Honduras, Iran, and the Propaganda Model

The most elementary facts are irrelevant unless they support the preordained narratives

Source: Znet

Based on a presentation delivered May 1st at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Arlington, VA.

Overt breaches of electoral democracy occurred in several countries in June 2009. Two cases were especially noteworthy: the June 12 presidential election in Iran in which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was widely accused of electoral fraud, and the June 28 military overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Exactly what happened in the case of Iran—that is, the extent of the fraud and whether or not it was decisive—is perhaps not quite as clear as the case of Honduras, where the military leadership unabashedly ousted the country’s elected leader. But regardless of the precise facts surrounding each event, there was in each country a clear pattern of government repression following that event. In both cases that repression took the form of murder, torture, and a variety of less violent actions such as press censorship, curfews, and arbitrary mass arrests.

In Iran, as Amnesty International reported last December, “thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested, dozens were killed on the streets or died in detention, and many said they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.” AI condemned “the willingness of the authorities to resort to violence and arbitrary measures to stifle protest and dissent.” Iranian human rights organizations painted a similar picture. The exact death toll is still in dispute, and may never be known, but it surely ranged at least in the dozens [1].

In Honduras, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH) has compiled the most thorough documentation of the human rights violations that have followed the June 28 coup. COFADEH has confirmed ten politically-motivated murders in the two months following the coup, including four within the first two weeks; by February 2010 the total was forty. Most of the victims had protested against the coup, and one was a journalist who had been covering the protests for the Honduran press. Foreign human rights organizations corroborated this basic story, although without the benefit of a constant on-the-ground presence. An Amnesty International visit to Honduras a month after the coup found that “[e]xcessive force by police and military has been routine and hundreds of peaceful demonstrators have been subject to arbitrary detention.” AI also confirmed that at least two peaceful protesters had been killed by gunfire. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued similar findings in March of this year. Since March, seven journalists have been murdered. On the one-year anniversary of the coup, a spokesperson for Amnesty International condemned the “grave human rights violations” that have continued since the government of Porfirio Lobo was installed in January, noting that Lobo “has failed to take action to protect” the human rights of Hondurans [2].

Attempting to “rank” or quantify human suffering is a difficult and perhaps vulgar endeavor, but we might tentatively conclude that government repression in the two countries was at least roughly comparable. Consistent and honest news media could thus be expected to devote at least roughly comparable levels of attention and indignation to the two cases. Instead, press coverage of the two cases is a textbook example of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” which predicts that US news coverage will consistently vilify antagonists of the US government and its corporate sponsors while showing far greater leniency toward official allies. One central aspect of the model predicts that the press will show tremendous sympathy toward the victims of US enemies—the “worthy victims”—while ignoring or downplaying the suffering of the “unworthy victims,” those who suffer at the hands of US friends [3]. Iran, it goes without saying, is a US enemy. While the position of the Obama administration toward the Micheletti and Lobo regimes in Honduras has been less clear-cut—Obama initially issued verbal denunciations of the coup and cut off some US aid—most of the administration’s actions in the past year indicate that Honduras is a strong US ally [4].

Neda and Isis: Worthy and Unworthy Victims

In the case of Iran, the New York Times and Washington Post both rightly devoted extensive space to the repressive aftermath of the elections. A Lexis-Nexis database search for “Iran + Elections” in the two months following the elections turned up 234 results in the Times and 178 in the Post. The opinion pages meanwhile dripped with outrage: the Post published an opinion piece devoted to condemning the repressive measures of the Iranian government about 3-4 times per week [5].

One Iranin victim received particular sympathy. The 26-year-old woman Neda Agha Soltan had been gunned down at a protest on June 20, and her murder caught on tape and circulated around the Internet. The Post mentioned Neda a total of nineteen times in two months; in just the first week following her death, it printed two editorials, two op-eds, one letter, and one front-page article devoted to condemning her death. The Times published two op-eds to the same effect.

