Nicaragua, the Peace Process, and Television News: A Study of U.S. and Canadian Coverage in Three Languages

Barry D. Adam (University of Windsor)

Abstract: Examined is the TV news coverage of the Central American peace process on six national news networks in the U.S. and Canada broadcasting in English, French, and Spanish. Textual analysis reveals how discursive boundaries in news presentation vary by nation and language.

Résumé: Cet article étudie l'ensemble de l'information sur le plan de paix en Amérique centrale sur les chaînes nationales de télévision au Canada et aux États-Unis, en anglais, français et espagnol. Une analyse textuelle fait voir la manière dans laquelle les limites discursives varient selon la nation et la langue.


This article offers a look at ten weeks of television news coverage of Nicaragua in a period which encompassed the last major military offensive of the U.S.- backed contra forces and a major meeting of Central American presidents intended to advance the Central America Peace Plan proposed by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. News coverage of the region during this period, from November 1987 to January 1988, was extensive on the six television networks monitored and afforded an opportunity for comparative observations along several dimensions. Whether measured quantitatively, in terms of broadcast minutes devoted to particular topics, or analyzed qualitatively by examining the interpretive devices offered to viewers to de-code Central American events, television news presented a textual canon consistent with Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's (1988) "propaganda model" of news production.

Three of the networks that were monitored are state-chartered (though heavily reliant on commercial advertising) and three belong to the corporate sector. As well, half are U.S. networks; half Canadian. Finally, four broadcast in English and the other two in the minority languages of the two countries, French in Canada and Spanish in the United States. The comparative pattern presented here differs considerably from the usual format in the television research literature where the three U.S. corporate networks are compared with each other, an endeavour which typically turns up little variation in coverage or presentation (Larson, 1984, p. 145). The comparisons made here were limited to regular daily news broadcasts and did not include news specials or episodic treatments of events outside regular news broadcast hours.

Table 1 The Six Networks
Public Corporate
English French English Spanish
United States PBS ABC Univision
Canada CBC Radio Canada CTV

Measuring Broadcast Time

A quantitative assessment of North American news coverage shows a generally higher interest in Central America among U.S. networks when compared to Canadian, and among the French- and Spanish-language networks when compared to English language networks in their respective countries.

Table 2 Coverage of Central America by Network
Seconds per
hour 142 286 65 32 77 75
Min. per wk. 11.8 16.7 4.3 3.0 5.9 2.9
News Hourly 1/2 hr, 1/2 hr, Hourly Hourly 20 min,
broadcast M-F 7 days/ 6 days/ M-F + M-F + 7 days/
pattern a week a week a week 1/2 hr 40 min a week
weekends Sunday

A clearer sense of the nature of this interest emerges when news coverage is broken down by content to reveal that U.S. English-language broadcasts about Central America focused overwhelmingly on the United States and its relationship to Central America with news stories relying primarily on statements by U.S. government officials. On-site coverage of Central American countries and coverage of their representatives attracted much less attention and concentrated largely on Nicaragua. Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica were virtually invisible on PBS and ABC during the study period. Spanish- and French-language news coverage was distinguished by its diversity, with broadcasts from all of the countries of the region "balancing" the view from Washington. The two Canadian state-chartered networks offered the most time about Canadian-Central American relations, though this did not outweigh news from the region itself and, in fact, largely concentrated on the tour of the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs through Central America in November. Only the corporate network, CTV, offered more to Canadian viewers on U.S.-Central American relations than on Canadian-Central American relations with a number of its broadcasts purchased directly from (and usually credited to) U.S. commercial networks.

Table 3 shows the thematic breakdown of news items about Central America. Thus 71% of PBS's 21 broadcasts about Central America covered positions enunciated by U.S. government officials in stories originating within the United States (almost always from Washington). Column totals add to more than 100% because single news broadcasts on Central America frequently included reports from more than one country.

Table 3 News Coverage by Country (Percentage of broadcasts about Central America treating each country)
U.S.+C.A. 71 33 94 26 25 40
Can.+C.A. -- -- -- 42 38 30
Mex.+C.A. -- 3 -- -- -- --
Nicaragua 43 50 33 53 63 50
El Salvador 12 32 6 5 19 5
Honduras -- 10 -- -- 6 --
Guatemala -- 5 -- -- 13 5
Costa Rica -- 5 -- -- 6 --
Total no. of
broadcasts 21 60 18 19 16 20

Television's Nicaragua

Apart from the amount of time expended on particular news topics, textual analysis reveals a limited set of privileged codes for assigning meaning to Central American events, a process which in John Hartley's (1982, p. 56) words, "contributes to the `climate of opinion,' to the horizons of possibility, and to the process of marking the limits of acceptable thought and action." What follows is an examination of all the news coverage for a few critical moments in the peace process.

Pictures from a War: November 1987

Several differences in "style" emerge from coverage of the war in Nicaragua during November, a period of "routine" military action in its seventh year. The CBC provides sporadic body counts while CTV, benefiting from having a reporter in Nicaragua covering Joe Clark's visit, offers visual images of a flattened construction project which had been financed by Canada, statements of condemnation by Canadian aid workers resident in Nicaragua, and on November 26, a witness to the murder of four young boys by contras in Santo Tomás.

