Media Madness At The Balkan Peace Talks

On Oct. 29, 379 media people from 110 news organizations and 20 countries descended on Wright Patterson Air Force Base to cover the arrival of the three Balkan presidents to the Proximity Peace Talks. They brought with them an impressive arsenal of video and sound equipment, satellite trucks, cameras, powerbooks, scanners, cellular phones, and miles of tape and cable. Four days later, when the talks officially began, the reporters packed up and left.What follows are excerpts from three days of notes on this extravaganza.DAY 1: SUNDAY, OCT. 29Registration at Media Center. Scan the names of reporters from CNN, CBS, ABC, Reuters, BBC, AP, Time and all the local TV and press. There are also crews from Serbia, Croatia, Japan, Russia, France, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil and all across the United States. Basically a day of signing in and getting security clearance. Easy stuff. I'm still surprised a free-lancer like me can even get access. I ask an Air Force media representative why the event is called the Proximity Peace Talks. She doesn't know. Neither does anyone else in the building. Later that night I find the answer in William Safire's column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine: "The idea is to get the parties together at one locale out of the public eye," said Alexander Vershbow, the foreign service officer who now speaks for the National Security Council, "where our team can then shuttle between the delegations in a more efficient fashion than they have been able to do by having to fly."DAY 2: MONDAY, OCT. 30 12:45 p.m.: I'm here for the one o'clock tour of the base. Sitting in a large waiting area with a few other reporters. I pull out the Sunday New York Times and read an article about the war in Bosnia, "Srebrencia: The Days of Slaughter." One passage stands out: "The perpetrators of these atrocities have -- literally -- not covered their tracks...The physical evidence of what they have done -- the bodies discarded in the fields -- will bear silent witness."1 p.m.: Bus tour of the base for me and 20 other reporters. Two guides -- one front, one back -- don't have much to say about the conference. We get lots of literature though: slick media kits and promo material about the base. One guide talks about the changing focus in the Air Force. Says there's less focus on war, more on community relations. Taking all those high tech innovations and using them in schools and neighboring hospitals and research centers.2:10 p.m.: We meet David Leavy, State Department Assistant Spokesman, at the Hope Hotel (named after Bob Hope). Handles public relations. Has the nonchalance of a guy who's done this a thousand times. Seems to know all the major players from the big news bureaus. Chats briefly about the World Series. Leavy says the conference will be held here. We get a peek at the main room. Maybe 100 by 70 feet. The walls are alternating blue and maroon. A small round table -- maybe 60 inches in diameter -- sits in the center. (I wonder: Do these guys really want to sit that close to each other?") The seats are for Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnia President Alija Izetbegovic, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Ambassador Richard Holbrook, Carl Bildt from the European Union, Pauline Neville-Jones from the U.K., Jacques Blot from France, Wolfgang Ischinger from Germany, Igor Ivanov from Russia. A few feet back and around the big table, about 100 seats are arranged in a circle for the lower ranking delegates. Off to one side are five translation chambers, about the size of large telephone booths with signs reading, Serb, Croatian, Bosnian, English, Russian. There's a podium in front of the main table with the blue State Department insignia. The other conference room is smaller. The walls are covered with large detailed maps of Bosnia. The maps are overlaid with hundreds of grid lines, the rivers, towns, villages, and cities labeled beneath. Telephones surround the perimeter. Leavy tells us at least 200 lines have been installed. An old IBM electric typewriter sits in a corner. Last stop on the tour is a quadrant of VOQs (Visiting Officer's Quarters) where the delegates -- including Milosevic, Izetbogovic, and Tudjman -- to the conference will be staying. (The temporary new name we're told will be The Peace Quad. The quarters are spartan. A few of us are surprised about the accommodations -- about as basic as a Motel 6.People are fishing for news. A reporter from Channel 7 tries to get a maintenance man who's putting up a storm window to make a comment. He's not interested in talking. The reporter seems frustrated. Back on the bus a guy from CNN complains about the lack of so much as a headline.... That night, the guys on the evening news manage to make a story out of this.DAY 3: TUESDAY, OCT. 31, 10:45 a.m: After testing my camera and tape recorder and double checking my supplies of tapes, pens, paper, and film I pull out one of the books I've brought. It's a novel by Tim O'Brien, In the Lake of the Woods. The book is loaded with flashbacks to the Vietnam War. I read a few pages and find one