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Edward R Murrow Is Dead


In June 1993, a human rights television program I co-produced obtained remarkable

footage from inside Kosovo. We led our "Rights & Wrongs" program with an

exclusive from what we called "the next powder keg in the Balkans." The story

documented a non-violent campaign against brutal repression ordered by Slobodon

Milosovic’s ultra nationalist regime. It warned that ethnic cleansing there could spark a

major international conflict.

That was six years ago. Our TV report was one of the few then to try to bring out the

struggle of the Kossavars. A year later, their concerns were lost in all of the

self-congratulations over the "success" of the Dayton accords. Milosovic, the

man NATO now brands a Hitler, was our ‘partner’ for peace. The lack of attention to events

in Kosovo then–by policymakers and media makers–lulled many into an unwise complacency.

Most American didn’t even know where Kosovo was. One poll found that 50% thought it was in

Africa. No wonder that Clinton appealed to Americans to find a map.

Like NATO’s planners, television news was unprepared for what happened next. The

networks had few contacts inside Kosovo and fewer relationships with the independent media

in Belgrade. There had been little recognition in the reporting of the flawed Ramboulet

agreement that the Milosovic government could never sign it because of the mythic place

that Kosovo enjoyes in its cosmology. There was even less examination of the islamic

politics of the KLA which was just tagged the "rebels." Also, few pundits or

military planners remembered the deadly ethnic cleansing techniques used in Bosnia and

Croatia and how they might (and probably would) be deployed in Kosovo. As NATO targeted

its violence from the air, Milosovic escalated on the ground. It was predictable and the

subsequent catastrophe probably avoidable if not for media sustained amnesia and political

indifference.

As the war winds on, as more military planes and reservists pour into the conflict, as

the bombadiers damage more real (and collateral) targets, the TV coverage frames the

discussion only in terms of air war or ground war or both. Diplomatic options are rarely

discussed as are any basis for a settlement or a UN role. Few Kossavars are ever asked to

comment on why a mission that was supposed to save them led to the virtual destruction of

their community. The usual suspects–government officials, Congressional leaders and think

tank military boosters–hog the air time. Peace activists, media critics, and human rights

groups are invisible.

Newscasts routinely offer a "wraparound"–a parade of reports echoing the

same view. They begin with last night’s bombing targets–with information from Serbian TV

more then from less revealing NATO sources–and then off to London or Brussels for a

briefing, check in on the refugees, return to the Pentagon and the White House for

updates, and, occasionally work in a comment from some hapless Yugoslav bureaucrat who is

usually pressed on the treatment of the American captives, not on his government’s

policies. No wonder, war watchers say truth is always a casualty in war.

All of this happens at breakneck speed spiced by soundbites. This is why most coverage

is wider than deep, repetitive and superficial. At times it seems as if the military and

the media has merged. Propaganda is everywhere. Independent voices are suppressed in

Belgrade and marginalized in America.

What most TV viewers don’t know is that softer opinion and feature driven coverage

reflects, in the words of one network veteran quoted in Variety, "a cold calculated

decision." The trade mag reports there is now less and less news in TV news, a

"shift away from the just the facts school of journalism to a razzle-dazzle"

approach. Like coverage of Kosovo where heart tugging refugee victim stories are hyped.

When I was on a cable news channel recently, all the host wanted to discuss was the three

captured U.S. soldiers. Finally, an American angle to exploit!

Already, world news has, with the exception of occasional crises involving demonized

bad guy like Slobo or Saddam, been cut back by 50%. ABC News reportedly is planning to

slash l0% of its hard news correspondents as the fusion between newsbiz and showbiz

accelerates.

Or as another oldtimer puts the bottom line of bottom line obsessed TV news today,

"if you think like Edward R. Murrow did, you’ll die."

Danny Schechter, executive producer of Globalvision, is the author of the "The

More You Watch, The Less You Know" (Seven Stories Press) and the forthcoming

"News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics (Electron Press)

 

 

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