By Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, 1999

NATO spokespersons have justified the bombing of Serbian TV and radio on the grounds that these broadcasters are an "instrument of state propaganda," tell lies, spew forth hatred, provide no "balance" in their offerings, and thus help prolong the war. In an April 8th news briefing NATO Air Commodore David Wilby explained: "Serb radio is an instrument of propaganda and repression. It has filled the airwaves with hate and with lies over the years, and especially now. It is therefore a legitimate target in this campaign. If President Milosevic would provide equal time for Western news broadcasts in his programs without censorship...then his TV would become an acceptable instrument of public information."
The mainstream U.S. media have accepted this NATO rationale for silencing the Serbian media, viewing themselves as truth-tellers and supporters of just policies against the evil enemy. But this is the long-standing self-deception of people whose propaganda service is as complete as that of Serbian state broadcasters. Just as they did during the Persian Gulf war, the mainstream media once again serve as cheer-leaders and propagandists for "our" side. And as the brief review below shows, on NATO principles the Times et al. are eminently bombable.
--Balance. The Serbian media is bombable, says Wilby, because it has not provided "equal time" to western broadcasters. This ludicrous criterion is far better met by the Serbian media than by those of the U.S. (or Britain). An estimated one-third or more of Belgrade residents watch western TV news broadcasts (including CNN, BBC, and Britain's Sky News), and many Serbs watch CNN for advance warning of bombing raids. This greatly exceeds the proportion of U.S. citizens who have access to dissident foreign messages, and domestic dissent here is marginalized. FAIR's May 5 study "Slanted Sources in Newshour and Nightline Kosovo Coverage" showed that only 8 percent of its participants were critical of the bombing campaign, far below the Wilby standard for Serbia.
--Spewing hatred. The demonization of Milosevic, the shameless use of of the plight of Albanian refugees to stoke hatred and justify NATO violence, and the near-reflexive use of words like "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" surely competes with anything that the "state-controlled" Serbian media have served up. As with the earlier demonization of Saddam Hussein, Newsweek placed Milosevic on its cover titled "The Face of Evil" (April 19), while Time showed the demon's face with an assassin's crosshairs centered between his eyes (April 5). A State Department official has acknowledged that "the demonization of Milosevic is necessary to maintain the air attacks" (San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 1999), and the media have responded. Times Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas Friedman has repeatedly called for the direct killing of Serbian civilians--"less than surgical bombing" and "sustained unreasonable bombing"--as a means of putting pressure on the Yugoslavian government (April 6, 9, 23, May 4 and 11), which amounts to urging NATO to commit war crimes. If Serb broadcasters were openly calling for slaughtering Kosovo Albanians the media would surely regard this as proving Serb barbarism.
--Evading or suppressing inconvenient facts and issues. Because the NATO attack is in violation of the UN Charter, the mainstream media have set this issue aside, although in 1990, when George Bush could mobilize a Security Council vote for his war, he stated that he acted on behalf of a world "where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle." In 1990 it was awkward that Bush had appeased Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Kuwait, so the media buried that fact; in 1999 the media rarely mention that Clinton supported the massive Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs in 1995 or that he has consistently ignored Turkey's repression of Kurds (with Turkey actually providing bases for NATO bombing attacks on Yugoslavia).
--The Big Lie of NATO's humanitarian aim. That this is a lie is demonstrated by the terrible effects of NATO policy on the purported beneficiaries; by the fact that these negative consequences were seen as likely by intelligence and military officials, which didn't affect their willingness to "take a chance"; by NATO's continuation of the policy even as evidence of its catastrophic effects mounted; by NATO's methods, which have included the destruction of the Serb's civilian infrastructure and the use of delayed action cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells that could make Kosovo uninhabitable; and by NATO's failure to prepare for the induced refugee crisis and its unwillingness to accept more than nominal numbers of refugees.
NATO's offical responses to repeated civilian casualties from its bombing attacks have been notably lacking in human sympathy. British journalist Robert Fisk was appalled by a NATO press conference of May 14, the day after 87 ethnic Albanians were "ripped apart" by NATO bombs at Korisa. NATO spokesmen Jamie Shea and Major-General Walter Jertz "informed us 'It was another very effective day of operations'." There was "not a single bloody word of astonishment or compassion." (The Independent [London], May 15, 1999). This response of NATO officials was not mentioned, let alone featured, in the U.S. media.
Thanks to the scale of the refugee crisis, the U.S. media have been unable to avoid reporting that the NATO bombing has been followed by catastrophic effects. But while some commentators have declared the policy a failure and have castigated the administration for it, most have followed the official line of blaming all of these nasty developments on Milosevic. They have focused intently and uncritically on alleged Serb abuses, all allegedly "deliberate," whereas NATO killings and damage are slighted, and when unavoidably reported are allowed to be "errors."
--The Big Lie about the "failure" of diplomacy. As with Kosovo, during the Persian Gulf war experience the media accepted that the enemy has refused to negotiate, thus compelling military action. Although Bush himself stated repeatedly that there would be no negotiations--"no reward for aggression"--and that Iraq must surrender, the media pretended that the U.S. was laboring to "go the extra mile for peace," while they suppressed information on numerous rejected peace offers. Thomas Friedman, after acknowledging that Bush strove to block off diplomacy lest negotiations "defuse the crisis" (Aug. 22, 1990), subsequently reported that "diplomacy has failed and it has come to war" (Jan. 20, 1991), without mentioning that the diplomatic failure was intentional.
In the case of the NATO war on Yugoslavia, the official position is that Yugoslavia refused NATO's reasonable offer at Rambouillet, and that Milosevic's intransigence thus forced NATO to bomb. This is a Big Lie--NATO's offer was never reasonable, requiring Yugoslavia to accept not only full occupying power rights by NATO in Kosovo--a part of Yugoslavia--but also NATO's right to "free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access" throughout Yugoslavia. The Serbs had indicated a definite willingness to allow a military presence in Kosovo, but not by NATO and certainly not with NATO authority to occupy all of Yugoslavia. NATO would not negotiate on these matters and issued an ultimatum to Yugoslavia that no sovereign state could accept.
As in the Persian Gulf war case, however, the mainstream U.S. media accepted the official line that the bombing resulted from a Serbian refusal of a reasonable offer after "extensive and repeated efforts to obtain a peaceful solution" (Clinton). The Serb position and the continued Serb willingness to negotiate on who would be included in the occupying forces was essentially ignored or deemed unreasonable; the ultimatum aspect of the process was considered of no importance; and the fact that the ultimatum required Yugoslavia to agree to virtual occupation of the entire state by NATO was suppressed. The NATO position, as the Bush position in the Persian Gulf war, was surrender, not negotiate. And the media today, as then, pretend that we are eager to negotiate with a mulish enemy.
In sum, the propaganda service of the mainstream U.S. media to the Kosovo war would be hard to surpass, and on NATO principles the New York Times and its confreres are eminently bombable. But as usual, for the U.S. and NATO powers international law and moral principles apply only to others. To the Godfather and his flunkies, an entirely different set of principles applies.

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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