learned that the Bolivian military was after him.  He arrived in El
Salvador in December 1980 and began a two-week trial with the New York
Times, which hired him as a full-time correspondent in January 1981.[60]
        From the beginning, Bonner's dispatches from El Salvador showed an
aggressive—some might say reckless—style that would eventually get him into
trouble with the Reagan administration.  During his first year in El
Salvador, Bonner filed reports that documented cases of human rights
abuses, the activities of the right-wing death squads, and the dire
conditions of the peasant population.[61]  His reports always allowed
government sources to give their side of the story, but he clearly
challenged them if what they said was not consistent with what he
personally witnessed in the field.
        For example, when an army officer tried to tell him that a small plane
circling the mountains near a Salvadoran village was on an observation
mission, Bonner pointed out that he saw smoke coming from the aircraft—an
observation that forced another officer to acknowledge that the plane "was
firing a .50-caliber machine gun" at someone on the ground.[62]  In another
instance, he undermined a Salvadoran colonel's claim that military maneuvers
in one region of the country had successfully defeated the
rebels, pointing out that the colonel and three captains were afraid to
travel on certain roads because they feared being attacked by the
insurgents.  "Seeming to contradict claims that the [military] operation
had been successful," Bonner wrote, "the captains rejected several routes
because they were 'very dangerous.'"[63]
        From his reports, it is evident that Bonner was skeptical of U.S. and
Salvadoran assertions that the insurgents were part of a global communist
plot.  In July 1981, for instance, Bonner raised doubts about a Salvadoran
military commander's claim that he had captured documents proving that
Nicaragua and Cuba were helping the rebels.  Bonner reported that the
officer "refused to produce the documents," adding that previous charges of
Cuban involvement in El Salvador "have not been backed by any hard
evidence."[64]  Six months later, Bonner spent two weeks with the guerillas
and filed two reports that painted the rebel movement as a complex
phenomenon that was about more than mere ideology—pointing out, for
instance, that a 29-year-old mother of three had joined the rebels not
because she was a communist loyal to the Soviet Union or Cuba, but because
she felt "it was the only way to bring democracy and social change to El
        Bonner's reports became more aggressive the longer he was in El Salvador,
and by 1982 he was filing articles that were outwardly challenging many of
the assumptions underlying the Reagan administration's policy there.  The
first story that hit the White House's radar screen came on January 11,
1982, when the New York Times published an article under Bonner's byline
reporting that several U.S. military advisors serving in El Salvador were
present during two torture sessions conducted by Salvadoran military
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
personnel in 1981.  According to Bonner's report, a 17-year-old boy and a
13-year-old girl were brutally tortured before being killed after they were
accused of being guerilla fighters.  The Americans did not participate in
the session, Bonner wrote, but they did nothing to stop it.[66]
        The story, which was based on only one source and could not be
independently confirmed by Bonner, caught the Reagan administration's
attention immediately.  The U.S. embassy in San Salvador vehemently denied
it, and Deane R. Hinton, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, was reportedly
furious over the report.[67]  In a dispatch to the State Department, Hinton
said Bonner's piece was peppered with "multiple factual discrepancies" that
could have been verified had Bonner tried harder.  In addition, Hinton said
the source of the story—a 21-year-old who was part of an exile group in
Mexico City—had pitched the report to other journalists, none of whom
"would touch it for its obvious lack of credibility."[68]
        Bonner drew the ire of the administration again two weeks later when he
reported the massacre at El Mozote, a small village in eastern El Salvador
where, Bonner wrote, an estimated 733 peasants had been murdered by a
U.S.-trained battalion of the Salvadoran army.  The story, which was also
reported by the Washington Post, was based mostly on the account of one
woman, Rufina Amaya, who had narrowly escaped the carnage by hiding in the
woods.  But the piece also included accounts of two other witnesses as well
as Bonner's first-hand observations of the dead.  Recalling the event years
later, Bonner said there was no doubt the peasants had been massacred. "It
was clear it didn't happen in combat," he said.  "[People] don't die like
that in combat."[69]

        What made the El Mozote report so powerful was that it came one day before
the Reagan administration certified to Congress that El Salvador was
deserving of U.S. aid because it was making progress toward curtailing
human rights abuses.  With the stakes so high, the administration began
playing down the massacre, suggesting that the reports were either untrue
or exaggerated.  In a telegram to the State Department, Hinton concluded
