The US has something to learn from the other 9/11, the one in Chile that came before us.
It was the longest standing democracy in South America, a most genteel culture where everything could be settled with a handshake and a discussion, and an environment where respect marked political interactions. "Sir" and "Madam" preceded greetings. But in a short period of time, society disintegrated into rabid arguments in the streets.
Although several factors contributed to the disintegration, among them was a sensational, inflammatory and polarized media that blamed "the others." While the rightist newspapers blamed "BLOODY MARXISTS SHOOTING" and "the government" for the growing environment of chaos, claiming that they had "gravely broken the constitution," the leftist media called for rescuing Chile from the "Fascist coup" and asserted that the militant right wing was promoting "a climate of fear and chaos."
While publicly supporting the real saboteurs -- including the Fatherland and Liberty groups -- the media of record claimed that it was President Salvador Allende's supporters causing the destruction. The "out-of-control Marxists" were attempting to "achieve total power" through "extralegal or de facto" means, according to these papers.
Day after day, the paper of record, El Mercurio's headlines bred fear about "Marxists" causing "terror" in schools, slaughtering dogs, beating handicapped veterans, and planning to execute members of the middle class and armed forces. But there was one problem: The stories were untrue.
Allende was depicted as a deadly dictator and an "irresponsible drunk."53 Alongside attack articles, El Mercurio juxtaposed Allende's photographs with those of slaughtered animals and blamed Allende for the violence.
Another newspaper, La Segunda, fabricated an Allende interview in which it claimed he admitted plans to expropriate small businesses such as candy stores and lollipop stands. Tribuna lampooned threats on Allende's life: "YANKEE AGENT DISCOVERED HERE ON MISSION TO KILL ALLENDE: HIS NAME IS JOHNNY WALKER."
Ethical, fact-based journalism faded. Rightist media flooded readers with terrifying warnings of a coming "leftist" coup. "Leftist guerrilla groups" were stockpiling arms, creating guerrilla schools, infiltrating the military, and converting factories into fortresses for organizing their paramilitaries, they said. They alarmed readers with a coming "totalitarian nightmare." The wild claims raised the ire of the already-suspicious rank-and-file soldiers.
As media hardened into extreme positions, so, too, did the Chilean people. Chile's atmosphere grew so vitriolic that the beleaguered president's negotiating skills were useless. Friendships disintegrated, and social gatherings erupted into rabid arguments. Violent riots broke out in the streets, and enraged people vandalized and destroyed property. Fear of "the other" heightened, and increasingly, Chileans erected safety measures, such as installing bars on their windows to prevent the "Communists" from raping their daughters.
Across sectors of Chile, Chileans grew enraged but not toward the instigators of chaos. Rather, they grew enraged at Allende and his supporters, asserting that they would "never forgive" the communists.
In July 1973, El Mercurio publicly called for a coup and to end democracy. "Renounce all political parties, the masquerade of elections, the poisoned and deceitful propaganda, and turn over to a few select military men the task of putting an end to political anarchy," wrote the paper. On its front page in huge letters, it featured a leading senator calling for "the armed forces of the Fatherland to clean out the workers from the illegally occupied factories and smash the Red Army being trained inside them."
President Allende acknowledged the chaos and demands for the coup but vowed that Chile's constitutional democracy would win. "Some people say we need a coup to avert a civil war," he said on September 10, 1973. "But in Chile there will be neither a coup, nor a civil war!"
The day after Allende spoke his defiant words, General Agustin Pinochet's military ambushed the presidential palace and installed a brutal military dictatorship, silencing all voices but for his own.
With the silencing of the all media save for those that supported the Pinochet regime, Chileans heard and read a barrage of alarming stories about leftists' plan to commit atrocities -- exactly the kinds of atrocities that Pinochet's regime was committing. Public opinion polls reflected the fears generated by these media with many Chileans publicly supporting the coup.
Here in the US, we have something to learn from Chile's experience. While we are not faced with the same threats of a coup, we are faced with the effects of an increasingly polarized media. And as our dialogue has become more divided and antagonistic, so have our politics. As responsible, fact-based journalism is increasingly challenged, destructive rumors and emotional slurs have gained ground and are often left uncorrected. As if a mirror image of the public discourse, the US has become more polarized -- measured both by the positions and opinions of elected representatives and those of the public. As a result, the democratic process of compromise becomes increasingly difficult. Citizens' understandings -- from which they base their political decisions -- diminish; the nation's problems go unsolved, and our democracy suffers. Democracy can only function properly with an informed citizenry, and that takes a solid, ethical fourth estate. This is what is at stake: if we are to sustain and improve our democratic state and solve our nation' problems, we must boost our beleaguered institution of journalism.
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