May
21
1999

Networks Need to Be Skeptical of Both Sides:

Reporters Repeated NATO Falsehoods on Refugee Bombing

In the latest in a series of "accidental" bombings of Yugoslavian civilians by the U.S., some 80 ethnic Albanians were killed May 13 in the Kosovo village of Korisa. But the Pentagon did not admit that it had in fact bombed the village until several days later; during the first news cycle, when the story was big news, U.S. and NATO officials advanced a variety of cover stories in order to deny or reduce its guilt. And network news media were all too eager to carry these false stories.

Here's NBC's Jim Miklaszewski on May 14, the day after the bombing, reporting that NATO officials are "fairly certain" they didn't bomb the village:

"NATO's still investigating, but privately, Pentagon officials believe the Serbs attacked the village with mortars or small artillery, and then laid the blame on NATO."

When you hear about such "investigations," keep in mind that in modern warfare, planes drop bombs on specified targets whose coordinates are precisely known. It would not take 15 minutes, let alone more than 24 hours, to determine whether a particular village had been the target of any airstrikes.

Meanwhile, officials were "privately" giving ABC an entirely different story. Here's ABC's John Cochran on the same night:

"Privately, though, U.S. officials say American planes apparently did bomb Korisa, where they say there were legitimate military targets, including troops and anti-aircraft artillery. NATO analysts are looking at the possibility that, after the bombing, the Serbs shelled the town with artillery to make the devastation appear even worse. The analysts say the pictures from the scene do not seem to match the damage theybelieve was caused by the bombs."

No substantiation was ever offered for the horrific charge that Yugoslavians had themselves shelled the site to worsen the carnage. After NATO officials dropped this claim, and openly admitted that they had in fact bombed the Albanians, they settled on a new story to try to redirect the blame for the mass slaughter: The refugees were "human shields" who were brought to a military facility in hopes that they would be killed and provide a propaganda victory for Yugoslavia (New York Times, 5/15/99).

But press accounts from the scene cast doubt on the idea that Korisa was a military target: The London Independent, reporting from the scene, noted on May 16 that "Western journalists who visited the scene saw burnt scraps of flesh and the scattered possessions of villagers--but no sign of a military presence beyond a small number of soldiers apparently billeted in nearby homes." Reports from journalists at the site (e.g., L.A. Times, 5/15/99; Independent, 5/16/99) suggest that NATO bombs were not aimed at any obvious military target, but at the tractors and wagons of the refugees--which from 15,000 feet are hard to distinguish from tanks and army trucks.

Still, most of the press accepted the "human shields" story with little questioning--including those news outlets that had reported NATO's original falsehoods without a hint of skepticism. U.S. news reports are properly skeptical of Yugoslavian government assertions, since many of Belgrade's claims turn out to be wrong. Shouldn't independent journalists apply the same standards to NATO's frequently inaccurate statements as well?

ACTION: Please contact the TV networks and urge them to show skepticism of unverifiable claims made by both Yugoslavia and NATO, since both sides have made a series of claims that have turned out to be incorrect.

ABC News

47 W. 66 St.

New York, NY 10023

Phone: 212-456-7777

Fax: 212-456-4297

Email: netaudr@abc.com

CBS News

524 W. 57 St.

New York, NY 10019

Phone: 212-975-4321

Fax: 212-245-7560

NBC News

30 Rockefeller Plaza

New York, NY 10112

Phone: 212-664-4444

Email: nightly@nbc.com