that it was "not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against
the civilian population of El Mozote by government troops," adding that "no
evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically
massacred civilians in the operation zone."[70]
        In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the day after
Bonner's report was published, Enders said it was highly unlikely that 700
to 900 people had been killed because there were only about 300 people
living in the area at the time.  In addition, Elliott Abrams, the assistant
secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, questioned
the timing of the story, suggesting to the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee that the alleged massacre, which occurred in December, was only
being reported in January to embarrass the administration as it presented
its certification to Congress.  "It appears to be an incident which is at
least being significantly misused … by the guerillas," Abrams said.[71]
(The Mozote massacre was corroborated more than 10 years later when the
remains of the victims were exhumed in 1992.)[72]
        Bonner's troubles continued in the spring, when he began filing reports
challenging the Reagan administration's assertion that the March 28
election was a sign El Salvador was making progress toward political
reforms.  Although a U.S. delegation headed by Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum,
R-Kansas, had observed the elections and
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
concluded that they were "fair and free,"[73] Bonner wrote four stories
from June 4 to June 17, 1982, about possible fraud—an accusation that was
originally made, Bonner wrote, in an article that appeared in the
Salvadoran magazine Central American Studies, which was published by Jose
Simeon Canas University of Central America.
        In the June 4 article, which appeared under the headline "Fraud is
Reported in Salvador Vote," Bonner reported that "the president of El
Salvador's Central Elections Council said today that the vote total in the
March elections might have been inflated."  Although Bonner quoted an
election official, Jorge Bustamante, vigorously defending the government's
official results, the Times correspondent wrote in the story's third
paragraph that "at the end of the interview he [Bustamante] conceded that
'there might have been a 10 percent error' in the total number of people
who went to the polls."[74]
        Later in the article, Bonner quoted the editors of Central American
Studies saying that only 600,000 to 800,000 people voted in the election,
not the 1.5 million asserted by the government.[75]  By focusing on the
vote totals, Bonner was directly challenging the Reagan administration,
which argued publicly that the large voter turnout was a sign that
Salvadoran citizens had repudiated the leftist guerillas.[76]
        In his June 6 story, Bonner reminded readers about Reagan's view of the
election, then listed four bullet points showing evidence of
"irregularities" in the vote.[77]  When Bonner did quote a Salvadoran
official denying vote fraud, he undermined the official's assertions by
pointing out that the official did not look at the evidence before making
his denials.  For example, in the June 6 story Bonner quoted the country's
newly elected provisional president, Alvaro Magana, as saying that he did
not accept the election fraud charges made in the university magazine's
report.  Bonner then wrote:  "Mr. Magana,
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
who was named president by the Constituent Assembly elected March 28, said
that he had not seen the university's report . . ." but had only heard
about the charges secondhand.[78]
        Bonner also focused on El Salvador's land reform program, which the Reagan
administration argued was a sign the country was making progress toward a
more equitable economic system.[79]  In Bonner's reports, the Times
challenged Reagan's assertions by pointing out that the reform program had
been stopped by the newly elected Magana government.  For example, on June
7, 1982, Bonner filed a story quoting El Salvador's former president, Jose
Napoleon Duarte, who said that the government elected the previous March
had stopped two of the three phases of the land reform program.  "You've
heard all this propaganda . . . that the reforms continue," the story
quoted Duarte as saying.  "But the truth is that the law has stopped the
        If land reform had stopped, human rights abuses had continued under the
new government. A month after the election, Bonner filed a story reporting
that 48 members "of an extended family" had been killed by what witnesses
said were "Salvadoran government soldiers."[81]  In another report several
days later, Bonner wrote that an area on the outskirts of San Salvador had
become a dumping ground for human remains, pointing out that the number of
deaths had increased since a coalition of right-wing parties had taken
control of the government in the March 1982 election.[82] Wrote Bonner:
Indeed, official and semiofficial statistics, comments by diplomatic
officials and observations by reporters seem to have borne out the fears of
many Salvadorans that assassinations by Government security forces and
rightist death squads would increase as the result of the success of
rightist parties in the elections.
