Saturday, June 10, 2006
(NOTE: To order Peter Brock's new book Media Cleansing: Dirty Reporting, go to www.mediacleansing.com)
Peter Brock comes from Texas and in this work I detect something of the Lone Ranger in him. He has cantered far and wide seeking out notorious badmen—and some badwomen—in what he accurately describes as “the self-adulating profession of American journalism.” His aim: to bring them to a kind of justice.
His context is the decade of civil wars that befell the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century. The timing of these events is important in the evolution of contemporary journalism because they occurred just before the massive reporting-editing scandals that shook such institutions as The New York Times, CBS, USA Today and others at the beginning of the21st century. Those scandals, arising from abuses similar to and as flagrant as those chronicled here, served to enlarge corrective mechanisms throughout the media, enhancing the role of ombudsmen. They also predated the appearance and pell-mell spread of Internet blogs, which also seem to have developed somecorrective powers.
The question left hanging is how there could be such a hullabaloo over phony reporting in the new century and virtually none just before. The answer I believe lies partly in the relative safety conferred by the distance of the Balkan conflicts in contrast to the greater likelihood ofexposure deriving from the proximity of the later abuses. Another factor might have been the phenomenon of “pack journalism” first identified in 1973 during an American political campaign and appearing abroad for the first time centered at the media hostelry, Sarajevo's Holiday Inn, in the summer of 1992. A technological reason may also have played a role: the satellite uplinkfor direct television broadcasting was located in the Bosnian capital.
Others (including BBC’s Nick Gowing and myself) addressed the issue of media bias during the Balkan conflicts at one time or another. But Peter Brock is the first to undertake a full scale investigation: the repulsive, even odious task of charting transgressions by correspondents covering the three-sided 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict as well as the Slovenia and Croatia wars that preceded it plus the Kosovo fighting that followed. These include outright fabrications, widespread use of dubious secondhand sources and blatantly one-sided accounts of strife involving at least two and sometimes three sets of combatants.
Their common denominator was the characterization of Serbs as the principal perpetrators of “ethnic cleansing,” mass murder, mass rape and “war crimes” up to and including genocide.
In the category of fabrication he has dissected several articles that led to the award of the parallel 1993 Pulitzer prizes for international reporting: first, the “confession” of thirty-five murders and sixteen rapes in Sarajevo by Borislav Herak, a Bosnian Serb, in a 3,500-word story by John F. Burns for The New York Times and, second, the stories by Roy Gutman of Newsday alleging the creation by Serbs of Nazi-style “concentration camps” for thousands of Bosnian Muslim prisoners, some of whom were slaughtered. Gutman went so far as to evoke Auschwitz.
Brock painstakingly establishes that Herak’s “confession” had been tortured out of him by his Bosnian Muslim captors. Separately he determines that Gutman’s stories, far from representing on-the-scene reporting, were based on scantily identified sources who never surfaced as real people.
Then he goes further, seeking in “repeated attempts” to confront Burns with his findings. Burns dodges, as do his editors, and never responds. But Brock does finally manage to beard Gutman in Germany more than eighteen months after his “concentration camp” stories. Gutman refuses to discuss his work. Regardless, Brock gives him and others who come under his magnifying glass more than ample space quoting their articles and public commentaries.
One of the themes that runs like an obbligato through this study involves numbers—how many displaced? how many killed? how many raped? The author establishes that all at once in 1993 the number of Bosnian Muslims estimated to have been killed rose astronomically from 20,000 to 200,000. Burns of The Times amplified this at one point to 300,000! Brock then recounts how George Kenney, a Foreign Service officer who quit the State Department in disillusionment over United States passivity toward the Bosnia fighting subsequently became vocally skeptical about the ballooning death numbers. After a lot of research he put the toll at 70,000 to 90,000 and was immediately blackballed by the pro-Bosnian establishment. Not incidentally, the total for ALL SIDES killed in the Bosnia fighting was estimated in mid-2005by Muslim researchers to be under 150,000.
The author details an almost identical numbers game played by the media and various government officials regarding the number of women raped in Bosnia. Here Roy Gutman again played a central role using bogus sources. Others pouncing on the allegations of “up to 60,000 rapes” of Muslim women by Serb soldiers included Newsweek’s Charles Lane and colleagues for a cover story and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Judy Bachrach for a magazine piece. Conspicuously ignored then and later, as Brock points out, were the 800 cases of raped Serbian women copiously documented for the United Nations. (As with Borislav Herak, whom the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague refused to indict after the story fell apart, so the court declined to accept as a witness one of Gutman’s principal rape accusers who turned out to be using five aliases.)
At the end of the Bosnia fighting in 1995 there were the killings of Muslim males at Srebrenica with numbers climbing from several thousand initially to 8,000 and even 10,000—depending on who was doing the guessing.
It soon became “the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.” What we have witnessed with Srebrenica and with the other cases of escalating numbers is a kind of ghoulish rhetorical calculation concocted by the media in conjunction with nongovernmental organizations and various government agencies. The unspoken calculation evidently arises from the perception that one cannot have an accusation of “genocide” or a concomitant indictment by the prosecution at The Hague unless certain levels of “thousands” are involved. The same rationale applied in the Kosovo crisis of 1999, with U.S. Government officials asserting at one point that Serbs had killed “100,000” Albanians.
Other media travesties catalogued here involve such past notables of The New York Times as the correspondent, Roger Cohen, and the columnists William Safire and Anthony Lewis. Brock also nails the late Peter Jennings of ABC News, Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Christian Science Monitor's David Rohde and Mary Battiata of The Washington Post.
The Associated Press and Reuters also come in for some knocks.
When USA Today's Jack Kelley was belatedly (five years after the events) exposed in 2004 as a serial fabricator including his phony Kosovo stories, Brock noted “the eerie hush from other Balkan correspondents” about this affair and writes that the “obvious question went unasked, profession-wide: Was Kelley alone?”
Brock’s focus is the American press during the Balkan wars, but he indicatesother nationalities were guilty at best of extreme bias and at worst of outright fabrication, He names the BBC’s Martin Bell and The Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy as two who openly and proudly boasted of abjuring objectivity.
That reminded me of George Orwell’s 1944 condemnation of a phase of extreme bias in the British press (pro-Soviet, anti-Polish at the time of the Warsaw Uprising), coupled with his warning, “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for,” and his conclusion, “Once a whore, always a whore.”
Throbbing like a muffled drumbeat throughout this study is the contention that in the Balkan conflicts the media served as a “co-belligerent” – clearly taking one side. One need only pause an instant to determine whether the media has done the same again by accepting the “invitation” to embed itself with the coalition forces that invaded and occupied Iraq.