Accuracy in Media

On April 19th, NATO made a sensational charge: that the Serbs in Kosovo were burying the bodies of Albanians in graves. NATO even claimed to have photographic evidence of this, in the form of satellite photos. Photos were released of what the media labeled “mass graves.” NATO Brigadier General Giuseppe Marani said NATO surveillance aircraft had identified “neat rows of individual graves pointed toward the southeast, towards Mecca.” This was supposed to reflect the Muslim religious orientation of the victims. He said the graves were dug by “grave-digging chain gangs” composed of Kosovo Albanians who were recruited by the Serbs.

Common sense tended to cast doubt on these claims. If the Serbs wanted to kill a bunch of people, why wouldn’t they just bulldoze them into one big grave? Now, the Boston Globe is casting doubt on these reports. MIT political science professor Barry Rosen, a specialist in the history of warfare, told the Globe: “Long neat rows of individual graves, 150 very neatly dug graves – these are not mass graves. It’s weird to think they would have a mass murder, recruit grave diggers, and properly orient the graves toward Mecca so as to give them some semblance of a proper Muslim burial.” Despite the weird nature of these claims, most of the press uncritically repeated the NATO pronouncements. Serbian TV, before it was bombed by NATO, sent one of its own television crews to the reported site of the mass graves and found nothing except some farmers who had recently turned over their fields for planting. They said there had been no fighting in the area and no burying of bodies.

We don’t necessarily accept the reports of Serb TV but NATO can’t be believed, either. Rosen told the Globe that the press has been too accepting of NATO’s official statements, which are designed to justify the bombing of Yugoslavia. Another analyst, Robert Hayden of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian and East European Studies, commented, “NATO is running a propaganda campaign, there’s no question about that. There have been lots of discrepancies in the official story, but what is interesting is that, until now, there has been amazingly little scrutiny of that story.”

But some journalists started to wake up. At one NATO briefing, Margaret Evans of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation exclaimed, “I’d like to have my questions answered, period. I’m tired of straightforward questions being answered by a stream of rhetoric.” This is about the time that NATO started bombing Serb TV, which had been more accurate than NATO on several important stories. Dozens were killed and injured in the NATO attacks, but Serb television kept coming back on the air. Few American journalists protested the killing of their colleagues in the international press.

Even on the matter of bombing Serb TV, NATO had given out confusing information. NATO General Wesley Clark’s spokesman had said the allies were preparing to blast Serbian television, supposedly to stop it from broadcasting propaganda, but Jamie Shea, the NATO spokesman, had said no they were not, unless television towers were connected to the military communications network. That turned out to be more rhetoric.

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