        A worker at the Human Rights Commission said that before the elections
they would find 20 to 25 bodies a week strewn around the perimeter of the
capital.  The number has risen to about 35 a week since the elections, he

        Bonner's reports from the field angered administration officials and their
supporters, and it did not take long before he was being criticized by
conservative groups.  The attacks began in February 1982, when the Wall
Street Journal published an editorial in which it called Bonner "overly
credulous" and his stories about the guerillas "a propaganda
exercise."[84]  Time magazine chimed in, saying Bonner was "the most
controversial reporter on the scene;"[85] and Ambassador Hinton met with
reporters in June 1982 and accused Bonner of being "an advocate
journalist," adding that "he does not hide the fact that he's engaged in
advocacy journalism."[86]
        On June 18, 1982, two representatives from the conservative media-watch
organization Accuracy in Media, Inc., met with the publisher of the New
York Times to register their complaints about Bonner's reporting.  The
organization then devoted nearly an entire issue of its twice-a-month AIM
Report to criticizing Bonner.  In the July 1982 publication, the
organization said an analysis of 51 stories made it evident that one of
Bonner's objectives was to "discredit the government and the military
forces that were standing in the way of a communist takeover of El
        The criticism seemed to hit a nerve with the editors at the Times, with
one telling Bonner that the newspaper had to "take extra care" when
Bonner's name was on a story.[88]  Bonner himself recognized that he was in
trouble, telling Columbia Journalism Review in 1993 that the El Mozote
story was "the beginning of the end of my career at the New York
Times."[89] (Bonner resigned from the Times in July 1984,[90] although he
has since returned to the newspaper, where he reports from Indonesia.)
        Other journalists were also getting the message, and many viewed the
attacks on Bonner as the Reagan administration's way of keeping negative
stories about El Salvador out of the press.  In a March 1993 speech sponsored by the liberal Fairness
& Accuracy In Reporting, former AP reporter Robert Parry said the
administration went out of its way to conceal the truth about events in
Central America.  "It became necessary then to also discredit the
journalists, so Raymond Bonner … and others who were not accepting [the
administration's] story had to be made to seem to be liars," Parry
said.  "They had to be destroyed."[91]
        The beginning of the end for Bonner came when A.M. Rosenthal, the
executive editor at the Times, went to El Salvador in April 1982 and had a
private lunch with Hinton, who reportedly expressed his displeasure with
Bonner.[92]  The following August, Bonner was suddenly reassigned to the
New York office.  While some reporters felt the newspaper had "caved in" to
the embassy, Rosenthal said that "at no time, in no way, did any official
of the U.S. embassy or government suggest to me, directly or indirectly,
that we ought to reassign Bonner.  They're too sophisticated for
that."[93]  Rosenthal went further during an interview with journalist Mark
Hertsgaard, calling suggestions that the Times buckled under pressure from
the State Department "conspiratorial bullshit that just doesn't happen."[94]
        But other journalists thought otherwise.  Parry said he was in El Salvador
prior to Bonner's reassignment and had lunch with members of the U.S.
embassy's political-military affairs office.  "… On the way back to the
hotel," Parry said, "they were boasting about how they had 'gotten' Ray
Bonner. 'We finally got the son-of-a-bitch,' they said, and at that time
his removal had not yet been announced, so it was very interesting to hear
that they knew what was about to happen . . ."[95]

Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
        Although some reporters felt Bonner had come close to advocacy journalism,
his reassignment nevertheless sent shock waves through the press corps in
San Salvador.  Reporters became wary of writing stories that were too
critical of the embassy.  As one reporter put it at the time, Bonner's
transfer "left us all aware that the embassy is quite capable of playing
hardball … People treat it carefully.  If they can kick out the Times
correspondent, you've got to be careful."[96]
        Even some administration officials felt that the press backed off after
Bonner's reassignment.  Howie Lane, who was a press spokesman for the U.S.
