The New York Times Comes Clean, Sort Of ...
By Robert Parry
WASHINGTON -- At esteemed newspapers, such as The New York Times,
placement of a story is a carefully weighed message to the reader about
the relative importance to attach to the news. So is phrasing about guilt
when the paper is assessing responsibility for crimes. If an enemy is
called to account, the wording can be explicit. But if the culprit is an
ally, the phrasing gets fuzzy, often sliding into a passive tense that
disconnects who has done what to whom.
"Words are regularly transformed in the service of the powerful," observed
media critic Edward S. Herman in an analysis entitled "Word Tricks &
Propaganda" [ Z Magazine, June 1997]. But the Times
may have taken these techniques to new heights in the June 7 Saturday
Two stories were separated by 11 pages, though they connected to the same
horrendous topic, the slaughter of an estimated quarter million people by
the sadistic Guatemalan army, a military that has dominated the Central
American country since the CIA sponsored and directed a coup in 1954 to
oust a democratically elected government.
Though natural side-bars, the stories were not even cross-referenced. One
dealt with the bloody results of the coup (without mentioning the CIA or
the U.S. government once); the other was a bloodless account of how The
New York Times assisted the CIA (without mentioning the ensuing
On page one was a grisly account of how Guatemalans have begun the
painstaking process of excavating the hundreds of mass graves that dot the
Guatemalan countryside. Though the army's role in the mass murders was
not in doubt, the Times chose indirect phrasing that blurred
the blame: "More than 100,000 people were killed during the 36-year
conflict in Guatemala," stated the article by correspondent
Larry Rohter. "Another 40,000 disappeared and are presumed dead."
The army's brutality was also indiscriminate, wiping out whole families.
In Rio Negro, a grave site was excavated uncovering the skeletons of more
than 100 children as well as 80 women. Another grave containing the
army's victims was found inside a 16th century church in San Andres
Sajcabaja, along with military gear and pornographic playing cards.
Outside the village of San Martin Jilotepeque, soldiers filled a deep well
with their victims. "Relatives of those missing here have been suspicious
since the early 1980s of the well and the foul odors that have often
wafted from it, but like thousands of others in this country of 10.5
million, they were unable to act," Rohter reported.
The article also described some of the army's grotesque practices,
including how executioners entangled their victims with ropes to force
them to strangle themselves. Another account explained how soldiers raped
young girls in front of their parents as a coercive technique.
Rosa Moreno said that on Dec. 12, 1981, soldiers broke down the doors to
her family's home and beat her father. To stop his resistance, the
soldiers sexually assaulted his 10-year-old daughter -- Moreno's sister --
until her father surrendered. He was taken away never to be seen again by
Though the mass-grave story was a startling admission about the horror
that swallowed Guatemala for more than four decades, the Times
article filtered out any reference to the CIA's role in ousting the
government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and putting the army into power.
There was also no mention of President Reagan's renewed support for the
Guatemalan army in the early 1980s as the counter-insurgency terror
devastated rural Indian communities.
But even more disconnected was the Times editorial decision to
tuck away an important side-bar to the page-one story. Off on the edge of
page 11, next to the religious news and national briefs, there was a
single-column story that helped explain how the CIA orchestrated the 1954
coup with the help of the Times's publisher, Arthur Hays
Sulzberger. Only a diligent Saturday morning reader would have found it.
Written by Tim Weiner, the page-11 story recounted how Sulzberger, who was
publisher from 1935-61, acquiesced to the CIA's request that the
Times black out its independent news coverage of the covert
operation. CIA director Allen Dulles asked that the Times keep
its Latin American correspondent, Sydney Gruson, out of the way so he
could not blow the whistle.
Like Arbenz, Gruson was considered politically suspect. In late May 1954,
a CIA officer in Guatemala, Col. Albert Haney, dug through CIA files about
the Times correspondent looking for dirt. According to a
recently declassified CIA study of the Guatemalan coup, Haney discovered
that two years earlier, "Gruson had attended parties in Mexico City at
which Czechoslovak diplomats had been present." This information was sent
Then, in the days before the coup, Dulles personally appealed to
Sulzberger and the Times publisher obliged the CIA. "I
telephoned Allen Dulles and told him that we would comply with their
suggestion" to keep Gruson in Mexico City, Sulzberger stated in a dictated
memorandum. The publisher placed the call to Dulles on or about June 3,
1954, according to the article. In effect, Sulzberger's decision kept the
field clear for CIA propagandists to spread disinformation and confusion
in Guatemala, crucial elements in the coup's success.
But Sulzberger went even further. He agreed to screen Gruson's future
articles "with a great deal more care than usual." The publisher also
sent the CIA a copy of an internal Times memorandum outlining the
order to keep Gruson in Mexico City.
The page-11 story also acknowledged that previous Times
accounts of the Gruson affair were incomplete and misleading. In
Without Fear or Favor, published by Times Books, longtime
Times correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury portrayed Sulzberger's
capitulation as more grudging. That account did not note that Sulzberger
personally called Dulles to announce the Times's compliance
with the CIA request nor did it include Sulzberger's assurance that he
would "watch" Gruson's future work.
But most stunning about the page-11 article was that there was no
reference to the carnage that followed in Guatemala. Also, there was no
explicit condemnation of Sulzberger's journalistic violations.
The Times handling of the page-11 story was in marked contrast
to its harsh criticism of the San Jose Mercury News for a 1996
series about cocaine trafficking by CIA-backed Nicaragua contra rebels.
Last fall, the Times joined other major newspapers in
front-page broadsides against alleged overstatements in that article.
Then, when Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos succumbed
to the pressure and distanced himself from the series, the Times
splashed that story on page one [May 13, 1997. It followed up with a
harsh editorial entitled, "Mercury News Comes Clean." [NYT, May
14, 1997], there was no similar mea culpa from the Times over
its behavior 43 years ago.
Pro- or Anti-CIA
The imbalance in the Times placement of stories, depending on
whether they are pro- or anti-CIA, has become a recurring event in recent
weeks. When the National Archives released Guatemalan coup records
showing that the CIA had drawn up a "disposal list" of at least 58 key
Guatemalan leaders targeted for assassination, that remarkable news ended
up on A5 [NYT, May 28, 1997]. The Times article also reflected
no skepticism of the CIA's assurances that the executions were not carried
The next day, Times editors stuck on page A19 a story
describing how the CIA had destroyed almost all the historical documents
from its 1953 Iranian coup which replaced elected Prime Minister Mohammad
Mossadegh with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. For years, CIA officials have
disputed accounts of the agency's behind-the-scenes role in the coup and
assured the public that internal documents would set the record straight.
But in reality, many of the records had already been destroyed, in the
1960s. [NYT, May 29, 1997]
Though placement of articles may seem like a small point, the decision has
practical effects in Washington and inside the broader news media. The
page-one handling of the Mercury News retreat, for example,
made that a hot topic for TV and radio talk shows as well as coloring the
follow-up stories of other journalists. By contrast, inside-the-paper
placement effectively guaranteed the opposite result for the story about
Sulzberger's collaboration with the CIA. That a story had almost no
"bounce" because TV pundits and producers focus on the front-page news
By burying the Sulzberger story, the Times was burying its
complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans. The
nation's newspaper of record has yet to come completely clean. ~
(c) Copyright 1997
Return to Other Story
Return to Main Archive
Return to Consortium Main Menu.