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The Boston Phoenix The Media War

Documenting Milosevic's evil crusade was the easy part. Now comes the harder task: Illuminating the way out.

By Dan Kennedy

JUNE 1, 1999:  NATO had a problem. Day after day, the televised images beamed back from the Balkans were helping Slobodan Milosevic and hurting the Western alliance. From Belgrade, the Serbian capital, came video footage of NATO-induced horror: a smoldering bus, a bombed-out hospital, death and destruction at the Chinese embassy. Countering that were long lines of refugees streaming out of Kosovo -- telling terrible tales of summary executions and mass rapes, to be sure, but without pictures. In an era in which winning the war of the airwaves is ultimately more important to achieving military aims than winning the war in the air, this just wouldn't do.

So the 60 Minutes broadcast of May 16 must have engendered a huge sigh of relief in Washington, London, and other Western capitals. There was Christiane Amanpour, perhaps the world's most recognizable war correspondent now that Peter "Not One Comma" Arnett has finally been banished, walking through a refugee camp with an official from the International War Crimes Tribunal. And there, at long last, were the pictures to back up the refugees' tales: an amateur home video of dead Kosovar men surrounded by crying women and children. "These men appear to have been executed in cold blood, shot in the head," intoned Amanpour. " 'Look how they've killed him,' this woman cries. 'You have lost your father,' a mother tells her daughter."

Amanpour's husband, State Department spokesman James Rubin, couldn't have asked for a more gut-wrenching, compelling argument for why NATO is bombing what's left of Yugoslavia. That's not to say viewers were being manipulated by a media-political conspiracy; Amanpour was a well-respected foreign reporter long before she met Rubin. Still, it's not unfair to observe at this particular moment how neatly the media's need for dramatic pictures coincided with the West's need for justification.

Though the 60 Minutes report provided the kind of see-it-now video that can move hearts and change minds, it wasn't really news, at least not in the sense that news should tell us something we don't already know. Rather, it was shocking confirmation of what we've been hearing since the beginning of the bombing war in late March.

In fact, the much-reviled media have provided a steady flow of in-depth reporting and intelligent commentary on Milosevic's war against the Kosovars. That has to be counted as an unexpected development, especially after a year of obsessing over presidential sex. But the media's coverage of Monica and Milosevic has something in common, too: an over-reliance on official sources and a lack of independent digging. Coverage of the sex-and-impeachment fiasco was far more competent than most critics (especially pro-Clinton critics) will ever concede, but too many other story lines were insufficiently pursued until it was too late to make a difference: independent counsel Ken Starr's prosecutorial excesses, for one; the Clinton administration's corrupt reliance on Chinese-supplied campaign funds, for another.

Similarly, media reports on the Balkans -- at least those reports that reach a mainstream audience and can thus influence public opinion -- have focused almost entirely on the Milosevic regime's misdeeds and on NATO's efforts to stop him. Though the errancy of NATO's missiles has been duly acknowledged, the only media debate is between the hawks, who want the air bombardment to continue, and the superhawks, who fume that Bill Clinton doesn't have the guts to use ground troops.

There are other choices. Good thing, since the bombing isn't working and a ground invasion simply isn't going to happen. What's needed now is for the media to examine those choices in an honest, unemotional manner.

There is dissent, of course. It's just that it rarely penetrates the mainstream -- and, when it does, it's treated as an entertaining sideshow rather than a serious alternative. Partly, that's a reflection of our determinedly centrist media culture. To an even greater extent, though, it's a function of the critics' own shortcomings.

On the right, Pat Buchanan has inveighed against the bombing from the beginning. That may impress the pitchfork peasants, but the nation-at-large tuned him out after he delivered his ugly "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican convention. Republicans in both branches of Congress have been skeptical of the NATO war as well, but the way the House, in particular, handled the issue -- with Speaker Dennis Hastert inert and majority whip Tom DeLay twisting arms behind the scenes to prevent Clinton from receiving congressional support -- drew nothing but scorn. Indeed, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly all but accused the Republicans of treason.

