“If you want to be spectacularly misinformed,” said writer Henry Miller, “buy a newspaper.”
That’s something I discovered at the age of 18, while working as a grocery store clerk.
One Tuesday, my day off, I happened by the store in which I worked. My co-workers were milling about the parking lot, chatting animatedly. There were police cars pulled up in front of the store, and a fire truck.
As I approached, an older man named Frank who worked as a butcher, called out, “You left your cigars on the shelf.”
“What?” I replied, bemused.
“Your cigars. What’s the idea of hiding your cigars behind the fireworks?”
“What are you talking about, Frank?”
“Jody” — he was one of my fellow clerks — “Well, he found two sticks of dynamite, attached to a timer, hidden behind the fireworks in aisle three.”
A bomb? I couldn’t take it in. Things like this didn’t really happen, not to ordinary people.
They do. Something the local newspaper was to remind to me of in the coming days. Of course, we snapped up the newspapers every day as soon as they hit the streets, poring over the stories, as otherwise anonymous people do whenever they find themselves in the centre of a news story. And what we discovered came as a shock. They got the story wrong. The names were wrong. The ages wrong. The sequence of events wrong. The dates wrong. “If they can get this so screwed up,” we complained, “how screwed up is everything else we’re reading about?”
Fast forward a few years.
Having given up on the grocery business, I found myself wearing the handle of a coffee mug — the graduate student’s ring, we called it. Graduate students, I now recognize, are a supercilious lot, much attached to any sign of ascendance over mere undergraduates. Like med students, who make a point of walking around with stethoscopes slung across their shoulders like a rich matron’s mink stole, graduate students go out of their way to avoid being mistaken for their junior peers. With no reason to wear stethoscopes (we would have if we could have), we embraced coffee mugs. Index fingers wedged firmly in coffee mug handles, we graduate students would regularly meet to mouth egocentric and pompous twaddle, much of it beginning with: “It’s scary what people out there don’t know,” “out there” referring to the great unwashed masses upon whom the gods of wisdom had not smiled.
“Out there” also included the press, for however blinkered we were to expect ordinary people to have even a basic grasp of what we spent our days studying, it wasn’t asking too much to expect that at the very least journalists who took it upon themselves to report on our subject could do a little research. Instead, reporters showed a dismaying lack of knowledge, and a voracious appetite for misinformation.
And so it was that I felt the same dismay again. If the press was so far off on the subjects I knew something of, wasn’t it fair to assume they were equally far off on the subjects I knew nothing about. And didn’t that mean that on most matters, I was spectacularly misinformed?
For a few years I was gripped by a kind of epistemological paralysis. If I knew I couldn’t rely on the media to get the story right, what could I do? I couldn’t possibly research every story myself. So mostly I threw up my hands and said, “Who knows what’s going on?” And went about my life, trying to concentrate on areas that were illuminated by personal insight, avoiding the great darkness, which was much of the rest of the world, outside the narrow orbit of my own life.
But one thing I was sure of: There were a lot of words in newspapers, many of them the words of presidents and prime ministers, Secretaries of State and generals, CEOs and PR hacks, all of whom, most of the time, had reasons to mislead. Newspapers are filled with self-serving fictions.
Skip forward a few more years.
Slobodan Milosevic is being demonized in the Western press. Brute, murderer, monster, ethnic cleanser, dictator, strongman, warlord, demagogue. You can’t stoop too low, exaggerate too much, denounce him profoundly enough. Call him a Hitler and nobody bats an eye.
In the official Milosevic demonology, the former Yugoslav president’s 1989 speech at Kosovo Field becomes the signal event in Milosevic’s transformation from communist party apparatchik, to virulent Serb nationalist, intent on building a “Greater Serbia.”
On June 3rd 1999, with large parts of Serbia laying in ruins after being targeted by NATO warplanes, The Economist says,
“But it is primitive nationalism, egged on by the self-deluding myth of Serbs as perennial victims, that has become both Mr Milosevic’s rescuer (when communism collapsed with the Soviet Union) and his nemesis. It was a stirringly virulent nationalist speech he made in Kosovo, in 1989, harking back to the Serb Prince Lazar’s suicidally brave battle against the Turks a mere six centuries ago, that saved his leadership when the Serbian old guard looked in danger of ejection. Now he may have become a victim of his own propaganda.”
