Presswatch: The Uses of Symmetry

by Adam Jones (1988)

[Originally published in Latin America Connexions. An analysis of "objectivity" in North American media coverage of Central America's crisis in the eighties. The same theme was explored at greater length, and in a similar context, in Mark Pedelty, War Stories.]

There could hardly be a more poignant illustration of this month's Presswatch theme than the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 by a U.S. warship stationed in the Persian Gulf. My topic this month is media symmetry: how it's created, or discounted, or distorted.

The similarities between the destruction of Flight 655 and the Soviet shootdown of a Korean airliner over the Kamchatka peninsula in 1983 are striking. For that reason they are generally avoided. The downing of KAL 007 gave Ronald Reagan another chance to assail the Soviets as evil hypocrites, talking peace out of one side of their mouth and ruthless annihilation out of the other. While some hard questions remain about the KAL incident (see R.W. Johnson's book, Shootdown), the innocuous nature of the Iran Air flight is generally conceded. At press time, the U.S. had backed down from its original contention that the jet was flying outside its appropriate corridor. There are even indications (thanks to some frank coverage in the Toronto Globe and Mail) that the radar system on board the U.S.S. Vincennes has been known to mistake an approaching cloud for an attacking fighter.

Can we therefore assume, as the laws of symmetry would dictate, that the U.S. regime, like its Soviet counterpart, is riddled with evil and hypocrisy? Far from it. The Reagan Administration recognizes only a public-relations dilemma. "Let's put it this way: we're not oblivious to the realities of the media and public perceptions," says an Administration official (New York Times, July 4). "We're dealing with it as a reality. We've got a problem here." That is, a problem of sincere-but-misguided public perceptions, not of U.S. policy or Navy skeet-shooters in the Persian Gulf. Above all, symmetry must be avoided, since real-world comparisons might force modifications in U.S. global posturing.

Consider a more subtle example of the same phenomenon. In 1986, after the assassination of Olof Palme, the Globe and Mail carried an obituary for the Swedish Prime Minister. It included the following sentence: "He (Palme) condemned the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, although he also opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968." Glance again at the quote. Palme opposed the invasion of Vietnam, and he opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia. A perfectly clear, ordinary case of real-world symmetry leading to ethical consistency. The kind of thing the human brain was made for, you might think. So why the word, "although"? The Globe, attempting to juggle these elements is knocked off balance by a prevailing mainstream dogma: that there is some qualitative difference between an invasion when carried out by a country with which one happens to be allied, and one carried out by an enemy. This isn't to accuse the Globe of deliberate distortion (in this case, at least). It's merely to note that the faint whiff of contradiction, or anomaly, that the paper detects in Palme's political position is the product of ideological biases that are deeply ingrained in our media and political culture.

Sometimes the vagaries of symmetry are that subtle. Sometimes they're pretty obvious. Symmetry - the attempt to find it, or to create it out of whole cloth whether the exercise is justified or not - takes many forms. It is one of the most interesting and revealing elements of modern mainstream journalism, and worth looking at more closely for that reason.

For purposes of illustration, we can divide the broad concept into a few sub-categories. And there's no need to look further than a few months' worth of North American (mainly U.S.) print media for suitable examples of each genre.

Redbait Symmetry

Also knows as "The Ghost of Tail-Gunner Joe." Ever since the ascent of the House Un-American Activities Commission after World War Two, and the corresponding penetration of anti-communist paranoia into the very marrow of liberal-democratic society, anything that reflects favourably on a communist, socialist, or left-leaning government or movement has been taboo. (To a surprising extent, this holds true in media discussion of Scandinavia, though that variant of socialism carries enough nice liberal-western credentials to get through on occasion. Besides, there's not many Scandinavians, and they live way away at the top of the world, so a few political eccentricities are forgivable.) Similarly, anything that tarnishes the image of a government or movement opposing the leftist rabble-rousers must be placed in the appropriate context. That is, symmetry must be provided - or it must be created.