passage particularly relevant to the story I'm covering: "Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely..." -- The Geneva Conventions on the Laws of War11:30 a.m.: Standing outside the media building by the blue AF bus waiting for the ride to the runway. For the security "sweep" where guards search our bags and scan our bodies with metal detectors. Foreign media, especially the Croats, are complaining that the American media seem to be getting priority. I feel a little squeezed out myself.12 p.m.: "Saddled up" in two buses to head out to the runway to meet Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrook.12:25 p.m.: There's a big platform set up for the TV cameras and audio equipment. Miles of cable run from the platform to the trucks with their towering satellite dishes. I try to convince myself this is something big.Mubomir Becic, 46, a cameraman from Croat Radio/TV in Zagreb, gives me a hand cleaning some dust off my borrowed Nikon. I ask him about his work. He's been in the TV business 26 years. Covered a lot of the war in Bosnia and Croatia. Sort of shrugs when I ask him if he thinks the talks will produce anything. Points to a man standing on the edge of the platform. "That man there. He is Serb. I know him 22 years." "Are you friends?" I ask. "No." Shrugs his shoulders, walks back to his crew.1:35 p.m.: Air Force personnel begin setting up for Holbrook's arrival. They roll out a red carpet, and an honor guard -- 20 men and women -- march out with rifles in tight formation to form two lines on either side of it. They look young, like cadets. Maybe it's me. Getting old.1:50 p.m.: Ambassador Richard Holbrook arrives. Gives brief speech."...Tomorrow the world's eyes will be on Dayton. We have a very tough job ahead of us. We are not here to promise you success, but only our very best efforts..."2:30 p.m. (Back at the Media Center): From the time Holbrook arrived, we've been on hold here. The next arrival isn't until 8 p.m. when Milosevic flies in. All the media people are talking on their cellulars, faxing, E-mailing stories and photos back to their bureaus. I read a few more pages from O'Brien's book. Copy down another passage: "...the crimes visited on the inhabitants of Son My Village included individual and group acts of murder, rape, sodomy, maiming, assault on noncombatants, and the mistreatment and killing of detainees."4 p.m. I ask one of the Air Force media reps how many journalists are covering the story. He's a friendly young guy from California, fresh out of college. The latest count, he says, is 373, from 110 news organizations and 20 different countries. While I'm writing down the numbers, a woman with an accent accompanied by an Air Force security guy asks me if I know who the Greene County sheriff is. I tell her. She wants to know the phone number. I suggest a Xenia telephone directory. She's a little agitated and walks away. When she leaves, a lieutenant standing behind a long counter shakes her head, puzzled. She tells me the woman's from Belgrade. A few minutes later the woman returns and asks me how to spell the sheriff's name. I ask her why she needs to call him. She says it's not important.7 p.m.: Back on the bus for the ride to the runway to await arrival of Milosevic.7:20 p.m: The woman from Belgrade walks behind me while I'm scoping out the right spot to take a picture. "Are you Serbian?" I ask. "Yes." "What do you think about all this? The peace conference. Do you have any opinions?" "No. I do not have opinions. If you want opinions talk to those guys over there." She points to a couple of American cameramen standing on the runway. "Do you work for a Serbian station," I ask. "I work for ABC." She stamps out her cigarette and walks away.7:52 p.m.: Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, arrives. Says he's optimistic about the talks.9:10 p.m.: (Back at the Media Center) The CBS cameraman from New York gives me his opinion about how this whole event is nothing but a 45-second sound byte.9:35 p.m.: Once again I'm behind the roped-off area on the runway waiting for another arrival: Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. Beside me is Mike Williams, a photographer from UPI. (I'm thinking: Didn't UPI go bust a few years back?) Williams tells me the company's owned by a group of wealthy Saudi Arabians. His paychecks are issued from a bank in Riyadh. His beat is a few Midwestern states. Most of his shots are published in Asian and European newspapers. Beside him, a couple of seniors from Fairborn High School, who managed to talk their way into a pair of media passes, are trying to figure out why the shutter on their camera is sticking. Williams checks it out, points out that the film speed's too slow. Gives them a roll of 800 ASA.The girls are excited about the whole affair. They act like the Beatles are coming. They're doing a story for their school newspaper and don't want to miss a beat.10:52 p.m.: President Franjo Tudjman, Republic of Croatia arrives. He approaches the throng of journalists. A reporter fires off a question:"Are you optimistic about the talks?" "I am," Tudjman said."If I wasn't I wouldn't be here."11:10 p.m.: Back on the