On the left -- the real left, that is, rather than the pale liberalism that mainstream-news consumers have been taught to think of as the left -- outrage against the war is high. But the quality of the analysis underlying that outrage is low.

The essential problem with much of the left's critique is that, even as it properly questions the results of the NATO mission, it trades away credibility by questioning motives as well. Take, for instance, the Nation's recent editorial calling for an end to the war. In the midst of making a well-reasoned case, the writer suddenly blurts out that Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been a "beacon of clarity" because of her insistence that "both Serbia and NATO be subject to investigation for war crimes." Equating tragic mistakes with ethnic cleansing may be emblematic of the sort of boutique radicalism the Nation indulges, but no one's going to take it seriously outside Greenwich Village or Cambridge.

Just as offensive are the views of veteran anti-war activist Noam Chomsky. In an essay on Z magazine's Web site (www.zmag.org/chomsky), Chomsky argues that NATO should "follow the Hippocratic principle: 'First do no harm.' " But he prefaces that eminently sensible assertion with a tediously irrelevant litany of US misdeeds in Laos, Colombia, Turkey, and Cambodia, and the startling, unsupported charge that the US intervened in the Balkans in a deliberate effort to "try to escalate the violence."

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a left-liberal media-watch organization, has sent out alerts complaining that Time magazine has ignored drug-running charges against NATO's ally-of-convenience, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and that the media haven't paid sufficient attention to evidence that the Rambouillet agreement was unfair to the Serbs. Now, there is more than an element of truth in both of FAIR's complaints. But a reasonable person would conclude that Milosevic's genocidal rampage is of vastly greater importance.

No wonder Ian Williams, writing in the Web magazine Salon, unflatteringly portrayed the American "loony left" as fixated on "bizarre and quixotic causes," such as Mumia Abu-Jamal. By contrast, Williams wrote, the European left -- which for the most part supports the NATO campaign -- has enjoyed both "power and responsibility," and thus "avoids the twin perils of what passes for the American left: Clinton's covert Republicanism vs. half-witted impotent sloganeering."

The most credible, and thus the most effective, of the leftist critiques are those that focus not on NATO's motives but rather on the horrific results of its poorly thought-through bombing campaign. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the Progressive, and Katha Pollitt, in the Nation, both note that regardless of what the West's intentions were, the result has been that we're making war on the civilian population of Serbia while the Yugoslav army is allowed to continue its terrorist activities against the people of Kosovo. "Given how events are turning out," wrote Pollitt, "it would have made more sense to skip the war and invite them [the Kosovars] to come here and drive taxis. That's what the lucky ones will end up doing anyway." (Another particularly eloquent antiwar voice belongs to author James Carroll, a columnist for the Boston Globe. See "Liberal Disagreement," right.)

Unfortunately, the Progressive and the Nation are not really in the business of changing people's minds; rather, they reflect and confirm the views of their readers. So it was encouraging to see Daniel Ellsberg, the hero of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, pop up on the op-ed page of the New York Times with persuasive arguments against both the bombing campaign (we bombed Vietnam for seven and a half years with no effect) and massing troops at the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion (Milosevic would likely respond to that provocation by slaughtering even more Kosovars).

Ellsberg's solution: negotiations to send in UN-supervised peacekeepers, including Russians. It's not everything that NATO wants, but it's the same solution that Russia has been pushing, and Milosevic has indicated he would accept it. It would save many lives. It would leave Milosevic surrounded and contained, politically weakened by the demise of his promise of a "Greater Serbia." Yet such an option is invariably portrayed in the media as a sellout.

As Matthew Cooper pointed out in the Web magazine Slate, NATO's campaign is now more about saving face than it is about accomplishing any positive good. That may not be a "war crime," as Mary Robinson and the Nation seem to believe. But it certainly isn't a sufficient reason to continue an ineffective military campaign whose main casualties are innocent bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In both the United States and Europe, polls show that support for the NATO bombing remains high -- a remarkable finding, given its ineffectiveness at stopping Milosevic and the numerous mistakes that have claimed the lives of the very people we're trying to defend. (And not just mistakes, strictly defined. Consider NATO's indiscriminate use of cluster bombs, reported by the Los Angeles Times' Paul Watson. These so-called bomblets often lie unexploded until happened upon by passersby -- including, in one tragic case reported by Watson, several boys playing in a field.)

