How (Not) to Cover a War: Fawn, Whitewash, Wave the Flag
By Norman Solomon
In late April, with the bombing of Yugoslavia in its fifth week, many
prominent American journalists gathered at a posh Manhattan hotel for
the annual awards dinner of the prestigious Overseas Press Club. They
heard a complimentary speech by Richard Holbrooke, one of the key U.S.
diplomats behind recent policies in the Balkans.
"The kind of coverage we're seeing from the New York Times, the
Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and the newsmagazines lately on Kosovo," he
told the assembled media professionals, "has been extraordinary and
Holbrooke had good reasons to praise the nation's leading journalists.
This spring, major news organizations have functioned more like a
fourth branch of government than a Fourth Estate. For instance:
* Instead of challenging Orwellian techniques, media outlets are doing
much to foist them on the public.
Marching off to war, journalists have relied on official sources --
with non-stop interviews, behind-the-scenes backgrounders, televised
briefings and grainy bomb-site videos. "Collateral damage," "air campaign" and
similar euphemisms generate a continual fog. Newspeak routinely
sanitizes NATO's bombardment of populated areas.
Consider the opening words of the lead front-page article in the New
York Times last Sunday: "NATO began its second month of bombing against
Yugoslavia today with new strikes against military targets that
disrupted civilian electrical and water supplies...."
The concept is remarkable: The bombing disrupted "civilian"
electricity and water, yet the targets were "military."
Correspondents have no business going through such linguistic
contortions to preserve the favorite fictions of Washington policy-makers. NATO's
bombing of urban areas should be reported for what it is -- especially
because such destruction of infrastructure leads to widespread disease
and civilian deaths, as is occurring now in Iraq.
* American TV networks often show file footage of U.S. bombers and
missiles in flight -- but rarely show what really happens to people at
the receiving end.
Rather than echoing Pentagon hype about the wondrous performances of
Uncle Sam's weaponry, journalists should provide unflinching accounts of the
results in human terms. Reporter Robert Fisk of London's daily
Independent has managed to do so with dispatches like this:
"Deep inside the tangle of cement and plastic and iron, in what had
once been the make-up room next to the broadcasting studio of Serb
Television, was all that was left of a young woman, burnt alive when NATO's
missile exploded in the radio control room. Within six hours, the Secretary of
State for International Development, Clare Short, declared the place a
"It wasn't an argument worth debating with the wounded -- one of them
a young technician who could only be extracted from the hundreds of tons
of concrete in which he was encased by amputating both his legs. ... By
dusk last night, 10 crushed bodies -- two of them women -- had been tugged
from beneath the concrete, another man had died in hospital and 15 other
technicians and secretaries still lay buried."
* In medialand, there are informal but well-understood limits to media
discourse. As the missiles fly, tactical arguments are acceptable;
basic challenges from Americans who question U.S. prerogatives and motives
are not. Meanwhile, even as they go along to get along, reporters are fond
of exaggerating their tiffs with military authorities.
In a typical comment a few weeks ago, on public television's "NewsHour
With Jim Lehrer," media correspondent Terence Smith spoke of "the
frequently adversarial relationship between the Pentagon and the
press." But top U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
and Defense Secretary William Cohen are happy to be interviewed on the
influential show. It goes beyond softball questions; Lehrer and his
colleagues are more inclined to toss out beach balls.
As for the range of views, the mass media spectrum is narrow. Strong
policy critics get few words in edgewise amid the parade of present
and former U.S. government officials, analysts from corporate-funded think
tanks, conformist historians and mainstream journalists.
We need real debate, not minor disputes over tactical options.
* American journalists don't hesitate to probe the nefarious goals of
a Washington-designated "enemy" leader, as when a Newsweek cover story
featured "Milosevic -- The Face of Evil -- His Mind and Motives." In
sharp contrast, reporting on the motivations of U.S. policy-makers has been
In a recent essay, National Public Radio correspondent Sylvia Poggioli
noted that the countries of the Balkans as well as Eastern and Central
Europe have been under close Western scrutiny during this decade. Yet,
she pointed out, "too often their most zealous monitors have been
free-market missionaries whose democracy-building yardstick is limited to
privatization of industry and the creation of a consumer society."
High on the U.S. agenda has been the aim of making that part of the
world safe for unbridled corporate investment and big profits -- though you
wouldn't know it from the corporate-owned U.S. news media.
* On human rights, journalists commonly go along with the double
standards favored by the White House and congressional leaders.
To depart from their own propaganda functions, major U.S. media
outlets could insist on pursuing tough questions. Such as: If humanitarian
concerns are high on Washington's agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give
aid to Turkey?
As it happens, the most righteous charges leveled by President Clinton
against the Yugoslav government about its brutal treatment of ethnic
Albanians could just as accurately be aimed at the Turkish government
for its repression of Kurds. But Washington and Ankara are cozy NATO
allies, so we hear little about the large-scale torture and murder of Kurdish
people inside Turkey.
The journalistic responsibility remains unmet: News outlets should
embrace a single standard of human rights in their reporting.
* Intrepid at their keyboards and microphones, hundreds of American
commentators demand further escalation of high-tech bombing.
A typical enthusiast, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was so
enthralled with his own witticism "Give war a chance" that he repeated
it from one column to another last month. Friedman has been upbeat about
prospects for more extensive carnage. "It should be lights out in
Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has
to be targeted."
"Liberal" pundits are among the most bloodthirsty. Last November, when
the United States postponed its missile attack on Baghdad, disappointment
was rampant. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen complained: "The
Clinton administration waited too long to act. It needed to punch out Iraq's
lights, and it did not do so."
Journalists should get a grip and leave the schoolyard posturing
behind -- or find a profession where their flip bravado would do less harm.
* As crucial participants in the U.S. government's agenda-building for
this war, the American mass media have glided over key aspects of the
negotiations that led up to it.
The Rambouillet accords -- rejected by Slobodan Milosevic in late
March just before the bombing began -- actually allowed for NATO troops to
occupy all of Yugoslavia, a provision that no sovereign nation would accept.
At the time, the American news media were silent about that fact. Now,
when pressed on the matter, many journalists at big national media outlets
say it's old news. But they never reported it in the first place.
Appendix B of the Rambouillet text includes such provisions as: "NATO
personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels,
aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access
throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated air
space and territorial waters."
Not all American journalists are sleepwalking through this war,
deferring to the guidance of U.S. officials. At the Overseas Press Club awards
dinner, two recipients of honors demanded that Holbrooke -- who had
personally delivered the ultimatum to Belgrade hours before the bombs
started falling -- account for the little-known stipulations in the
Rambouillet text. Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, gutsy journalists
with Pacifica Radio, confronted him with a question that America's
mainstream media had failed to ask.
Aided by awards presenter Tom Brokaw, the esteemed diplomat slipped
away without answering. Nor did the assembled editors, reporters and
producers support Goodman and Scahill in their quest for a full explanation.
In a banquet room filled with hundreds of American journalists, the
ambassador was among friends.