Figure 1:

Editorials and Op-eds Focused on Condemning Repression in Iran,

June 13 – August 13, 2009

*Figures do not include editorials and op-eds referring only briefly or tangentially to the repression, or in which Iran was not the main focus

By stark contrast, coverage of the Micheletti regime’s repression in Honduras was almost non-existent. Total coverage of Honduras was far scarcer than coverage of Iran. Moreover, within the body of articles devoted to the coup (69), only 28 percent (19) even mentioned any of the repressive measures of the Micheletti government. Most referred only to government censorship, uses of tear gas, and similarly non-lethal actions; only seven of those nineteen articles mentioned the deaths of Honduran protesters. Thus, the repression in Honduras merited far fewer total mentions in all news coverage than the number of opinion pieces (50) elicited by comparable repression in Iran, the ratio being about 2:5. Not a single editorial or op-ed piece condemned the repression in Honduras; many in fact did the opposite, seeking to justify the coup and blame Zelaya (see below).

Figure 2:

Press Coverage of Micheletti Regime Repression in Honduras,

June 29 – August 29, 2009

The closest Honduran equivalent of Neda was 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, killed by a gunshot to the head on June 5 while he was awaiting Zelaya’s (unsuccessful) landing at the Toncontín airport. Isis’s name became well-known among solidarity activists around the world, and information on his death was widely available on the Internet in the weeks that followed. But Isis was mentioned by name only twice in the Post (with his name misspelled), and never in the Times. Neither article was devoted to his death; both mentioned his killing as evidence of a “deeply split Honduran society” [6]. In contrast, the clear intention of reportage on Neda’s death was to illustrate the brutality of the Iranian regime. Reports on Neda humanized her to a far greater extent, telling readers how she had been studying music and philosophy and had bravely refused to dress in traditional Islamic women’s garb [7].

The contrasting coverage of the deaths of Neda and Isis confirms Herman and Chomsky’s prediction about “worthy and unworthy victims.” Human suffering merits sympathy only if the perpetrator is one of Washington’s enemies.

Legitimate vs. Fraudulent Elections

US press coverage of the June 12 presidential election in Iran and the November 29 election in Honduras followed a similar pattern: skepticism and outright allegations of fraud in the case of Iran, praise in the case of Honduras.

As journalist and media critic Michael Corcoran has noted, the US press applied “an unambiguous double standard” in its coverage of the two elections. The Times, Post, and other outlets quickly condemned the June 12 Iranian election, saying that it “certainly looks like fraud.” In contrast, the Times applauded the “clean and fair” nature of the November 29 Honduran election, while the Post asserted that it had been “mostly peaceful.” The same outlets gave virtually no attention to the serious accusations of fraud or the reports of human rights organizations documenting widespread voter intimidation and government repression of dissidents. There was virtually no attention given to the Honduran opposition’s boycott of the election, and no mention at all of the fact that the leading opposition candidate, union leader Carlos Reyes, had been assaulted by government forces on July 30, his wrist broken, and that Reyes had later withdrawn his candidacy to avoid legitimizing the election. And while almost all foreign governments and election-monitoring organizations condemned the election as illegitimate, the US press, like the US government, accepted it [8].

Corcoran also provides incontrovertible quantitative evidence of bias for the case of the New York Times:

The Times ran 37 news articles on the issue—more than 38,000 words in total, including 15 front-page articles—in the 10 days following the Iranian elections. The paper also published 12 op-eds, six news analysis pieces, two editorials, and more than 2,600 words in letters to the editor. In contrast, in the 10 days following the Honduran election, the Times devoted only six stories, included four news articles, one editorial (which, as noted above, called the election “clean” and “fair”) and one news brief. None of the articles were published on the front page, and there were no published letters to the editor or op-eds. In sum, the Times published only about 3,000 words on the Honduran crisis, around 35,000 less than it devoted to the flawed Iranian election. [9]

These findings, considered alongside the reports of human rights observers, make it impossible to disagree with Corcoran’s conclusion that the US press was “complicit in thwarting Honduran democracy.”

