SOLOMON: American Journalists Have No Reason to Be Smug

Ever since the start of NATO's bombing blitz, the regime in Belgrade has maintained total control of Serbia's press -- and American journalists have scornfully reported on the propaganda role of Yugoslavian news media. But no one should be smug about freedom of the press in the United States.At first glance, U.S. news organizations may seem to be independent and critical. This is a popular self-image. So, on a recent broadcast of the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," media correspondent Terence Smith spoke of "the frequently adversarial relationship between the Pentagon and the press."Rather than engage in self-examination, most reporters have preferred to go along to get along with the Pentagon -- serving a function more akin to stenography than journalism. Despite all the pretenses, the sparring and griping is part of a game in which correspondents seem eager to show that they're on Uncle Sam's side, no matter what. Routinely, tactical differences are writ large while fundamental issues go unaddressed.When the "free press" marches off to war, the reflexive deference to officials sources -- with their nonstop briefings, interviews and behind-the-scenes backgrounders -- produces an overwhelming flood of propaganda. One result is that buzz phrases like "air campaign," "strike against Yugoslavia" and "collateral damage" generate a continual fog.As the second week of NATO bombing came to a close, the daily Independent in London published an analysis by scholar Philip Hammond that assessed British media coverage -- and made observations that also apply to U.S. media. Major news outlets, he wrote, "have generally been careful to keep the debate within parameters of acceptable discussion, while politicians have stepped up the demonization of the Serbs to try to drown out dissenting voices."There are informal but well-understood limits to media discourse. "The rules appear to be that one can criticize NATO for not intervening early enough, not hitting hard enough, or not sending ground troops," Hammond added. "Pointing out that the NATO intervention has precipitated a far worse crisis than the one it was supposedly designed to solve or that dropping bombs kills people are borderline cases, best accompanied by stout support for `our boys.' What one must not do is question the motives for NATO going to war."In late March, during the first week of bombing, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual report, "Attacks on the Press." The committee disclosed that "for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey held more journalists in prison than any other country." Among the 27 Turkish journalists behind bars as 1999 began, "most are victims of the government's continued criminalization of reporting on the 14-year-old conflict with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey's southeast."The government of Turkey -- lauded by Washington as an important member of NATO -- has engaged in torture and murder for many years. Of course, rationalizations for such actions are always available, whether in Ankara or Belgrade.As it happens, the most righteous charges leveled by President Clinton against the Yugoslavian government about its treatment of ethnic Albanians could just as accurately be aimed at the Turkish government for its treatment of Kurds.To depart from their own propaganda functions, major U.S. media outlets could insist on pursuing tough questions. Such as: If humanitarian concerns are high on Washington's agenda, why drop bombs on Yugoslavia and give aid to Turkey?Slobodan Milosevic is guilty of monstrous crimes against human beings. And what about top officials whose orders have sent missiles into cities and towns of Yugoslavia, day after day?"Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed," journalist I.F. Stone observed long ago. His judgment may seem harsh -- but it continues to be verified in the real world.This month, it would be an act of heresy in the mainstream media of the United States or Yugoslavia to suggest that Slobodan Milosevic and Bill Clinton share a zest for generating propaganda to justify involvement in killing for political ends. Whatever their differences, both speak a common language of world-class bullies, fond of proclaiming high regard for humanity as blood drips from their hands.For the American media consumer, NATO's military prowess is apt to be impressive, almost mesmerizing. We've seen such awesome firepower many times before. Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr recalls about the U.S. military: "Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop."The same can be said of propaganda machinery, whether it's fueled by overt censorship or tacit self-censorship.


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