Stephen Kinzer, the New York Times' Nicaragua correspondent, is the undisputed modern master of Redbait Symmetry. Nicaragua's "civil war" began with terrorist raids by U.S.-backed contra forces based in Honduras, and that's remained the trend ever since. The result has been thousands of Nicaraguan civilians murdered, ambushed, maimed, raped, kidnapped, tortured, or "disappeared." Kinzer isn't blind to the damage that the contras have caused. It's just that, from his reporting, you'd rarely get the notion that the contras were responsible. Consider his account of U.S. aid mandated by Congress for child victims of the U.S. war effort in Nicaragua (April 8, 1988):

The fighting here has taken a heavy toll on young Nicaraguans. In health centers and hospitals, it is common to find children maimed by land mines, shot in crossfire or otherwise wounded by weapons of war.

Now, who planted the land mines? What's all this about "shot in crossfire"? Who happened to be in charge of the "weapons of war"? From these padded phrases, it might seem the kids in question simply failed to exercise due caution when crossing the road. In almost all cases, of course, the culprits are the contras. But acknowledging this would reveal the U.S. proposal for "humanitarian" aid to the rebels as a grotesque travesty (or a "ridiculous paradox," in Daniel Ortega's words). It would also cast aspersion on the contras, whose essential illegitimacy is another almost universally-respected taboo subject in the U.S. media. Therefore, a kind of hazy symmetry is cobbled together. Children die at the hands of "weapons of war," not the U.S. surrogates holding them. Kinzer again (January 28, 1988):

The land mine that the Orozco brothers found (and which blinded one of them Author's note) had apparently been placed by retreating contras hoping to prevent Sandinista soldiers from pursuing them. But the random terror of civil conflict, by its nature, envelops all armed groups in guilt.

The chutzpah here is breathtaking. Ask yourself how "random" the terror would be - and how shared the guilt - if the culprits were Soviet soldiers and the victims Afghan villagers. Or if it were the Sandinistas planting mines that maim small children using public trails.

Sometimes these apologetics are too extreme even for the Times (or for a sufficiently vocal group of Times readers). On March 9, in a classically half-assed attempt at Redbait Symmetry, Kinzer wrote that "The Sandinista Government today cancelled a negotiating session with contra representatives that was planned for Wednesday. The contras had earlier announced they would not attend." Two days later, a redfaced Times printed a partial retraction of this howler, though with ol' Redbait still alive and kicking: "In fairness, (the article) should have reported the collapse of the negotiation plan without attributing it to either side." Translation: Our mask slipped a little. We'll be more careful next time.

A recent editorial in the Christian Science Monitor (World Edition, May 23-29) takes a more subtle tack. U.S. backed efforts at "land reform" in Latin American countries have manifestly failed. U.S. policy cannot contemplate the removal of the main impediments to meaningful reform: the local oligarchs whose interests the U.S. trumpets. Therefore, land reform is no longer a vital issue:

(It) is still an important symbol of progress to many Latins. But it is no longer seen as the single most important ticket to economic justice. For many people, more urban jobs, higher wages, and better working conditions are now equally or more important.

The Monitor thus establishes that land has lost its primary importance in the social sweepstakes; there is symmetry between agrarian reform and a host of other concerns. The proof for this interesting appraisal is that "many" people (mostly city-dwellers, logically enough) focus their attention elsewhere. No majority viewpoint - and it would presumably have to be quite a large majority to be visible and worth commenting on - is suggested. But, very gently, what Tom Barry calls the "root of rebellion" in Latin America - elite control over land - is relegated to the sidelines. Where does Redbait sneak into the equation? Quite simply, the relevance of the leftist critique (which generally and sensibly puts land reform at the top of the agenda) is seen to be in decline. The obstinate refusal of U.S. policymakers and their Latin proxies to address the issue is downplayed. Their reformist zeal isn't necessarily absent - maybe it's just directed elsewhere, in response to the masses' pleas to de-emphasize the land question ...

