It is 7 a.m. and already some of the camera crews are on the road, heading out to the corners of this small country to look for the war. Some of the print reporters are hitching along, crammed in the back of the minibuses along with the camera gear. Nobody goes out of the city alone.
The rest of the reporters are having breakfast at the Camino Real Hotel, table-hopping to find out what other journalists are doing today. Offices open at 8:30, and anybody still around at 9 is either writing or has the day off.
But nearly everyone will be back by dark. For dinner, nobody goes out alone either.
Covering the war between the government and rebel guerrillas in El Salvador is a group grope. The U.S. Embassy says 110 foreign journalists, plus camera and sound technicians, are here covering the war. Although they attempt to operate with American and European standards of sourcing and cross-checking, they are operating in a country whose own press has always been a political actor, paid by one side or the other to write propaganda, not news.
The result has been heartburn all around, mutual incomprehension and fury between the foreign reporters and local officialdom, and quite a lot of desperate cooperation among journalists who, in the United States, would barely share a cab.
The wild-goose chase is a way of life. When the military-backed junta finally took action earlier this month against six National Guardsmen arrested for allegedly murdering four American churchwomen, reporters expected an easy story. Nothing could be better for the government's tattered human rights image, and a parade of vans made the hour's drive to Zacatecoluca, where the judge was scheduled to make formal charges. But after an hour's wait a court clerk mumbled that the event would occur in San Salvador instead.
But where in the city? The clerk gave directions to the district attorney's office, the DA to the National Police, the police to the central courts and so on until we had made seven stops, careering through jammed city traffic like demented firefighters.Promptly at 1 p.m. the government closed down, as it does every Saturday. No one had yet found out what the judge had done.
Our howls of rage must have levitated the U.S. Embassy. At 4 p.m., Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte appeared at the Camino Real to announce the charges against the guardsmen. If the leaders of El Salvador understand the need to dispense information, their subalterns still view all official deeds as secrets, even deeds that make the government look good.
"Instead of sending them $55 million in military aid, it'd do more good to send them one top-notch public relations company," said Juan Vasquez of the Los Angeles Times. But press advisers from Venezuela are already here, and old-timers say nothing has changed since their arrival.
Word of all upcoming events, press conferences, government allegations or guerrilla charges passes around haphazardly, by encounters in hallways or the elevator, at meals or at the bar before dinner. The rumor mill runs 24 hours a day. We are all in the same hotel, the only one in town with a working telex, and we all want the same thing. The network people, using cable jargon, call it "bang-bang."
"You've got to have bang-bang or a massacre to get on the air," said a network producer who asked to be anonymous. "New York is really pushing us. We have to have it as a vehicle to carry the political stuff." Government troops standing around won't do. Guerrilla troops standing around is better, and interviews with distraught peasants the day after a battle might do it, but the only sure thing is battle itself. And getting bang-bang is 95 percent luck."
The minivans carrying the camera crews have big "TV" and "PRENSA" (press) signs in all their windows in hopes that this will repel rather than attract gunfire, and that anybody aiming can read. Jouncing along the country roads, spread out around a nation the size of Massachusetts, the crews hope to spot a military patrol or a truckload of soldiers heading for an operation. Perhaps a guerrilla band will step out of the bushes and stop the van. There is no way to know in advance where these encounters might take place.
One batch of four journalists, stopped like this, asked to join the guerrillas for their morning outing. That proved to be an ambush for a military transport vehicle expected along any minute. Hiding on a bluff above the road, the group tensed as the sound of a laboring engine approached. The rifles clicked ready and the rocket launcher was set, recalled a UPI photographer, "and it was a van marked TV all over it."
The van went by and a few minutes later the armored personnel carrier appeared. The guerrillas fired two volleys, the photographer said, and missed both times. Bullets zinged back and forth. The guerrillas broke and ran for cover, the reporters sprinting along for half a mile into the brush.
This was considered a highly successful day, the better because nobody was hurt.
CBS is the king of bang-bang, with four camera crews heading out in different directions each day and a fifth covering the city. ABC and NBC each have two crews and Cable News Network has one. But it was CNN that broke the major story of the American advisers carrying M16 rifles against regulations.
"It's just luck," said CNN reporter Jim Miklaszewski. The crew had filmed taciturn Salvadorans and Americans setting up a prefabricated Bailly bridge, "really a nothing story," and had stopped half a mile down the dusty road for some watermelon, Miklaszewski said, "and there were these guys walking down the road."
A German TV crew spent 10 days here and struck out, finally buying some bang-bang footage from NBC.
