Last June 25, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill giving $100-million to the contras, the terrorist group fighting to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. After four months of debate and intense lobbying, arm-twisting and promises by President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government had taken another step to prevent what Reagan calls the consolidation of a communist beachhead on the North American continent. The next day The Toronto Star carried two stories covering the event. One was from the British wire service, Reuters; the other was filed by Associated Press, an American wire service.
There were no pieces by Canadian reporters based in the U.S., Canada or Nicaragua. If it was disappointing that Canada’s largest newspaper should settle for such slight reporting, it was not unusual. According to the Star’s foreign editor, Joe Hall, the paper relies “primarily for its foreign coverage on the wire services, especially AP, for its hard news coverage.”
The consequences of this policy are greater than once-over-lightly stories. For example, the June 26 AP dispatch that describes events leading up to the vote in Congress reflects what Hall refers to as an “almost inevitable bias.” Filed from Washington, the report attempts to give readers background information on U.S. government and CIA involvement with the contras. The story begins by repeating Reagan’s frequent claim that the Sandinista government is bent on exporting revolution throughout Central America, an assertion strengthened a few paragraphs later. “The anti-government Contra guerrillas were organized by the Central Intelligence Agency as a secret force in 1981 to halt the flow of smuggled weapons from Nicaragua’s government to leftist insurgents in EI Salvador.” Ostensibly this is true, since it was the rationale given by the CIA and Reagan for the creation of the contras. However, since only one arms shipment was discovered after 1981, Reagan was forced to produce a new explanation for continued contra support: the contras were needed to press for Nicaraguan elections. Elections were held in 1984; Reagan now calls for the replacement of communism by “real democracy” led by the contras.
The article notes that although “former Somoza supporters still occupy key military positions [among the contras), the force has been augmented by Sandinistas who have defected.” But these leaders are not simply Somoza supporters; they are former members of the National Guard, responsible for propping up Somoza’s brutal 45-year regime. The top military commanders and the heads of logistics, intelligence, training, operations and special forces are all ex-National Guardsmen. The AP writer also states Reagan’s claim that there are now 25,000 contras, with many more anxious to join. Although the reporter says the number is disputed, he offers no estimates by alternative sources, which have placed the contras’ strength at less than half of that number.
Joe Hall admits there are problems with bias in U.S. wire stories. Both he and editorial page editor Ian Urquhart agree that unbiased reporting of any story is an almost impossible goal. “I defy any journalist to say he is totally objective,” says Urquhart. “Whether it’s the headline, what you choose to lead with or the order of the rest of the story, there’s always going to be a bias.” Hall says readers must be aware of the possible slant in American wire stories: “They have to be a little sophisticated and realize there is an almost inevitable American slant and bias within the stories.” Yet this doesn’t push him to increase the Star’s coverage from a Canadian point of view.
In March, 1986, the month the contra aid bill was first introduced in the House of Representatives, the paper ran 27 stories focusing on Nicaraguan affairs and Nicaragua’s relations with other countries. Six originated in Canada-with four written by Star reporters and two short pieces coming from Canadian Press; two others were prepared by Steven Donziger, an American stringer for the paper living in Nicaragua; and one special report was filed by a Canadian freelancer in Costa Rica. The other 18, with the exception of three Reuters stories, were all American. Of these, 10 articles are datelined Washington, one New York and two Honduras. Three analysis pieces and two excerpts from an American book, With the Contras, completed the list.
Wire stories about Nicaragua in The Toronto Star are usually straight news reports, often containing quotes or paraphrases from President Reagan’s speeches. Reagan’s comments may be juxtaposed with opposition arguments, but the actual content of his statements is never questioned. So, on March 17, an AP story states: “[Reagan] accused members of the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua of selling illegal drugs to Americans, using their country as a terrorist command post, and threatening the security of the Western alliance by seeking to spread revolution through Central America to the Panama Canal.” In fact, it is the contras who have been proved to be heavily involved in the drug trade, not the Sandinistas, and it has never been shown that Nicaragua is exporting its revolution. None of the wire stories ever touches the question of why the tiny country of Nicaragua is such a threat to the U.S., why the “malignancy in Managua” is, in Reagan’s terms, a “mortal threat to the entire New World.” Although some of the reports contain dissenting views, none challenges the underlying assumption that Nicaragua is somehow a problem needing a solution and that America is in some way responsible for finding this answer.
