Why Corporate Media Focuses on Benghazi Instead of Guatemalan Genocide

Last week two important stories about U.S. foreign policy broke. First, the White House released some 100 pages of e-mails confirming a dastardly scandal: rather than call the Benghazi attack a “terrorist act,” President Obama, in a Nixonian power grab, called it an, “act of terror.”

The second story broke in a country most Americans can’t place on a map—a U.S.-backed dictator in Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, was convicted of genocide. This is the first time any such conviction has been reached in a domestic court of law. The  dictator was found guilty on May 10 of overseeing deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil pupulation during his rule between 1982 and 1983, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. (The case has since been overturned, and the constitutional court announced it had thrown out all proceedings in the case dating back to April 19.  Judges quarrelled over who should take the case, and the trail was suspended.)

Yet, the former story has sucked up media coverage and the latter has wallowed in obscurity. Of major U.S. publications, only The New York Times has given the story any real coverage and even there, the coverage of Benghazi dwarfed that of Guatemala. The Wall Street Journal included a few conservative pundits accusing the international left—whatever that is—of playing politics with genocide (more on that later).  Fox News online picked up a few AP wires. But, ultimately, a general Google news search for “Rios Montt” brings up 11,000 results while a search for “Benghazi report” brings up 107,000 results. Benghazi is receiving 10 times more coverage than the first ever domestic court conviction of genocide.

What happened in Guatemala deserves significant contemplation and discussion. Given that it is now a popular trend among neoconservatives to own up to US-inflicted atrocities, it is especially dumbfounding that nobody is covering the issue.

A few of the atrocities committed by US-assigned dictators the world over have inspired retrospective media coverage of various flavors over the years.

In The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan writes that Ethiopia should lament the fact that the U.S. hasn’t installed a Pinochet there. This merits a brief summary of Pinochet’s actions: 

The Guardian reported in 2004, “a year-long investigation into state-sponsored torture in Chile has documented that an estimated 35,000 people were abused during the 1973-90 military regime.” The Independent reported in 1998 that, “Prisoners at both centres were subjected to electric shocks, severe beatings, suspensions from ceilings until their wrists tore, and rapes.” A recent Guardian story, detailing the torture of the Allende (Allende was the democratically-elected leader that Pinochet overthrew) supporter Leopoldo García Lucero describes some of the torture he faced: “The torture did not stop. He was suspended with weights on his legs, kicked in the testicles and burned with cigarettes.”

Ah, if only the Ethiopians could have had such a benevolent leader. When Pinochet was finally replaced by the democratically-elected Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin the country did not delve into chaos, but rather inequality and poverty—caused by the Western economic reforms Pinochet instituted—decreased, while education reform provided an impetus for upward mobility.

Similarly, in the wake of Iran-Contra, Dick Cheney laid blame not on Oliver North and the Reagan Administration for covertly funding the Contras, but rather on Congress for failing to approve the funds. I’ll let this excerpt from another Guardian report (quoted in William Blum’s book Killing Hope) suffice as a rebuttle:

"Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit."

Wikileaks recently released a document in which Kissinger said, "the illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer."

The right in this country has shown a stunning willingness to allow foreign bodies to pile up in vague hopes of protecting "national security."

Regarding Guatemala, some right-wing hawks have been equally unremorseful. J. Michael Waller calls blaming the US for installing the genocide-committing dictator a case of “easy propaganda.” In Foreign Policy Jose Cardenas writes:

"If someone wants to argue that the Reagan administration's policy gamble on Ríos Montt to quell the violence did not pan out, then that's one thing (history books are full of such examples). But to equate it with aiding and abetting "genocide" is beyond the pale. In fact, it is more evidence of an ideological agenda than any noble search for accountability."

In this retelling, we have a United States that merely supported a facist dictator, with the intent of quelling violence. It's worth noting that Reagan said the following about Montt:

"I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts."

Let’s examine the evidence:

Exhibit A is the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification report on the atrocities committed in Guatemala. Rather than support the argument that the U.S. was merely a financial supporter of Montt, the UN's report argues that many of the crimes originated from U.S doctrines. The report states:

"In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation."

The report later states:

"Anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine (DSN) formed part of the anti-Soviet strategy of the United States in Latin America. In Guatemala, these were first expressed as anti-reformist, then anti-democratic policies, culminating in criminal counterinsurgency." 

By the right we're told a story in which the Reagan administration is unaware of the abuses committed in Guatemala, and is even seeking to quell the violence. The Tuth Commission's sotry is entirely different. In their version, the U.S.National Security Doctrine actively fostered violence.

Onto Exhibit B. This recently declassified memo from the U.S. embassy in Guatemala shows U.S. officials downplaying the atrocities committed in Guatemala, for fear that Congress would cut military funding:

"We conclude that a concerted disinformation campaign is being waged in the U.S. against the Guatemalan government by groups supporting the Communist insurgency in Guatemala... The campaign’s object is simple: to deny the Guatemalan Army the weapons and equipment needed from the U.S. to defeat the Guerrillas."

We now know the crimes US officials tried to downplay in the above memo indeed occurred. According to the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification report—the authoritative document on the crimes committed in Guatemala—found that 93 percent of the crimes were committed by US-backed government forces, not the "Communist" rebels.

So, why is our corporate media so slow to report on these US-backed atrocities? 

Perhaps it is because creating psedo-scandals, and downplaying the real ones, serves an important purpose: it brings in advertisers. The target-market for advertisers in the mainstream, corporate-owned media are educated elites. Educated elites don't generally want to read about dead Ixil Indians, so newspapers shy away from the story—or sugarcoat it like Mary O'Grady does in the Wall Street Journal

"The tragedy was that the guerrilla strategy had brought the war to the Ixil lands in order to use the civilians. When the army, bent on rooting out the terror, followed, the population was forced to take sides or be caught in the crossfire. That's why so many died."

Of course, that's not what happened. Montt believed that the Ixil Indians were inferior people. The offensive was premeditated, not a case of tragic Indians getting "caught in the crossfire." The following news clippings make this clear: 

Reuters describes what occurred thusly:

When Rios Montt was in power, his government launched a fierce offensive in which soldiers raped, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Maya villagers suspected of helping Marxist rebels. Thousands more were forced into exile or had to join paramilitary forces fighting the insurgents.

Rigoberta Menchu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in1992, described the murder of her family as follows:

As for my mother, we never found her remains, either. … If her remains weren't eaten by wild animals after having been tortured brutally and humiliated, then her remains are probably in a mass grave close to the Ixil region. … My father was also burned alive in the embassy of Spain [in Guatemala City] on January 30th, 1980.

The propaganda model that prevades our news media, predicts that real scandals—ones that involve corporate interests and widespread atrocities—will go unreported. If they are reported, they will not occur in US client states and if they do, US involvement will be downplayed or praised as "necessary" to root out Marxism or bring about some better good.

 Noam Chomsky writes,

"... a propaganda model suggests that the societal purpose of the media is a inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serves this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises."

Sadly, last week proved this true. 

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