On July 9th, the international edition of Time reports,
“It was St. Vitus’ Day, a date steeped in Serbian history, myth and eerie coincidence: on June 28, 1389, Ottoman invaders defeated the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo; 525 years later, a young Serbian nationalist assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, lighting the fuse for World War I. And it was on St. Vitus’ Day, 1989, that Milosevic whipped a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy in the speech that capped his ascent to power.”
And on July 28th, as questions are being asked about NATO’s 78-day bombardment, the New York Times weighs in:
“In 1989 the Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, swooped down in a helicopter onto the field where 600 years earlier the Turks had defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo. In a fervent speech before a million Serbs, he galvanized the nationalist passions that two years later fuelled the Balkan conflict.”
Certainly, it seemed that, regrettable bombing errors aside, the destruction of Yugoslavia was necessary to stop Milosevic’s raging nationalist ambitions, ambitions it was said that fuelled a campaign of murder, mass deportation, and genocide. Except, like the story of the dynamite planted in the grocery store, this story was all screwed up.
Gregory Elich, a researcher and writer, decided to check out whether what the media said about Milosevic’s speech was truth or fiction. Tracking down a US government translation of the address, Elich discovered the media had the story all wrong. Not only had Milosevic not whipped up nationalist fervor, he’d tried to do the very opposite.
Jared Israel, who had been dissecting media coverage of the Balkans, posted the speech on his Web site, Emperors Clothes, http://emperors-clothes.com
Wrote Israel, “It is impossible for a society to engage in genocide unless the population is won to hate the target group. This has to be done in a systematic way. That is, political leaders must support hate in deeds but also in words.”
“We are told that this happened in Serbia. We are told that Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leaders indoctrinated the Serbian people to hate non-Serbs, especially ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province. We are told that Milosevic launched this racist campaign in a speech at Kosovo Field in 1989.”
Except if you read what Milosevic said — something the media obviously hadn’t done — you’d see the claims that the speech “did not differ greatly from the anti-Semitic diatribes of the Nazis” was all dross. Milosevic had said none of it.
Francisco Gil-White, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a Fellow at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, happened upon the Emperor’s Clothes site. “I noticed their startling claim that we have been systematically lied to about Yugoslavia,” recalled Gil-White. ” Since their views entirely contradicted my own, I started systematically checking their references by obtaining the relevant original documents.”
Startled by the transcript of the Kosovo Field speech– “according to what I had read,” Gil-White observed, “this was supposed to be an inflammatory ultranationalist diatribe” — the University of Pennsylvania academic tracked down a BBC translation of the speech to check against the version Israel had posted on his Web site. “They matched almost exactly except for very minor variations in wording due to the fact that they used different translators,” Gil-White remarked.
An expert in ethnopolitical conflict, Gil-White decided to delve deeper. How had academics and the media got it so wrong, he wondered.
Going back to press reports filed in 1989, days after the speech was given, and a decade before Milosevic was to fall within the cross-hairs of a NATO eager to oust the Yugoslav leader, Gil-White discovered that a very different story was being told, far closer to the truth.
June 29th of that year, the day after the speech, The Independent reported:
‘There is no more appropriate place than this field of Kosovo to say that accord and harmony in Serbia are vital to the prosperity of the Serbs and of all other citizens living in Serbia, regardless of their nationality or religion,’ he said. Mutual tolerance and co- operation were also sine qua non for Yugoslavia: ‘Harmony and relations on the basis of equality among Yugoslavia’s people are a precondition for its existence, for overcoming the crisis.’ The cries of ‘Slobo, Slobo’ which greeted his arrival on the vast monument to the heroes of 1389 soon gave way to a numb silence. ‘I think people were a little disappointed, it became very quiet after the beginning,’ an educated-looking woman from Belgrade said”
Milosevic “talked of mutual tolerance,” the Independent added, “‘building a rich and democratic society’ and ending the discord which had, he said, led to Serbia’s defeat here by the Turks six centuries ago.”