embassy in San Salvador until 1982, said the media had "gotten off the
track" once Bonner was gone and "no longer goes looking for that [critical]
type of story anymore."[97]  Speaking in an interview with Columbia
Journalism Review in 1983, he added:
People are still getting killed, but it seems that editors are trying not
to concentrate on the errors of our "friends."  Unfortunately, our friends
are doing things every day that would embarrass any civilized
country.  Reporters have to keep telling the truth about what's happening.[98]

New York Times Coverage: 1983
        After Bonner was reassigned to New York, the tone of the Times's coverage
changed dramatically.  The reports filed by his replacements, Richard
Meislin and Lydia Chavez, lacked the skepticism contained in Bonner's
pieces.  Enterprise stories from outside San Salvador were rarely done as
the newspaper's coverage relied more heavily on official announcements by
top government sources.  As a result, the New York Times coverage of El
Salvador took on a stronger American perspective as stories about human
rights abuses all but disappeared and the voices of the rebels and peasants
were replaced with those of U.S. and Salvadoran officials.

        When stories about torture and brutality were written during this period,
they lacked the human element that was so evident in Bonner's pieces.  For
example, one of the few stories that touched on human rights abuses after
Bonner left El Salvador was published on January 18, 1983, under the
headline: "Congressman in Salvador Finds the 'Reality' Elusive."  Although
the story mentioned the suffering of a school teacher who had been tortured
while being held in a Salvadoran prison, the report was prompted by and
focused mostly on Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a New York Democrat who was on a
fact-finding trip to El Salvador.[99]  It is obvious from reading the story
that the reporter only wrote about the school teacher because Solarz had
thrown a spotlight on him, not because the journalist had done any
enterprise reporting herself.
        More disturbing is that many of the human rights stories that appeared in
1983 were framed in strictly political rather than human terms.  On April
24, 1983, for instance, Chavez wrote, "Human rights abuses not only
alienate the population, but make it increasingly difficult for the Reagan
administration to convince Congress to grant more military aid."[100]  The
use of the word "alienate" to describe the effects of military brutality on
the population whitewashed the true effects of the murders and rapes then
being committed against the peasants.  Moreover, the issue of human rights
was placed in the political context of Washington, focusing more on the
impact such abuses have on the administration's policy rather than on the
suffering of the Salvadoran people.
        As if this wasn't bad enough, the New York Times coverage in 1983 also
implied that human rights were not being abused.  For example, on April 21
Chavez wrote that "some political analysts believe the [Salvadoran]
government's wish for military progress could give rise to repression and
human rights abuses that might provoke the United States Congress into suspending aid."[101]  Not only did this report place
the issue in political terms, but the use of the words "could give rise to
repression" implied that human rights abuses were not then being committed
by the Salvadoran military, which, of course, they were.[102]
        The 1983 coverage in the Times reflected the Reagan administration's view
of events in El Salvador.  More often than not, American officials were
permitted to comment on events without being challenged by the Times.  In a
story about the problems associated with the land redistribution program,
for instance, the Times reported that while agrarian reform had
"encountered setbacks," Salvadoran and American officials had insisted that
"for the most part, it was again progressing."[103]  The statement went
unchallenged.  In another piece that ran a week later, the Times placed the
Reagan administration in a positive light when it reported that a
Salvadoran plan to evict nearly 4,700 peasants from their land had been
aborted after White House officials had intervened to stop the
evictions.[104]  The story was based solely on official government sources
and included no comments from peasants about how they were being treated or
whether in fact they were truly being returned to land they had been
evicted from only weeks before.