As in the case of the worthy and unworthy victims, the propaganda model’s basic predictions are confirmed. This trend has been consistent for many decades [10]. The imperial logic is quite clear, and occasionally acknowledged by US officials and pundits in moments of candor. Some years ago, in response to the criticism that the US government was applying a double standard in condemning Sandinista elections in Nicaragua while touting the legitimacy of a clearly-farcical election in El Salvador (a US ally), a US diplomat remarked that “[t]he United States is not obliged to apply the same standard of judgment to a country whose government is avowedly hostile to the U.S. as for a country, like El Salvador, where it is not” [11]. Fittingly, the year was 1984.

“Honduras’s Coup is President Zelaya’s Fault”: The Provocation Thesis

In addition to adhering closely to the propaganda model, press coverage of Honduras has also recycled many tropes with deep roots in imperial and Orientalist discourse [12]. Readers of the Times and Post are regularly presented with images of power-hungry “strongmen” beguiling the infantile masses, who are “largely blind to results” [13]. Meanwhile, popular resistance to empire and oligarchy are the result of outside agitators like Hugo Chávez rather than any legitimate grievances or desires. Chávez, the aspiring “socialist-emperor,” is representative of the bad Latins: those who are converting their countries into one-man dictatorships and leading their economies to ruin, “in stark contrast to the rest of Latin America,” the good Latins who “embrace globalization” [14]. The most elementary facts are irrelevant unless they support the pre-fashioned narratives.

While space prevents a more thorough analysis, one pattern is especially noteworthy. Well over half of all articles and opinion columns on Honduras in the two months following the coup led readers to believe that Zelaya was at least partially responsible for the coup—in some cases, by stating explicitly that “Honduras’s coup is President Zelaya’s fault” (the title of a July 1 Post op-ed by right-wing Peruvian-American writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa) [15]. The primary basis for this claim was the allegation that Zelaya had been seeking to extend or eliminate presidential term limits, thereby acting in violation of the 1982 Honduran Constitution. In reality, as more scrupulous observers have pointed out, the non-binding poll of the population that Zelaya had scheduled for June 28 merely would have asked voters if they would favor placing a question on the November election ballot to decide whether or not to convene a new constitutional assembly. NACLA writer Robert Naiman, in a critique of press coverage of the coup, notes that “the question did not address term limits at all” [16].

The editors at the Times and Post may have been aware of this fact. Not only were informed readers writing them letters to educate them on the realities of the situation, but a June 30 article in the Times quoted an anonymous US official who admitted that the scheduled poll would have been merely “a nonbinding survey” of the population. But this tidbit was quickly forgotten in almost all subsequent coverage, and one of the reporters who co-wrote the article did not author any more articles on Honduras for the rest of the summer [17]. Instead, opinion pieces and news stories alike routinely implied or stated outright that Zelaya had provoked the coup by seeking to rewrite the Constitution and/or extend his term in office. Typical news reports asserted that “Zelaya was ousted because he was staging a referendum that could have allowed him to seek a second term in office” and that “[f]ears that [Zelaya] was trying to subvert the Constitution and extend his tenure were a driving force behind his ouster” [18]. Editorials and op-ed columns likewise stated as fact Zelaya’s alleged desire to “overcome the term limits that would have forced him to leave office,” and many explicitly blamed Zelaya for the coup [19]. The most “even-handed” articles reported the opposition’s accusation against Zelaya but identified it as the claim of his opponents rather than gospel truth. Nonetheless, only a handful of articles included a direct response from Zelaya or his supporters—implying that the allegation was probably credible—and none directly challenged the veracity of the allegation.

Figure 3:

Press Coverage Blaming Zelaya, in Whole or in Part, for His Own Overthrow,

June 29 – August 29, 2009

*Figures include bylined news articles, editorials, and op-eds; non-bylined articles and letters excluded

The notion that the victims bear responsibility for provoking the crimes against them—sometimes referred to as the “provocation thesis”—has been a recurrent trend in modern imperialist discourse. Extra! columnist Mark Cook notes that after the 1964 Brazilian military coup, the New York Times and others blamed deposed President João Goulart, whom one Times columnist accused of trying to “prolong [his term] by removing the constitutional ban against consecutive presidential succession” [20]. And following the US-backed military coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende in September 1973 the Times again blamed the deposed president for “pushing a program of pervasive socialism for which he had no popular mandate” [21]. Even relatively liberal historians have blamed leftist rebels and progressive nationalist leaders for the vicious military dictatorships that engulfed the continent in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. “Insurgency,” writes one prominent observer of Guatemala, “bolster[ed] the rationales of the most homicidal wing of the officer corps in one country after another” [22].