'Centrist' Symmetry, or The Liberal's Lament

When the United States decides to replace a cosmetically unappealing surrogate (usually a military dictator or junta) with a slightly more palatable regime (usually concealed by an electoral façade and a round of "brave but doomed" attempts at systemic reform), the media must work to map out the centre ground. No matter how abject the willingness of the new man to kowtow to entrenched elite elements - by giving the army free rein, pulling back on land reform, turning a blind eye to death squads - he must be painted as the voice of moderation, a veritable oasis in a desert of extremes. This allows all commentators back home, short of the really far-out fringe, to "get on board" and throw their weight behind this paragon of sober pragmatism. The mechanism is simple: a symmetry is established whereby the violence of the extreme right mirrors the depredations of the extreme left, with the selected hero desperately navigating a course between the two.

In El Salvador, José Napoleon Duarte fits the 'centrist' bill. Co-opted into a reformist military junta that was soon toppled by another military coup, Duarte eventually accepted the U.S. version of his country's destiny and agreed to run in the farcical 1984 elections. Today he is ill, stricken with terminal liver cancer. The eulogies are already being trundled out. And the similarity of the theme - helpless Duarte, trapped between the extremes - gives a powerful insight into the willingness with which the dogma of centrist symmetry is swallowed south of the border:

(Duarte) embodied the U.S. policy to forge a strong democratic center in El Salvador .. his stature still bolstered U.S. efforts to contain leftist guerrillas and right-wing groups. Without his presence, both extremes might make rapid gains. (Newsweek, June 13 1988.)

He has been that most valuable and admirable of politicians, a serious and decent person who chose to devote himself over the decades to the seemingly impossible mission of moving from his religious faith to the building of democracy in just about the most inhospitable circumstances imaginable. For his efforts he has suffered grievous personal and family injury at the hands of right and left alike. ... Against immense odds he has struggled to create a center and make it hold. (Washington Post, in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, June 12 1988.)

(The reference there to "grievous personal and family injury at the hands of right and left alike is an interesting example of spurious symmetry all by itself. The reference to "personal injury" apparently recalls Duarte's incarceration and torture by the right-wing military in the early 1970s; the "family injury" apparently refers to the recent kidnapping of his daughter by FMLN guerrillas, though the daughter was unharmed and, embarrassingly for Duarte, seems to have had a pretty enjoyable and enlightening time with the rebels.)

The New York Times (Editorial, June 8) notes that Duarte's "frustrations are a reminder that of all the burdens a decent democrat carries in a poor, third world country, excessive expectations can be the heaviest":

Returning in 1980 to head a provisional junta, (Duarte) found himself beset on the left by dogmatic Marxist insurgents and on the right by death squads. ... At the same time, the Duarte years have been learning years. ... The left is less cockily sure of its dogmas and timetables. The right knows that death squads will kill U.S. aid as well as Salvadorans. By stubbornly holding the center ground, Mr. Duarte has bought time and space for this moderating trend.

Where, in these solemnities, would one find any indication that Duarte has personally overseen the expansion of the military's campaign to the Salvadoran countryside, where bombing with napalm and white phosphorus continues to take a withering toll? How does Duarte's blanket refusal to open meaningful talks with those "dogmatic Marxist insurgents" - as he committed himself to doing at the 1987 meeting of the Central American presidents in Guatemala - figure in the equation? And what measures has Duarte taken to counter the shocking rise of death-squad activity in El Salvador since the signing of the Guatemala accord? (As for death squads "kill(ing) U.S. aid as well as Salvadorans," this can only be meant as humour.)

It is instructive to compare the tack of the U.S. media, indicated above, with some of the more thoughtful coverage in this country. In an excellent column in the Globe and Mail (June 14, 1988), Paul Knox notes that with the rise of the FMLN/FDR guerrillas in the early 1980s, "Alarmed U.S. strategists, fearing the loss of a second ally in the region (after the revolution in Nicaragua), sought to construct a 'centrist' political facade that would make it politically acceptable to give the Salvadoran army the support it needed to defeat the insurgency." Knox adds that Duarte

promised land reform, respect for human rights and an end to the war but one by one these dreams were abandoned ... Mr. Duarte gambled on an alliance with the United States against his more radical countrymen. Less charitably, you could say he made a Faustian deal with a power whose influence tainted his every move.

