Media hype meter -- Hanoi and Honduras

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 10 Dec 1998 10:37:54 -0400

chatterbox : Wartime Lies
By Eliza Truitt

Not to discredit Dr. Brian C. Halpern, who is profiled in Wednesday's
New York Times for his efforts to help train doctors in Vietnam, or to
advocate the bombings of hospitals, but the good doctor regurgitates
one of the hoariest exaggerations of the Vietnam War: that the bombing
of Hanoi approached Dresden-like proportions and killed scores of
innocent babies at the Bach Mai hospital. "It's one of the largest
hospitals in Vietnam, and in 1972, in the Christmas bombings, we
destroyed their pediatric ward and killed all the inhabitants,"
Dr. Halpern told the Times. "It's a 1,000-bed hospital, but there is
more than one patient to a bed."

The attack on the hospital was good for quite a lot of anti-war
spin--Jane Fonda had her picture taken in the rubble after the
bombing, and in January of 1973 cast members of 17 Broadway shows
donated a day's pay to contribute to the fund established to rebuild
the hospital. But doctors present at the time say that almost all of
the patients had been evacuated to the countryside. According to
Hanoi's Health Minister, Min Nguyen Van Tin (as well as several
witnesses), total casualties were about 23, mainly doctors and medical
professionals. Witnesses at the time did not mention the destruction
of a pediatric ward.

The hospital is currently a stop on the bike tours going through the
area. To give hyperbole its due, the outcry against the bombing
attracted the help of relief organizations, who helped rebuild the
hospital. But just to set the record straight: not kids and not


Overblown: Hurricane Mitch was deadly, but it didn't kill anywhere
near 7,000 Hondurans.

By Edward Hegstrom

On Nov. 2, as journalists streamed into Nicaragua to report a
landslide that killed nearly 2,000 people, Honduran President Carlos
Flores went on television to remind the world of the calamity
inflicted upon his country by the same storm, Hurricane Mitch.

"There are corpses everywhere, victims of landslides or of the
waters," Flores said, making an appeal for massive international
aid. "The most conservative calculations of the dead are in the
thousands, not in the hundreds." That same day, the official Honduran
death toll went from 246 to 5,000. It later reached a high of 6,748
confirmed dead.

Flores' impassioned speech helped shift the world's focus from
Nicaragua to Honduras, making it sound as if a perfect storm had raked
the country. The official Honduran death count also prompted a
disaster relief drive and sparked a media frenzy. Harried reporters
based in the region--such as me--embraced the idea that this was the
natural disaster of a lifetime and reported the government's numbers.

But new evidence suggests that the Honduran government grossly
exaggerated the death count. In a phrase, we were all had: the press,
the relief organizations, and the public. While thousands of poor
Hondurans did lose their homes in the wake of Mitch, and survivors
watched as their subsistence crops washed away, I'll wager that an
independent count would prove that hundreds rather than thousands of
Hondurans died.

The first law of disaster reporting--as editors like to remind
writers--is that developing countries usually underreport deaths. And,
as a rule, editors insist that reporters depend on credible sources
for their stories. Since almost no one in Honduras refuted Flores'
extravagant body counts, his assertion went largely unchecked in the
early going. The first dispatches filed by the Associated Press and
Reuters about Hurricane Mitch's course through Central America
recounted the difficulties of collecting accurate death tolls, but
neither wire service challenged the official numbers--even though some
of their reporters on the ground thought they should have done so.

The wire services play a key role in setting the tone for coverage by
the rest of the media. Having cut back on foreign staff since the
close of the Cold War, the major newspapers and TV networks increasing
rely on the wires to provide the basic facts of a breaking story. They
also depend on the wires in order to make news judgments about
overseas coverage. In the case of Hurricane Mitch, assignment editors
used early wire reports to decide whether the story warranted sending
reporters, photographers, and film crews to the scene. When the wires
declared 7,000 and then 10,000 dead in the region, editors sent
jet-loads of journalists to Central America.

