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Changing Times: The Vindication of Raymond Bonner



Danger: Revisionists at work. Raymond Bonner doesn't want to talk about the lumps he picked up in the early 80s in El Salvador. But the two papers that made his life difficult back then have taken to massaging the past, each faulting the other but not itself.

In January of 1982 Bonner published an infuriating series of articles in the New York Times. He'd ventured into rebel territory, and from this perspective the Salvadoran civil war did not square with the impression the Reagan administration wished to encourage, of internationally financed red brigands menacing a well-intended Salvadoran leadership groping toward democracy.

Bonner's most incendiary report described a "massacre of major proportions" in the hamlet of El Mozote: "In some 20 mud brick huts here, this reporter saw the charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned-out roofs, beams and shattered tiles. There were more along the trail leading through the hills into the village, and at the edge of a nearby cornfield were the remains of 14 young men, women and children. . . . The villagers have compiled a list of the names, ages and villages of 733 peasants, mostly children, women and old people, who they say were murdered by the Government soldiers. The Human Rights Commission of El Salvador . . . puts the number at 926."

Survivors said they'd been attacked by "uniformed soldiers, some swooping in by helicopters."

From the point of view of the White House, the timing of this article was intolerable. Bonner wrote that the carnage appeared to be the responsibility of the elite Atlacatl Battalion, the first trained by American advisers. The same edition of the Times carried the state of the union address in which President Reagan vowed that "America will not conduct 'business as usual' with the forces of oppression" (though Reagan had in mind communist oppression). A day later the administration was required to certify to Congress that human rights in El Salvador had continued their steady advance, thereby qualifying the regime for tens of millions more dollars in American support.

So Ambassador Deane Hinton would dismiss Bonner to other reporters as an "advocate journalist." Thomas Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, would tell Congress that the embassy had found no evidence of a massacre that "remotely approached" Bonner's proportions. And Reagan's friends on the Wall Street Journal editorial page would lecture, "There is such a thing as being overly credulous."

Bonner was vulnerable to the charge. A former lawyer and marine, he'd been a journalist just a year and a half. He began stringing for the Times because he happened to be in the area when the Reagan administration flamboyantly drew the line against communism in Central America. The Times soon put him on staff.

This guileless newcomer had not stressed to the Journal's satisfaction that he'd been guided through guerrilla-held territory by guerrillas. In other words, said the Journal in a February '82 editorial, "whatever the mixture of truth or fabrication, this was a propaganda exercise." And the Journal hated to see reporters played for suckers yet again. "Much of the American media, it would seem, was dominated [in El Salvador] by a style of reporting that grew out of Vietnam--in which Communist sources were given greater credence than either the U.S. government or the government it was supporting."

The Journal felt the Times should take Bonner to task, instead of "waging a little campaign to bolster his position by impugning his critics." Some campaign! Some bolstering! Executive editor A.M. Rosenthal appeared in San Salvador to talk to Bonner and lunch with Hinton. And in August of '82 Bonner was transferred to the financial desk in New York. He reported for duty but soon quit.

The 1982 elections notwithstanding, the war in El Salvador ground on for another decade without contradicting Bonner's first impressions of it. Scott Simon, who covered the war for National Public Radio, told us last week, "The rebel movement grew out of systematic and deliberate atrocities by government troops. You couldn't be a reporter in El Salvador and miss that story. If you missed that story you weren't any kind of reporter."

And so Bonner's removal became an emblem of institutional obeisance. "The news media have gone soft," argued Michael Massing in the Columbia Journalism Review in late 1983. He called Bonner's transfer central to the new flaccidity. As another correspondent told Massing, it "left us all aware that the embassy is quite capable of playing hardball. . . . People treat it carefully. If they can kick out the Times correspondent, you've got to be careful."

Last November, after preliminary excavations at El Mozote turned up 93 skeletons, almost all of them of small children, the Times's Anthony Lewis dusted off this theme. The Reagan administration "did its best to smear" Bonner and a Washington Post reporter who'd written a similar story, Lewis wrote. "Sad to say, this effort at smearing found a voice in the press itself. . . . The Journal editorial had a significant effect. Other newspapers worried about looking soft on Communism and toned down their reporting from El Salvador."

