Does the media see what it expects to see?

I remember standing in a psychology lab 15 years ago listening to a friend explain the theory of cognitive archetypes. He told me he could cue subjects in his experiments to see people behave in a lazy way or an industrious way simply by having a person in authority describe the person they were observing as industrious or lazy beforehand.
My friend was running experiments in which he had divided his subjects into two groups. One group was told the person they were about to watch on videotape was lazy. The other group, who watched the same person on tape doing the same things, was told the person they were observing was industrious.
After watching the tape, the group told they were observing a lazy person recounted numerous examples of the subject’s laziness. The group that watched the same person, described instead as industrious, cited numerous examples of industrious behavior.
Could the same person, doing exactly the same thing, be described in fundamentally opposite ways? My friend said yes. It all depends on what you’re led to expect to see.
And while he gave the process the fancy name of cognitive archetypes, it isn’t really all that startling. The same process goes by another name, one that many will acknowledge, but few seem to recognize in operation — fitting facts to the theory.
Could it be that journalists operate under the same set of rules? Told that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is a dictator, ethnic cleanser and war criminal, responsible for the terrible economic plight of the Serbs, might journalists fit facts to the theory, much as my friend’s subjects saw what they were led to believe they’d see?
You might think so if you’ve read BBC coverage of Yugoslavia.
Paul Anderson’s “West ‘failing’ Yugoslavia,” 24 March 2001, is emblematic. On the second anniversary of the start of Nato’s 78-day air war against Yugoslavia, Anderson began, “Exactly two years ago Nato launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, to end the terror in Kosovo.”
Here Anderson exaggerates the terror that preceded the bombing campaign, and ignores the much greater terror the bombing campaign wrought, not least of which was Nato bombs falling on Kosovar targets and, among other terrors, wiping out convoys of fleeing ethnic Albanians.
“Strangely enough,” remarks author Michael Parenti, in To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, “all the (war crimes) charges against (Slobodan Milosevic), except one, refer to incidents that took place after the NATO bombing had commenced.” Parenti continues: “Yet it supposedly was Milosevic’s long-standing atrocity policies that had made the bombing so imperative.”
And the one incident that did occur prior to the bombing, indeed, served as a Nato justification for the bombing — the Racak incident — appears now not to have been a massacre of innocent civilians, as the US alleged, but a staged media event orchestrated by the KLA, involving slain KLA guerillas killed in a fire fight with Serb authorities who were passed off as massacred civilians.
“Another oddity,” notes Parenti, is that “the number of deaths for which Milosevic was held responsible totalled 391,” including the phoney civilian deaths at Racak.
Yet New York based Human Rights Watch puts the number of civilians killed by NATO bombs at 500 — a conservative estimate. So while there’s no doubt that the civil war that raged between the secessionist KLA guerillas and the Serb security forces prior to the bombing was filled with terror, the terror that followed was much greater.
The bombing campaign didn’t end the terror, as Anderson alleges — it kicked it into overdrive.
In the same article, Anderson writes, “But, even though the Yugoslav people overthrew Milosevic in a peaceful revolution five months ago, nothing like the aid they need to deal with the chaos he left behind has materialized.”
Anderson aptly sums up the post-war conditions faced by Serbs as chaos, but the origins of the chaos escape him entirely, though they don’t escape one Serb Anderson interviews, and quotes in the same article. “After the bombing everything fell apart and it is very hard to start the machine again.”
Indeed, the chaos was born of the almost complete annihilation of Serbia’s civilian infrastructure — its factories, its power plants, its petrochemical facilities, fertilizer plants, roads, bridges, telecommunications — destroyed, at the hands of Nato, not Milosevic.
And yet Anderson reports as if Nato, being the good guys, couldn’t possibly be responsible for anything as heinous. The heinous one, according to the theory, is Milosevic. The chaos, then, is something Milosevic, not Nato, is said to have left behind, as if Nato’s bombs had never fallen.
Anderson is in good company. Carla del Ponte, the chief UN war crimes prosecutor, follows the same line of thought. She has accused Milosevic of a war crime in the bombing of the Serb Radio-Television building. Lest you think Milosevic secretly pushed the button to send the cruise missiles that destroyed the building and killed the civilians inside hurtling toward their destination, be assured he didn’t. But when the theory holds that Milosevic is evil incarnate, and Nato above reproach, a little twisting of the facts to fit the theory — even if it means standing them on their head — is normal operating procedure. And so it is that Milosevic, defined beforehand as the “war criminal,” gets blamed for an obvious war crime, while Nato, called “humanitarian interventionists,” are absolved in advance. Del Ponte, too, sees what she expects (or hopes) to see.
Milosevic, says del Ponte, is the guilty party, because he failed to warn the occupants of the building of the imminent air strike, and knew of Nato’s designs on the building beforehand. Whether Milosevic knew of the planned air strike, and chose not to have the building evacuated to score a propaganda coup, is the smaller point — a red herring that allows del Ponte to wriggle out of the difficult position of having to prosecute Nato. The larger, and more relevant issue, is the fact that civilian infrastructure, lacking any conceivable military function, was destroyed by Nato’s bombs — a manifest war crime. Issuing warnings in advance, doesn’t change the nature of the crime.
