I traveled to Central America again in the 1984 to cover elections in El Salvador, a country in the midst of an armed rebellion. The military junta’s response had been ruthless. During the last year of Carter’s presidency, 1980, Salvadoran soldiers, police and death squads, killed 11,895 people, mostly peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, journalists, human rights advocates and priests. By 1992, when the civil war was finally over, at least 75,000 had been killed, although nobody knows for sure because so many poor people simply disappeared.
Despite this record, in his last week in office Carter suspended aid to Nicaragua and provided $10 million in aid for El Salvador’s military.
I had five reservations at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador, but on arrival all of them were gone. It took a hysterical meltdown and the famous Hodding Carter to get us one room for the seven of us. The elections were held under military rule amidst high levels of repression and violence. Candidates to the left of Duarte’s Christian Democrats were excluded from participating.
My lasting memories of that election have to do with fear. The morning after we checked into the Sheraton, we drove to a military base to get our press credentials. We waited on benches in a bare room with chipped pale yellow walls for nearly an hour as the death squads returned from their night’s work. The timing was intentional. Groups of four to six large men, dirty work clothes, eyes dead, faces devoid of any expression.
Christian Democrat José Duarte was running against Army Major Roberto d’Aubuisson. Duarte was a typical politician, but d’Aubuisson was a thug, a leader of the death squads, probably the man who ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero.
When we interviewed d’Aubuisson, he swaggered into the meeting room where we waited at a small table. Before either Hodding or I could get up, d’Aubuison pulled a nickel plated 45m pistol from his back pocket, slammed it down on the table between us, and sat down. He seemed confident of winning, but Duarte was finally victorious after a second vote.
Every day, just before dawn local El Salvadoran camera crews would go out on “vulture runs,” looking for the remains of the death squads’ night work, bodies left to rot on the outskirts of the city attracting vultures. The cameramen would sell the footage to international news teams for broadcast around the world.
A meeting with a catholic priest one night required us to walk several blocks from the hotel to a nearby restaurant. As we walked by a deserted contraction site, a van with tinted windows pulled up next to us and slowed to match our pace. The windows rolled down and automatic weapons came out pointing directly at us. Someone in the car shouted, “Bang, bang, bang” and in a peal of laughter the SUV sped off.
The night of the election we drove to Apopa, a working class suburb of the capital, to try to document voter intimidation. In the middle of a plaza, we ran into automatic rifle fire coming from both sides. We fell to ground. My cameraman kept videotaping, but the audio cable had become detached from his camera. Face pressed again the cobblestones, I tried unsuccessfully to reattach it. We gradually belly-flopped to a probably illusory protection of an abandoned ambulance. Fortunately an NPR reporter was in the square that evening, and we were able to match his audio to our video later in the edit room.
The election was a tragic joke. The lines of ordinary people, waiting for hours under a blazing sun, challenged by authorities, all for the precious right to vote, was inspiring, particularly for someone from the United States, where one y half the people even bother going to polls. It was tragic because an American public relations firm ran D’Aubuisson’s campaign with generous contributions from American conservatives, Duarte helped finance his campaign with a $2 million grant from the CIA, and nobody with interests of ordinary people were even allowed to run. . Nicaragua had elections the same year. According to the Reagan administration, the Nicaraguan elections were dishonest and meaningless, while the El Salvador elections were free and fair. The mainstream press generally agreed.
International observers disagreed. In Nicaragua, voting was not mandatory and independent European observers said the election was largely free and fair. In El Salvador signs of military intimidation were everywhere, if you bothered to look for them and talked to the poor. We told the real story most of the mainstream press ignored.
I was able to do the most solid journalism I had done since Pacifica on Inside Story. We did two shows on Rupert Murdock, The Press Baron Who Would Be King. We looked at how a largely white press covered Black mayors in Black Pols: White Press. We went to the Super Bowl for Super Bowl Super Stakes. We followed Jessie Jackson’s 1984 campaign for president and won another national Emmy for Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story.
Inside Story was in Grenada before most of the American troops got there. Hodding and his producer walked through an empty prison on the morning before brave marines were supposed to have stormed a heavily defended prison and liberated the captives. Like many military press handouts, this was written before the events it pretended to describe had even taken place.
We all thought that Inside Story would go on forever. I sat in a meeting at GE headquarters in Connecticut where executives promised that they were in it for the long hall. The show was popular with some conservatives, because it criticized American press performance.
Ned wanted to do a program on press coverage of the nuclear energy industry. He knew that reactors were much more dangerous than the mainstream press admitted. If you’ve read my blog, you know that I have a long history of biting the hand that feeds me, but in this case I was cautious. Maybe I was growing up. GE was heavily invested in nuclear energy. I didn’t think the issue was worth jeopardizing our funding for and I simply failed to appoint a producer to do the show. Hodding backed me up.
Ned hired an old friend, recently divorced, just coming off a two-week retreat with Werner Erhard, the founder of EST. Ned was the boss and I did my best to work with his producer. As his research focused on a nuclear facility in Arizona, I asked him if any GE products were involved. He promised they were not.
It was about a week before air when I screened his rough cut. It was a powerful story about a nuclear facility in Arizona that had illegally buried radioactive equipment in the desert to avoid the costs of proper disposal. While a local reporter had picked this up, no one would run his story. I asked Ned’s producer again if GE were in any way involved. He said he had just discovered that GE made the reactors for the nuclear facility we were attacking. The show was trashing a major GE client.
I was angry. Ned’s producer started massaging my shoulders and told me to calm down, in good EST practice. I didn’t want to calm down. I wanted to fire the producer and can the show, but Ned persisted in broadcasting it.
We sent a copy of the fine cut to GE as we did with all our productions. They never said a word, but they pulled their expensive national advertising campaign which had scheduled full-page ads in a large variety of national publications from the New Yorker to TV Guide. When the season was over, General Electric declined to continue their funding. Nobody ever said anything about the nuclear show. That’s the way it works.
Ned tried to raise funding elsewhere but Inside Story was dead.