Ever since the start of NATO ‘s bombing blitz more than two weeks ago, the regime in
Belgrade has maintained total control of Serbia’s press — and American journalists have
scornfully reported on the propaganda role of Yugoslavian news media. But no one should be
smug about freedom of the press in the United States.
At first glance, U.S. news organizations may seem to be independent
and critical. This is a popular self-image. In a typical comment last Tuesday night on
public television’s "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," media correspondent Terence
Smith spoke of "the frequently adversVerdana,Arial,sans-serif relationship between the Pentagon and the
Rather than engage in self-examination, most reporters have
preferred to go along to get along with the Pentagon — serving a function more akin to
stenography than journalism. Despite all the pretenses, the sparring and griping is part
of a game in which correspondents seem eager to show that they’re on Uncle Sam’s side, no
matter what. Routinely, tactical differences are writ large while fundamental issues go
When the "free press" marches off to war, the reflexive
deference to officials sources — with their nonstop briefings, interviews and
behind-the-scenes backgrounders — produces an overwhelming flood of propaganda. One
result is that buzz phrases like "air campaign," "strike against
Yugoslavia" and "collateral damage" generate a continual fog.
As the second week of NATO bombing came to a close, the daily
Independent in London published an analysis by scholar Philip Hammond that assessed
British media coverage — and made observations that also apply to U.S. media. Major news
outlets, he wrote, "have generally been careful to keep the debate within parameters
of acceptable discussion, while politicians have stepped up the demonization of the Serbs
to try to drown out dissenting voices."
There are informal but well-understood limits to media discourse.
"The rules appear to be that one can criticize NATO for not intervening early enough,
not hitting hard enough, or not sending ground troops," Hammond added. "Pointing
out that the NATO intervention has precipitated a far worse crisis than the one it was
supposedly designed to solve or that dropping bombs kills people are borderline cases,
best accompanied by stout support for `our boys.’ What one must not do is question the
motives for NATO going to war."
In late March, during the first week of bombing, the U.S.-based
Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual report, "Attacks on the
Press." The committee disclosed that "for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey
held more journalists in prison than any other country." Among the 27 Turkish
journalists behind bars as 1999 began, "most are victims of the government’s
continued criminalization of reporting on the 14-year-old conflict with Kurdish insurgents
in Turkey’s southeast."
The government of Turkey — lauded by Washington as an important
member of NATO — has engaged in torture and murder for many years. Of course,
rationalizations for such actions are always available, whether in Ankara or Belgrade.
As it happens, the most righteous charges leveled by President
Clinton against the Yugoslavian government about its treatment of ethnic Albanians could
just as accurately be aimed at the Turkish government for its treatment of Kurds.
To depart from their own propaganda functions, major U.S. media
outlets could insist on pursuing tough questions. Such as: If humanitarian concerns are
high on Washington’s agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give aid to Turkey?
Slobodan Milosevic is guilty of monstrous crimes against human
beings. And what about top officials whose orders have sent missiles into cities and towns
of Yugoslavia, day after day?
"Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should
be believed," journalist I.F. Stone observed long ago. His judgment may seem harsh —
but it continues to be verified in the real world.
This month, it would be an act of heresy in the mainstream media of
the United States or Yugoslavia to suggest that Slobodan Milosevic and Bill Clinton share
a zest for generating propaganda to justify involvement in killing for political ends.
Whatever their differences, both speak a common language of world-class bullies, fond of
proclaiming high regard for humanity as blood drips from their hands.
For the American media consumer, NATO’s military prowess is apt to
be impressive, almost mesmerizing. We’ve seen such awesome firepower many times before.
Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr recalls about the U.S. military: "Our machine
was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop."
The same can be said of propaganda machinery, whether it’s fueled by
overt censorship or tacit self-censorship.
Norman Solomon’s latest book, published this week, is "The
Habits of Highly Deceptive Media" (Common Courage Press; 1-800-497-3207,