        When the Times did write stories that, on the surface, seemed to embarrass
the White House, a closer examination shows that the reports actually
played into the administration's hands.  For example, on April 25 Stephen
Kinzer filed a report saying that the guerilla movement had made "steady
military progress" against the Salvadoran military over the preceding six
months.  At first glance, it appears that this was a negative story for the
White House, which could have been seen as supporting a lost cause.
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
However, a closer read indicates that the story was most likely placed by
the administration as a way of pressuring a reluctant Congress into
approving additional aid to El Salvador.  The story pointed out that the
guerillas had made several "incremental" advances that had many American
and Salvadoran officials "concerned."  It then quoted Hinton saying that
much of the damage caused by the rebels could be attributed to "the
reluctance of Congress to send aid needed to train and equip new army
units."[105]  No rebels were quoted in the piece; nor did the newspaper
question whether it was being used to push Congress into giving the
administration the money it wanted to continue its Central American policy.
        Much of the Times's 1983 coverage was also biased against the
rebels.  When the guerillas had implemented a policy of releasing—rather
than killing—Salvadoran soldiers captured in battle, the Times reported
that "many analysts" viewed the policy as a "substantial propaganda victory
for the guerillas."[106]  When the rebels scheduled a meeting with a
special U.S. envoy for Central America to discuss the civil war in El
Salvador, the Times quoted a top Salvadoran official saying that the
meeting was nothing more than "a propaganda move" by the
insurgents.[107]  In neither story are any rebel leaders quoted.
        Likewise, in July the Times reported that the guerillas had abandoned the
policy of releasing captured Salvadoran soldiers unharmed and instead had
begun executing them.  However, the story is based solely on rumors and
American sources, with no concrete evidence provided.  For instance, the
piece said:  "…in recent weeks there have been reports that some guerillas
have abandoned the effective policy [of releasing prisoners] for one that may inspire more stubborn resistance by Government
soldiers: They have reportedly shot some prisoners."[108]
        The use of the words "there have been reports" indicates that the
reporter, Charles Mohr, was not sure whether the reports were true.  In
fact, he acknowledged as much in the story, writing that "at least some of
the reports are believed to be authentic, although journalists sometimes
have limited and difficult access to combat zones."[109]  Such uncertainty
raises the question: Why write the piece at all?  Yet not only was the
story written based on unsubstantiated rumors, but the bulk of the report
is written as if the reports are absolutely true.  For example, immediately
after acknowledging that reporters could not independently confirm the
reports, Mohr wrote,  "A military analyst here attributed the change in
policy to a 'loony fringe group.'"  The next few paragraphs then reported
that the rebels were split over the new policy, once again implying that
prisoners were, in fact, being executed.  The problem with the story is
that it was based entirely on Western military experts rather than the
rebels themselves—none of whom were quoted in the piece.
        This textual analysis strongly suggests that the New York Times's coverage
of the war in El Salvador changed significantly between 1982 and
1983.  When Bonner was reporting from Central America, the coverage in the
Times was much more aggressive.  Bonner challenged assertions by the Reagan
administration and pointed out inconsistencies in logic as well as
inaccurate statements by White House and embassy officials.  The newspaper
focused a greater percentage of its coverage on the failure of El Salvador's social, political, and economic reforms while also pointing out
setbacks within the Salvadoran military.
        After Bonner's reassignment, the administration was challenged by the
Times  less often and less aggressively.  In 1983 the newspaper shifted its
focus, taking on an American perspective and relying more closely on U.S.
and Salvadoran officials for its reports.
        Was the Reagan administration responsible for this change?  Did the White
House intimidate the Times?  There is at least circumstantial evidence to
suggest that the newspaper caved in to the administration.  As noted
earlier, Bonner was removed from El Salvador several months after U.S.
Ambassador Hinton met with Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times,
and reportedly expressed his displeasure with Bonner's
reporting.  Moreover, former AP reporter Robert Parry's assertion that he
heard U.S. embassy officials bragging about having "gotten Bonner" lends
support to those who believe that the White House, at best, knew in advance
that Bonner's days in El Salvador were numbered and, at worst, played a
part in his fate.
