The Talking Kosovo Blues
It was for me the big booking: an hour on MSNBC in the middle of a crisis. I had pitched the network proposing to talk about the media coverage of the Kosovo catastrophe. As a TV producer, I had been covering the Balkan wars for a public television human rights series since l993. As a media critic, I had a book out, "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" which argued that media wars led to shooting wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Amazingly they called back. I was booked. I retrieved my dark suit, a.k.a. talk show uniform, from the cleaners for the occasion. I studied up on the issues. I was ready. And they were ready for me. Before I settled into a chair in a small office turned NBC studio for hire in midtown Manhatten, the show had changed as had my role. Gone was any discussion of media coverage. The program now revolved around the capture of those three dazed looking American soldiers on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia. The room was outfitted with a monitor, and a sign advising me to look straight into the (robotic) camera. I could watch the proceedings but only speak when spoken to. My mike was pinned on, along with a earplug (known as an IFB in the business) so I could be tethered to the technology. I was expected, in effect, to become somewhat robotic. As it turned out, I could barely get a word in. That's because TV talk shows like this are so overproduced, with so many razzle dazzle elements and competing talking heads that there's only time for one or two soundbites per person, no chance for follow-up and even less time for anything approaching a real discussion. It's not accidental. It's dumbing down by design. The format has been fine tuned to serve the formula, to keep it moving. Breathlessly our host plays traffic cop, whipping from report to report, guest to guest , promo to commercial lest the audience have a second to let any one idea sink in or, more worrying for them, flip over to wrestling on another channel. Talk may be cheap, but expensive TV production techniques are used to insure that the show, whatever the subject, remains as showy as possible. The program goes on at 6. The guests are introduced first-- we are two journalists and an ex-military think tanker all staring silently into the camera. But as it turns out, none of us will get to have any say until 23 minutes in. Next order of business: throw out a topic, a question for the night, to fame the issues for the show in terms of a debatable pro and con issue. Tonight, in the aftermath of the capture of three American servicemen, it's what happens now? ` Was this something that's to be expected in conflict situations or will we now be dragged further into a quagmire? A complex issue has been boiled down to a catchy query, was it just something to be expected in a "war is war or the start of a slippery slope?" The audience is are then asked to vote: "war is war or slippery slope?" Vote by phone or on the show's web site. The idea here to give viewers something to do , not to seriously sample their views or promote some democratic discourse of course, but to keep them around for the rest of the hour so they can find out which simplified alternative wins. More viewers, more eyeballs for the commercials. This is why so many TV shows are built around confrontations, however inane or poorly framed. Heat not light is what they believe sells. Tonight, host, John Gibson, has something dramatic to work with. The story is no longer just NATO bombers for which there are so few visuals or long lines of refugees with hard to pronounce names who don't speak English. It is no longer about a humanitarian intervention which has so far created a humanitarian disaster. The question of NATO's damaged credibility is now off the agenda. No one on American TV likes going live to Brussels anyway, a city which many TV watchers think was named after a vegetable Now, we have an honest to god American angle. Americans in danger, Americans "illegally abducted," Americans about to be put on trial. No one really knows the full story but that doesn't slow down the momentum of the coverage. Thanks to Serbian TV, there are pictures to be endlessly recycled like those images of Jan Benet Ramsey. Happily, these are people with families, and sympathetic stories to tell so get the remote trucks out to their homes. And watch the yellow ribbons come out of the closets and up on the trees. Sure enough, that's what happened. It's dejevu all over again. The war coverage had ow become coverage of our soldiers just as the war itself started as a bombing campaign to knock out air defense systems that menace our planes. President Clinton and NATO may be saying that this is a war to save the Kosovars but there are no people from Kosovo on the show, only dazed refugees whose faces tell the story. A KLA press conference denouncing NATO for betraying their cause is not mentioned. That Arkan, an indicted but yet to be arrested war criminal was at work again was not considered newsworthy. Nor were the reports that Serbian strongman Milososvic's most outspoken critics say that NATO has rallied the country around him, dooming their efforts to promote democracy and free media outlets like Belgrade's now silenced Radio B92. While there are surely biases in the news, the worst one is the bias against real information and independent analysis on all sides, including "ours." The fact that no one was sure about the facts didn't get in the way of the opinionizing. Charges that the men were kidnapped illegally led to emotional discussions of the laws of war and the Geneva Convention but no one even brought up the legal basis of NATO's bombing campaign in contravention of the charter of the United Nation. President Clinton fulminated over the soldiers snatch/arrest as if it was surprising or shocking that the Serbs would retaliate. Within an hour the Pentagon acknowledged that it is possible that the soldiers "strayed" into Kosovo. Later that night, Senators Toricelli and Warner would question why they had been on such a volatile border in the first place. None of these concerns surfaced as report after report, from Washington and outside one of the men's homes in East LA turned them into instant heroes. Our role as guests is now to comment on this emerging sit-com. When I finally got to weigh in with a comment late in the first half hour, I noted that this soldiers in captivity story had given the Administration a new lease on life, new scenes for the political script. As soon as I took a breath, it was time for the next commercial. I and my fellow guests would only get one more shot in the next half hour after a droning and repetitive interview with Senator John McCain who, famous for being a POW in Vietnam, was asked to tell us how the soldiers probably felt. McCain, no one reminded us, had been shot down while bombing the city of Hanoi. (Two years earlier while in Vietnam I actually saw the lake adjacent to the civilian neighborhood where his plane went down.) Needless to say the situations were quite different, but, hey, praise the humvee. The new POW's in Kosovo had given his presidential campaign a new bounce. If the Serbs who defend Kosovo because of the symbolic presence there of a 1389 battlefield are prisoners of the memories of their bloody past, Americans have become prisoners of the present, of the last headline in the news cycle and a news biz that has quietly been integrated into show biz. The producers at MSNBC are only doing their job, giving, they say, the people what they want. The good news, I guess, is that that relatively few people do want it--as the overall low audience share confirms. The sad truth is that cable outlets make money even with miniscule ratings. I left wondering if it even makes sense to try to get a dissenting idea in edgewise on shows like this. If the host doesn't cut you off, the format defeats you. Once again, truth is the first casualty of war--but, sadder still, once the war ends it, the beat will likely remain the same. And, yes, still sadder still, I'd probably go back on if the bookers who, thankfully, have no time to read pieces like this, dared to call.
Danny Schechter, executive Producer of Globalvsion, is the author of "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" and "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics."