Book Review: Peter Brock's Media Cleansing: Dirty Reporting—
Journalism and Tragedy in
Edward S. Herman
This important and valuable book complements perfectly the superb volumes on
The huge irony that Brock reveals so clearly is that the media co-belligerents, pushing relentlessly for more aggressive action, supposedly in the interests of stopping ethnic cleansing and killing, played into the hands of parties with a political agenda that assured and produced far more ethnic cleansing and killing than might have taken place without their bellicosity and war propaganda service. The same irony is clear in Johnstone’s and Mandel’s volumes that deal with the ends and means of the indigenous and external participants. The focus on “justice” as opposed to peace, and the demonizing of the Serbs and making them the unique group needing punishment, was the vehicle used by Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic and his close associates, and Clinton/Albright and Kohl-Genscher and their associates, to prevent a peaceful settlement–most importantly in backing out of the 1992 Lisbon Agreement–and to work incessantly to get NATO to intervene militarily on behalf, first, of Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Muslims and then the Kosovo Liberation Army and Kosovo Albanians. Brock shows that the media served these pro-violence and anti-peace ends relentlessly and effectively.
He argues convincingly that this was a model case of “pack journalism,” and also of what has been called “advocacy journalism” or “the journalism of attachment.” The journalists were quickly convinced that good was fighting evil, or that it was obligatory and less risky to take this as a given, and so they joined the pack and became advocates attached to the supposed good side and their victims. This was aided in the Balkans by the fact that most of the journalists didn’t know the language or history of the area, and that, because of the threat of bodily harm in trying to do real journalism, they tended to congregate in protected areas—many of them, as one cynical observer noted, only reported what they saw “150 meters on either side of the Holiday Inn” (General Lewis MacKenzie).
This made them dependent for “news” on one another and on the official sources happy to service their needs. As they stayed in the part of
The pack journalists in Sarajevo (and elsewhere in the Balkans) were thus highly manageable, knowing the broader truth in advance, dispensing with notions of substantive objectivity and balance, and on the hunt for stories that would both confirm the institutionalized bias–and therefore please their editors at home–and advance the cause that they advocated and for which they campaigned. Journalists like David Rieff, Roy Gutman and Ed Vulliamy openly acknowledged that they were campaigners for more aggressive NATO intervention (i.e., war), and they were by no means alone. But this meant that they had ceased to be serious journalists who would check out the facts and claims of all sides and provide a full and fair picture of the complex events in the struggle. They would instead gravitate to stories that advanced the cause and would treat them with uncritical zeal. As another cynical observer described it, this meant that Izetbegovic “could play them like a Stradivarius,” and in effect use them as agents of Bosnian Muslim propaganda and disinformation. (The more “balanced” Roy Gutman was played like a Stradivarius by the Croatian information service and U.S. Embassy as well as Muslim authorities.)
This pack and bandwagon process fed on itself. As it focused only on the victimization of the Bosnian Muslims, featuring grim pictures and stories of their suffering, ignoring Serb victims and context, and aided by the parallel agenda and bias of the ICTY and Western political establishment, the party line of almost exclusively one-sided evil was steadily reinforced. (Former State Department official
Brock has a detailed and convincing deconstruction of the claims of rape camps and rape as a Serb military tactic and exclusive (chapter 5). While certainly never denying Serb rapes, he shows that there is not the slightest evidence that Serb rapes were more numerous or organized than those of Bosnian Muslim or Croatian forces. He points out that the documentation of Serb rape victims is more extensive and of better quality than that of victims of Serbs, despite the sizable resources put into collecting evidence of the latter. The Serb data just never could attract the interest of the pack (and the same was true of the pack’s treatment of Serb dossiers of war crimes and prison camps in which Serbs were victims). The bias confused the media—Paul Lewis writing in the New York Times on “Rape Was Weapon of the Serbs” (Oct. 20, 1993) noted that a UN report had identified “800 victims by name,” but Lewis failed to mention that they were Serb women. The estimates of 50,000 or 20,000 rape victims of Serbs were based on no evidence whatsoever, and the belief that rape was a special Serb crime rested strictly on the overwhelming political bias of the pack and superior public relations and propaganda activity of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims. (A January 1994 UN report evaluating all the documentation on rapes, excluding evidence from the Serbs, listed 126 confirmed victims. This finding did not interest the media.)