The four Canadian news stories the Star ran in March present an alternative approach to U.S. coverage. Three pieces focus on appeals to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by churches and prominent Canadians that he urge Reagan to end military intervention in Nicaragua. The other article details a conversation with two Nicaraguan clerics who deny U.S. reports of government persecution of the church. The articles portray Nicaragua as more than a U.S. domestic affair and show the existence within Canada of organized opposition to Reagan’s policies.
Stories of an alleged invasion of Honduras by Nicaraguan troops at the end of March, the same time the contra aid bill was being debated in the U.S. House, also illustrate differences between Canadian and U.S. reporting. The Star carried four items covering the event: two from AP in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one from The Washington Post, and nine days after the invasion, one by stringer Steven Donziger. Perhaps because reporters were not, at first, allowed to enter the Nicaraguan-Honduran border area and yet were compelled to “get a story,” the AP reports are a confusing jumble of numbers, claims and contradictions. They rely heavily on unnamed official American and Honduran sources, and paint the Nicaraguan army as a vicious aggressor. The Post article, picked up by the Star one week after the first AP story, begins to seriously examine the event, indicating that the Nicaraguan “invasion” had been overblown and suggesting that the timing was suspiciously close to the U.S. vote on contra aid. Two days later, the Star’s Donziger files a report from Managua in which Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega claims that one contra base was destroyed as part of a “defensive operation.” Most of the piece is devoted to Ortega’s explanation and defence of Nicaragua’s actions. This may be one-sided, but it is the first opportunity readers have had to consider the issues involved and to hear Nicaragua make its case.
Canadian reporting often brings out information not mentioned in American wire stories. This, in part, may be a function of the tremendous demands placed on wire service reporters, who must write stories quickly to meet the deadlines of hundreds of papers around the world. These reporters may not have the time to do the digging and analysis necessary to produce more complete articles. Foreign correspondents writing regularly for one publication have a better opportunity to come to grips with issues instead of chasing events. More specifically, a reporter writing for a Canadian paper such as The Toronto Star has more freedom to take a critical look at American foreign policy and its effects in Central America. American reporters are often hesitant to criticize or question activities of their government (with notable exceptions). Pastor Valle-Garay, consul-general of Nicaragua to Canada, believes American opinion, including that of journalists, has been manipulated by Reagan. “Reagan has been able to threaten both reporters and congressmen into seeing his side of the story, mostly by calling them un-American or communist sympathizers,” he says. As Toronto writer and media critic Rick Salutin told the Review last October, a reporter “wouldn’t be accused of being a disloyal Canadian for not supporting the contras. Being a Canadian isn’t a religion the way being an American is.”
Although the Star’s Hall realizes the limitations of wire service stories and the advantages of staff correspondents, he says: “It hasn’t been possible in my mind to justify opening a bureau in Central America. Nicaragua and EI Salvador are continually interesting, but not in my judgment sufficiently interesting to have a staff bureau there.” The Star has now assigned one reporter, Gordon Barthos, to report on Central America. He can travel to the area a few times a year and write reports both from Central America and from Toronto. Unfortunately, Barthos is also the paper’s foreign affairs and arms control expert -a heavy load.
So The Toronto Star’s readers will continue to receive a contradictory mélange of news on Central America most of it containing American perceptions and bias and some reflecting the Star’s more liberal and critical views. Peter Desbarats, author and dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate School of Journalism, put it in context in an interview last fall: “I think it’s extremely dangerous for us to take all our international news, without editing or commentary, from American sources. It really inhibits the ability of the Canadian government to formulate an independent foreign policy if the whole population is conditioned to look at things from the American perspective.”