US Funds Yugoslav Race; Why No Funding Here?

Eager to oust Slobodan Milosevic from power, the U.S. government has funneled millions of dollars to media projects in Yugoslavia. A lot of hypocrisy is involved. And we might wish for some kind of reciprocity.

"Charges of Chinese influence-buying in the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign caused a political storm in Washington that has yet to fully abate," the Washington Post noted recently. "By some measures, however, that episode pales by comparison to American political interference in Serbia." The announced tab for aid to foes of Milosevic during the just-ended fiscal year was $25 million. For the next year, the budget is $41.5 million.

We're told that the cash from the U.S. Treasury is necessary because unfair obstacles block opposition candidates as they try to communicate with the Yugoslav public. "The largest share of that money goes toward 'civil society' programs, such as those that support independent media," the Post reported. The newspaper added: "U.S. officials say they are seeking only to level the playing field."

What if other nations adopted a similar approach to help level the playing field for candidates here in the United States? After all, the terrain for campaigns is severely skewed by access to big money and mass media. For anyone who isn't wearing blinders or rose-colored glasses, the need to un-tilt the U.S. playing field should be obvious.

Truly anti-establishment candidates are up against a huge imbalance of media power if they challenge the bastions of clout along Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street. If democracy is going to exist in reality as well as in rhetoric, there's no time like the present to demand fundamental change.

For starters, in the United States, independent media are in dire need of assistance during the final weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign. How about a quick infusion of money to this country's small and badly underfunded non-corporate political magazines and community radio stations? At a minimum, several million dollars would be appropriate.

In October, major networks will be airing the prime-time series of debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Just the two of them. Those debates are being financed by firms like Anheuser-Busch. The beer company is paying $550,000 as a funder of the historic Bush-Gore encounters.

Maybe there's a government somewhere -- or perhaps a brewery in a foreign land -- that could spare half a million bucks for an independent series of U.S. presidential debates that would include Ralph Nader.

America's top politicians and news executives might resent that sort of intervention. With some winks and nods from high media places, the U.S. government has been good at demanding that other nations do as we say, not as we do.

During the last few weeks, the political intervention in Yugoslavia could hardly be more flagrant. According to the New York Times, money from Washington and European allies has gone to anti-Milosevic campaigners "sometimes in direct aid, sometimes in indirect aid like computers and broadcasting equipment, and sometimes in suitcases of cash carried across the border."

In the interests of decreasing the tilt of the media playing field in the USA, we should ponder how to generate a comparable influx of aid for our independent media outlets. Computers are often in short supply. Broadcasting equipment is much needed. And suitcases of cash would always be appreciated.

Facing the kind of shortfalls that have caused countless periodicals to fold, many editors of independent publications know all too well that freedom of the press is circumscribed -- as a practical matter -- by the extent of financial backing. Media conglomerates are apt to post enormous profits while small outlets struggle to survive. In effect, for the most part, our society's censorship comes not from governmental hostility but from financial pressure.

In a Sept. 20 news dispatch from Belgrade, the New York Times described a far different situation: "Independent journalists and broadcasters here have been told by American aid officials 'not to worry about how much they're spending now,' that plenty more is in the pipeline, said one knowledgeable aid worker."

For some candidates in Yugoslavia, the largess from abroad has also been generous, the Times explained. "There is little effort to disguise the fact that Western money pays for much of the polling, advertising, printing and other costs of the opposition political campaign -- one way, to be sure, to give opposition leaders a better chance to get their message across in a quasi-authoritarian system where television in particular is in the firm hands of the government."

Here, television is not in the firm hands of the government -- it's in the firm hands of corporations. You may see Ralph Nader on TV once in a while, but compared to Bush and Gore he's a stranger to the airwaves. Officials in foreign capitals who want to follow Washington's example might consider sending a few million dollars to Nader, pronto.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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