Accuracy in Media

The new chorus among politicians and the media has been that NATO ought to bomb Serbian TV and shut it down. In fact, however, some of the top editors and executives of major U.S. newspapers have written to Defense Secretary Cohen, saying that Serb TV has been giving out more accurate information than NATO. “On many days,” they said in a letter to Cohen, “the state-controlled Yugoslav media has been more specific about NATO targets than the United States or NATO.”

But Serb TV has also been more accurate on other matters. Serb TV was the first medium to report that an American stealth aircraft had been shot down over Yugoslavia. And Serb TV was the first medium to report that NATO had attacked a civilian refugee convoy in Kosovo.

In that case, NATO was actively spreading disinformation—some would call it lies—about what had happened. A CNN report posted on its Internet site the afternoon of the tragedy disclosed that NATO General Wesley Clark “said he had received verbal reports that after the military convoy was struck, Serb troops got out and attacked civilians.” In other words, NATO had attacked a military rather than civilian convoy and, in retaliation, the Serbs murdered the refugees. A variation of this claim was reported in the Washington Post, which said that Clark “first suggested that the attacks on the refugees may have been perpetrated as a retaliatory action by Yugoslav forces….” The Post said that Clark later “retracted that theory.”

That “theory,” according to CNN, was based on “verbal reports” that Clark received from someone, somewhere. But who were these people? We still don’t know. But Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon also attempted to blame the Serbs. At a briefing, in the words of the Post, he “raised the possibility that air strikes on refugees in Kosovo may have been perpetrated by Serbian aircraft.”

In response to all of this, Yugoslavian authorities called these claims “monstrous lies.” They were right. So why did NATO eventually admit the truth? Was it because they were full of integrity and wanted to set the record straight? We would hope that NATO wanted to admit a mistake and apologize for killing dozens of refugees. But the fact is that the Yugoslavian authorities had access to bomb fragments that were manufactured in NATO countries. They could prove to the media and the world that NATO was guilty of this atrocity.

The incident also demonstrated the unreliability of testimony from refugees. Asked who had bombed them, one refugee was quoted in the Post as saying about the aircraft, “probably it was Serb because NATO would not attack us.” Well, NATO did attack them, although it was clearly an accident. And the irony is that the Serb media, which may soon be attacked, gave the American people the truth that they did not immediately get from their own government and media. Once the Serb media are off the air, we may not have any independent way to check the claims coming out of NATO headquarters or Washington.

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