Most notable, however, is a complete absence of coverage of "routine" contra attacks by the U.S. English-language networks.

The Spanish and French news, on the other hand, stand out in their display of the evidence of death and depiction of the human effects of the war. Univision, for example, presents shots of funeral processions and a mother burying her 19-year-old son. Radio Canada pans over the corpses of children and its reporter states that the war goes on as ever; that in Río San Juan, five children were killed, twelve wounded, and six adults killed "by those called contra mercenaries." Overall, Univision offers the most complex mix of discursive resources with follow-up statements from both the left and the right inside Nicaragua and a final reminder of the cold war code, closing its longest broadcast on the war in November with a reference to Daniel Ortega's impending visit to Moscow.

The Pre-Christmas Contra Offensive

A comparison of the selection and combination of visual and verbal elements is again instructive as the war springs forth on December 20, 1987--this time on U.S. television screens as well--with a contra assault typified by the networks as a "major offensive" and the "biggest military operation yet." Several consistent themes emerged through the five days of coverage up to Christmas day in keeping with the presentation pattern evident in November.

Univision, CBC, and CTV note that the contra offensive comes one day before the second round of negotiations between the Nicaraguan government and the contras to be held in Santo Domingo and five days before the Christmas truce declared unilaterally by Managua. (Radio Canada has no coverage of the first days of the offensive.) Univision observes, as well, that the offensive comes one day after an accord between the White House and Congress for $8 million in non-military aid to the contras and accompanies this with a shot of a Senate committee meeting. In contrast, ABC mentions Santo Domingo; PBS mentions neither.

For Univision, there are four major actors in the drama which unfolds over three days (November 20 to 22) of extensive coverage. Each day presents contra claims, presented "according to a spokesperson of the so-called [llamada] Nicaraguan resistance." These are matched with sequences drawn from Sandinista press statements and direct shots of President Ortega holding the United States responsible for the destruction and saying that no one can talk of peace while the United States funds its mercenaries. Cardinal Obando appears each day, as well, to express his pessimism concerning the peace talks in Santo Domingo. And never forgotten are visual sequences of weeping families, destroyed houses, and coffins of civilians caught in the cross-fire.

This relatively complete coverage renders visible the absences of the other networks. Radio Canada on Christmas day includes an item on a contra attack on an agricultural cooperative. Images of destroyed buildings, bodies, and grieving women accompany a statement that three contras had been killed but that in a total of six attacks, eleven people had died, and several had been wounded.

ABC and PBS show a marked contrast to this style of war coverage. On December 20, Peter Jennings states the contras are attacking "government forces." The next day ABC's "national security reporter," Peter Collins, narrates a set of images of contra troops, maps of Nicaragua, and a picture of Cardinal Obando with this text:

U.S. intelligence sources say that 7000 contras have seized "at least two towns, large stretches of road, a thousand small arms and rocket launchers." As well, three airfields were damaged and a power plant destroyed. There are "no reliable reports of casualties on either side." The Sandinistas claim the rebels are being driven back. The offensive is designed to show the contras are a force to be reckoned with and not American puppets as the Sandinistas claim.

Also on December 21, Charlene Hunter Galt on PBS, accompanied first by a graphic saying "contra offensive," announces a "major new military offensive" which a Nicaraguan official called an obstacle to peace. Then accompanied by a graphic of a dove over a Nicaraguan flag, she says, the Reagan administration praised the attack saying it would hopefully lead to a negotiated ceasefire. On Christmas eve, Galt returns with the latter graphic to state the contras broke the Christmas truce with an attack on a cattle cooperative which left two contras dead and two wounded, but that the Sandinista defence ministry had no report of the attack.

Here we see some important contrasts. For ABC, the contras attack only "government forces." Economic and civilian targets and deaths are not acknowledged throughout the study period. While the Spanish and French networks show bodies, mourners, and material destruction, the U.S. English networks insist there are "no reliable reports of casualties" or offer conflicting claims suggesting that there exists no solid evidence of death or destruction. PBS, in the single acknowledgement of a contra raid made on English-language U.S. television during the study period, guards viewers from any on-site visual evidence of the attack and undercuts this solitary report about contra violence by a claim that even the Sandinistas cannot verify it. In addition, the only victims of the assault acknowledged by PBS are contra casualties. Both of the U.S. English networks overwhelmingly cite Pentagon and CIA sources of information despite these sources' direct involvement as advisors and suppliers of war material to the contras. No alternative sources are presented, no on-site inspection, and no follow-up check appears on this information.

For PBS, the war is remote, vague, and scarcely noteworthy. For ABC, war never violates the discursive boundaries set by the U.S. TV serial dramas broadcast throughout the 1950s and 1960s and analyzed by J. Fred MacDonald (1985, p. 196) who found there, "a popular fantasy that war was somehow part moral crusade, part athletic event." For U.S. English-language viewers, this is a clean war: no corpses, no pain, no grieving families, no flattened schools or clinics. It is, rather, a high-tech contest of hardware moved across maps; a scorecard kept on winners and losers moving against a video display backdrop of weapon symbols, coloured arrows, and marching troops drawn from stock footage.