The media role in this hysterical propaganda barrage, with the best of the reports noting that the claims are “unconfirmed” (!), was a scandal, reflecting a media completely out of control and justifying UN official Aracelly Santana’s comment that “I’ve never seen so much lack of professionalism and ethics in the press.” The UN representatives and British officials dealing with the media in
Brock also has a very good discussion of the famous photo of Fikret Alic, taken at the Trnopolje transit camp in August 1992, another fine illustration of the quest for denigration of the enemy and the lack of scruple of Western reporters and media. He shows that the three British reporters, two from Independent Television News (ITN) and one from the Guardian, sought out the uniquely emaciated man among the camp residents, and carefully arranged for a photo that made it look as if Alic was enclosed in a fenced prison, the reporters having deliberately placed themselves behind four strands of rusted and sagging barbed wire, strung haphazardly between two posts, with a thin chicken wire mesh hanging beneath, with Alic on the other side. “The cameramen and layout editors cropped the photos of Alic so that the three or four strands of barbed wire were emphasized.” There was no barbed wire fence around the camp, which was a transit facility and not even a prison encampment, and the refugees in the camp were even free to leave.
But the Fikret Alic picture was quickly seized upon by the Western media, and juxtaposed with pictures of Belsen and
This deceptive photo worked wonders in advancing the demonization process and war agenda, and though based on serious misrepresentation it was not correctible in the mainstream and remains alive today (in Emma Brockes’ recent attack on Noam Chomsky in The Guardian she mentions that ITN won its libel suit on this topic, but she failed to note that it was won on the question of intent, not on the question of whether the facts relating to the photo were misleading). And the pack journalists would provide a steady stream of followup negatives, always one-sided and stripped of context, and often falsifications. Brock has a number of pages that simply list misrepresentations, sometimes photos of victims identified as Muslims but actually Serbs (see pp. 30-32, 122-4, 170-2), and dozens of illustrations of blatant bias are scattered throughout the book. Brock also shows how regularly the pack journalists would report on Serb attacks on various towns—e.g., Goradze, Mostar, Bihac, Vukovar, and Struga—never mentioning either the fact that the towns had previously been ethnically cleansed of Serbs, or that the Serbs were retaliating for recent attacks emanating from these towns. The decontextualization and misreading of the recent sequence of events was standard reportorial operating practice, resting on bias plus uncritical dependence on Bosnian Muslim or Croat sources. (On lies regarding the Serb attack on Goradze, pp. 75-76; on Vukovar, pp. xiii-xv; on the remarkable effectiveness of Croat propaganda and lack of integrity of AP and other Western sources at Struga, pp. 42-45; on Michael Gordon’s lies on the numbers in Serb concentration camps, pp. 80-81).
Brock notes that there were dissenters from party line pack journalism, but he shows that these were quickly attacked and marginalized, in a familiar process. This is the “media cleansing,” that permitted the triumph of “dirty reporting.” Brock himself, having written an article critical of the already closed party line media coverage back in 1993 (“Dateline Yugoslavia: The Partisan Press,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1993-1994), was harshly assailed by members of the pack, and the publisher of his article was also put under pressure and threatened for this deviationism.
Perhaps the most interesting case was that of David Binder, who writes a Foreword to Brock’s book under review here, and who was the most experienced and knowledgeable New York Times reporter working in the Balkans in the 1980s and 1990s. Binder, however, was not a party liner, having witnessed and reported on the Kosovo Albanians attempts to drive Serbs out of Kosovo in the 1980s and who recognized that important elements of that community were striving for ethnic purification. But with the firming up of the party line in the 1990s his insistence on sometimes reporting items putting the Bosnian Muslims or Kosovo Albanians in a bad light was looked upon with disfavor by his editors. In one notorious case discussed by Brock, Binder wrote an article based on the testimony of numerous qualified UN and military insiders that pointed to the Bosnian Muslims as the source of the bomb that killed mainly Bosnian Muslim civilians in Sarajevo in the Markale market bombing of February 5, 1994, but which helped sell more aggressive NATO actions against the Serbs. The Times refused to publish the article, which forced Binder to resort to a Swiss newspaper, Die Weltwoche and the journal Foreign Policy (“Anatomy of a Massacre,” Winter 1994-95).
