Persistent rumours in this neck of the woods have it that during the Kosovo crisis Christiane Amanpour, of CNN fame, claimed to have been where she was not (more specifically, Albania and with the KLA). Her image was photo-montaged, whisper the maligners. Her counterpart in Skopje lied to the viewing public,
|The primary role of journalists on the front lines is to do your best to tell a story in a situation when truth is not always readily available. It's also vital to tell what you see and question what you don't see, as well as to provide context to complicated issues... There hasn't been a single time I've ever turned down an assignment because of the dangers involved.
That Serb journalists and Serb-sympathizers would be enviously badmouthing their more prosperous colleagues in the bombarding West should hardly come as a surprise to anyone—that Albanians join the rumour-mongering is baffling. But what really makes one pause for thought is that identical stories circulate among the personnel of the more august establishments: think tanks, aid organizations, NGOs and the Western media themselves.
The incestuous relationship between the ostensibly impartial Amanpour and her betrothed—James ("Jamie") Rubin, the spokesman for the State Department—has raised brows in the East and West alike. Substance aside, appearances should have demanded a clearer separation of power and a less cosy set of checks and balances between the members of this couple.
Their employers, long enamoured of hectoring and preaching good governance and rectitude to a subservient world, would have done well to start at home with added perspicacity. No wonder no one trusted either Amanpour's reports, delivered in a mock Oxonian accent and with a mane impeccably dishevelled or the vehement denials of her spuriously insouciant husband.
This incredulousness was further sustained by the series of gaffes and outright lies propagated by NATO and its oblique yet sonorous Jamie Shea. To remove all doubt—whatever NATO's sins—they came nowhere near the abdication
|Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.
But such comparison is troubling. Veracity and honesty are not a matter of degree or quantity. And propaganda is at its most effective when closely hugged by lapidary truth. Democracies should never succumb to the contagious immorality of the dictatorships they are fighting.
Yet NATO lied incessantly, on needless issues and with a pronounced lack of imagination. Remember the two captured Yugoslav pilots? The murdered Rugova? Arkan in Kosovo? 100,000 Albanians in mass graves? Another 100,000 tortured in the Priština stadium? The media reported all this dutifully, suspending its own professed standards, engaging in slanted reporting and reproducing prepared NATO statements as eyewitness accounts (a grave breach of ethics).
Whatever the truth in the pusillanimous rumours above, to the peoples of the countries in transition the Western media have failed every bit as miserably as their own. To them, they are surely manipulated by political or business puppet masters with an agenda. They report every election in Serbia as tainted and every vote in Macedonia as kosher. To them, the KLA is one day a drug-smuggling operation, the next an army of liberation.
They reported all politicians in Bulgaria to be in thrall to the indigenous mob until the 1997 elections. A few days afterwards, these mobsters all became
|The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unravelling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.
George W S Trow, American media critic
Of this sad parade of ignorant stereotypes, sweeping generalizations, directed demonisation and penurious venality, no one is exonerated. Lurid British tabloids compete effectively with their picayune American brethren. Sesquipedalian French intellectuals are in cahoots with the fustian Italian press.
It would have all been the cause of much hilarity, had it not been for the serious outcomes of this inveterate hypocrisy.
Free media was an essential ingredient in the utopia aspired to by the denizens of Eastern Europe. They looked in awe and adulation upon the liberated, courageous media of the West. They trusted their every word. They
|The troubling thing is that CNN's broadcast represents all that one needs to know about the world, reduced, packaged, and delivered without a trace of conflict or contradiction. Its thought, its sensation, what it sees are insidiously substituted for what the spectator might himself see, feel, think about. This gradual replacement of a private and personal process with a ready-made, manufactured and processed system is nothing less than a hijacking of the mind by a sophisticated apparatus whose purpose is, I believe, deeply ideological. The kernel of this ideology is that "we" define the world, state its purposes and meaning, control its unfolding history.
Edward Said in al-Ahram, 18-24 February 1999
And now the disillusionment is grave, proportional to the energy of the severed bond. In confluence with other disenchantments, it threatens to spill over into a startling wave of anti-Western sentiments. In the pronounced absence of reliable sources of solid information, the hapless citizens revert to insidious gossip and to invidious rumour, to the pasilaly of the mendacious and the protean simulacrum of the contingent. This tension between the imagined and the real is unbearable. Coupled with the rising xenophobia that is the twin of disappointment, it bodes ill to the hoped for integration of these regions in the West. These—the alienation and the rage, the sense of perfidy and abandonment, of an act of fraud of which they were the victims, inveigled and then discarded—are the first outcomes.
The second outcome of media fecklessness is self fulfilling prophecy.
The media often generate the very events that they describe. They add an impetus, import momenta, dictate trajectory, nudge leaders and determine consequences. They are an active partner rather than a disinterested by- stander. As such, they share the matrix of responsibility with politicians and army generals. Every cozened canard, the falsely pullalating numbers of the victims, the obnubilating dehumanization of the enemy, the courage of crapulous pen pushers who risk only their laptops in bloody battle carries a price tag in human lives. The ratings climb on mountains of corpses and lives destroyed.
Perhaps this should be borne in mind when next the media tackle Montenegro.
Sam Vaknin, 2 October 2000
The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.
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