English-language Canadian coverage does offer figures for dead and wounded but no images. CTV, with Robert Hirst back home after the Clark tour of Central America, presents a battlefield map and report bought from a U.S. network. On December 25, CTV says that Ortega accuses the contras of violating the truce seven times; contra spokesmen deny this. Again "balance" neutralizes responsibility; no additional evidence is adduced to resolve the competing claims.

President Ortega at the Vietnam Memorial

A potential shift in media parameters presented itself when President Ortega turned up at the Vietnam memorial in Washington, November 13, following his public announcement of a ceasefire proposal. No longer a question of accessing him from afar, Daniel Ortega was appearing at the heart of the American media net and his pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial was no doubt intended to assert a role on this stage ready-made for the drama of international diplomacy.

The dilemma for television news was to meet the challenge of a public actor who sought to alter the place assigned to him and his country by public discourse. The media displayed several strategies for "handling" this potential symbolic disruption.

ABC drew a parallel which avoided the potential use of the Vietnam memorial as a symbol of a tragic and unsuccessful imperial war by a great power against a small third world country, instructing the viewer to read Ortega's presence as a sign of internal division within Nicaragua. ABC's voiceover stated Ortega's visit was "combining diplomacy with a huge dose of public relations" and said he was "visiting monuments to conflicts which once divided the United States as war now divides Nicaragua."

The two Canadian state networks refrained from overt interpretation in favour of cryptic remarks which seemed to imply the visit posed an unspecified but successful challenge to Reagan administration orthodoxy. The CBC remarked that Ortega was "mobbed by photographers" and "captured good public relations" in visiting the memorial, while Radio Canada found that his visit was "pushing the Reagan administration to react."

CTV offered a much more focused view. Starting with a close-up of uniformed protesters shouting, "Ortega go home," the voiceover states, "Ortega received an even stronger rejection from a group of U.S. veterans" (than from the Reagan administration reacting to the ceasefire proposal). Referring to Ortega as the leader of "Nicaragua's Marxist government," the institutional broadcast voice continues, "Just as that war divided Americans so bitterly, so does U.S. policy in Central America." Craig Oliver adds that Ortega "warned Americans against repeating the Vietnam mistake" and then, lets the president speak the words, "We don't want American youth to keep dying and we don't want Central American youth to die." CTV is alone in letting President Ortega interpret his presence for himself, but only after a series of warnings, a process which John Fiske (1987, p. 291) calls "inoculation," the "news convention of allowing radical voices a controlled moment of speech that is nominated and inserted into the narrative in such a way as to ensure that the social body is strengthened and not threatened by the contrast between it and the radical."

The November 13 Ceasefire Proposal

The ceasefire proposal announced on November 13 again showed an initiative on the part of the Nicaraguan government to take advantage of the media spotlight to contradict an essential element of the communist stereotype which so often framed news accounts about it. By challenging the "military threat" plank of cold war rhetoric, Nicaragua might have begun the symbolic reconstruction necessary to undermine the U.S. policy of active destruction of its people and territory. The news reports offer a lesson in discursive containment and re-assimilation to established codes.

The core sequence of events on November 13 consisted of the following: President Ortega, in Washington to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States, proposed a ceasefire plan where Nicaragua would lift the state of emergency and extend its amnesty in exchange for cessation of foreign assistance to the contras. The proposal was given to Cardinal Obando y Bravo, also in Washington, for delivery to the contra leadership, a process which was to result several months later in face-to-face ceasefire talks between the government and the contras in Nicaragua. The Vatican embassy and the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, assisted the process.

The infusion of significance into this sequence varied considerably by network especially in terms of the salience of the two issues, that is, the value of the Nicaraguan proposal versus the propriety of Jim Wright's role in the process. Table 4 reviews the percentage of the November 13 news broadcast of each network devoted to the Jim Wright controversy as compared to the peace plan presented by the Nicaraguan government.

Table 4 November 13 Coverage of Nicaragua (Percentage of broadcast time)
Jim Wright 89 3 22 8 2 16
Peace proposal 11 97 78 92 98 84

Both the Spanish- and French-language networks implied that the Nicaraguan proposals were both serious and credible by devoting nearly all of their broadcast time to them. Univision was unique in offering each of the eleven proposals in an on-screen, written format with voice-over elaboration, followed by a quick reply from two contra spokesmen. Radio Canada was closer to the English-language style in presenting three proposals on-screen but it then allowed President Ortega to state directly, "The United States must withdraw." Neither of these networks hedged the proposals by discrediting commentary.