Once the bang-bang is in the can, everyone tries to put it in context, but as far as the government is concerned, no one lower than a provincial district commander is authorized to provide that context. There are two official press spokesmen for the armed forces, both colonels, whose consistent response to all questions is that they do not know. That is clearly true.
"I'm just an employe here. How can you expect me to know anything?" one asked recently.
So vast is the cultural gap on the role of the press that even the commanders often cannot bring themselves to admit unpleasant truths, even those that are easily checked.
Probing reports of bombings in the western town of Santa Ana, I finally reached the military commander of the area.
"One bomb in one store, nobody hurt. It was nothing," he said confidently. Two hours later a camera crew returned with film of five stores bombed and seven persons wounded, two seriously.
"They're afraid of you," an embassy official explained. "They have no tradition of actually answering questions. When people are afraid, they act irrationally."
There is also the cultural clash between the Latin reluctance to disagree with foreigners and the journalists' conviction that hard reality exists. Vasquez of the Los Angeles Times noted that he had suggested to the judge in the murdered churchwomen's case that the defendants must be guilty, and the judge agreed. Suspicious, Vasquez later suggested they were innocent, and the judge agreed again.
He also agreed that the women obviously were communists and that they clearly were not. Even more than in most places, reporting here depends highly upon the question asked.
The guerrilla groups seem to have overcome this cultural problem, for even the semiliterate foot soldiers commonly met on the roads are willing to give the group line on any question. The rebels are, in fact, eager to provide information, broadcasting twice daily on the clandestine Radio Venceremos and offering guided tours of their camps.
There are many reports that guerrillas rob and beat people in the vehicles they stop, but these incidents have never occurred with cameras around. Neither are the guerrilla news offerings totally reliable.
Timothy Ross, a reporter-producer on contract with ABC, recalled that Radio Venceremos had said rebel forces shooting at a government helicopter had forced it to crash-land near Jiquilisco in the rugged southeast, seriously injuring a Maj. Pineda and two other officers.
"I walked into his office and there was Maj. Pineda. 'As you can see, I am fine,' he said," Ross related.
Larger claims are harder to check personally. The Army mounted its first major campaign of the year in southeastern Usulutan Province last week, closing roads and moving troops into the area for three days. Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia then announced it had been a success and 1,500 troops withdrew. The Associated Press, citing a military source, said 400 guerrillas had been killed. Nobody could reach the area commander to verify that.
The international press saturated the district, despite vertical roads resembling riverbeds, and could find no bodies or even distraught families. Such a clamor arose that Garcia issued an unprecedented formal denial of the 400 number, claiming instead that 28 rebels had been killed.
Radio Venceremos usually has been the first source of reports that government troops committed some mass murder. That is one story on which everyone competes, trying to slip out to the site before other reporters get there. Bodies qualify as bang-bang.
Interviews with agonized families make compelling reading as well as television, as do victims' accounts of tortures, threats, hunger and suffering. Even a government with the best possible press relations would be hard put to come out looking good in the face of such charges.
There are, however, two sides to every story. Government officials regard most of the foreign press here as out to get them, reporting only the horror stories and ignoring the fact that life continues relatively normally in most places, punctuated by little bursts of the war. President Duarte told Newsweek that he was losing the war not in the field but in the pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times. The local Private Enterprise Association routinely denounces the foreign press for distorting the truth, and reporters assume they are watched.
One reporter for a major U.S. daily said that Duarte recently greeted him with a friendly question. "He asked me how my book was coming. I said how did he know about that, and he said, 'Come on, you got a cable about it.' "
Shirley Christian of the Miami Herald related that she had mentioned to Garcia that there must be at least 90 foreign reporters here. Glancing at a nearby piece of paper, he said, "Eighty-six."
The U.S. Embassy only wishes there were fewer of us. Its two overworked press people have grown weary of answering the same basic questions over and over. "There's so little passing-along of information," one said. "A lot of the secondary media want to be spoon-fed sources."
The embassy gets generally high marks among the press corps for grace under pressure and for appearing to be as open as possible. It is the source for much basic economic data. The embassy also helps provide translators for those who do not speak Spanish, which includes most of the network heavyweights now beginning to appear. It is often besieged for help when deadlines approach and no information is forthcoming from official sources.
In an attempt to bring some order to the situation, UPI's locally based reporter, John Newhagen, created a press club and a credential that, to everyone's amazement, is accepted instantly all over the country. There are T-shirts that say boldly on the back, "PERIODISTA! NO DISPARE!!" which means "JOURNALIST! DON'T SHOOT!!"
Don Critchfield, an NBC field producer, thought up the name of the club. It is The Salvador Press Corps Association, the SPCA.