        What makes this particularly disturbing is that the Times is one of the
most influential newspapers in the country and helps set the agenda at
other media organizations.  While this paper did not analyze another
newspaper or broadcast network to see how their coverage may have changed,
observations (noted above) by Parry, other journalists, and former embassy
spokesman Howie Lane suggest that the Times was not alone in softening its
coverage of El Salvador.
        The ramifications for American democracy are disturbing.  The war in El
Salvador was a major foreign policy issue for the nation during the
1980s.  The Reagan
Raymond Bonner and the Salvadoran Civil War
administration placed its prestige on the line there, arguing vehemently
that America had to stand up to the forces of international communism.  For
Americans to weigh those arguments and assess whether their leaders were
doing the right thing there, they needed as complete a picture as possible
of the events in El Salvador.  The only outlet for that information is, of
course, the news media.  But if the Reagan administration was able to
intimidate the press, and if coverage in the media softened, then the press
cannot effectively play its role as watchdog of the government.  The
administration may have won a short-term public relations victory, but in
the end the entire nation suffered.
[1]  Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 96.
[2]  Ibid, 99.
[3]  Mike Hoyt, "The Mozote Massacre," Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 1993, available at
< http://www.cjr.org/year/93/1/mozote.asp > accessed 10 March 2000.
[4]  Raymond Bonner, "Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village," New York Times, 27 January 1982, A1.
[5]  Ibid.
[6]  Ibid.
[7]  Michael Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1983, 44.
[8]  Bernard Weinraub, "Envoy Says Salvadoran Plan is Intact," New York Times, 12 June 1982, 3.
[9]  "The Media's War," The Wall Street Journal, 10 February 1982, 26.
[10]  "The Ray Bonner Division," ed. Reed Irvine, AIM Report XI, no. 14 (July 1982): 1.
[11]  Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," 45-46.
[12]  Robert Parry, "Fooling America" (speech given to a meeting sponsored by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Santa Monica, California, 28 March
1993), available at http://www.realhistoryarchives.com/collections/conspiracies/parryspeech.htm
Real History, accessed 6 March 2000.
[13]  Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote, 10.
[14]  Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador (New
York: Times Books, 1984), 21-22.
[15]  Ibid., 25.
[16]  Martin Diskin and Kenneth Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El
Salvador, 1979-1985 (Berkeley, California: Institute of International
Studies, University of California, 1986), 6.
[17]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 16-17.
[18]  Ibid., 17.
[19]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 5.
[20]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 17.
[21]  Quoted in Thomas P. Anderson, Matanza: El Salvador's Communist Revolt
of 1932 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 84.
[22]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 22.
[23]  Anderson, Matanza, 40.
[24]  Ibid., 41
[25]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 4.
[26]  Ibid.
[27]  Anderson, Matanza, 132.
[28]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 5-6.
[29]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 33.
[30]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 6-7.
[31]  Ibid., 8.
[32]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 33.
[33]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 6-8.
[34]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 89-92.
[35]  Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since
the Assassination of Archbishop Romero (Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou
Press, 1991), 9.
[36]  Ibid., 10.
[37]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 18.
[38]  Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror, 10.
[39]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 18.
[40]  Walter Lafeber, "The Reagan Administration and Revolutions in Central
America," Political Science Quarterly 99 (Spring 1984): 2.
[41]  Ibid., 4.
[42]  U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Communist
Interference in El Salvador, (Washington, D.C., 23 February 1981): Special
Report No. 80, 1.
[43]  U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Democracy and
Security in the Caribbean Basin (testimony of Thomas O. Enders to the
Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, Washington, D.C., February 1982): Current Policy No. 364.
[44]  Lafeber, "The Reagan Administration and Revolutions in Central
America," 5.
[45]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 18-19.
[46]  Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror, 141.
[47]  Ibid., 17, 18.