PBS presented an entirely different view, by summing up the proposals in three points ("three cease-fire zones," "non-lethal aid permitted," and "no military aid") then moving on to spend the bulk of the program on Jim Wright. The Nicaraguan proposals were quickly passed over in favour of an overlay defining the news event in terms of a possible administrative crisis posed by the Speaker's "interference" in the foreign affairs of the U.S. government and in terms of a debate among government officials on the Speaker's right to dissent from the Reagan administration's belligerent policy. While the Nicaraguan proposals, which might challenge U.S. policy, were truncated and dispensed with in a few seconds on PBS, Wright's apparent willingness to promote a ceasefire in Nicaragua was examined minutely to discover whether this was a deviation from state orthodoxy and whether it was permissible. The bulk of the broadcast was taken up with Wright and Democratic congressmen defending themselves from the charge of impropriety.

ABC presented four of the Nicaraguan proposals with a voice-over that stated it was "not likely the contras or the Reagan administration will buy any part," followed by clips of George Schultz and Charles Redman underscoring this assessment.

The CBC presentation was more tentative with the newsreader saying that it was "not clear if the U.S. will go along." This was followed by Daniel Ortega stating the contras should participate in the electoral system and Jim Wright saying that "movement is in the right direction."

The news event seen on Univision on November 13 is the Nicaraguan proposal for peace contextualized in terms of the Esquipulas plan; on PBS and ABC, it is the question of a high U.S. official lending legitimacy to a Nicaraguan position, suggesting a set of background presumptions reinforced by quotes from Reagan administration functionaries, that statements from Nicaragua are prima facie suspect, unserious, or ploys into which an unsuspecting Jim Wright may have fallen.

Nicaragua "In Depth"

"In-depth" reports on Nicaragua provided the greatest opportunity for story development and contextualization. All of the networks agreed on the existence of an economic crisis in Nicaragua; their interpretation of it relied largely on the cold war paradigm.

Against a sequence of images of union demonstrators, Managua's Mercado Oriental, lines of shoppers outside a supermarket, and lines of vehicles outside gas stations, the CBC's Joe Schlesinger adds this text:

  • People have stacks of money but at the prices here there is little they can buy.
  • These people have not only money, they also have privileges. They are government workers and this is a store reserved for them.
  • Critics on the right blame Sandinista economic mismanagement for the mess. Sandinistas blame the war and the American economic boycott.
  • The Sandinistas may well find themselves being defeated right here in the marketplace.

PBS reporter Charles Kraus, identified in another program two weeks later as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (an elite corporate lobby group), offers these images: a horsecart in a Managua street, a line-up for gas, children hawking in the street, men pushing a van, a supermarket check-out, store line-ups, men looking under a car hood. His text:

  • An economy sharply on the skids.
  • There was progress at the beginning. Now there is a crisis because of war and Sandinista policy.
  • Children are selling and begging.
  • Nicaragua is an economic basket case.
  • A situation of suffering, anxiety, and misery.
  • The currency is worthless because of economic mismanagement.
  • Basic commodities are sold out.
  • Transportation is breaking down.

But there is one item always available, says Kraus, panning a set of books by Marx and Lenin on a supermarket shelf.

"No doubt the war and the U.S. trade embargo have played a part helping to strangle the Nicaraguan economy," he says. Then follows a sequence with:

  • Ramiro Gurdián, identified as a businessman (in fact, president of the vociferously anti-revolutionary big business council, COSEP), saying the economic crisis is because of a "madhouse of government regulation,"
  • Alvin Guthrie, an opposition union official, saying the fault lies with the government,
  • Enrique Gonzalez, an independent trucker, saying blame lies with the "Communist government" not with the U.S. or the contras, and
  • Hernandez Pico, a Jesuit, says the Sandinistas still have support.

A final sequence has crowds hanging off the sides of buses and Kraus reporting that Nicaragua is more poor and desperate than ever before.

In CTV's in-depth report, Robert Hirst, in a tag story to a report on the November 22 prisoner release, stands in the midst of the Mercado Oriental to state that "people are more and more angry towards the tough regime that rules their lives." A camera is pointed toward an unkempt, wild-eyed man shouting that "all Sandinistas are thieves, that Ortega is a rotten bastard" while onlookers hoot perhaps in sympathy, perhaps in derision. With an exterior shot of a prison complex, Hirst then intones, "such words are heresy, the sorts of words that put many of the people here into the huge Tipitapa prison for years," a conclusion he draws despite the fact that these words were shouted as loudly as possible in the middle of the most crowded market in the capital.

The French and Spanish reports again show a plurivocality which includes cold war rhetoric among other interpretations. Radio Canada starts off with an extended comparison between Daniel and Humberto Ortega and Fidel and Raúl Castro from a lead-off question, "Is Ortega another Fidel Castro?" Scenes of Sandinista rallies are intercut with face-to-face interviews with contra leader, Alfonso Robelo, affirming that the Ortegas are indeed Castros. The scene shifts to Huembes market where the reporter says, "the revolution has lost the support it had in the first years." A market trader says everything is too expensive, another adds the Yankees are not at fault. A man says people can only eat once a day now; an old woman cries, "Soon we will all live naked," and the reporter concludes, "Before everyone had the means to eat. That is not the case today."