Given that the U.S. was inextricably allied with the "more radical" Salvadoran military and oligarchy, this doesn't seem to have been much of a "gamble." But at least Knox pinpoints the basic shabbiness of this political whore - and the quotation marks he places around 'centrist' in the above quote are worth their weight in gold.

A fearless Presswatch prediction: the ARENA party, closely allied with the Salvadoran death squads, will win next year's presidential election. The media will discover that ARENA is not so bad after all. Or at least that there are a few brave centrist figures, struggling to hold the party's right wing in tow, who must be supported. Maybe a force will emerge that is further right than ARENA (in El Salvador, just about anything is possible), and the whole party can sport the new centrist mantle. Sound ludicrous? A recent New York Times story quotes a U.S. official to the effect that ARENA is a bunch of "nice guys" who just happen to be "extremely conservative." And where officialdom treads, 'Centrist' Symmetry is never far behind.(1)

Olympian Symmetry

This is particularly useful. The journalist or editor sits above the fray like the Greek gods of old. From up there, all the fuss and confusion below - the competing factions and fierce conflicts - seem like so much muddle. Only a fool or an ideologue would dare think that a meaningful perspective could be obtained in the midst of such chaos. We must wait for time to tell, for a reasoned and judicious historical perspective to emerge; say, two or three hundred years. Meanwhile, we might as well just be honest about it. All our investigative skills and earnest reportage can't provide the neat divisions and clear distinctions our readers would probably admire. Thus - let's just lump everyone and everything together, and let time (or more hotheaded types) sort it out.

The great thing about this brand of symmetry is that it almost sounds humble. Things just aren't clear, and all our skill can't make them much clearer. The notable thing about Olympian symmetry is that it tends to be very selectively applied. No-one has any difficulty providing events in Poland or Afghanistan, for example, with a basic interpretive framework. But sit U.S.-backed proxies down to negotiations with the Sandinistas; bring in some last-minute CIA instructions that prompt the contras to sabotage the meeting; watch things break up in acrimony - and voilà! The smokescreen descends.

It's discouraging but scarcely surprising that peace talks between Sandinistas and contras collapsed amid mutual recriminations last week ... It's not easy to determine which side killed this particular dream. Both sides have by turn compromised and thrown up roadblocks in their tortuous negotiations. (New York Times editorial, June 14, 1988).

The editorial compares the behaviour of CIA surrogate Col. Enrique Bermúdez, who dropped the bombshell of the "new negotiating position" two hours before the meeting ended, with that of "Daniel Ortega ... (who may have) seized on these and other tough new demands as an excuse to end the talks. For the Sandinistas, that would eliminate an unwanted democratic opening, and leave them the option of crushing the contras militarily." Meanwhile, Stephen Kinzer weighed in again with his lofty musings, writing (June 11) that "rebel leaders hardened their position in response to mixed political signals from the Sandinista Government" - not in response to explicit CIA instructions to torpedo the talks by making unacceptable demands at the last possible moment.

Strangely enough, the Times noted later, without further comment (Editorial, June 27), that "instead of moving to close the gap, contra negotiators came up with provocative new demands for instant demobilization and the immediate release of all political prisoners." Of course, the thrust of the editorial urged the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of State, George Shultz, to take advantage of the new possibilities for compromise, ignoring the fact that Shultz represents the most prominent saboteur of compromise. Still, somehow it became possible, between June 14 and 27, to ascertain "which side killed this particular dream." Often, symmetry takes a back seat - but it rarely gets out of the car. In most cases, it's pretty clear that the contras could have walked into that Managua conference room and sprayed the Sandinista delegation with machine-gun fire, and Stephen Kinzer would still be writing: "Until the smoke clears, it will be difficult to apportion blame for the most recent breakdown in the peace talks, which is also the most serious so far ..."

Sometimes, even 40 years of perspective doesn't destroy the effectiveness of Olympian Symmetry. Take, for example, the systematic and deliberate recruitment of active Nazis by the U.S. government after World War Two. (The Nazis had a lot of experience in combatting communism, which made them prize intelligence catches.) Peter Grose, reviewing a new book on this subject for the Washington Post, concludes as follows (in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, May 15):

Any writing on this topic - and the inquiry is only begun - has to find a subtle balance between moral condemnation and pragmatic vindication. Both have their places; indeed, both are necessary if the story is to be understood. (Christopher) Simpson (author of Blowback) does not hide his outrage, but he fairly offers the evidence to help a later generation comprehend well-intentioned actions that suffer in the scrutiny of history.