[48]  David Shribman, "Two Groups in U.S. Contend El Salvador Violates
Civil Rights," New York Times, 27 January 1982, A10.
[49]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 20.
[50]  Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign
Affairs, Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, 97th Cong., 1st sess.,
U.S. Policy Toward El Salvador: Hearings before the Subcommittee on
Inter-American Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of
Representatives, 5 March 1981, 3-4.
[51]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 343-344.
[52]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 19.
[53]  Ibid., 19-20.
[54]  Christopher Dickey, "Turnout Heavy in El Salvador," Washington Post,
29 March 1982, A1.
[55]  Lou Cannon, "Reagan Sees a Latin 'Axis,'" Washington Post, 21 June
1983, A1; Philip Taubman, "Reagan's Latin Crusade: Frustrated
Administration Seeking to Lay Unrest at the Door of Russians and Cubans,"
New York Times, 28 July 1983, A1; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of
Public Affairs, Strategic Importance of El Salvador and Central America
(speech by Ronald Reagan to the National Association of Manufacturers,
Washington, D.C., 10 March 1983): Current Policy No. 464.
[56]  U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Human Rights
Conditions in El Salvador (testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for
Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams to the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, Washington, D.C., 29 July 1982): Current Policy No. 411,
1; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Building the Peace
in Central America (speech by Assistant Secretary of State for
Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders before the Commonwealth Club, San
Francisco, 20 August 1982): Current Policy No. 414, 2; Lou Cannon and
Charles Fishman, "Reagan to Seek Additional Aid for Region," Washington
Post, 21 July 1983, A1.
[57]  John M. Goshko, "Duarte's Party Moves Into Lead In Salvadoran Vote:
Administration Hails Large Voter Turnout," Washington Post, 30 March 1982,
A1; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Struggle for
Democracy in Central America (speech by Secretary of State George Shultz
before the Dallas World Affairs Council and Chamber of Commerce, Dallas, 15
April 1983): Current Policy No. 478, 3.
[58]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 188; Struggle for Democracy in Central
America, Current Policy No. 478, 2.
[59]  Diskin and Sharpe, The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador, 19;
Strategic Importance of El Salvador and Central America, Current Policy No.
[60]  Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," 43-44.
[61]  Raymond Bonner, "Two Americans Slain at Salvador Hotel: Aided Land
Agency," New York Times, 5 January 1981, A1; Raymond Bonner, "The Political
Harvest Also Grows When Peasants Rule … But Many Angrily," New York Times,
11 January 1981, Section 4, 4; Raymond Bonner, "Refugees in Salvadoran Camp
Are Forced to Move By Army," New York Times, 6 July 1981, A1; Raymond
Bonner, "For War's Castaways, Prison in Salvador is Home," New York Times,
10 July 1981, A2.
[62]  Raymond Bonner, "Salvador Troops Attacking Guerrillas on Volcano
Slope," New York Times, 6 January 1981, A3.
[63]  Raymond Bonner, "Salvadoran Village Gets a Taste of War," New York
Times, 1 January 1981, A3.
[64]  Raymond Bonner, "Salvador City is Shaken by Surprise Rebel Raid," New
York Times, 1 July 1981, A2.
[65]  Raymond Bonner, "With Salvador's Rebels in Combat Zone," New York
Times, 26 January 1982, A1.
[66]  Raymond Bonner, "U.S. Advisers Saw 'Torture Class,' Salvadoran Says,"
New York Times, 11 January 1982, A2.
[67]  Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," 44.
[68]  U.S. State Department, U.S. Embassy-San Salvador, Telegram, "New York
Times article on alleged torture incident," (January 1982), part of the "El
Salvador Collection" in the State Department's online archive.
[69]  Daniele LaCourse and Yvan Patry, Denial (videotape), New York: First
Run/Icarus Films, 1994.
[70]  U.S. State Department, U.S. Embassy-San Salvador, Telegram, "Report
on Alleged Massacre," (January 1982), part of the "El Salvador Collection"
in the State Department's online archive.