The second segment of the broadcast takes a turn in a new direction. Contra leader, Alfredo César states, "Even his enemies recognize his [Ortega's] integrity." A university student expresses her admiration for Ortega and suddenly the Nicaraguan president appears before the camera through a private interview with the reporter to say that Nicaragua wants to negotiate with the U.S. to settle U.S. anxieties about any Nicaraguan threat to U.S. security, that if the contras would lay down their arms and accept the amnesty they could be a legal domestic opposition party, and if the U.S. ended contra funding and endorsed the peace plan, that peace could come quickly.

Univision featured Nicaragua's economy December 23, 1987, when the government declared a State of Emergency in Food. "Poverty has reached a new depth," reported Demetrio Olaciregui and outlined the scarcities, the dependence on international aid, the size of military expenditures, and the collapse of the currency. The Sandinistas blame the U.S. and the war; the opposition charge there is a "socialism of misery" due to corruption, bureaucratization, and inefficiency.

What is unique about this broadcast is attribution of the food emergency at the beginning of the newsclip to $100 million in losses due to drought, an event never mentioned on any other network. The USSR appears in this report in the role of donor of gasoline; the opposition's charges here do not endorse the myth of Nicaraguan exceptionalism, but could easily be applied to Nicaragua's Latin American neighbours.

It is perhaps such complex issues as political economy which illustrate Gaye Tuchman's (1978, p. 177) characterization of the news paradigm as "eschewing analysis through ahistoricity, the logic of the concrete, and an emphasis on the contingency of events rather than on structural necessity." No attempt is made, for example, to explain why the revolutionary government introduced a ration system (whether wise or unwise). To select a single example, the CBC's panning of a Managua supermarket with a voice-over typifying it as a store providing special rations for government employees, instructs the viewer in a lesson of moral interpretation. What is not mentioned are several background factors: The "supermarkets of the people" reserved a select set of commodities for ration distribution at highly subsidized prices. In fact, anyone was able to shop at these stores and the vast majority of items could be bought by anyone. In a context of superinflation where salaried workers experienced a precipitous decline in purchasing power (estimated at 68% since 1980 by Valverde [1988, p. 7]), the government withdrew a set of basic products from the open market in an attempt to assure their distribution to salaried workers (including government employees) who might otherwise no longer be able to afford them. The measure was introduced to stem an exodus of workers from factories and state employment into the "informal" economy where many were attempting to keep up with inflation through petty trading.

For the moneyed classes both inside Nicaragua and in North America, there is no gain in the withdrawal of food staples from the market to a state distribution system through neighborhood stores (expendios populares) at nominal prices (Adam, 1988). For those able to afford an adequate or even sumptuous diet, the disappearance of various food items can only mean a deprivation. The television images bear testimony to the problem. But for the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans earning well under $100 per year, rations had an entirely different meaning. For the hundreds of thousands who traditionally went undernourished, survived at or below subsistence, and endured high mortality rates among family members, the state allotment was central to ensuring a minimum standard of living. For the peasants, workers, and unemployed who make up nine tenths of the population, well-stocked supermarket shelves signified little more than that which was unattainable. None of the networks report government statistics showing rising rates of per capita consumption, suggesting that supermarket scarcity (at least of the few state-controlled commodities) translated into nutritional adequacy among the people.

The war and the U.S. economic boycott were often acknowledged in these reports but remained unsupported by the visual imagery and man-in-the-street interviews which made up the broadcasts. No connections were drawn between the direct destruction of cooperatives and crops, and the food shortages and economic chaos identified in the programs. In U.S. broadcasts, the effects of the war were almost entirely suppressed on television and the French and Spanish broadcasts did not move beyond the personal tragedy experienced by the families of war victims.

The U.S. economic embargo which cut off hard currency earnings to a country which was very heavily dependent upon the export of cotton, coffee, and sugar to pay for nearly every other need, had no visible import on television news. The embargo was never linked to the gasoline lines, though the sole oil refinery in the country was built by a U.S. company which abandoned it in 1983 in accord with the embargo. Nor was the gasoline shortage associated with the oil storage terminal bombed by the CIA, or to the embargo which stopped the supply of spare parts for the maintenance of the refinery, or to the drying up the earnings to pay for oil imports.

There is no world market on television news to help explain the rollercoaster of agricultural prices experienced not only by Nicaragua, but by it Central American neighbours and a great many other third world nations dependent on agricultural exports. Needless to say, the role played in the world market by the corporate sponsors of the news was never thematized.

This bricolage of news images references a root story immediately recognizable to North Americans. MacDonald's (1985) study of U.S. television, from its inception until the Vietnam war, reveals a steady diet of anti-Communist, cold war programming not only in documentaries but in numerous spy dramas, military adventures, children's programs, religious broadcasts, and westerns, which he claims, paved the way toward the Vietnam war. By the 1980s, the cold war frame referenced a richly developed tradition of conceptual linkages which could be brought to bear on any particular event. The visual and verbal cues proffered by the in-depth reports indexed a ready-made "web of facticity" ready to call forth an interpretive resource which carried implications for legitimating state policy.