The same day, the BBC reported, “Addressing the crowd, Milosevic said that whenever they were able to the Serbs had helped others to liberate themselves, and they had never used the advantage of their being a large nation against others or for themselves.”
“He added that Yugoslavia was a multi-national community,” the BBC continued, “which could survive providing there was full equality for all the nations living in it.”
Twelve years later, on April 1, 2001, the BBC would change its story, claiming Milosevic had “gathered a million Serbs at the site of the battle to tell them to prepare for a new struggle.”
Milosevic’s words that day were patently pacific. “Serbia has never had only Serbs living in it. Today, more than in the past, members of other peoples and nationalities also live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced that it is its advantage. National composition of almost all countries in the world today, particularly developed ones, has also been changing in this direction. Citizens of different nationalities, religions, and races have been living together more and more frequently and more and more successfully.”
Hardly an appeal to hate filled nationalism.
“Equal and harmonious relations among Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity. In this respect Yugoslavia does not stand out from the social milieu of the contemporary, particularly the developed, world. This world is more and more marked by national tolerance, national co-operation, and even national equality. The modern economic and technological, as well as political and cultural development, has guided various peoples toward each other, has made them interdependent and increasingly has made them equal as well [medjusobno ravnopravni]. Equal and united people can above all become a part of the civilization toward which mankind is moving. If we cannot be at the head of the column leading to such a civilization, there is certainly no need for us to be at is tail.”
This isn’t ultra-nationlism. This is the opposite. It’s an appeal for harmony, for equality, for interdependence. How could the story change so radically in the space of a decade?
That’s what Gil-White vowed to find out. His conclusion? “The problem is not merely that reporters and academics are misinformed,” he observes. “It appears to be a conscious effort to misinform.”
It’s curious, Gil-White notes, that “the same source will report the facts accurately and then, in another place, usually later, report them completely inaccurately. I have difficulty explaining this as a result of ignorance, or chance, or confusion.”
Not too long after Milosevic’s Kosovo Field speech, the Soviet Union collapsed and the US, free to embark largely unopposed on a program of establishing global primacy, began to draw Eastern Europe and the Balkans into its orbit, economically, politically, and militarily. Yugoslavia resisted, too fond of socialism and public ownership for Washington’s liking, and uninterested in NATO membership. Washington decided it was time for “a regime change.”
The first step in justifying regime change is to demonize the regime to be changed. Gil-White believes the demonizing of Milosevic was “calculated to exploit the human tendency to essentialize racial, national, and ethnic groups, in order to solidify the prejudice that Serbs are virulent nationalists, which prejudice then stably frames the conflict in Yugoslavia in such a way that the interests of the powers which dismembered it might be served.”
Did journalists deliberately lie, or were they just lazy, relying on what someone else said about Milosevic’s Kosovo Field address, not bothering to read the original transcript? The University of Pennsylvania expert figures journalists parroted unreliable sources, which happened to present Milosevic in a light that was consistent with NATO’s propaganda aims.
The implications are far-reaching, especially now that Milosevic’s trial at the Hague is underway. Newspapers talk of Milosevic as a monster, of the tribunal as a step forward for international justice, of horrific atrocities.
But Gil-White asks, “What can we believe about what has been written about Milosevic in particular, and Yugoslavia more generally? After all, the demonization of Milosevic, and the Serbs more generally, perfectly fits with the propaganda aims of the NATO powers that went to war against Yugoslavia, including the US and Britain. Here we have seen that the media establishment in these two countries has produced stories about Milosevic’s speech that are consistent with such a deliberate propaganda campaign.”
This wouldn’t be the first time NATO pressure has led to spectacularly misleading claims by the media. Soon after NATO began its assault on Yugoslavia in 1999, spokesman Jamie Shea claimed 100,000 Kosovor Albanians were unaccounted for, a claim uncritically accepted by the press.