Of course, when any nation goes to war, its leaders benefit from a patriotic fervor that may wane as the body bags begin to come home. (Look at Serbia, where even the anti-Milosevic opposition has sworn fealty since the bombs began to fall.) But there's more to the public's support for bombing than mere my-country-right-or-wrong sentiments. In fact, it is the immense evil of Milosevic's enterprise -- thoroughly documented by the media -- that is responsible for the poll results.

Middle America is greatly affected by broadcasts such as the 60 Minutes report. But elite opinion in this country was shaped in large measure by a highly detailed, 5900-word report on the front page of the April 11 Washington Post. Headlined SERBS' OFFENSIVE WAS METICULOUSLY PLANNED, the story, by R. Jeffrey Smith and William Drozdiak, demonstrates that Milosevic's plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its majority Albanian population, dubbed "Operation Horseshoe," was developed months before the NATO bombs began to fly. The Post reported that systematic executions, expulsions, rapes, extortion, and destruction of identity papers had been under way, at a slower pace, for quite some time prior to Rambouillet.

The article goes a long way toward countering the principal pro-Serb arguments: that the Kosovars are fleeing mainly because of the NATO bombs, and that the Serbs are no more to blame for Yugoslavia's 10-year civil war than the Croats, the Bosnian Muslims, or any other ethnic group. In fact, though there's been plenty of wrongdoing on all sides in Yugoslavia, the Post's story shows that Serbia has been and continues to be the region's principal aggressor. The effectiveness of its campaign in Kosovo was documented on May 10 by the State Department. As reported by the Economist, a British newsmagazine, more than 100,000 men of military age are missing inside Kosovo, with many of them presumed dead. Of a total pre-war population of 1.6 million to 1.9 million Kosovars, 600,000 are displaced within the province and another 900,000 have fled within the past year. "This," the Economist notes, "would mean that barely a tenth of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are still in their original homes."

As Noam Chomsky and other leftist critics never tire of pointing out, what's happening in Kosovo is no worse than what has happened or is happening in Rwanda, Cambodia, Turkey (in its civil war against the Kurds), and other trouble spots where the US either stood back and did nothing or actually sided with the bad guys. These critics are not wrong, but they fail to acknowledge the psychological power of genocide, or something like it, in Europe, just 54 years after the end of World War II. The sight of white Europeans being rounded up and killed conjures up collective memories of appeasement and death camps in ways that the horrors of Rwanda (where we should have intervened but didn't) and Cambodia (where we intervened on the wrong side) never could.

Thus the New Republic's issues of May 10 and 17 were particularly resonant. In the first, a cover story titled "Milosevic's Willing Executioners," Kennedy School human-rights consultant Stacy Sullivan reported on the deep-seated anti-Muslim sentiments of ordinary Serbs and argued that Milosevic's years-long efforts to wipe out Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo were possible only because they enjoyed widespread support. Sullivan deliberately patterned her essay after the work of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who, in his 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, wrote that the majority of average Germans held deeply anti-Semitic views and participated eagerly in the Final Solution.

The second New Republic article was written by Goldhagen himself, who argued that, after a decade of Serbian aggression, what is needed is Milosevic's surrender and the Western occupation of Serbia. "As with Germany and Japan, the defeat and occupation of -- and the reshaping of the political institutions and prevailing mentality in -- Serbia are morally and, in the long run, practically necessary," Goldhagen wrote.

In the face of such evil, it should not be surprising that pressure from the political and media elites has been not to end the NATO campaign but, rather, to escalate it, and even to consider the use of ground troops. Not only would ground troops be less error-prone, say proponents (the New York Times' R.W. Apple recently wrote that there's something morally repugnant about NATO's deliberately risking a higher civilian casualty count so as not to endanger the lives of its own forces), but they would be more likely to accomplish NATO's mission: driving out the Yugoslav army and thus returning the Kosovars to their homes.