The press corps had little incentive to doubt the numbers once they
hit the ground. Having budgeted untold thousands to fly himself and a
crew down to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa to broadcast
Nightline, Ted Koppel would be nuts to downplay the storm's
impact. With the pictures telling the story of the devastation and the
good people of Kansas organizing food drives, it would seem downright
churlish for a reporter to question a Honduran official about his
body-count methodology.

The first report to question the official numbers was published in the
Miami Herald, two weeks after Mitch subsided. In region after region,
Herald reporters Juan O. Tamayo and Glenn Garvin failed to
substantiate the official numbers. Flores, however, responded sharply
to the Herald's doubts. "When we give out numbers, those are the dead
bodies that have been actually been counted," Flores told the
paper. "I have absolute confidence in those numbers."

My own experience was probably typical of most reporters who covered
the storm. By the time I arrived in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 5, Mitch was
universally accepted as the hurricane of the century. Editors phoned
reporters saying they wanted "color"--interviews with victims--rather
than numbers.

But fanning out into the capital's neighborhoods, I found death more
rare than expected. The government said it knew of 250 dead in
Tegucigalpa, and some officials told me they believed the actual
number of dead in the city would rise to the thousands. But the
hardest hit neighborhood we reporters could find was Nueva Esperanza,
where there were 14 dead. Poor Selvin Perez, who lost his wife and
daughter in the storm, was subjected to dozens of interviews with
color-seeking reporters.

A Reuters story from Nov. 5 quoted a government disaster commission
official, Norberto Otero, as saying that a mass grave had been dug for
100 storm victims in Tegucigalpa. To confirm the story, I hired a taxi
driver to take me to the neighborhood where residents said a truck had
in fact dumped 20 bodies in a mass grave. I used that fact in my

Yet a couple of weeks later when I revisited the storm-ravaged
country, I consistently found that region by region, the government's
original numbers were wrong. Officials first reported 531 confirmed
dead on the Bay Islands just off Honduras' Caribbean coast. When
visiting reporters found just 14 dead in the islands, the government
dropped its number to 81. Military leaders in the region currently put
the death toll on the islands at 12.

In La Ceiba, a coastal city where the people are now busy hanging
Christmas decorations, I learned that the official death toll is
nine. The government once pegged its death toll at 979. A new report
from the government's regional disaster relief office covering
north-central Honduras shows 46 dead there. But a report released by
the federal government two days later declared 1,426 deaths in that
same area. Did the federal officials never get a copy of the report
from their regional office, or did they just not read it?

Then there was the mountainous state of Santa Barbara, where the Red
Cross reported 50 dead but the government counted 1,124 corpses. On
Nov. 27, the day after I began asking questions about the 1,124 dead
in Santa Barbara, the government released a revised death toll of
282. Even so, it continues to report absurdly high death numbers in
other areas.

Some reporters who covered the storm in Honduras aren't surprised at
the exaggerations. Everybody had an interest in reporting big numbers,
says the Herald's Garvin. "If you are reporter, you want to cover the
story of the century, and that requires lots of bodies. Editors want
something they can put on the front page. Relief agencies want more
aid. And the interest of local governments is so obvious it doesn't
warrant detailing."

Did Flores deliberately overstate the crisis to draw international
aid? Perhaps. He's a media-savvy leader who owns one of Honduras'
principal newspapers, La Tribuna. A noted press manipulator, he is
said to dispense favors in return for favorable stories. Flores also
knows that journalists will forgive a politician for making a natural
disaster sound bigger than it is but will crucify anyone who tries to
downplay the story.

A postscript to my own reporting about the mass grave in Tegucigalpa:
The story turns out to be false. City morgue officials explain that
the storm damaged their freezer so they dug a mass grave to stow the
corpses that had sat unclaimed in the morgue for months before the

At last count, the Honduran government had deflated its official death
count to 5,657.