The answer had been articulated by Richard Nixon years earlier. As was borne out by Nixonâs direct experience during Watergate, few things are more dangerous to conservative priorities than good journalism. Therefore, as a top Nixon aide later recalled, Nixon believed that it was necessary to âfight the press through â¦ the nutcutters as (the president) called them, forcing our own news. Make a brutal, vicious attack on the opposition.â
The Reaganites shared this perspective. News outlets were âthe oppositionâ that had to be brutally, viciously attacked, and individual journalists were fair game as a way to discredit their employers. Bonner was therefore caught in the White House crosshairs.
The pushback began with congressional testimony by Enders. âThere is no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians,â he told a House subcommittee.
What about the number of victims? Bonnerâs article had mentioned a list of 733 compiled by villagers, as well as a tally of 926 from a human rights organization. Elliott Abrams, whoâd just taken office as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, informed the Senate that âthe numbers, first of all, were not credible. â¦ Our information was that there were only 300 people in the canton.â This was clear, conscious deceit on the part of Abrams. Both the Times and Post articles had mentioned that the massacre had taken place in several locations.
Then came the assault from the administrationâs outside allies. On February 10, the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy editorial headlined âThe Mediaâs War.â Americans were âbadly confusedâ about the situation in El Salvador thanks to the U.S. press. El Mozote was not a massacre, the Journal wrote, but a âmassacre.â On the one hand, the number of dead had obviously been exaggerated and on the other, maybe the killing had been carried out by rebels dressed in government uniforms. Bonner was âcredulous,â âa reporter out on a limb,â and, like reporters in Vietnam, a sucker for âcommunist sources.â One of the editorialâs authors appeared on PBS to proclaim that âobviously Ray Bonner has a political orientation.â
Accuracy in Media, the conservative media criticism organization, went further. Bonner, it declared, was waging âa propaganda war favoring the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador.â Meanwhile, a Times editor later said, the administration was engaging in a âreally viciousâ whisper campaign about him.
Salon received the following statement from a spokesperson for The New York Times:
While, as a general matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel matters, Mr. Cunha makes claims in his story that merit a response. We can say that there was a broader pattern of issues including when he ignored our standards and removed the administrationâs on-the-record response from a news article. Responsible news organizations allow the subjects of their coverage to respond.
Mr. Cunhaâs insinuation that The New York Times has been soft on President Trump does not stand up to the facts. Without our newsroom covering Trump and his administration, the world would not know that Trump had ordered his staff to fire Mueller, or tried to have then FBI Director James Comey commit to a loyalty oath. They wouldnât know about the "instances of outright fraud" in Trumpâs tax practices, which led to investigations that are still unfolding. But aggressive coverage that holds power to account still needs to meet our standards for fairness and accuracy.
And far from courting Mr. Trump, our publisher A.G. Sulzberger has met with the president in person twice to voice concerns about the real and tragic consequences around the world of the presidentâs anti-press rhetoric.
Stephens has written extensively in defense of speech that provokes "discomfort," especially against what he has characterized as the "siege of the perpetually enraged." Some on Twitter accused Stephens of wanting discomfort for others but not for himself.
The Herald and Brown "took on immense risk in reporting this story," Poynter Institute vice president Kelly McBride wrote on Twitter on Monday. "When journalists expose the wrong-doing of the rich/powerful, they invite a libel suit. Many rich/ powerful people would like to make it easier to win those cases, to discourage such reporting."