* * *
Once again, even the more liberal news outlets within the corporate-sponsored media seem unable or unwilling to cover events in Latin America in an honest way—that is, independently of US government or corporate prerogatives. Educating and pressuring the reporters and ombudspersons at such publications can occasionally have some positive effect, and is worth the effort [23]. But now, more than ever, obtaining access to reliable information about the world and the US role in it requires that we overcome our reliance on corporate-owned and corporate-sponsored media, turning instead to independent outlets like Z, NACLA, UpsideDownWorld.org, and Democracy Now! for our news about Latin America.


[1] AI, Iran: Election Contested, Repression Compounded, 10 December 2009; Defenders of Human Rights Centre, Quarterly Human Rights Report by the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (Spring-Summer 1388 [2009]).
[2] COFADEH, “Register of Politically Motivated Violent Deaths of Individuals, June 2009 to February 2010” (Quixote Center translation of Tercer informe situación de derechos humanos en Honduras en el marco del golpe de Estado: Octubre 2009-Enero 2010 [Resumen ejecutivo]); AI, Honduras: Human Rights Crisis Threatens as Repression Increases, 19 August 2009, pp. 6-7; Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Violations of Human Rights in Honduras since the Coup d’état on 28 June 2009, 3 March 2010; AI, “Honduras Failing to Tackle Coup Rights Abuses,” UpsideDownWorld.org, 28 June 2010. See also Bill Quigley and Laura Raymond, “One Year Later: Honduras Resistance Strong Despite US Supported Coup,” ¡Presente! 28 June 2010, and, from UpsideDownWorld.org, Belén Fernández, “Honduras One Year Later,” 27 June 2010, and Joseph Shansky, “The Coup Is Not Over: Marking a Year of Resistance in Honduras,”
[3] The classic statement is found in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002 [1988]). Additional tests of the model are found in Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End Press, 1989). The model is somewhat more complex than this brief introduction suggests; for one thing, it does not posit direct government control of media, arguing instead that media coverage tends to reflect the evolving consensus of government and corporate elites. Nor is it “conspiratorial”—in fact, Herman and Chomsky’s explanations emphasize the mechanisms of the “free market” far more so than any direct “conspiracy” of individuals. See the preface to the 2002 edition of Manufacturing Consent as well as Chomsky’s response to critics in Necessary Illusions.
[4] Signs include the US refusal to exert greater pressure on Micheletti; its complete silence regarding state human rights violations since the coup; its continued operation of the Soto Cano military base in Honduras; its continued training of Hondurans at the infamous School of the Americas; its quick recognition of Lobo’s “election” at a time when few governments were doing so; Hillary Clinton’s energetic campaigning for regional recognition of the Lobo regime; and the recent restoration of US military aid to the Lobo regime. For basic outlines of the Obama administration’s position as of last December see Mark Weisbrot, “Top Ten Ways You Can Tell Which Side The United States Government is On With Regard to the Military Coup in Honduras,” CommonDreams.org, 16 December 2009, and the sources cited in footnote 2 above.
[5] For an early critique of this disparity, focused on the Times, see Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher, “Iran vs. Honduras: The Times’ Selective Promotion of Democracy,” Extra! (August 2009).
[6] Mary Beth Sheridan and Juan Forero, “Clinton Agrees To Meet Zelaya; Efforts Intensified To Resolve Crisis,” Washington Post, 7 July 2009, sec. A, p. 8; Juan Forero, “In Deeply Split Honduran Society, a Potentially Combustible Situation,” Post, 15 July 2009, sec. A, p. 8.
[7] E.g., Kathleen Parker, “The Voices of Neda; A Sniper’s Bullet Gives a Movement Its Symbol” (op-ed), Post, 24 June 2009, sec. A, p. 27.