Summing Up Compliance for the Final Summit

In the days leading up to the January 15 summit in San José, Costa Rica, where the Central American presidents were to reconvene to assess the progress of the peace plan, television news offered its own evaluation of the compliance of the five nations. The selection and signification of news items on the various networks reveal rules of relevance which produce a pattern of attention and disattention. A comparison of three salient issues defines a profile of absences around: (1) the spokesmen designated by the media as the authorities on compliance with the peace process, (2) the selection of countries subjected to the assessment, and (3) the relevance of the Roger Miranda case.

Once again, Univision offered a far more complex portrait of the process than any of the other networks, reporting from a variety of authoritative voices on compliance with plan. In the days leading up to January 15, a Human Rights Watch news conference was presented which found fault especially with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and the contras. The International Verification Commission was followed from capital to capital where each of the five nations was found wanting in turn. Univision interviewed the five Central American ambassadors to Washington in the studio and each accused the others of noncompliance. The Spanish-speaking viewer might have concluded from this information that all of the Central American nations were making an effort to comply but none were quite measuring up.

While Univision relied most heavily upon the Verification Commission set up as part of the peace plan and composed of Latin American dignitaries, none of the other networks mentioned the existence or role of the commission. PBS and ABC focused almost exclusively on Nicaraguan compliance, building a preponderance of authoritative voices condemning Nicaraguan actions, while ignoring the record of the other four Central American nations. On January 14, for example, the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour opened its report by saying that the contras had intensified the war against the Sandinistas who were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Costa Rican ambassador to Washington is seen calling on both the Reagan administration and Nicaragua to make concessions, and Managua, it is said, has made "surprising" moves to comply. The report is rounded off with Elliott Abrams stating he gives an "A to Cerezo and Duarte and an F to Ortega" for compliance with the peace plan but that Roger Miranda "revealed secret plans to triple the army" in Nicaragua thereby demonstrating Nicaragua's bad faith.

The next day, ABC stated El Salvador and Honduras had accused Nicaragua of failing to institute democratic reform. At the end of the summit, ABC reviewed three points in the new Sandinista proposals presented in San José with these comments: (1) Contra spokesman, Roger Guevara labelling the proposals "another lie," (2) ABC reporter John Quinoñes saying the Sandinistas are just trying to stop contra aid, and (3) Elliott Abrams saying, "we don't trust him [Ortega]." PBS presents Elliott Abrams again condemning the new Nicaraguan proposals presented in San José as a "ploy" to defeat aid to the contras. No other comment on the Nicaraguan position was broadcast by PBS.

CTV relied entirely on broadcasts purchased directly from U.S. networks in January. Its coverage followed suit by drawing heavily from U.S. government officials and endorsing the myth of Nicaraguan exceptionalism. One report taken from NBC begins: "Nicaragua today refused to begin complying with the peace accord," then states a top aide to President Arias "blames the Sandinistas for the lack of progress," next has the Costa Rican ambassador to Washington say that Nicaragua must move more quickly, but ends with Arias saying the "U.S. is not helping peace either." A piece, taken from CBS, interviews contra leader Adolfo Calero and Salvadoran president Duarte on Nicaragua's failures.

The CBC limited itself to nothing more than mention of the Nicaraguan proposal on January 16 to negotiate with the contras, lift the state of emergency, and extend the amnesty.

The Roger Miranda Case

Figuring prominently in the media assessment of Nicaragua's compliance with the peace plan was one event which received several days coverage at the time and reappeared several times later through references made by broadcasters and their interviewees. Despite the considerable media time it consumed, the Roger Miranda incident had a number of qualities which might have been expected to inspire caution in journalists. (Indeed, neither of the two Canadian state television systems chose to broadcast anything about the Miranda case.) The circumstances surrounding the Miranda case were as follows:

  • Miranda was presented to the press six weeks after his defection to the United States during which time he was (de)briefed by the CIA.
  • He was presented by a U.S. government press conference, the day after Senate approval of $9 million in contra aid and immediately before the same bill was to be presented to the more reluctant House of Representatives for its approval.
  • The U.S. and international press had several times in recent years reported dramatic news stories supplied by the Pentagon, CIA, and the State Department amid congressional debates on contra funding which later turned out to be gross distortions or total fabrications (Chomsky, 1987). Most notable were:
    • The presentation of a Nicaraguan student captured in El Salvador in 1982 who was to "prove" Sandinista military aid to the Salvadoran revolution but who instead confessed during the news conference to having been coached in a false story under torture (LeoGrande, 1985, p. 436).
    • The manufacture of a MiG warplane scare complete with secretive television footage of large tarpaulin-covered mounds being unloaded from a Soviet freighter in Corinto.
    • The invention of a Nicaraguan "invasion" of Honduras denied even by Honduras.

Only Univision and CTV noted Miranda's original defection November 2 and 3 and Univision showed considerable care in its presentation. As the last sentence of a six-minute news item which had focused on El Salvador, Miranda was referred to as a Nicaraguan major who "was spying for the United States" and the Miranda story was attributed to the New York Times and the Washington Post. The next day, as a trailer to an eight-minute report on Nicaragua and El Salvador, Humberto Ortega is seen referring to Miranda as a "traitor to the nation" and "western informants" are nominated as the source of the characterization of Miranda as a "gold mine" of information on Nicaraguan plans to extend the war in Central America "in case of American aggression."

