Three On Kosovo
With enormous help from mass media, the White House has been able to marginalize the public on matters of war and peace. Reporters and pundits routinely portray top U.S. officials as beleaguered experts whose jobs are difficult enough without intrusive pressures from commoners. More than ever, the American people are serving as spectators while elites make crucial foreign-policy decisions.
When military action is on the agenda in Washington, public opinion can be troublesome, even obstructionist. That's one of the hazards of democracy -- or at least it should be. But the Clinton team has learned to mitigate the danger that the public will intrude on the process of deciding whether the United States should go to war. It's a trend that has been accelerating in recent years.
In February 1998, key U.S. officials traveled to Ohio State University for a "town hall meeting" about a prospective American missile attack on Iraq. Airing live on CNN, the session went badly from the vantage point of Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Samuel Berger, whose responses to tough questions seemed inadequate to many viewers. The trio left Columbus with egg on their faces.
Evidently, the debacle made a big impression. Since then, leery of any high-profile forum that could get out of control, the White House has not even gone through the motions of consulting the public before launching a military attack -- on Sudan and Afghanistan last August, on Iraq last December, and on Yugoslavia this spring. With warfare on the horizon, President Clinton's attitude toward the American public seems to be: When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it.
This approach has met with little challenge from news media. In fact, many journalists in Washington seem to share the view that the public is inclined to be too meddlesome -- and should not be allowed to tie the hands of foreign-policy specialists who may wisely wish to pursue the goals of U.S. diplomacy by military means.
While the decision to go to war is momentous, the public has found itself in the role of passive onlooker. Rather than submit to a process of national debate, the White House prefers to present Americans with a fait accompli. One of the effects of the missile attack launched against Yugoslavia on March 24 was to truncate the public debate before it had even begun.
When U.S. military action is involved, Clinton's policy-makers seem to regard the public as a sort of unruly -- and perhaps rather dumb -- animal that must be tamed and herded for its own good. What we've seen is the implementation of a formula for bypassing genuine public discourse: Go to war first. The public can raise questions later, while the war escalates and the propaganda machinery spins into high gear.
And they call it democracy.
When will the media call it war?
Nearly two months have passed since the beginning of NATO's air war against Yugoslavia. After a shaky start, Washington's spin machinery has done much to promote a war agenda -- with crucial assistance from major U.S. news media.
Early on, top officials of the Clinton administration seemed to be playing catch-up. "The problem is they didn't start the communications until the bombs started falling," said Marlin Fitzwater, who spoke for President George Bush during the Gulf War. "That's not enough time to convince the nation of a course of action."
But overall, the White House has good reason to be pleased with the national media. By late April, special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, one of the key U.S. diplomats behind recent policies in the Balkans, was handing out compliments. "The kind of coverage we're seeing from the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN and the newsmagazines lately on Kosovo has been extraordinary and exemplary."
U.S. journalists have generally relied on official sources, with frequent interviews, behind-the-scenes backgrounders, briefings and grainy bomb-site videos. In contrast with the overt censorship forced on Serbian media by Slobodan Milosevic, the constraints on mainstream U.S. news outlets have been largely self-imposed. The media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting studied coverage during the first two weeks of the bombing and found "a strong imbalance toward supporters of NATO air strikes."
Examining the transcripts of two influential TV programs, ABC's "Nightline" and the PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," FAIR found that only 8 percent of the 291 sources were critics of NATO's bombing. Forty-five percent of sources were current or former U.S. government and military officials, NATO representatives or NATO troops. On "Nightline," the study found, no U.S. sources other than Serbian-Americans were given air time to voice opposition.
Throughout the spring, among Pentagon briefers and U.S. journalists, a popular euphemism for the continuous bombing has been "air campaign," a phrase that hardly conveys what happens when bombs explode in urban areas. News organizations have been reluctant to use the word "war" to describe NATO's activities. Cable TV networks have preferred "Strike Against Yugoslavia" and "Crisis in Kosovo."
On the last Sunday in April, the lead front-page article in the New York Times started this way: "NATO began its second month of bombing against Yugoslavia today with new strikes against military targets that disrupted civilian electrical and water supplies..." This is in sync with a remarkable concept that has been widely promoted by U.S. officials: While the bombing disrupts "civilian" electricity and water, the targets are "military."
If cluster bombs were being used by Yugoslav army troops, one could expect a huge outcry in the American media. But reporters and commentators in this country made little fuss about NATO's widening use of the 1,000-pound warhead formally known as CBU-87/B, which shoots out thousands of jagged steel fragments at high velocity.
A week ago, London's Sunday Telegraph published a commentary by BBC correspondent John Simpson, who wrote that "in Novi Sad and Nis, and several other places across Serbia and Kosovo where there are no foreign journalists, heavier bombing has brought more accidents." Simpson noted that cluster bombs "explode in the air and hurl shards of shrapnel over a wide radius." He added: "Used against human beings, cluster bombs are some of the most savage weapons of modern warfare."
But the U.S. media have devoted scant ink or airtime to these weapons' more grisly aspects. And few news accounts have explored how the enormous destruction of Yugoslavia's infrastructure is likely to lead to widespread disease and civilian deaths, as is occurring now in Iraq.
