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
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
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)