February 11, 2015

The Nation's Greg Grandin published this story Monday, and I assumed in light of the controversy over Brian Williams and journalistic integrity, it would pick up traction. It didn't. (I guess it's too complicated for most people.) So here it is.

Grandin raises a very interesting question. Why did Bill O'Reilly, who was then working as a CBS correspondent and was in the area where it happened, right after it happened, ignore an egregious mass slaughter by El Salvadoran government forces, while focusing on what amounted to a small skirmish with opposition fighters? Why, it's almost as if he had a right-wing agenda, even then:

Before Bill O’Reilly was, well, Bill O’Reilly, he worked for a time as a foreign correspondent forCBS Nightly News, anchored by Dan Rather. O’Reilly talks about that period of his career in two of his books, and in both mentions that in early 1982 he reported from northeastern El Salvador, just after the infamous El Mozote Massacre.

When the CBS News bureau chief asked for volunteers to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory, a mountainous region bordering Nicaragua, I willingly went.”

El Mozote is a small, hard-to-reach hamlet. The massacre took place on December 11, 1981, carried out by US-trained Atlacatl Battalion, which was not just trained but created by the United States as a rapid response unit to fight El Salvador’s fast-spreading FMLN insurgency. The killing was savage beyond belief: between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered, decapitated, impaled and burned alive.

The story of the massacre was broken on the front page of The New York Timesby the journalist Raymond Bonner and in The Washington Post by Alma Guillermoprieto; both stories were published on January 27, 1982, and accompanied by photographs taken by Susan Meiselas. Bonner and Meiselas got to El Mozote, after hearing about the massacre, by walkingfor days in from Honduras. Guillermoprieto wrote about seeing “countless bits of bones—skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column” poking “out of the rubble.” Bonner noted the “charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles.” Later, Mark Danner reported on the massacre in detail, first in a lengthy New Yorker essay and then in a book.

Aside from the brutality of the killing, El Mozote is distinguished by the fact that Washington moved quickly to cover it up. It was, in a way, the first massacre of the “second Cold War,” the Reagan administration’s drive to retake the third world; what My Lai was to the 1960s, El Mozote was to the 1980s (later, in 1989, Atlacatl would commit another infamous crime: the execution of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter).

In addition to describing the massacre, Danner documents the cover-up in detail: the US embassy in El Salvador immediately disputed Bonner’s and Guillermoprieto’s reporting, as did New Right organizations like Accuracy in Media. Thomas Enders, Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for inter-American Affairs, and Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for human rights, denied the killing. Abrams said “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” The Wall Street Journal called Bonner “overly credulous” and “out on a limb” and placed the word massacre in “scare quotes.” TheTimes sided with the critics, and Bonner eventually left the paper, after first being transferred to the business section.

O’Reilly doesn’t give an exact date for when he travelled to El Salvador, but he writes that it was just before the Falklands War. In other words, probably in March 1982, between the first reports of the “alleged massacre,” in late January, and Argentina’s early April invasion of the Malvinas. Here’s O’Reilly’s account, from his book, The No Spin Zone:

A few weeks after taking the CBS job I was flown to El Salvador to report on the war going on there at the time. I drew an assignment that sent me to the Morazán province in the mountainous northeastern part of that beautiful country. This was ‘Indian country,’ a place where the communist guerrillas (‘los muchachos’) operated with impunity. It was a dangerous place, and my crew—driver, producer, and cameraman—was not thrilled to be going there. It took us a full day to drive to Morazán from San Salvador, the capital city, because all the bridges had been blown up and we had to ford the rivers in our van. This was slow going, making us easy targets. Our only protection was a message painted in black letters over and over again on the sides of the van: periodistas—no dispare (Journalists—don’t shoot).

O’Reilly continues along these lines, emphasizing the danger he and his crew faced. He recounts being given the “local war news” by a Salvadoran army colonel: “The ‘muchachos’ had wiped out a small village called Meanguera a few miles to the south because its mayor was deemed friendly to the government. The atrocity had not been confirmed, though, because nobody in his right mind would go into the guerrilla-controlled areas.”

Note that O’Reilly doesn’t mention the massacre at El Mozote. He rather focuses on a supposed killing committed by leftist insurgents in nearby Meanguera (Meanguera, a municipal town center, is nine kilometers away from the hamlet of El Mozote). It is extremely unlikely that O’Reilly would not have known about the El Mozote massacre. Not only was it reported on in all the major papers, the Reagan administration’s denials had themselves become a story (The Wall Street Journal ran its attack on Bonner on February 10).

In any case, O’Reilly went to Meanguera and not El Mozote. Leigh Binford, an anthropologist who wrote a great book on the larger context of the massacre, tells me that “all of these municipal centers sustained attacks by the FMLN; they were, after all, where the repressive forces (National Guard or Treasury Police) were housed, and from which they had been making forays into the countryside over the course of at least a year to kill, harass, capture, and torture for some time.” So it is very possible that Meanguera was attacked by the rebels. But it certainly wasn’t “wiped out.”

In other words, going to Meanguera in early 1982 would be as if Seymour Hersh, when he first learned of the My Lai massacre, decided to investigate events the next town over.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire piece, which puts it all in historic context.

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