TV Screens Offer Us Illusions Of War
By Norman Solomon
While bombs keep exploding in Yugoslavia, a fierce media war is raging on television. The real war has little to do with the images squeezed into the TV frame. On the ground, in Yugoslavia, the situation is all about terror, anguish and death. On the screen, the coverage is far from traumatic for the viewing public -- despite the myth that television brings the horrors of war into our living rooms.
A war "is among the biggest things that can ever happen to a nation or people, devastating families, blasting away the roofs and walls," media critic Mark Crispin Miller wrote many years ago. But TV viewers "see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household."
TV news programs sometimes claim to be showing us what war is all about, but that's an absurd pretense. While television "may confront us with the facts of death, bereavement, mutilation," Miller commented, "it immediately cancels out the memory of that suffering, replacing its own pictures of despair with a commercial, upbeat and inexhaustibly bright."
In the all-out propaganda war now underway, the Clinton administration's strategists have played catch-up. "The problem is they didn't start the communications until the bombs started falling," says Marlin Fitzwater, who spoke for President Bush during the Gulf War. "That's not enough time to convince the nation of a course of action."
Top U.S. officials have made up for lost time -- blitzing the media with endless briefings, grainy bomb-site videos and live TV interviews as the missiles continue to fly. Even after it became clear that the NATO bombardment was greatly intensifying the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo decried by the White House, the warriors in Washington were sticking to their very big guns. As the second week of bombing began, just about the only worry they seemed willing to acknowledge involved a possible shortage of cruise missiles.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported last Wednesday, both the U.S. and Yugoslav governments have a stake in downplaying the carnage from the bombing. "The citizens of the NATO alliance cannot see the Serbs that their aircraft have killed," the British newspaper noted. "Serbia's state-run television, while showing ruined civilian homes, shields its viewers from bloodied corpses that might spread panic among an already highly strung population."
Traditionally, American television networks like to show U.S. bombers taking off but decline to show what the bombs on board end up doing to human beings. So, American firepower appears to be wondrous but fairly bloodless.
As for history, ancient and recent, it is usually rendered murky by the TV networks. The latest coverage has run true to form. "Distortion of important background by Western broadcasters, whether intentional or not, has also helped NATO's cause," the Financial Times observed.
"The stated aims of NATO's bombing campaign have also been muddied, by both heads of government and the Western media," the newspaper added. "A common phrase heard on the lips of correspondents of CNN ... is `forcing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to return to the negotiating table.' Yet Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state, and Robin Cook, British foreign minster, made it clear after the breakdown of peace talks ... that the autonomy deal offered by the West -- and signed by the Kosovo Albanians -- was no longer negotiable. There was in reality no table to return to."
Skewed facts and selected images on television make it easier to accept -- or even applaud -- the bombs funded by our tax dollars and dropped in our names.
The bombing has brought about the collapse of internal opposition to the Yugoslav regime, opposition that was previously quite strong. Even now, the tragic realities of that process are getting little mention in American news media.