Moreover, whenever good guys commit some unspeakable act, it’s almost always said they were lured into the act by a thoroughly cunning reprobate seeking to manipulate public sympathy. After American bombs killed thousands of Iraqi civilians huddled in an air raid shelter during the Gulf War, one US anchorman snorted derisively, “I guess Saddam will use this for his own propaganda purposes.” Perhaps the highest form of propaganda is to call the legitimate grievances of the other side a propaganda ploy cunningly crafted to win sympathy.
Jacky Rowland, one of Anderson’s BBC colleagues, is no less certain that Milosevic — not Nato — can be fingered for the travails of the Serbs. On December 22, 2000 Rowland detailed the economic crisis into which the country had sunk (Serbs promised international aid.) “Grinding poverty has driven ordinary people to sell off their personal possessions,” Rowland writes. “Aid agencies are now feeding tens of thousands of people every month through a network of soup kitchens.”
Years of economic sanctions, which cruelly continued even after Nato ceased its bombing, to say nothing of the obliteration of the country’s economic infrastructure, will reduce a country to grinding poverty. Yet Rowland fingers Milosevic, not Nato sanctions and bombing, for Serbia’s growing economic hardships — tantamount to blaming a women for her own rape.
Rowland goes further in fitting facts to theory by pointing to the humanitarian efforts of Nato countries. “(T)he international community,” Rowland writes, is making “sure that people do not freeze this winter.” Rowland leaves unmentioned that in the previous winter, with Milosevic still in power and the country reduced to rubble by Nato bombs, the United States cared not one whit whether people froze, and blocked EU efforts to provide emergency heating fuel, compromising eventually by allowing fuel oil to be delivered only to cities under opposition control. Everyone else, as far as the US was concerned, could freeze.
In “Serbia’s unfinished revolution” (October 19, 2000) Rowland warns that with the dinar officially devalued, prices rising, the price of fuel doubling, and the cost of staples skyrocketing, there are fears that the winter of 2000-2001 will be more difficult than last winter, which the “Serbs got through ….comparatively painlessly.”
The difference between this winter and the winter before, is the difference between Milosevic being in power and facing the hostility of Nato sanctions and the IMF-inpsired Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) being in power, having readmitted Yugoslavia to “the free world,” as Anderson puts it, and earning the approval of Western governments and their humanitarian concern.
Except “democracy,” readmission to “the free world” and having the international community working to ensure that Serbs don’t freeze somehow doesn’t square with the idea that Serbs will face a harsher winter under the DOS than under Milosevic, the supposed architect of Serbia’s chaos and grinding poverty. An inconsistency Rowland steers well clear off. And for good reason. It doesn’t fit the theory.
Left unsaid is that Serbs got through the winter of 1999-2000 comparatively painlessly because Milosevic’s government controlled prices so that Serbs wouldn’t starve or freeze, while the devaluation of the dinar and skyrocketing prices are part of the IMF-shock program DOS has long favoured, advocated, and has now put into practice, despite its effects in exacerbating the economic hardships Serbs already face from years of sanctions and the Nato air assault on the economic infrastructure of their country. Believing Serbs are going to be better off under the DOS is kind of like believing a women listlessly moping about because she’s anaemic is going to be filled with energy after a course of treatment with leaches — but the theory comes first. Facts simply follow, forced into place, by omission, distortion and emphasis — and sometimes they don’t fall into place at all, but startling blindness ensures the inconsistencies are passed over unseen.
It’s standard practice these days to refer to the new government as democratic, even though it came to power in a coup, or a peaceful revolution, as Anderson calls it, while denouncing the Milosevic government as dictatorial and undemocratic, even though it was elected. Tony Blair was forever calling Milosevic a dictator, a depiction the media were happy to uncritically pass on, leaving those who knew the Milosevic government was elected, scratching their heads. But if you want to justify your own reprehensible actions, it’s best to paint the victim in the most unflattering colors possible. Unfortunately, once people in authority, like Blair, had painted Milosevic in dark and menacing black, the media seemed unable to see Milosevic in any other way.
On the other hand, Milosevic’s opposition, from the KLA to the DOS to Otpor, the student resistance movement that sought to topple the Milosevic government — and all of them on the American payroll — were seen in a flattering light, their blemishes safely overlooked, in a kind of “an enemy of an obvious evil must be good” equation. This, despite the fact that the KLA had been described as a terrorist organization by the CIA before the bombing, and the DOS and Otpor were doing what Washington, and the US public, wouldn’t have tolerated for a second in the United States — act as tools of a foreign power to unseat an elected government.
US law prohibits foreign powers from bankrolling parties contesting US elections, and doesn’t look kindly on foreign influenced organizations that seek to topple the government by extra-constitutional means, yet the DOS was bankrolled by the US, and Otpor was trained and its activities underwritten by Washington. But when you’re the biggest and toughest kid on the block, you can lay down rules that others have to follow, on pain of having their heads beaten in, that you don’t have to follow yourself, because no one is big enough or tough enough to beat your head in. In the self-serving language of the US State Department it’s known as being “the indispensable nation.” In the language of the street, it’s known as being a bully and a hypocrite.
In the end, all those American dollars, pitch forked so energetically into sanctions, air strikes and into underwriting opposition movements, worked. Milosevic is gone, Kosovo is being ethnically cleansed of its Serb and Roma populations, Serbs are sinking further into grinding poverty, and the media sees what it’s told to see — just like the subjects in my friend’s experiments.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.