[8] All quotes in from, or quoted in, Corcoran, “A Tale of Two Elections: Iran and Honduras,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 1 (March/April 2010): 46-48. Information on Reyes is widely available outside the US mainstream; I thank Jesse Freeston of the Real News Network for bringing to my attention the fact that the press refused to cover the violence against Reyes at approximately the same time that it covered a comparable (and maybe less violent) incident of repression against prominent politician Mohamad Khatami in Iran on the eve of the Ashura holiday in late December (e.g., Nazila Fathi, “Demonstrators in Tehran Defy a Ban and Clash With the Police and Militia Forces,” New York Times, 27 December 2009, sec. A, p. 6).
[9] Corcoran, “A Tale of Two Elections,” 48.
[10] For exhaustive evidence from the 1980s see Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, and Chomsky, Necessary Illusions.
[11] Quoted in Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle, fourth edition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003), 158.
[12] On some of these trends see my “Testing the Propaganda Model: US Press Coverage of Venezuela and Colombia, 1998-2008,” ZNet, 19 December 2008; a shorter version appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas 41, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 50-52.
[13] “Mr. Chávez’s Weapons: While the Economy Plummets, Venezuela’s Strongman Splurges” (editorial), Post, 8 April 2010, sec. A, p. 20; Jackson Diehl, “Buying Support in Latin America” (op-ed), Post, 26 September 2005, sec. A, p. 23.
[14] Roger Cohen, “Shutting Up Venezuela’s Chavez [sic]” (op-ed), NYT, 29 November 2007, sec. A, p. 31; Juan Forero, “Oil-Rich Venezuela Gripped by Economic Crisis,” Post, 29 April 2010, sec. A, p. 7.
[15] Vargas Llosa was also given op-ed space in the Times on June 30: “The Winner in Honduras: Chavez” [sic], sec. A, p. 21.
[16] Naiman, “U.S. Media Fail in Honduras Coup Reporting,” NACLA Report on the Americas 42, no. 6 (November/December 2009).
[17] Helene Cooper and Marc Lacey, “In Honduras Coup, Ghosts of Past U.S. Policies,” NYT, 30 June 2009, sec. A, p. 1. Cooper did not author any more articles on Honduras for the period under review.
[18] William Booth, “Honduran Leadership Stands Defiant; New Government Scorns International Efforts to Reinstate Ousted President,” Post, 3 July 2009, sec. A, p. 10; Ginger Thompson, “Some Terms Reached in Honduras Dispute,” NYT, 17 July 2009, sec. A, p. 9.
[19] “Defend Democracy: In Honduras, That Should Mean More Than Restoring the President to Office,” Post, 30 June 2009, sec. A, p. 12.
[20] Columnist Arthur Krock, quoted in Mark Cook, “Rerun in Honduras: Coup pretext recycled from Brazil ’64,” Extra! (September 2009).
[21] “Tragedy in Chile” (editorial), NYT, 12 September 1973, p. 46; cf. Charles Eisendrath, “The Bloody End of a Marxist Dream,” Time (24 September 1973), p. 45. Both quoted in Devon Bancroft, “The Chilean Coup and the Failings of the U.S. Media” (unpublished manuscript obtained from author).
[22] David Stoll, quoted and critiqued in Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman, “Bitter Fruit for Rigoberta,” The Nation (8 February 1999).
[23] Several spring 2010 reports in the Washington Post, for example, have called attention to the fact that Honduras has been the deadliest country for journalists thus far this year, with at least seven killed in March and April; frequent letters, emails, and phone calls from solidarity activists to ombudsman@washpost.com in response to bad coverage since the coup may have played a part. See, for example, Anne-Marie O’Connor, “Seven Honduran Broadcasters Slain since March 1,” Post, 24 April 2010, sec. A, p. 7; AP, “Media Group: 17 Journalists Killed in April,” Post (online version), 28 April 2010. According to Amnesty International, seven journalists have been murdered since March (“Honduras Failing to Tackle Coup Rights Abuses,” 28 June 2010—the latter despite its faulty characterization of Honduras as “the first successful Latin American military coup in decades” (if a military coup is defined as the military’s overthrow of a president and installation of someone else, a number of other recent examples deserve mention, such as Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 1991 and 2004). UpsideDownWorld.org, 28 June 2010).