Nearly two months have passed since the beginning of NATO's air war against Yugoslavia. After a shaky start, Washington's spin machinery has done much to promote a war agenda -- with crucial assistance from major U.S. news media.
Early on, top officials of the Clinton administration seemed to be playing catch-up. "The problem is they didn't start the communications until the bombs started falling," said Marlin Fitzwater, who spoke for President George Bush during the Gulf War. "That's not enough time to convince the nation of a course of action."
But overall, the White House has good reason to be pleased with the national media. By late April, special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, one of the key U.S. diplomats behind recent policies in the Balkans, was handing out compliments. "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 has been extraordinary and exemplary."
U.S. journalists have generally relied on official sources, with frequent interviews, behind-the-scenes backgrounders, briefings and grainy bomb-site videos. In contrast with the overt censorship forced on Serbian media by Slobodan Milosevic, the constraints on mainstream U.S. news outlets have been largely self-imposed. The media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting studied coverage during the first two weeks of the bombing and found "a strong imbalance toward supporters of NATO air strikes."
Examining the transcripts of two influential TV programs, ABC's "Nightline" and the PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," FAIR found that only 8 percent of the 291 sources were critics of NATO's bombing. Forty-five percent of sources were current or former U.S. government and military officials, NATO representatives or NATO troops. On "Nightline," the study found, no U.S. sources other than Serbian-Americans were given air time to voice opposition.
Throughout the spring, among Pentagon briefers and U.S. journalists, a popular euphemism for the continuous bombing has been "air campaign," a phrase that hardly conveys what happens when bombs explode in urban areas. News organizations have been reluctant to use the word "war" to describe NATO's activities. Cable TV networks have preferred "Strike Against Yugoslavia" and "Crisis in Kosovo."
On the last Sunday in April, the lead front-page article in the New York Times started this way: "NATO began its second month of bombing against Yugoslavia today with new strikes against military targets that disrupted civilian electrical and water supplies..." This is in sync with a remarkable concept that has been widely promoted by U.S. officials: While the bombing disrupts "civilian" electricity and water, the targets are "military."
If cluster bombs were being used by Yugoslav army troops, one could expect a huge outcry in the American media. But reporters and commentators in this country made little fuss about NATO's widening use of the 1,000-pound warhead formally known as CBU-87/B, which shoots out thousands of jagged steel fragments at high velocity.
A week ago, London's Sunday Telegraph published a commentary by BBC correspondent John Simpson, who wrote that "in Novi Sad and Nis, and several other places across Serbia and Kosovo where there are no foreign journalists, heavier bombing has brought more accidents." Simpson noted that cluster bombs "explode in the air and hurl shards of shrapnel over a wide radius." He added: "Used against human beings, cluster bombs are some of the most savage weapons of modern warfare."
But the U.S. media have devoted scant ink or airtime to these weapons' more grisly aspects. And few news accounts have explored how the enormous destruction of Yugoslavia's infrastructure is likely to lead to widespread disease and civilian deaths, as is occurring now in Iraq.
TV news coverage brings war into our living rooms, but as media critic Mark Crispin Miller has observed, viewers "see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household." The nation's TV networks have shown awe-inspiring file footage of U.S. bombers and missiles in flight. Rarely have viewers seen more than fleeting images of what happens to the people underneath the bombs. For the domestic audience, America's high-tech weaponry appears to be wondrous but fairly bloodless.
As disastrous as the NATO attack has proven to be -- measured against its initial announced purposes -- the human catastrophe experienced by Albanian refugees was tremendously important in marshaling support for this war from Americans. Yet news media have not dwelled on the substantial evidence that NATO's military assault gravely worsened the situation for its ostensible beneficiaries.
The media spin on the war is as much a matter of what has been left out as what has been covered. For instance, U.S. media outlets have rarely pursued tough questions such as: If humanitarian concerns are high on Washington's agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give aid to Turkey? The 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 NATO allies, and we hear little about the large-scale torture and murder of Kurdish people inside Turkey.
Also given short shrift has been the fact that the Rambouillet accords -- rejected by Slobodan Milosevic in late March just before the bombing began -- included provisions allowing for NATO troops to move into all of Yugoslavia, a provision that no sovereign nation would accept.
Appendix B of the Rambouillet text includes such sections 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."
At the time, the U.S. news media were silent about this pivotal aspect of the Rambouillet accords. 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.
This column ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (5/19/05).