The story then disappeared from sight until December 13 when it received almost daily coverage for a week. Univision constructed an on-screen dialogue between Miranda at his press conference in Washington and Humberto Ortega's press conference in Managua. When Miranda said the Sandinistas are establishing a communist regime, Ortega was seen calling him a "traitor"; when Miranda said the contras "enjoy widespread support," the Nicaraguan ambassador replied that support is confined to small rural groups controlled by the counterrevolution.

ABC's Peter Jennings showed some initial distance from the story by saying, "Washington officials produced [Miranda], with the television cameras in mind," but the main story then switched over to ABC's "national security correspondent," John McWethy, who also constructed a dialogue between Miranda and Ortega. This time, however, Miranda spoke directly on camera while Ortega was seen but not heard, replaced by McWethy's voice-over which confirmed each of Miranda's charges, a tactic to be employed again in ABC's coverage of the 1990 election (Adam, 1990).

CTV remained in step with an NBC report. Against file images of marching troops and weapons parades, reporter Robin Lloyd enumerated Miranda's claims of massive troop build-ups and Soviet MiG fighters, buttressed by National Security Council advisor, Colin Powell labelling it all as a "direct threat to the region."

When PBS picked up the story on December 16, the newsreader quoted Miranda's claim that "Ortega has no intention of implementing the Central American peace plan" then switched to George Bush who said he "hopes Congress is listening.... [This] will shoot down some myths that the Sandinistas are nice freedom-loving democrats which they're not."

Univision's discomfort with the credibility of the story comes up with its concluding report on December 18. Starting with a New York Times editorial arguing that to cut contra aid would be to eliminate the only pressure on the Sandinistas, Guillermo Descalzi then adds that the Defense Department recognizes that from the documents of the defector, Miranda, the possibility of Nicaragua invading its neighbours is speculative. But for the U.S. English networks, Miranda is now a building block in the edifice of the national political mythology, to be retrieved in January reports on the summit as a "fact" demonstrating Sandinista duplicity and confirming the U.S. anti-Communist mission.

The Visible and the Invisible on Television News

These six networks show distinctive patterns of selection, organization, and interpretation of the news, as well as certain commonalities. As a study of television text, this paper cannot demonstrate final ideological effects of television signification upon viewers. Television news broadcasts leave themselves open to analysis of encoding processes, but decoding processes require other kinds of research (Hall, 1980, p. 130). The argument made in this paper rests on an analysis of the contours of news presentation, the unspoken criteria for the selection and organization of the news, and the informational and conceptual resources offered by the television text to viewers for news interpretation.

Comparison of these six national North American networks reveals differences in the selection and interpretation of the news, but they also shared some common approaches in identifying what was newsworthy. Most notable of all was their common identification of Nicaragua as the "problematic" country of the five nations in the region meriting news attention far outweighing its four neighbours. Much of the news coverage, sometimes explicitly, adopted the moral paradigm invoked by the U.S. government of focusing upon the state of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua apparently in order to evaluate the propriety of U.S. economic and military sanctions against that country. But measured against this criterion or against the standard of compliance with the Esquipulas accords, this pattern of news coverage showed a common peculiarity in its exemption of the other four countries from scrutiny for democratic and human rights practices thereby implicitly rendering them "unproblematic" and outside the purview of public concern.

Yet in February 1988, Amnesty International (1988, p. 13) released a report called Honduras: Civil Authority--Military Power which documented, throughout the months under examination here, widespread "serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and torture," including the assassination of the vice president of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights the evening before he was to appear before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica (Amnesty International, 1987b). Amnesty International (1987a, p. 8) reported, as well, that some 100,000 to 200,000 "disappeared" in Guatemala between 1980 and 1984 due largely to activities of the state security forces which remained in power throughout the period under examination. The record on El Salvador was similar.

It is noteworthy that despite the intense media attention devoted to Nicaragua at the end of 1987, no instance of political assassinations, disappearances, or torture were identified in that country apart from the activities of the contras.

Further, neither the support base, the representativeness, nor the program of the counterrevolution receive any direct attention during the study period, but were left by default to pronouncements from the U.S. state department and U.S. congressmen debating the contra funding issue. Yet a quick review of the FDN leadership announced in 1981, or of the negotiators appointed by the contras to represent them in 1988, revealed the predominance of representation from a few big landholding families, the comprador elite, and remnants of the state system of the defeated dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza (Fauné, 1986, pp. 18-19; "Los negociadores de la contra," 1988, p. 5; Chamorro, 1987).

A review of television news coverage of Central America confirms most of Edward Herman's (1982, pp. 153-195) postulates about the fundamental criteria employed by the U.S. networks in constructing news. A number of points stand out:

First, to use Herman's words, the U.S. and Canadian networks practise "averting of the eyes" in matters of human rights violations in U.S. client states. The U.S. English-language networks shield Americans from the human toll resulting from U.S. military assistance to the region. There is, at most, only tangential acknowledgement of the "50,000 victims, 250,000 people displaced by the war, losses from destruction, as well as damage to production and to the social and economic infrastructure [of Nicaragua] of $4 billion" (Pino Robles, 1988, p. 12).