runway. Everybody's looking tired. Especially the Air Force media guys. They've been at this for days and looked burned out. But still, they're incredibly polite. I need to use the rest room. I'm directed inside the terminal. While I'm washing my hands I notice a condom machine next to the mirror. The brand name for the rubbers is "Protocol."11: 50 p.m.: President Alija Izetbegovic, Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina arrives. He's the last one to come in. He looks exhausted. He says a few words to the reporters: "We came with a determination to achieve a just peace. I believe we have a chance at peace."DAY 4: WEDNESDAY, NOV. 1,1:15 p.m.: After a bit of a hassle I manage to get myself on the restricted media pool to the Hope Hotel. Feels like a small victory.1:22 p.m.: Hope Hotel (Main conference room) So much for my small victory. Everybody's here. I suspect even the girls from Fairborn High.1:30 p.m.: Briefing by Nicholas Burns, State Department. Outlines the rules of press coverage and blackout: * No interviews with the media. Instead, daily briefings daily at 1 p.m. from the State Department in Washington.Presents these key points: * Christopher's meeting with Izetbegovic: Message from Clinton: Preserve the Muslim-Croat federation. * Christopher's meeting with Tudjman: Congratulations on the recent election victory. Preserve the federation. * Christopher's meeting with Milosevic: (Burns seems stern when he makes these points.) Big concern with the Serbs are human rights issues. Specifically: the Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups who've terrorized civilians in Bosnia. Also: the issue of the Christian Science Monitor reporter who's missing and believed to be held in Pale. And (to the Serbs): A lot is at stake. "After four years of war it is time for the people who made that war now to make peace."2:05 p.m.: We're waiting for the delegates to arrive. The media pool is enormous. A phalanx of TV cameras is perched on a platform behind me. Steve Hurst from CNN is standing on a tall metal case doing a live broadcast. He's a natural. I'm lined up behind a blue rope standing beside Jim Woods, a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, Jim Graff, Chicago bureau chief for Time, and a tall, slender Croat with a small tape recorder. A few photographers -- UPI's Mike Williams, Cincinnati Enquirer's Michael Keating, and Skip Peterson from the Dayton Daily News -- come up behind us to claim the spots reserved by their cameras on the floor in front of us. Woods, Graff, and I slide over but the Croat won't budge. "We've been here since seven o'clock," Williams says. "See the cameras? These are our spaces." "Yes, well I've been here since five," the Croat replies. He slides over a few inches. "Here, you can stand there." Williams, a small guy looks up at him: "Look! You either move or you get your ass thrown out!" This isn't working. Someone calls David Leavy, the State Department guy, and the Croat's asked to back off. (No Balkan war here, folks.) But not without a few sarcastic snippets from the Croat. "So now you're happy, yes? You Americans are happy. Good for you! You should be proud of yourselves."2:22 p.m.: The delegates -- more than 100 -- from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, the U.S., Russia, the European Union start to file in. The faces -- except for Richard Holbrook -- are a mystery to me. But Graff can not only identify the key players, he can also spell their names. Woods has to hit me up for a spare Bic because the only pen he's got is drying up. He writes in the most illegible shorthand I've ever seen. Looks like scribble. Graff's is the same. There's no way a Newton or any PDA could ever decipher that scrawl. (I'm glad to see the big guys still use pens and paper.)2:30 p.m.: Arrival of delegates and opening speech by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He outlines the crucial items to be negotiated and warns: "If the war in the Balkans is reignited it could spark a wider conflict, like those that drew American soldiers to Europe in huge numbers twice this century."2:44 p.m.: Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden and representative of the European Union delivers a moving speech with this anecdote:"Few things have affected me more in this brutal conflict than the fate of the innocent children who have been caught up by it. I cannot forget that picture of the little girl who, after the grenade fell on the market place in Sarajevo in late August, turned to her mother and asked where her hands had gone only to find out that she had also lost her father. "We owe what we do in Dayton in order to achieve success to those innocent children. We owe it to all of those men and women who have brought aid to hundreds and thousands of Bosnians who might otherwise not have survived. We want to see Bosnia and all of the other states of the former Yugoslavia free of war and joining the European family of nations in peace and in prosperity."3 p.m.: Media blackout begins. Warren Christopher tells us the proceedings will now begin. Leavy starts ushering the media out.

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