For Whom The Media Bell Tolls
For several weeks now, the suffering of refugees from Kosovo has filled our TV screens. Empathy seems to motivate much of the public support for the ceaseless bombing of Yugoslavia.
Fortunately, Americans can be stirred by moral outrage. Unfortunately, that outrage has been manipulated by a constellation of forces that could be described as a military-industrial-media complex.
Central to U.S. news coverage is a paradigm as old as the macabre art of propaganda itself. Routinely, media reports make a huge distinction -- sharp yet cloaked -- between worthy and unworthy victims. Policy-driven from the White House, the coverage emphasizes some suffering and downplays or ignores other suffering.
While American television lenses focus on the anguish of Albanian refugees and the carnage at a high school in Colorado, less worthy victims remain out of media sight and out of public mind.
In East Timor -- occupied for a quarter-century now by the U.S.-backed Indonesian government -- more than 1,000 paramilitary thugs, actively abetted by Indonesia's army and police, went on a murder spree targeting pro-democracy activists in mid-April. On a single day, confirmed accounts put the number of dead at more than a dozen. In the atmosphere of the U.S. mass media, this was no big deal. The victims were not worthy.
During this decade -- seen through the media window on the world tinted red, white and blue -- the Kurdish people slaughtered inside Iraq by the Baghdad government have been worthy victims. In contrast, viewed through that same media window, the Kurdish people slaughtered inside Turkey by the Ankara government (a member of NATO) have been unworthy victims: deserving scant coverage or outcry.
In the wake of the Colorado school tragedy, President Clinton said that the nation's prayers went out to the victims and their loved ones. But, of course, he offered no prayers for victims and loved ones in connection with the incessant bombing of Yugoslavia.
The president declared with a straight face: "We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons." Mainstream American journalists were far too circumspect to point out that such pieties were being uttered by a leader who has championed the deadly use of many weapons by the United States and other NATO countries.
The high-school shootings occurred while NATO warplanes were in the midst of the most intense bombardment of Yugoslavia yet -- with 603 "missions" reported in a 24-hour period. Civilians under those bombs were mere blips on our media screens.
Ever since the bombing began a month ago, the Clinton administration has been committed to continuing -- and trying to justify -- that military assault. No official wants to admit that the results of bombing have been absolutely opposite of the proclaimed aims.
In a candid moment, a media spokesperson in Washington or Brussels may yet echo an infamous claim made for U.S. military actions in Vietnam three decades ago: Perhaps we'll have to destroy Kosovo in order to save it.
As disastrous as the NATO assault has proven to be -- measured against its initial announced purposes -- the human catastrophe experienced by Albanian refugees has been tremendously important in marshaling support for this war from Americans. There is much talk about our moral obligation to do something. The fact that U.S. actions have gravely worsened the situation is presumably of minor importance.
The greatest lies are commonly told by inference and emphasis -- by the unacknowledged chasm between repetition and evasion, between victims deemed worthy and unworthy. A truth told to the virtual exclusion of another truth can become, simultaneously, a truth put to use for distortion and manipulation.
Such selectivity cheapens compassion and turns it into the coin of propaganda.