Second, Emile McAnany's (1983, p. 204) observations about media treatment of Central America from 1979 to 1982 continue to hold true: "Once engaged, the wars and especially the U.S. foreign policy position regarding the origin and solution of the civil wars seem to take the spotlight, keeping the public focused on official positions and explanations rather than on important historic shifts in social and political relationships in the region." U.S. English-language broadcasting, in particular, shows the heaviest reliance upon U.S. government sources for understanding the region.

Third, the decontextualization of news events results in an absence of structural, historical, and indigenous explanations for the events in favour of a very limited set of ready-at-hand discourses drawn most often from U.S. government sources, cold war rhetoric, and stereotypes of third world underdevelopment.

Fourth, the U.S. English-language networks presented U.S.-supported national security states as "moderate" states creating order in the midst of left and right extremism. The French and Spanish networks tended to present a more complex picture. Only the French- and Spanish-language networks reported Nicaragua's repeated proposals to discuss U.S. security concerns in the region directly with the United States or to reduce the size of its military forces. These Nicaraguan proposals, which appeared to meet the criticisms forwarded by the Reagan administration in justifying its contra policy, never appeared on English-language television during the study period.

Fifth, the United States appears in U.S. English-language networks as a benign and disinterested actor in the region with an unquestioned right to intervene. U.S. news appears to participate in a moral paradigm, which J. Fred MacDonald (1985) identified, from his study of U.S. television programming from its inception, as virtually a fundamental mythology of American self-perception through television. In MacDonald's (1985, p. 143) words:

the United States--with leadership primarily from government through its political officials, espionage agencies, and armed forces, plus a large dose of citizen cooperation--would have to root out subversives at home, outmaneuver enemy agents overseas, and turn over the uncommitted and enslaved populations of the world through generosity, efficiency, bravery, and strength.

Short-hand news descriptions of Nicaragua as "communist," "Marxist," and "Soviet-backed" indexed a universe of meaning which did not have to be made explicit in any one broadcast and which, in turn, contributed incrementally to the reproduction and maintenance of this worldview. It is otherwise difficult to account, for example, for PBS's action of shooting a Managua supermarket shelf with books of Marx and Lenin while abstaining from showing the next shelf filled with Bibles and religious writings. (The supermarket is well known to this author.)

Sixth, no coverage whatsoever occurred on any of the networks of the grass-roots movement in the United States and Canada which worked against U.S. intervention, raises considerable funds from Canadians and Americans for projects developed by the Nicaraguan revolution, and which demonstrated regularly in the streets of every sizeable city on the continent, nor was there any acknowledgement of the North American city councils which have developed their own aid programs with Nicaragua.

Seventh, the Canadian state networks seemed not so much to endorse the U.S. view as to refrain from contradicting it, relying most on "safe" news bits such as statistics, and overall offering less coverage with tentative or elliptical commentary. CTV, the Canadian English-language corporate network oscillated between acting as a branchplant distributing pre-packaged news clips for U.S. networks, and speaking a fragmented discourse borrowed from famine relief, cold war propaganda, and welfare state ideology.

Eighth, there is nothing in this review of television news to contradict Fiske's (1987, p. 134) claim that television "works mythically to promote the point of view of the white, male middle classes as the `natural' point from which to make sense of experience and to disguise the sectional nature of this process by universalizing it." Television information production and distribution parallels the larger political economy of the world system where the powerful observe, document, and legislate meaning for the powerless and the people of the peripheries confront an alien representation of themselves which exists only as an object for the metropolis (Adam, 1978, p. 31).

Perhaps most telling in this process is the televisual portrayal of the hundreds of thousands of deaths occurring in Central America many of which are directly attributable to the financial and military operations of the U.S. government. Analysts of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution have noted the paucity of U.S. media attention to the tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who were being murdered at that time with U.S. military technology, but when an ABC television news reporter was himself murdered on camera by the National Guard, the subsequent glare of publicity shifted U.S. foreign policy and aroused U.S. public indignation against the dictatorship (Diederich, 1981, p. 269; Queiser Morales 1982, p. 109). Today the deaths of Central Americans merit no television attention on English-language U.S. networks and fragmentary statistical reports on English-language Canadian television. Only the French, and especially Spanish, networks "see" the human devastation of war and attend to the suffering of Latin peoples as noteworthy and reportable. Television news appears to partake of the profound racism of TV dramas identified by Fiske (1987, p. 9) and Gerbner (1970, p. 75) who found that television characters die at a rate proportionate to their deviation from the standard of being white, male, heterosexual, middle or upper class, and in the prime of life. Perhaps as in television fiction, in television fact the naturalness of death among hispanics is taken-for-granted, unsurprising, and thus unnewsworthy.


Presented to the International Sociological Association meeting in Madrid. I would like to thank John Dufour, Denise Dufour, Peter Nardi, Walter Soderlund, Erin Fletcher, Laura Macdonald, and Michael Kaufman for their assistance in the preparation of this paper.
All translations from the French and Spanish are mine.


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