Mainstream Media Mess Up Badly in War Coverage
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Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Media Advisory -- THEY CALL THIS VICTORY?
Bombing "Success" Must Be Weighed Against Human Cost, Missed Chances for Peace
Media commentators have been asserting that the Kosovo peace plan adopted June 3 by the Serbian Assembly vindicates NATO's airstrikes on Yugoslavia.
A New York Times editorial (6/4/99) claimed the plan, if genuine, shows that NATO's "sustained bombing has been more effective than many critics allowed" and represents a "victory for the principles of democracy and human rights."
The Washington Post's Stephen Rosenfeld wrote (6/3/99): "They said Bill Clinton was wrong to rely on air power alone to win the war, and -- assuming the details are mastered -- they were wrong.... This time around, anyway, he showed he was right. His weighing of means and ends finally clicked."
USA Today's Walter Shapiro stated (6/4/99): "The record must show that Bill Clinton did the morally right thing. And if his efforts are crowned with a lasting peace in the Balkans, the president deserves the gratitude of all of us who doubted his resolve and courage."
CNN's Christiane Amanpour (6/3/99) said that the "plan amounts to [Milosevic] accepting less than he would have come away with had he agreed several months ago at the Rambouillet talks."
Those interpretations are seriously misleading. Seventy days of bombing in the Balkans have brought an agreement from Yugoslavia whose terms, in many important respects, diverge little from those Yugoslavia accepted before the first shot was fired. To a great extent, an end to the war seems possible now not because massive bombing forced Yugoslavia to capitulate, but because the U.S. seems to be willing to drop conditions that it had previously insisted Belgrade must meet before bombing could be halted.
Indeed, the media notion of Serb capitulation seemed to rely on a cue from NATO powers, as evidenced by this CNN report from correspondent Walter Rodgers (6/3/99): "It's difficult to say whether it's a capitulation. It really isn't even up for me to say that, that is something that has to be decided by someone like the president of the United States, Britain's prime minister, Mr. Blair."
At Rambouillet, before the bombing began, Yugoslavia had agreed to almost all the points that are contained in the June 3 Serbian Assembly resolution, including autonomy for Kosovo. (See "Forgotten Coverage of Rambouillet Negotiations: Was a Peaceful Kosovo Solution Rejected by the U.S.?," FAIR Media Advisory, 5/14/99.) A major point insisted on by the U.S. at Rambouillet -- a referendum on Kosovo's independence after three years -- is now absent from the Serb Assembly decision, without audible complaint from U.S. officials.
What Yugoslavia rejected at Rambouillet was the idea of a NATO-led force in Kosovo, proposing instead a U.N. command. It also objected to a last-minute addition to the agreement known as Appendix B, which would have given NATO sweeping powers throughout all of Yugoslavia.
There is strong evidence that the U.S. intentionally crafted this document to provoke a rejection from the Serbs. (See "What Reporters Knew About Kosovo Talks--But Didn't Tell," FAIR Media Advisory, 6/2/99.) A State Department official reportedly told journalists at Rambouillet (Cato Institute conference, 5/18/99; see also The Nation, 6/14/99): "We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that's what they are going to get."
After two and a half months of that bombing, the Serb parliament agreed to a peacekeeping force "under U.N. auspices" in which there would be "essential NATO participation." This language is only slightly different from the Yugoslavian position at Rambouillet, and there are suggestions that Belgrade was willing to accept such a compromise peacefully (Newsweek, 4/12/99).
What was the price of the failure to reach an agreement at Rambouillet? 800,000 Kosovars have fled the province since the start of the bombing; many will never return to homes that are now destroyed. According to the Pentagon, the bombing killed 5,000 Yugoslavian soldiers, while Belgrade reports that NATO killed 1,200 civilians. Attention journalists -- that makes a total of 6,200 people killed by NATO. The U.S. State Department claims that upwards of 4,600 Albanians have been killed by Yugoslavia since NATO announced bombing plans; if all of these are non-combatants, then several hundred if not thousands of Kosovo Liberation Army fighters must be added to the war's death toll.
PEOPLE WON'T NOTICE IF WE COUNT TANKS BUT IGNORE CIVILIANS
Rather than seriously questioning the costs of the bombing, media sometimes don't even bother to tally them. The Los Angeles Times (6/4/99) mentioned the Pentagon's casualty estimates for Serb soldiers, but referred to the "unknown number of civilians" killed by NATO bombs. In fact, verified media reports of civilian deaths can be easily tallied. But in an accompanying "By the Numbers" accounting of war damage, U.S. estimates of command posts and armored tanks destroyed are included--while civilian deaths are completely ignored.
The debate in U.S. media was almost never between bombing and a non-military solution, but between bombing and sending in ground troops. Accordingly, President Clinton is now being proclaimed a victor because a return of some of the expelled Albanians seems possible without ground combat. Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (6/4/99), in fact, now wonders if the "commentators who castigated the White House for utterly and completely bungling the war might say they were wrong?"
Before treating Clinton as a strategic genius, however, media need to answer the question: If the United States had negotiated in better faith, could a similar agreement have been reached at Rambouillet without the staggering cost in human life?
FAIR is one of the few serious sources of information about the humanitarian war against Yugoslavia. For more information, go to http://www.fair.org/ or phone (212) 633-6700
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