Dr. Peter Markesteyn, a Winnipeg forensic pathologist, was among the first war crimes investigators to arrive in Kosovo after NATO ended its bombing campaign.
“We were told there were 100,000 bodies everywhere,” said Dr. Markesteyn. “We performed 1,800 autopsies — that’s it.”
Fewer than 2,000 corpses. None found in the Trepca mines. No remains in the vats of sulphuric acid. Most found in isolated graves — not in the mass graves NATO warned about. And no clue as to whether the bodies were those of KLA fighters, civilians, even whether they were Serbs or ethnic Albanians.
Not surprisingly then, when the Hague Tribunal issued its first indictment against Milosevic, it said nothing of 100,000 dead, citing 391 deaths instead, all from incidents — with the exception of one now believed to have been faked — that happened after NATO’s bombing started. The media, scrupulously steering clear of asking tough questions, didn’t wonder how a bombing campaign to stop a genocide could be justified, if those who were doing the bombing had no evidence of a genocide in the first place (and don’t now; the Tribunal has not brought forth a genocide charge for Kosovo, despite the loud claims by NATO at the time that a genocide was going on and needed to be stopped.) But by then, the press was so firmly implicated in building the credibility of the myth, they could hardly back off.
The one pre-bombing incident on which Milosevic was indicted, the Racak massacre, is still treated as gospel truth by the media, even though a number of questions had been raised about the incident at the time, and have been raised since.
The French newspaper La Monde had some trouble swallowing the story. It reported on Jan. 21, 1999, a few days after the incident, that an Associated Press TV crew had filmed a gun battle at Racak between Serb police and KLA guerillas. The crew was present because the Serbs had tipped them off that they were going to enter the village to arrest a man accused of shooting a police officer. Also present were two teams of international monitors.
It seems unlikely that if you’re about to carry out a massacre you would invite the press — and international observers — to watch.
The film showed that as the Serbs entered Racak they came under heavy fire from KLA guerillas positioned in the surrounding hills. The idea that the police could dig a trench and then kill villagers at close range while under attack troubled La Monde. So too did the fact that, entering the village after the fire fight to assess the damage and interview the villagers, the observers saw no sign of a massacre. What’s more, the villagers said nothing about a massacre either.
It was only a day later, when Washington’s man in Kosovo, William Walker, returned with the press in tow — at the KLA’s invitation — that a trench was found filled with bodies.
Adding to the implausibility of the claim, a report last February by the Finnish forensic team that investigated the incident on behalf of the European Union said none of the bodies were mutilated, there was no evidence of torture, and only one was shot at close range — all at variance with the official story.
Thirty-seven of the corpses had gunpowder residue on their hands, suggesting that they had been using firearms, and only one of the corpses was a woman, and only one was under 15 years of age.
The pathologists say Walker was quick to come to the conclusion a massacre had happened, even though the evidence was weak.
And they point out that there is no evidence the deceased were from Racak.
The first casualty of war is the truth,” says Paul Buteux, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba, echoing a cliché that is sententiously uttered after every war, but never learned from.
“It gets very murky. I have no doubt that whoever was putting those intelligence reports together prior to the NATO air campaign would be under pressure to put things in the worst possible light. There was a point when the spin doctors came in.”
Putting things in the worst possible light? There’s a big difference between putting things in the worst possible light and turning 1,800 corpses into 100,000, between arguing that a genocide had to be stopped by a bombing campaign, and being able to adduce only one incident of a war crime — and a doubtful one at that — occurring before the bombing.
As for Jared Israel, he’s so certain the depiction of Milosevic as a racist monster is baseless, he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. Israel says he’ll pay $500 to anyone who can “show that Slobodan Milosevic made a racist statement in any speech or interview at any time,” a prize you would think the journalists who have been writing about Milosevic whipping Serbs into an ultranationalist frenzy would step forward to claim. Israel’s challenge, posted at http://www.icdsm.org/more/peaceintro.htm, was issued last December.
Slobodan Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Field can be read at http://emperors-clothes.com/milo/milosaid.html
Gil-White’s research can be read at http://emperors-clothes.com/milo/gw.htm
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.