So let's leave it for the scrutinizers of history to sort out, and never mind that this kind of Olympian symmetry - so useful when it comes to dismissing distasteful topics - is one of the main reasons "the inquiry is only begun," four decades after the fact. (One can only wonder how many former Nazis, troubled by pangs of conscience, have sought solace in their "well-intentioned actions" that, owing to unforeseen historical trends, happen to have rubbed public opinion the wrong way. No matter. At least, if Grose's tacit advice to forgive and forget is followed, the "later generation" won't be tempted to look for similarities in U.S. foreign policy today. We can deal with the present-day horde of unsavoury generals, drug-runners, and death-squad henchmen some years down the road, once tempers have cooled.)

Historical Symmetry

This is probably the rarest of the breed, in the print media at least; in some ways, it's also the most pernicious. The essential argument of historical symmetry is that Things were bad, but that's irrelevant, because they got better.

Like Olympian symmetry, this perspective depends upon selective application. No-one (at least, no-one I would sit at a dinner table with) pretends that increases in industrial production justify the Stalinist reign of terror during the 1920s and 1930s. When capitalist behaviour is at stake, however, it doesn't take a lot to mitigate past mistakes. Yes, the U.S. deposed the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Yes, the coup was followed by 32 years of basically uninterrupted military rule. Yes, at least 100,000 died at the hands of army counterinsurgency forces and death squads, and hundreds of thousands more fled their homes, all with the enthusiastic assent and assistance of successive U.S. governments. But that was back then. The U.S. helped arrange a quasi-democratic election in 1985, which brought Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo to quasi-power. The killings go on, but Vinicio, nice guy that he is, wants nothing to do with them personally. Historical symmetry is established by the "return to democracy," and the line is parroted almost without exception in the U.S. mainstream media, for whom the "fragile flower of democracy" is an irresistible image and theme.

To plumb the depths of this absurdity, consider Stanley Karnow's long view of U.S. "influence" in the Philippines, starting with the invasion and subjugation of the Filipino independence movement after the U.S. seized the archipelago from Spain:

The conquest, which began in 1898, was as ugly as any imperialist episode. But America soon started to atone for its brutality. On a sultry August day in 1901, a converted cattle ship, the Thomas, steamed into Manila Bay with 500 young schoolteachers aboard. ... The early teachers remain legendary. Older Filipinos evoke misty memories of 'Mr. Parker' or 'Miss Johnson', who introduced them to reading or algebra. (New York Times, June 16, 1988.)

An estimated three hundred to five hundred thousand Filipinos died in this "ugly" episode, many of them after horrific tortures. Nonetheless, Mr. Parker and Miss Johnson stepped in to save the day, and the rapid spread of reading (English) and algebra atoned for America's earlier injudicious actions. Historical symmetry is established, and peace (or at least intellectual stagnation) reigns supreme. Stanley Karnow, by the way, is also author of the book that's now viewed as the standard mainstream history of the Vietnam War. Is it any wonder?


1. 1991 note: This prediction was amply borne out by the recruiting of Alfredo Cristiani as the "moderate" ARENA head. In fact, even these heights of absurdity were surpassed in a recent article by the Times' Shirley Christian about the terminal cancer of Roberto d'Aubuisson, "the far-right (ARENA) leader accused of death-squad involvement in the early 1980's." This is the man who oversaw the campaign of death-squad slaughter in the early 1980s; the man who Robert White, ex-U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, called a "pathological killer." Christian, awed as usual by glamorous right-wing thugs, finds him "a hard-smoking, hard-drinking man with a James Dean-like style and image. ... In recent years Mr. d'Aubuisson has come to be viewed as an astute politician in a country with few of those. He has developed a willingness to compromise, say members of other parties." (New York Times, July 22, 1991.)

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