The British, in particular, have pushed for a more muscular response. With Prime Minister Tony Blair taking a forceful public stance, much of the British and European media have turned on Bill Clinton as being too gutless to do the right thing. Newsweek last week recounted some of the worst of it. From Hugo Young, writing in the London Guardian: "Bill Clinton does not want to lead. . . . We are witnessing, I believe, the slow disintegration of American purpose." From François Heisbourg, chairman of the Geneva Center for Security Policy: "He hasn't taken this war seriously; he's a draft dodger." From Germany's Berliner Zeitung: "Clinton's chance to go down in history as a strategic thinker is vanishing." Slate, in its feature "International Papers," reported an "exceptionally tasteless" gibe at Clinton's expense. The cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye depicted Clinton in conversation with British foreign secretary Robin Cook. Clinton: "I'm not going in -- it's too risky." Cook: "I expect you say that to all the girls."

But since the beginning of the bombing campaign, "International Papers" has also reported regularly on the German and Italian media, which reflect their countries' ambivalence about the war and their absolute opposition to the use of ground forces. It's fine to criticize Clinton as a wimp (it's true, after all); but even if he were to transmogrify into a combination of Churchill and Patton, he's not going to be able to lead a 19-nation coalition into a ground war with no one but Tony Blair at his side.

In her 60 Minutes report, Christiane Amanpour asked this question: "Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo have left in the last month, and almost all of them tell the same story, the story of summary executions, of being terrorized. Are tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians lying, or is Belgrade lying?"

Clearly, the vast majority of Americans -- as well as citizens of other NATO countries -- have concluded that it's Belgrade, in the person of Slobodan Milosevic, that's doing the lying. What's not so clear is what should be done about it. It's far too facile to blame the media for demonizing Milosevic, for comparing him to Hitler and his policy of ethnic cleansing to the Holocaust. Those comparisons are made because they're valid and necessary for understanding what has happened in the Balkans.

But though the mainstream media have done an admirable job of explaining why we got in, they haven't said much about how we can get out. Hitler-like though Milosevic may be, he doesn't pose a threat to anyone outside the Balkans. The media, by focusing exclusively on the plight of the refugees and the ineptitude of NATO's bombing campaign, make it increasingly difficult for Clinton -- and Blair -- to find a way out without losing face. It's time to listen to critics such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt and Daniel Ellsberg and James Carroll. Daniel Goldhagen carries great moral authority, and his call for occupation and re-education is a provocative challenge to the status quo. But it's not going to happen.

What probably will happen -- only after more pointless killing, of course -- is a Russian-brokered peace plan and an international ground force to protect the Kosovars and to contain Milosevic. Such a gray, morally ambiguous solution will not be to the liking of the media, which see the world strictly in terms of black and white. But it may be the best we can hope for.

Liberal disagreement

The Times' Anthony Lewis vs. the Globe's James Carroll

Their journeys couldn't have been more different, but James Carroll and Anthony Lewis have much in common. Both are quintessential anti-war liberals for whom the Vietnam War was a life-altering event. Both are celebrated writers: Lewis, a columnist for the New York Times, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; Carroll, who contributes a weekly column to the Boston Globe, won the National Book Award for his 1996 memoir, An American Requiem. Both are based in Boston. And, yes, they are friendly with each other. Yet Lewis and Carroll take opposite positions on NATO's bombing campaign in the Balkans.

Lewis, 72, is a wholehearted supporter of military action against the Milosevic regime and has been since 1991, when he hung the "Neville Chamberlain" label on then-president George Bush. In his May 15 column, Lewis's only misgiving was that Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, hasn't hit Milosevic hard enough. "The question is whether there is in this President the political will -- the political courage -- to match the moral force of his rhetoric," wrote Lewis, who favors following up the air strikes with a ground invasion by 60,000 to 100,000 troops.