Bonner himself said in a documentary shown on WTTW's Image Union, "A lot of reporters told me, 'I'm going to be careful what I write because I'm not going to be caught in the same buzz saw.'"

Last month a United Nations-sponsored "truth commission" reported that the war fought in El Salvador was the war as Ray Bonner had found it. The UN investigation, said the New York Times, "has found active and retired military officers responsible for the killings of thousands of civilians, including the Archbishop of San Salvador."

Doug Cassel, a Chicago lawyer, was a special counsel to the commission. He told us what it discovered in El Mozote: bones of about 200 identifiable victims in the hamlet itself and another 300 nearby, plus remains of an uncalculated number of other victims, their skeletons torn apart by shells.

The Times quickly put its spin on the report. "In calling the massacre 'fully proven,' the commission vindicates Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post, and exposes what looks like purposeful mendacity in the Reagan Administration," declared a lead editorial titled "Truth, Lies and El Salvador." "Some American editorialists who attacked the reporters as credulous were themselves duped."

That was too much for the Wall Street Journal. "For more than a year now we've been following the campaign asserting that we victimized . . . Raymond Bonner," began the recent editorial "On Credulity." "We held our peace as this charge moved from Aryeh Neier in the Nation to Sydney Schanberg in Newsday to Anthony Lewis in the Times to National Public Radio to the Columbia Journalism Review to CBS's '60 Minutes.' Our patience broke when the Times itself joined in editorially."

The Journal argued that it had never denied there'd been a massacre (actually, it didn't show much interest in the question one way or the other) and hadn't attacked "reporters," only Bonner. Its next point was easily the editorial's best.

"In the third place, we did not fire Mr. Bonner in the first place. The New York Times did. Or more precisely, it pulled Mr. Bonner off the beat. . . . If the Times thinks Mr. Bonner has been vindicated, it should stop carping at us and rehire him forthwith."

We called Rosenthal about this, and he was furious. "It's not on this paper he needs to be vindicated. It's all bullshit!" roared the Times's former top editor, now a semiretired editorial columnist. "The implication Mr. Bonner was fired or pushed out from the New York Times is a lie. He never was. It's a myth established by something called the Columbia Journalism Review. I never received a request from anybody in or out of government to remove him. That's a total falsehood. He was unhappy with working in New York--unfortunately."

We'll give the Times the better of this debate for one reason only: the peculiar and fairly contemptible note on which the Journal concluded "On Credulity." As if to ingratiate itself with Rosenthal, the Journal wondered whether he might not have had it right in '82. Maybe, the Journal hinted, Bonner is credulous. The evidence? An interview last November on NPR, as the war was ending and bodies were being counted in El Mozote. Scott Simon asked Bonner if he felt any sense of justification.

"Yes I do feel partially vindicated," said Bonner. "But do you know what vindication is really important? It is now with Alger Hiss. Now that's a vindication that really means something. . . . Sure, I took my lumps, but look, we're in this business. We give lumps and we take our lumps. If there's lessons out of this, it's there's got to be limits to which we go when we're fighting a perceived enemy. Now with the cold war over, communism isn't the enemy anymore. What's the enemy--next enemy--going to be? Is it Islamic fundamentalism? . . . We have to be careful before we let our ideological crusades--and that's what it was against communism, what they did to Alger Hiss--and the war was still being fought, of course, in the 1980s."

Granted, Bonner rambled. But what about his rambling is supposed to demonstrate he's gullible? Possibly the Journal, which didn't call us back to discuss the matter, holds the view that anyone putting in a good word for Alger Hiss must be a fool.

Bear in mind that Bonner was speaking a few days after the chairman of Russia's military intelligence archives declared categorically that Hiss had never collaborated with the Soviet Union. And though some historians soon found flaws in the chairman's evidence, Bonner happened to be talking to Simon from Nairobi, where these nuances hadn't penetrated. (Knopf is about to publish Bonner's new book, At the Hand of Man--Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife.)

"Everybody was calling me and saying, 'Don't you feel vindicated?'" Bonner told us this week, when we reached him at his new home in Warsaw. "I don't want to become some sort of hero to anyone. That's the point I was trying to make [to Scott Simon]. What happened to me is not that significant."

Except to the papers that made it happen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fiona McDougall.

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