U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Human Rights in Latin America, 1975-1982: Exploring President Carter's Agenda-Building Influence

Article excerpt

President Jimmy Carter's elevation of human rights to a major foreign policy concern had an impact on U.S. news coverage of Latin America. In the mid-1970s, U.S. coverage of Latin America was erratic at best. By the time Carter left office, the U.S. media had significantly increased both the resources and space devoted to covering the region.

In 1948, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was instrumental in the formulation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the implementation of the Universal Declaration was frozen in its tracks by the lowering of the Iron Curtain.' During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy was fundamentally concerned with geopolitical negotiations. Policy makers were more interested in maintaining the balance of power than in exploring the implications of the Universal Declaration. Human rights played no significant role in U.S. formulation of foreign policy until Jimmy Carter took office in 1977.2

Carter's human rights policy linked U.S. foreign aid and assistance to a nation's observance of human rights.3 During the campaign, his concern with human rights united a divided Democratic Party. His policy also resonated with the voting public and helped contribute to his electoral success.4 Since Carter placed human rights on the nation's policy agenda for the first time, an examination of press coverage of human rights during this period offers a rare opportunity to assess the influence the Carter policy had on U.S. news coverage.

This research investigates how the Carter initiative affected U.S. prestige newspaper coverage of the region most affected by the U.S. policy change - the countries of Latin America. Foreign correspondents active during the period report that the Carter policy fundamentally altered how the U.S. press covered Latin America.5 The study provides a systematic assessment of that supposition, and, in the process, explores the dynamics of how presidential foreign policy initiatives and U.S. international news coverage interact. As such, it explores the process of "agenda building," how sources influence media agenda. This is in contrast to agenda setting, which is concerned with how the media shape the issues the public thinks about.6

Carter's Policy

President Carter did not introduce the topic of human rights to Washington. Religious groups, rights activists, and liberal legislators had long been concerned about U.S. assistance to countries that violated human rights. But, before Carter, these groups' efforts had been largely ineffectual.7 The new administration brought civil rights experts into the State Department to spearhead human rights policy enforcement. It also elevated the standing of the bureau charged with monitoring human rights concerns, initiated State Department country reports on human rights, and placed human rights on the agenda of U.S. diplomats in embassies and consulates around the world.8

At first, the new human rights policy focused on relations with the Soviet Union. That focus was short-lived.9 U.S. diplomats reserved human rights concerns for dealings with countries that had fewer strategic implications for U.S. interests. There were ramifications for U.S. relations with some African and Asian countries, but the result was particularly noticeable in dealings with Latin American countries.

The Carter administration's concern about rights violations in Latin America was not the result of a sudden or recent increase in atrocities in the region. For decades U.S. diplomats had been aware of widespread human rights violations by repressive Latin American governments. Policy makers, however, had always explained the violations as an endemic part of the Latin political culture - something that might be regretted but which could not be changed.10

Shifting political conditions in the region had fostered an upswing in violations during the 1960s and early 1970s. …