Carroll, 56, argues for an immediate bombing halt and Russian-assisted negotiations. In his April 20 column, Carroll wrote that the NATO mission does not meet the criteria of a "just war": "A violent response even to a gross injustice is permitted only if the good likely to be accomplished is likely to outweigh the damage that will be caused. The plight of refugees reveals that NATO bombing fails that test." Given the alacrity with which Serbia accelerated its ethnic cleansing of Kosovo after the bombs started to fall, Carroll makes a good point. Too bad he gets so swept up in his rhetoric that he then adds that NATO and the Kosovo Liberation Army should be investigated for war crimes along with Serbia. Casting NATO's misguided effort as morally equivalent to Milosevic's genocidal rampage is repugnant. Besides, why should Madeleine Albright have to stand trial while that geriatric war criminal Henry Kissinger is still at large?

Carroll's pacifism is not surprising given his background. A former Catholic priest, Carroll was defined in his early adulthood by his anti-war activism, the subject of his memoir. His father, Joe, was an ex-seminarian and Chicago meatpacker who rose to become an Air Force general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll, who became a priest in part to please his father, ended up working against everything for which his father stood: he helped students at Boston University, where he had been assigned, evade the draft; he spoke up for the radical priest Daniel Berrigan; and he was arrested several times at anti-war demonstrations.

A sometime poet since his earliest days at seminary, Carroll quit the priesthood to write full-time in the early 1970s. He's published nine novels but is best known in Boston for his journalism -- not just his Globe column, but magazine pieces such as his 1996 New Yorker article on Senators John Kerry and John McCain, Vietnam War heroes of different parties and philosophies, and his 1991 New Republic cover story on Ted Kennedy. Writing shortly after Kennedy's nephew William Smith had been charged with rape (he was later acquitted) following a night of debauchery organized by Kennedy himself, Carroll rejected what was left of the Kennedy myth in mournful, elegiac tones. John O'Sullivan, in the conservative National Review, sniffed, "James Carroll's article is a long liberal lament at his discovery that the senator is a Kennedy."

Unlike Carroll's circuitous career path, Lewis's has been onward and upward since his youth. He joined the Times in 1948, the year he graduated from Harvard, and stayed there until 1952, when he moved to the Washington Daily News for some minor-league seasoning. He returned to the Times in 1955, covering the Supreme Court and, later, heading to London. The first of Lewis's three books is the best known: Gideon's Trumpet (1964), about a Supreme Court case that guaranteed poor criminal defendants the right to a lawyer.

Lewis was given a column in 1969 even though he was still the paper's London correspondent -- an unusual twofer granted as a consolation prize after Max Frankel, the Times' future executive editor, beat him out for the prize job of Washington bureau chief. It was as a columnist that Lewis made his mark as a Vietnam dove. In 1972, when Lewis was granted a rare North Vietnamese visa and wrote a particularly controversial column while stationed there, Newsweek openly questioned his "credibility as a reporter." His passionate liberalism has long gotten under the skin of conservatives, from William Buckley, who lampooned his "sustained anti-American euphoria" in 1972, to American Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., who once labeled Lewis "twisted and hallucinatory."

Though Lewis has made a career of enraging conservatives, his oft-repeated call for war against Milosevic has brought criticism from liberals and leftists. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in 1993, rebuked Lewis and his allies for using the terms "holocaust" and "genocide" to describe Milosevic's actions. More memorably, a year later, the radical journalist Alexander Cockburn derisively called Lewis a "laptop bombardier" (a term he borrowed from the British journalist Simon Jenkins) and "the Tamerlane of the armchair warriors."

Sadly, what NATO is doing in Yugoslavia today echoes a column Lewis wrote on New Year's Day, 1972. "The world's most technologically developed country is using all its skill in destructive techniques against a peasant population," he wrote. "American bombing has left 20 million craters . . . the 'daisy' cutter bomb . . . has so far killed every living thing in 116,000 acres of Indochina."

The difference, of course, is that Lewis was horrified by what US forces did in Vietnam. These days, he limits his expressions of horror to Milosevic's evil misdeeds, blithely ignoring evidence that -- once again -- we are only making things worse.

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