The Christiane Way

The Western Media and its Role in the War-torn Balkans

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: October, 2000

"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."

"Some journalists might take too many risks, but risk and danger are inherent in combat reporting. We have to know the difference between calculated risk and foolish risks."

"There hasn't been a single time I've ever turned down an assignment because of the dangers involved."

Christiane Amanpour on Journalism (Interview granted to TBS and available here:

"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".
Mark Twain - The Mysterious Stranger

"NEWSWEEK: Share with us a little of what you've learned about how foreign-policy priorities are set in particular what role the media plays in that.
James Rubin: I think the basic foreign policy priorities are set by the president and the secretary... [But] it's certainly true that the media's focus on big problems often drives congressional interest and pressure-group interest, and they feed off each other, and there is often increased focus on terrible human-rights and humanitarian disasters. The first example in this era, obviously, was Somalia ... I think that there's no question that journalists' coverage of the Bosnia conflict, which was something that involved great bravery and great personal risk for many journalists, helped to galvanize the world finally to act. I think that some of those lessons were drawn and in the next similar case, Kosovo, action was taken much earlier."
Newsweek, February 9, 2000

"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

"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. In effect then, the funeral became the occasion for re-asserting control over a distant country, its people, history and departed monarch. And this seizure or hijacking permitted a whole series of further distortions which were later amplified by print journalism."
"Public Spectacle, Public History" by Edward Said in "al-Ahram", 18-24 February 1999

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, they insist, when he presented a crumbling, yet perfectly Macedonian, home, imputed to Kosovar refugees, as being in Kosovo. Other journalists never left the air conditioned comfort of "Alexander Palace" in the Macedonian capital whilst filing heroic dispatches with their understanding editors. After all, the Balkan is more often covered from the taverns of Fleet Street and the haunts of Washington than from the killing fields of Kosovo.

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 gives one pause is that identical stories circulate among the personnel of 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 of the State Department, has raised brows in East and West alike. Substance aside, appearances should have demanded a clearer separation of powers 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 Amanpour's reports, delivered in a mock Oxonian accent and 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 of truthful media in Serbia. NATO - (US PsyOp agents rumoured to have been cosily ensconced in the CNN for a fortnight notwithstanding) - did not engage in the vile exploitation of bloodied imagery. Nor did it harp so expertly on the darkest recesses of the unconscious. 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 Pristina 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 in thrall to the indigenous mob until the 1997 elections. A few days afterwards, these mobsters all became reformers. Russia's economy was doomed in August 1998 by the likes of "The Economist" and flourished anew in January the following year. The very media that endorsed the Kennedys and now the Bushes decries nepotism. The ones who impugn "cronyism and corruption" are complaisant slaves to their advertisers and their opinion polls. There is no official censorship but a more pernicious and sedulous type of self-bowdlerization.

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 risked their freedom, often their life, to listen to broadcasts. They smuggled copies of Western broadsheets and replicated them in makeshift samizdats. They clung to every Western reporter, hoping for an osmosis of liberty, an infusion of freedom, a breath of wished autonomy. It was a love affair, as blind as they come.

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 determines 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 - carry 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.

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