TV news coverage brings war into our living rooms, but as media critic Mark Crispin Miller has observed, viewers "see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household." The nation's TV networks have shown awe-inspiring file footage of U.S. bombers and missiles in flight. Rarely have viewers seen more than fleeting images of what happens to the people underneath the bombs. For the domestic audience, America's high-tech weaponry appears to be wondrous but fairly bloodless.
As disastrous as the NATO attack has proven to be -- measured against its initial announced purposes -- the human catastrophe experienced by Albanian refugees was tremendously important in marshaling support for this war from Americans. Yet news media have not dwelled on the substantial evidence that NATO's military assault gravely worsened the situation for its ostensible beneficiaries.
The media spin on the war is as much a matter of what has been left out as what has been covered. For instance, U.S. media outlets have rarely pursued tough questions such as: If humanitarian concerns are high on Washington's agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give aid to Turkey? The righteous charges leveled by President Clinton against the Yugoslav government about its brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians could just as accurately be aimed at the Turkish government for its repression of Kurds. But Washington and Ankara are NATO allies, and we hear little about the large-scale torture and murder of Kurdish people inside Turkey.
Also given short shrift has been the fact that the Rambouillet accords -- rejected by Slobodan Milosevic in late March just before the bombing began -- included provisions allowing for NATO troops to move into all of Yugoslavia, a provision that no sovereign nation would accept.
Appendix B of the Rambouillet text includes such sections as: "NATO personnel shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated air space and territorial waters."
At the time, the U.S. news media were silent about this pivotal aspect of the Rambouillet accords. Now, when pressed on the matter, many journalists at big national media outlets say it's old news. But they never reported it in the first place.
IF A CLUSTER BOMB COULD TALK
Hi! My name is CBU-87/B, but let's not be formal. A lot of my friends call me Cluster Bomb.
I've been busy lately, doing what I'm supposed to. And I sure appreciate the careful treatment that I receive from the American news media.
My pals at the Pentagon put me in the category of a "Combined Effects Munition." My maker describes me as an "all-purpose, air-delivered cluster weapons system." Not to brag or anything, but such labels don't do me justice. When I explode, the results can really be quite awesome.
I have gotten to do my stuff in Yugoslavia this month. One of my memorable performances came at around noon on a Friday. Some people in the city of Nis were shopping at a vegetable market when -- boom -- I arrived. It was dramatic as hell.
A news article that I found in the May 8 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "the bombs struck next to the hospital complex and near the market, bringing death and destruction, peppering the streets of Serbia's third-largest city with shrapnel and littering the courtyards with yellow bomb casings."
This was one of my few moments in the U.S. media limelight, so forgive me while I quote some more: "In a street leading from the market, dismembered bodies were strewn among carrots and other vegetables in pools of blood. A dead woman, her body covered with a sheet, was still clutching a shopping bag filled with carrots."
I know, it's immodest to flaunt my press notices. But people don't get to see those sorts of news accounts very much in America! If the stories are reported at all, they're usually buried (ha ha) on back pages of newspapers and rarely even mentioned on the networks.
Once in a while, some Western journalist decides to put me down. The moralizing can be unpleasant. For instance, a BBC correspondent named John Simpson has been reporting from Belgrade, and he did a rather brusque commentary that the Sunday Telegraph in London published a few days ago.
"In Novi Sad and Nis, and several other places across Serbia and Kosovo where there are no foreign journalists, heavier bombing has brought more accidents," Simpson carped. He complained that cluster bombs "explode in the air and hurl shards of shrapnel over a wide radius." And he went on to say: "Used against human beings, cluster bombs are some of the most savage weapons of modern warfare."
Cluster bombs like me could do without the overheated pejoratives, thank you.
Fortunately, we hardly ever have to endure such indignities in the American press.
But please don't forget the very real accomplishments that I can partially claim as my own. The next time you see a headline or hear a newscaster referring to the "air campaign," remember that my achievements are outrageously understated by such jargon!
You see, I'm a 1,000-pound marvel, a cluster bomb with an ingenious design. When I go off, a couple of hundred "bomblets" shoot out in all directions, aided by little parachutes that look like inverted umbrellas. Those 'chutes slow down the descent of the bomblets and disperse them so they'll hit plenty of what my maker calls "soft targets." Before that happens, though, each bomblet breaks into about 300 pieces of jagged steel shrapnel.
Sometimes, as a cluster bomb, I get a little jealous of the exaggerated notoriety that the news media confer on outfits like the National Rifle Association. They get credited with the proliferation of murder and mayhem. Well, they're rank amateurs! Piddling sidearms pushers! Compared to me, they're small-time retailers. I'm into wholesale. They don't know how to preserve, protect and defend the Grim Reaper like I do.
I just laugh when I read the nasty things that so many pundits have been writing about the NRA. While they rant and rail against assault rifles that take a few lives now and again in the United States, I've been busy slicing up tender human bodies in Yugoslavia.
When those high school students died in Colorado, the news media kept saying what a horrendous tragedy it was. But what about the work I've done on kids and grownups in Yugoslavia? Journalists merely echo the statements coming out of the White House, mumbling that it's regrettable and can't be helped.
The pundits keep talking about gun control. Meanwhile, big bombs like me are more and more out of control as we roam the skies above Yugoslavia.
Overall, this has been a great spring for me as I serve my lord, the Grim Reaper. And from the standpoint of public relations, I'm doing fine. Back in the offices of top Washington officials, and in the upper echelons of American news media, I've got lots of friends in very high places. They may pretend not to know me, but we understand each other very well.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."