Media marched without a plan

July 06, 1999|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- John Keegan, arguably the best military historian of our time, has written (in London's Daily Telegraph) that the war in Kosovo went foolishly wrong for the simplest of reasons: "NATO went to war against Serbia without having an army in place."

Now journalists and journalism critics are beginning to conclude that the American press had the same problem.

Most of the press was far less prepared than NATO. If political leaders did not know what would happen next, the American people knew little of what was happening and less of what had happened in the past in Kosovo or Yugoslavia or Albania.

The modern press in action, it seemed, was the blind leading the blind. That was the conclusion I took reading journalists on journalism in Brill's Content and the Media Studies Journal.

Brill's Content criticized coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times and on cable television, making some interesting points: (1) It is impossible to imagine that a prolonged war like Vietnam could be fought in this age of new and pervasive media; (2) mistakes in the elite media are instantly magnified by such institutions as the Washington Post's wire service, which has 465 clients in the rest of the country; (3) cable television "news" inevitably degrades the most complicated and difficult stories, turning them into two people arguing.

"New Wars, New Correspondents," written by Stacy Sullivan, a 1995 graduate of Columbia University's School of International Affairs, reports on the evolution of American foreign correspondents from a business of seasoned stars to a random collection of young stringers and strangers.

"I am one of those stringers, and in that sense I represent the future of foreign correspondents," she writes. "Once I arrived, I quickly discovered that there was a gang of free-lancers in the war zone. Among us we covered the war in Bosnia for Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the Boston Globe, the Times (of London), the Daily Telegraph, Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle.

"It was, in many ways, a mutually beneficial arrangement: The news organizations got an area covered at a discounted rate, and we got to cover a major international story for prestigious news organizations that we could have otherwise only dreamed of writing for. It was also an exploitive relationship that compromised both our safety and the quality of coverage the newspapers and magazines provided."

(The free-lancers get glory and a little money, but no insurance of any kind, and no guarantee that those papers and magazines will assist them in any way if they are captured or hurt.)

Ms. Sullivan concludes -- sadly, she says -- that the Kosovo pattern is the future of foreign reporting. She also concludes that Mr. Keegan was right about what went wrong militarily. She says everyone on the ground in Kosovo knew before the bombing what was about to happen there -- that is, everyone but Americans and our leaders -- and she wrote this:

"As I spoke to people in Kosovo's regional capital, Pristina, I heard the same fears over and over again: If NATO bombs without sending in ground troops, the Serbian population will take out recriminations on the Albanian civilians."

Of course, no one was paying attention to (or paying) the young free-lancers at that time, before the bombs fell and Americans saw refugee pictures.

Brill's Content -- in the tradition of one picture is worth a thousand words -- shows what happened next. The magazine printed a reverse-angle photograph by Lee Stone of the photo agency Sygma of an old woman in a wheelbarrow pushed by her son -- the two of them surrounded by still and television photographers in front of a row of shiny new Land Rovers.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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