May 5 1999

Slanted Sources in NewsHour and Nightline Kosovo Coverage

A FAIR analysis of sources on ABC‘s Nightline and PBS‘s NewsHour during the first two weeks of the bombing of Yugoslavia found an abundance of representatives of the U.S. government and NATO, along with many other supporters of the NATO bombing. Opponents of the airstrikes received scant attention, however; in almost all stories, debate focused on whether or not NATO should supplement bombing with ground troops, while questions about the basic ethics and rationales of the bombing went largely unasked.

FAIR’s survey was based on a search of the Nexis database for stories on the war between March 25 and April 8, identifying both guests who were interviewed live and sources who spoke on taped segments. Sources were classified according to the institutions or groups they represented, and by the opinions they voiced on NATO’s military involvement in Yugoslavia.

Of 291 sources that appeared on the two shows during the study period, only 24–or 8 percent–were critics of the NATO airstrikes. Critics were 10 percent of sources on the NewsHour, and only 5 percent on Nightline. Only four critics appeared live as interview guests on the shows, 6 percent of all discussion guests. Just one critic appeared as a guest on Nightline during the entire two-week time period.

The largest single source group, 45 percent, was composed of current or former U.S. government and military officials, NATO representatives and NATO troops.

On Nightline, this group accounted for a majority of sources (55 percent), while providing a substantial 39 percent on the NewsHour. It also provided the largest percentage of live interviewees: 50 percent on Nightline (six of 12) and 42 percent on the NewsHour (24 of 57). (Numerous U.S. aviators who appeared on Nightline‘s 3/29/99 edition were left out of the study, because their identities could not be distinguished.)

Overall, the most commonly cited individuals from this group were President Bill Clinton (14 cites), State Department spokesperson James Rubin (11) and NATO spokesperson David Wilby (10). Of course, these sources were uniformly supportive of NATO’s actions. A quote from the NewsHour ‘s Margaret Warner (3/31/99) reveals the homogeneity of a typical source pool: “We get four perspectives now on NATO’s mission and options from four retired military leaders.”

Former government officials were seldom more critical of NATO’s involvement in Yugoslavia. Cited less than one-third as often as current politicians, former government officials mainly confined their skepticism to NATO’s reluctance to use ground troops. Bob Dole (Nightline, 3/31/99) voiced the prevailing attitude when he said, “I just want President Clinton…not to get wobbly.”

Albanian refugees and KLA spokespeople made up 18 percent of sources (17 percent on the NewsHour, 19 percent on Nightline), while relief workers and members of the U.N. Commission for Refugees accounted for another 4 percent on NewsHour and 2 percent on Nightline. Sources from these groups also provided 4 percent of live interviewees on the NewsHour and 25 percent on Nightline .

These sources stressed the Kosovar refugees’ desperation, and expressed gratitude for NATO’s airstrikes. Said one KLA member (Nightline, 4/1/99), “The NATO bombing has [helped and] has been accepted by the Albanian people.” Although one refugee (Nightline, 4/1/99) suggested otherwise–“We run away because of NATO bombing, not because of Serbs” –all other sources in this group either defended or did not comment on NATO’s military involvement in the conflict.

Those most likely to criticize NATO–Yugoslavian government officials, Serbians and Serbian-Americans–accounted for only 6 percent of sources on the NewsHour and 9 percent on Nightline. Overall, only two of these sources appeared as live interviewees: Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nebojsa Vujovic (Nightline, 4/6/99) and Yugoslav Ambassador to the United Nations Vladislav Jovanovic (NewsHour, 4/1/99). This group’s comments contrasted radically with statements made by members of other source groups, e.g., calling NATO’s bombing “unjustified aggression” (Nightline, 4/6/99), and charging that NATO is “killing Serbian kids.” (NewsHour, 4/2/99)

On Nightline, no American sources other than Serbian-Americans criticized NATO’s airstrikes. On the NewsHour, there were seven non-Serbian American critics (4 percent of all sources); these included schoolchildren, teachers and college newspaper editors, in addition to a few journalists. Three out of the seven American sources who criticized the NATO bombing appeared as live interviewees, while the rest spoke on taped segments.

Officials from non-NATO national governments other than Yugoslavia, such as Russia’s and Macedonia’s, accounted for only 2 percent of total sources (3 percent on the NewsHour, 0 percent on Nightline) and added only four more critical voices overall. Only twice did a government official from these countries appear as a live interviewee (NewsHour, 3/30/99, 4/7/99).

Eleven percent of sources came from American and European journalists: 7 percent on Nightline, 13 percent on the NewsHour. This group also claimed 17 percent of all live interviews on Nightline and 40 percent on the NewsHour. In discussions with these sources, which tended to focus on the U.S. government’s success in justifying its mission to the public, independent political analysis was often replaced by suggestions for how the U.S. government could cultivate more public support for the bombing.

Three independent Serbian journalists also appeared–two on the NewsHour and one on Nightline–but they did not add any voices to the anti-bombing camp. Instead, they spoke about the Serbian government’s censorship of the independent media. Of a total of 34 journalists used as sources on both shows, only four opposed the NATO airstrikes. Three of these four appeared as live interviewees, and all four appeared on the NewsHour.

Academic experts–mainly think tank scholars and professors–made up only 2 percent of sources on the NewsHour and 5 percent on Nightline. (Experts who are former government or military officials were counted in the former government or military categories; these accounted for five sources.) On the NewsHour, the only think tank spokesperson who appeared was from the military-oriented Rand Corporation, while Nightline‘s two were both from the centrist Brookings Institution. Just two experts appeared in live interviews on the NewsHour, and no expert source was interviewed live on Nightline. While these percentages reflect a dearth of scholarly opinion in both shows, even the experts who were consulted didn’t add much diversity to the discussion; none spoke critically of NATO’s actions.

On a Nightline episode in early April that criticized Serbian media (4/1/99), Ted Koppel declared: “The truth is more easily suppressed in an authoritarian country and more likely to emerge in a free country like ours.” But given the obvious under-representation of NATO critics on elite American news shows, independent reporting seems to also be a foreign concept to U.S. media.