What is worse? Bragging that you “covered” a war that you didn’t cover? Or “covering up” a war crime?
Judging by the firestorm that hit Bill O’Reilly last week, the US media (with the exception of HuffPo’s excellent Roque Planas) clearly thinks O’Reilly’s war-zone exaggerations are worse than his role in covering up, either intentionally or unwittingly, a massacre.
To recap: The massacre took place in El Salvador, in the small village of El Mozote near the Honduran border, on December 11, 1981. It was carried out by the US-created and -trained Atlacatl Battalion. Between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered.
New York Times journalist Ray Bonner was one of the first outsiders on the scene, having walked for days from Honduras to get to El Mozote. His report on the killing ran on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. That day, The Washington Post also published a front-page story by Alma Guillermoprieto, who arrived at El Mozote shortly after Bonner. Both stories were accompanied by photographs by Susan Meiselas.
The Reagan Administration went into damage-control mode. The White House was worried that reports of atrocities committed by its Salvadoran allies would jeopardize its plan to increase military assistance to the country. Bonner was especially targeted by administration officials, who pressured the Times to pull him from El Salvador (Reagan’s ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, called Bonner an “advocate journalist”). The details of that campaign can be found in Mark Danner’s New Yorker reporting, as well as his follow up book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The Times’ editor, AM Rosenthal, sided with Washington, pulling Bonner—who had been based in El Salvador and therefore knew the country—back to Washington. After working at Metro for a time, Bonner left the paper.
As this smear campaign was unfolding, O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.