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Air Wars: The Media's Role During the Kosovo Conflict

On June 30, the Western Policy Center hosted a panel discussion assessing the role of the media during the Kosovo conflict. The following essays are excerpts from the panelists' presentations.

Date & Time

Jun. 30, 1999
12:00am – 12:00am ET


Summary of comments from the participants.

Jim Anderson, Diplomatic Correspondent,
Deutsche Presse-Agentur

The reporting on the Kosovo conflict from NATO and State Department briefings, particularly by American reporters, was unnecessarily trusting. We had no other source of reliable information, and we felt an obligation to report accurately what we were hearing, even though we might not have believed every fact.
Nobody knows what really happened in Kosovo, but certain generalizations are probably true based on on-the-scene reporting and various briefings.
There was a systematic Serbian government campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, carried out by semi-controlled gangsters called a paramilitary. They deliberately created a state of terror to drive out Kosovars, and they largely succeeded until the air war turned things around.
Every flash in combat scenes on the CNN screen was accepted as another technological triumph, committed without risk to American warriors. The subtext was that this was how to win wars, with a further subtext leading to acceptance of gradualism in future campaigns.
If the Americans don't go along with Europeans in the next Balkan episode, will Europe go it alone? Can they? Europeans are beginning to realize they don't have the technological wizardry of the U.S., permitting an overwhelming bombing campaign without any real fear of casualties.
This war could not have been avoided. After viewing war scenes on television or in photographs, however, people understood that the conflict could be the beginning of a larger campaign involving the U.S. and Europeans in a much more direct way, including casualties. The Serbs did not understand the role of the international media in Europe or in the United States.

Arianna Huffington,
Nationally Syndicated Columnist

The U.S. and NATO continuously redefined the war's objectives, and what constituted victory and success, and the media went along. The administration's definitions of success were stopping Milosevic from driving out Kosovar Albanians, preventing the destabilization of the Balkans, and ensuring a multi-ethnic democratic Kosovo within Yugoslavia. None of these objectives was achieved, yet people talk about victory.
When NATO struck a convoy of Kosovar Albanian refugees, the administration stated that it was quite certain that military vehicles had been hit. It later said Yugoslav aircraft had attacked the convoy. The denials ended when American journalists reported finding NATO-made and U.S.-made cluster bombs at the site. NATO admitted that it had struck the convoy only after the Sunday talk shows avoided reference to the attack because of a pending investigation on the matter. The media complained about restrictions on the flow of information. Clinton blamed the weather, terrain, and NATO command structure for the insufficient information.
Americans are tuning out as reversed ethnic cleansing and atrocities are occurring. I am not defending Serb atrocities, but we should criticize administration and NATO spokesmen for putting out unconfirmed reports.
Could this war have been avoided? There has been little analysis about whether Milosevic would have agreed to NATO's final demands, which are weaker than those in the Rambouillet accord, had they been presented before the war. There is no promise of a referendum on Kosovo independence in three years; peacekeepers operate under U.N., not NATO, auspices; and NATO is denied sovereignty throughout Yugoslavia, as originally demanded.

Tom Gjelten,
Foreign Affairs Correspondent, National Public Radio

The conflict in Kosovo is at least ten years old. During this period, an apartheid system has denied Kosovar Albanians equal treatment. The situation has been a classic example of the world's failure to prevent a conflict it should have seen coming. Warnings by human rights organizations that the situation could lead to a terrible war went unheeded. The media has to take responsibility for a global failure to pay attention to Kosovo during this critical period.
The media began taking Kosovo seriously when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) appeared and the conflict became as violent as it had been in Croatia and Bosnia. There were many differences between covering war in Bosnia and in Kosovo. In Bosnia, journalists were generally the first ones to sound the alarm concerning what they were seeing. In summer 1992, the State Department virtually denied reports that tens of thousands of Muslim men were being held in detention camps.
The Bush administration and the Clinton administration, in early 1993, made light of the war in Bosnia. President Clinton said fighting in Bosnia between the Muslims, Serbs, and Croats dated back to the eleventh century. There were, however, no Muslims in the former Yugoslavia in the eleventh century. To avoid getting involved in Bosnia, it was in the administration's interest to blur the public's understanding of events there.
In Kosovo, the U.S. and its allies were determined to become involved. While the moral stakes in Bosnia were downplayed, they were exaggerated in Kosovo. We needed to keep in mind the political agendas of NATO and the State Department, and not take for granted some of the claims being made.

Will Saletan,
Senior Writer, Slate Magazine

We must distinguish between reporting on the ground, which angered people in the West and encouraged the start of the war, from reporting in TV studios, which depressed the audience and discouraged the war's continuation.
Biases are not about left and right, or right and wrong. They are about the ways issues are framed, such as the "objectivist" approach that portrays the adversary's behavior as a consequence of our behavior. If the Serbs are killing Kosovar Albanians, it must be a consequence of our policy. This assigns blame away from the Serbs and onto NATO and the U.S. When NATO accidentally bombed Kosovar Albanian civilians in convoys, after Serbs closed the exit routes and ordered the refugees back into Kosovo, NATO was held responsible, not the Serbs.
The American media believe their job is to analyze U.S. policy makers, not those in other countries. We blame American policy makers for not preventing the misdeeds of policy makers in other countries. We also think that talking about a policy in terms of success or failure is an objective form of policy analysis. This overlooks the possibility that the U.S. may have no control over a situation.
Another bias involves more rapid analysis in an ever-faster news cycle. Many in the media decided in the first few days that the war had been lost and covered events as such. As the Serbs held fast against NATO bombing, the pressure grew for NATO to fold, which in turn encouraged the Serbs to hold out.
There was little analysis of Milosevic's miscalculations of U.S. and NATO resolve, which turned out to be the decisive factor. The war's events were attributed to NATO's involvement, with little room for the possibility of similar outcomes without Western intervention.


Hosted By

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

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