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This (De-Politicized) American Life

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It’s true that Team Baffler has developed something of a forensic interest in the goggle-eyed tales of middle-class uplift that teem Ira Glass’s immensely popular “This American Life” franchise. So when the show was graced with the journalism industry’s prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for general excellence in its one-hour segment on the fallout from the 1982 Dos Errese massacre in Guatemala. In that horrific attack, 250 Guatemalan civilians were slaughtered by the Kaibiles–the elite death squads under the command of Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, himself a product of the CIA’s pet institute of counterinsurgency thuggery, the School of Americas. Rios Montt was recently convicted of orchestrating the genocide of the more than 1700 members of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan tribe, the Ixil, and, as the TAL report showed, he has plenty of other civilian blood on his hands from his authoritarian crackdown of the country’s civil unrest in the 1980s.

What you wouldn’t hear about the Rios Montt regime in the show’s award-winning dispatch, however, was that it won the enthusiastic support of the U.S. foreign policy establishment during the Central American anticommunist crusades of the Reagan years. NACLA’S Keane Bhatt, in an excellent analysis of the many key US-Guatemalan relationships omitted from Glass’s hour-long radio dispatch, found that “This American Life” producers even failed to mention some critical reporting on the Dos Erres incident from the show’s print-reporting partners at Pro Publica–chiefly that a key member of the Kaibile, Pedro Pimental, who was spirited back to the School of the Americas under US supervision in the massacre’s immediate wake. (A Guatemalan tribunal later sentenced Pimental to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the Dos Erres attack.)

So why did Glass and his colleagues leave out such material from their reconstruction of the event’s history? Well, as Glass explained things to Bhatt, they pretty much just didn’t feel like it. “I certainly know that history,” he told the NACLA reporter. But he and his team “decided not to get into that in the program simply because we were throwing a lot of facts and history at our listeners and we were worried about how much they could absorb.”

But as Bhatt goes on to point out, the question wasn’t really how much TAL listeners were asked to absorb; it was, rather, what kind of facts Glass and Co. were electing to make available to their audience.

Retrospection aside, his answer was disingenuous. While it was true that the words “Reagan,” “Jacobo Arbenz,” “School of the Americas” or “CIA” were never uttered in the hour-long broadcast, Glass and his co-producers did not simply omit context. They went one step further, by affirmatively—and falsely—framing the U.S. government as a negligent bystander whose only sin was a reluctance to speak out.

He claimed in the episode, for example, that “Embassy officials heard lots of reports about the Army massacring whole villages throughout Guatemala, which they dismissed,” until, “at the urging of the State Department back in Washington,” they went to “see for themselves if the stories were true.” This American Life’s harshest indictment is that, despite years of repeated massacres after Dos Erres, “the U.S. knew about it but stood by.”

To depict the foreign policy makers of the Reagan White House–which, after all, employed the convicted felon Elliott Abrams as an undersecretary for Inter-American affairs–is roughly akin to characterizing Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as a collateral casualty of the Great Chicago Fire. But when Bhatt asked Glass in a follow-up email just what the show’s rationale might have been for such a misleading, kid-gloves characterization of American interests in the region, he got no reply. And Bhatt goes on to note similar distortions of more recent American adventurism in the neighboring country of Honduras, where The Baffler, too, has been keeping tabs. And while Glass is keeping mum about the reasons behind these egregious journalistic miscues, Bhatt delivers what sounds, to our own Glass-battered ears, like a pretty unassailable explanation:

Their motivation for suppressing the U.S. government’s hand in the barbarity of the two countries stems from either a disdain for their listeners—Glass condescendingly “worried about how much [history and facts] people could absorb”—or from their willingness to perpetuate Washington’s flattering self-image.

And that, dear hipster listeners, is how you get ahead in the journalism game.