Eventually Binder was removed from reporting on the Balkans in favor of reporters like Roger Cohen, Carlotta Gall, Marlise Simons, and John F. Burns, who were prepared to toe the party line–and sometimes disseminated lies, but only lies that reinforced the party line and its biases (see the discussion of John F. Burns below). The treatment of Binder was reminiscent of the removal of Raymond Bonner from reporting on
Under the pack system, and with the triumph of the demonization process and simple Manichean world view of the struggle, there was a massive voluntary embedding and collapse of journalistic standards. The rush was on to illustrate villainy at all costs, a process also notorious at the end of the Kosovo war in June 1999 when NATO-country pack journalists rushed into Kosovo searching for rape victims, dead bodies, and stories of Serb atrocities. In this environment journalistic fraud flourishes and gullibility is great, making the journalists sitting ducks for interested propagandists. If Bosnian Muslim officials claimed 200,000 Bosnian Muslim victims in 1992-1993, that was swallowed uncritically by the media (and Clinton) despite implausibility, inconsistencies, and doubts expressed by the likes of
Brock shows that it was a regular practice for the media to swallow and transmit without verification Bosnian Muslim official and even ham radio station claims of deaths in various battle zones. These were almost always inflated or entirely false, but the media took the bait, and while disappointed to find later that they had been gulled, neither issued corrections nor learned to be cautious. There were no real costs for the journalists or media in making errors damaging to the demonized enemy
Brock is at his best in analyzing the work of John F. Burns of the New York Times and Roy Gutman of Newsday, who shared the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for journalism for their work in
Burns, who was well-known at the time to be an Izetbegovic favorite, had been given quick access to Herak, along with a Soros-funded movie-maker (whose presence at the interrogation was never acknowledged in the Burns report). Herak appeared very frightened, told his story to Burns “partly in the presence of prison officials,” and after one session asked Burns to get the prison authorities to promise not to beat him after his testimony! There was no corroborating evidence in corpses or eyewitnesses to his alleged crimes, and a fellow Bosnian Serb arrested with Herak had said right away that Herak was lying. Both Burns and the movie-maker suppressed the fact that Herak had accused UNPROFOR head, Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie, of having raped Bosnian women in a local bordello. Burns acknowledged to MacKenzie that this would reduce Herak’s credibility and spoil the story, but he suppressed the information in violation of professional standards and in support of lies that he should have known were lies.
Several years later Herak recanted, claiming that he had been tortured and forced to memorize his confession lines. Shortly after this admission two of his alleged murder victims turned up alive. The Times, in reporting on the appearance of the two supposed Herak victims, said that this was an embarrassment to the Bosnian Muslim government, but it found nothing embarrassing in the incident to the New York Times, and there has been no move by the Pulitzer award committee to remove Burns’ Pulitzer award based on a confession under torture with compromising evidence suppressed.
Brock has quite a few other illustrations of Burns’ violations of journalistic ethics. Burns pioneered in alleging 200,000 Muslim deaths in the warfare as early as July 1993, up from his estimate in April of 140,000; and, “venturing less and less outside
Brock’s analysis of the work of Roy Gutman is equally devastating. He shows compellingly that Gutman was not A Witness to Genocide (the title of Gutman 1993 book based on his dispatches from
Gutman located most of his sources with the help of Croatian, Bosnian Muslim and U.S. Embassy intermediaries, most extensively from the Croatian Information Center (CIC), a government propaganda agency whose work Gutman found to be “more or less scholarly.” Gutman claimed to have met a major propaganda agent of the CIC, and Gutman source, Jadranka Cigelj, “by chance,” but he admits to having gotten a number of witnesses (or purveyors of witness hearsay) from Croatian “charitable foundations” and the
Gutman was very free in using analogies to Belsen,
Brock’s detailed analysis of Gutman’s work (pp. 87-116) is a compelling study in journalistic malpractice that should by read by every student of the media, especially given the fact that the outrageous performance that Brock describes here resulted in a Pulitzer prize, shared by Gutman’s rival in disinformation John F. Burns! Gutman didn’t relish any analysis by Brock, warning him by e-mail that his Witness to Genocide could “not be quoted under any circumstances.” He didn’t even relish exposure at
Brock’s book has many other good things in it, like a discussion of the role of
Equally troubling, just as neither Johnstone nor Mandel was reviewed in the supposedly “left” Nation, In These Times, Progressive, and Mother Jones, there is a good chance that Brock will join them in being bypassed in favor of less “controversial” works. This is a testimonial to the ability of imperialism to make an official party line on an imperial project unchallengeable even on its purported left. This is hegemony at its finest.
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