Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Compelling Sympathies
The Emerging American Propaganda Machine

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, April 20, 1999 --  

With over 40 heads of state from NATO and allied nations preparing to arrive in Washington for this week's NATO summit, security preparations have rarely been stronger—and with good reason.1 The war raging in Kosovo has united Serbians against the West with a startling ferocity. The United States and NATO are so hated by Serbians that even members of Belgrade's liberal-minded professional class could pose a threat to leaders at the summit. Just imagine the opportunity for violent acts by visitors from Serbia's less-educated social classes.

It is not hard to understand what has made the Serbian people so angry. Weeks of relentless NATO bombing have crushed infrastructure critical to civilian activities, and burned or otherwise destroyed neighboring residences. The state-controlled press has highlighted these NATO offenses, while denying atrocities and paying little attention to the refugee crisis in neighboring Kosovo. American reporters in Yugoslavia file stories detailing their outrage at Serbian propaganda reports, and lamenting the refusal of Serbians to believe Western stories. If only they knew the truth—that is the truth as reported by the Western press—maybe the Serbian population would stand up to President Milosovich and stop the atrocities in Kosovo.

But is the truth as reported by the Western press really true?

As journalists' outrage over atrocities in Kosovo have grown, their obvious support for NATO action in Serbia has started to damage their credibility. Recent performances by some of America's most respected journalists are quite shameful. Take, for example, an exchange that ABC News Nightline's Ted Koppel had last week with Major General Charles Wald, a member of the United States Staff of the Joint Chiefs.

After reporting a NATO attack on a civilian convoy that left over 70 people dead, Koppel was more sympathetic with the General than the dozens of people who his planes had killed. Instead of sharply questioning him over the issue, Koppel actually apologized for him:

If military targets such as tanks or armored personnel carriers or even trucks and jeeps are moved into civilian areas, then you face the dilemma of either scratching those targets off your list or of running the risk of hitting civilian targets and I don't mean that you are targeting civilians, but that you will hit civilians without meaning to.2

Now, I've heard of softball questions, but this is outrageous! What could General Wald possibly say to add to Koppel's disgusting defense of an American atrocity?

"I think you're exactly right ," he said.

Americans in Koppel's audience deserve far better than this. Sadly, however, unbiased voices are becoming harder and harder to come by. In the Sunday broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, moderator Tim Russert pointedly questioned a Serbian official about killings in Kosovo, before turning a sympathetic ear to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

"Are we losing this war?" Russert asked?3

Russert's usage of the pronoun "we" typifies the problem with reporting on Kosovo. Many journalists have lost their ability to be objective. They have allowed this story to decay into a case of "us" and "them," thereby bringing themselves down to the level of the Balkan nationalists who started the war in the first place. Along the way, they have severely damaged the credibility of the Western press at a time when unfiltered information is scarce.

The plight of the Kosovar refugees is indeed compelling. Informed people cannot help but feel great sympathy for them based on the reports coming out of Kosovo and neighboring countries. But if this sympathy is to have any meaning, it must be based upon truth—a truth that it is the job of journalists to provide. If reporters allow their own sympathies to affect the reporting, then this truth will be seriously threatened. Without honest reporting, it is quite possible that Americans will be whipped up into the same irrationally unified mindset that now imprisons the minds of most Serbians.

Related Web Columns:
The Loose Grip of Repression
America's Secret Alliance with Serbia, April 6, 1999

America Undefended
The Waste of Intervening in Kososvo, February 23, 1999

  1. The Washington Post, As NATO Meeting Nears, Security Tops the Agenda in D.C., April 14, 1999.

  2. ABC News, Nightline, April 14, 1999

  3. NBC News, Meet the Press, April 18, 1999