Killing US Softly with Their Story: New York Times Coverage of the My Lai and El Mozote Military Massacres

By Cantrell, Tania H. | Global Media Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Killing US Softly with Their Story: New York Times Coverage of the My Lai and El Mozote Military Massacres


Cantrell, Tania H., Global Media Journal


Abstract

This study employs framing theory to systematically and situationally analyze about 50 New York Times articles regarding the My Lai and El Mozote military massacres. It explores how fundamental international reporting is in truth discovery, moral responsibility sounding and as a power monitor service. Coverage similarities include Allusions to Other Events, Calls for Retribution, Military Mentality, and the Media's Role. Considerations of Time and Politics-Public-Press Triangle Dynamics, including U.S. Military Involvement, Journalistic Repercussions and Political Climate, differentiate coverage.

"The gods of war... do not reside on Mount Olympus. They are in Washington."

("Civilians Still Aren't Military Targets," 1994)

On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children. The U.S. military attempted to cover the crime, but the massacre's story, once broken, became a symbol of U.S.-American war crimes in Vietnam. It prompted widespread outrage around the world, reducing public support for the war in the United States ("My Lai Massacre," 2006). This military massacre is known as My Lai.

On December 11,1981, soldiers of the Atacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained counterinsurgency force, systematically exterminated the inhabitants of a small Salvadoran hamlet. The Reagan administration, determined to preserve U.S. support for El Salvador's war against leftist guerrillas, downplayed reports of the massacre. The White House ignored and deflected reports that hundreds of unarmed women, children and men were shot, hung or beheaded (Elliston, 2005). This military massacre, the worst in Latin American history (Danner, 1994), is known as El Mozote.

This paper, which analyzes two similar events' newspaper coverage from a framing perspective, is about the politics of power, and the actions described are about the deliberate use of excessive force. It presents a new take on an old issue. The "old" includes four givens. First, the press, policy and public opinion scalene triangle stretches, as per trichotomous power struggles, but does not break. Second, the dichotomous relationship between the press and the government, to show vs. to shield, continues. Third, the U.S. press is ethnocentric; foreign policy proposal reporting is far less analytical and critical compared to domestic policy proposal reporting. In short, the "press behaves differently depending upon subject matter" (Berry, 1990, p. xv.). Fourth, whether they are covered or not, military massacres, unfortunately, occur all over the world too often.

The "new" concerns why news coverage of the 1968 and 1981 military massacres of My Lai in Vietnam and El Mozote in El Salvador, in particular, demand Cold War and pre 9-11 media environment critique. At least two interrelated reasons exist. One concerns the journalistic repercussions felt after each story broke, and the why surrounding them. The political environment affected how My Lai coverage , which unveiled U.S. military criminal behavior in Vietnam, launched freelance reporter Seymour Hersh's journalistic career. It also affected how El Mozote reporting, which told of U.S.-trained Salvadoran military criminal performance, buried Richard Bonner's journalistic career. A second connects past lessons with current-day concerns regarding international press freedom.

Investigative journalism played a key role in revealing both military massacres. A systematic analysis of about 50 New York Times articles regarding My Lai and El Mozote explores how fundamental international reporting is in truth discovery, moral responsibility sounding and as a power monitor service (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). The main question guiding this study is:

RQ#1: How does The New York Time's framing of the My Lai and El Mozote

military massacres compare?

Theoretical Overview: Framing News

Framing refers to the way events and issues are organized, and made sense of, especially by media, media professionals, and their audiences. …

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