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)