[71]  Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Certification
Concerning Military Aid to El Salvador: Hearing before the Committee on
Foreign Relations, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., 8 February 1982, 20-22.
[72]  United Nations, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador:
Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, 1993, available at
accessed 5 November 2003.
[73]  Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Report of the U.S.
Official Observer Mission to the El Salvador Constituent Assembly Elections
of March 28, 1982, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., November 1982, 5.
[74]  Raymond Bonner, "Fraud is Reported in Salvador Vote," New York Times,
4 June 1982, A5.
[75]  Ibid.
[76]  Goshko, "Duarte's Party Moves Into Lead In Salvadoran Vote," A1.
[77]  Raymond Bonner, "Salvadoran Leader Denies Vote Fraud," New York
Times, 6 June 1982, 3.
[78]  Ibid.
[79]  Bonner, Weakness and Deceit, 188.
[80]  Raymond Bonner, "Salvador Land Redistribution Plans Have Been
Shelved, Duarte Asserts," New York Times, 7 June 1982, A6.
[81]  Raymond Bonner, "Troops Accused of Killing 48 in Salvadoran Village,"
New York Times, 22 April 1982, A12.
[82]  Raymond Bonner, "Despite Salvadoran Vote, the Killings Are
Continuing," New York Times, 25 April 1982, 18.
[83]  Ibid.
[84]  "The Media's War," 26.
[85]  William A. Henry III, "War as a Media Event," Time, 29 March 1982, 75.
[86]  Bernard Weinraub, "Envoy Says Salvadoran Plan Is Intact," New York
Times, 12 June 1982, 3.
[87]  "The Ray Bonner Division," 2.
[88]  Mark Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency
(New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988), 191.
[89]  Hoyt, "The Mozote Massacre."
[90]  Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee, see footnote on page 196.
[91]  Parry, "Fooling America."
[92]  Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," 44.  Rosenthal said that
Bonner's name was not mentioned during this meeting.
[93]  Ibid., 45.
[94]  Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee, 197.
[95]  Parry, "Fooling America." Parry reiterated this story in his book
Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth and Manufacture
the Conventional Wisdom (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).
[96]  Massing, "About-face on El Salvador," 46.
[97]  Ibid., 42.
[98]  Ibid.
[99]  Lydia Chavez, "Congressman in Salvador Finds the 'Reality' Elusive,"
New York Times, 18 January 1983, A12.
[100]  Lydia Chavez, "Vides's First Target is Army Brass," New York Times,
24 April 1983, Section 4, 2.
[101]  Lydia Chavez, "Crucial Stage in Salvador," New York Times, 21 April
1983, A7.
[102]  America's Watch wrote the following: "From 1980 to 1983 detainees
were systematically tortured by all units of the security forces.  The most
frequent types of torture reported were severe beatings, death threats,
choking, electric shock, smothering with a hood, drugging, sexual violence,
submersions in water, burning with cigarettes, and mock executions." See
Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror, 18.  Moreover, the U.N.
truth commission that documented human rights abuses during the Salvadoran
civil war reported that 75 percent of the 22,000 complaints of violence it
received were for events that occurred from 1980 through 1983. See From
Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador: Report of the Commission
on the Truth for El Salvador.
[103]  Lydia Chavez, "Politics and Costs Hinder Land Program," New York
Times, 22 January 1983, 3.
[104]  Lydia Chavez, "Infighting Slows Salvador's Plans," New York Times,
30 January 1983, 11.
[105]  Stephen Kinzer, "U.S. and Salvador Officials Note Steady Rebel
Gains," New York Times, 25 April 1983, A3.
[106]  Ibid.
[107]  Lydia Chavez, "U.S. Latin Envoy Returns Home: Salvador Rebels Refuse
to See Him," New York Times, 11 July 1983, A1.
[108]  Charles Mohr, "Salvador Guerrilla Units Abandon a Useful Tactic,"
New York Times, 29 July 1983, A4.
[109]  Ibid.



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