Review of Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis

By Robert Jensen

Published in Z Magazine · December, 2000

[This article appeared in Z Magazine, December 2000, pp. 58-60.]

review of
Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis
Edited by Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman
Pluto Press
222 pages

One of the most unpleasant moments for me, and I suspect for many other leftists and anti-war activists, during the Nato attack on Yugoslavia came when I realized that a significant segment of what is usually called the progressive community had swallowed Nato’s propaganda about a humanitarian war.

That hit home most clearly when I posted an announcement of a local anti-war demonstration to a “progressive faculty group” email list and got back a response questioning the wisdom of opposing the U.S.-led attack, which after all was supposed to be humanitarian in intent.

When I questioned the humanitarian rationale and offered a defense of the demonstration (in which I made no reference to the person who raised the question and was quite measured), another faculty member dashed off a note suggesting that I avoid personal attacks on those who disagree with me. That’s when I realized it was going to be a long war.

The war may have lasted only 78 days, but the split in the progressive movement still hangs over many of us, as we ponder why so many left/liberal folks decided to back the latest U.S. imperial adventure. There are no doubt many reasons, but one contributing factor was the way in which the mainstream media blanketed the public with a stream of mis-, dis- and non-information about the facts on the ground in Kosovo and the reasons that Nato bombers took to the skies.

Did progressives who signed on with the Clinton administration’s “ethical” foreign policy really believe that story? Or did they simply use the relentless media coverage to cover themselves? Whatever the case, it’s important to understand how the United States and Nato pulled off such an incredible propaganda victory. A new book, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, helps us do just that.

Published in England by Pluto Press and available in the United States, the book does a superb job not only of documenting that coverage, but also of providing the background and analysis of the war that allows readers to make sense of the media. Philip Hammond and Edward Herman have put together an edited volume that provides a comprehensive assessment of Nato’s propaganda victory while avoiding the most common problems of anthologies. Although there is some variation in quality of the essays, even the weakest ones contribute to our understanding, and the majority of them are insightful and compelling. Importantly, there is far less repetition of material than often happens in such volumes. Hammond and Herman deserve credit for a careful job of editing.

The book is divided into three sections. The first four essays, under the heading “The West’s Destruction of Yugoslavia,” offer the background — political, economic, diplomatic and military — to Nato’s 1999 war. For people who feel they need a crash course on the Balkans, or a refresher, these essays would serve quite nicely. Diane Johnstone’s piece on “Nato and the New World Order” and David Chandler’s account of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the complicity of the West in ethnic cleansing, are particularly helpful.

The next section, “Seeing the Enemy,” covers various aspects of the new militarism and the media’s relationship with the military. Mirjana Skoco’s and William Woodger’s concise assessment of the military shows just how much planners have learned from past attempts at press control.

The final section offers analysis of news coverage in eight different countries, along with some of independent British journalist John Pilger’s dispatches during the war. In this section, one learns much about the realities of how a free press uses that freedom by comparing coverage in different places.

Collectively, the authors show how one had to get outside of Nato countries to get sustained critical coverage of the war. As Raju G.C. Thomas points out, what the Western media were calling a “humanitarian intervention” was regularly being described as “unprovoked aggression” in India. Although the Indian press relied heavily on Western wire services and sources, journalists there used that information to draw quite different conclusions.

The chapters on U.S. coverage in general (by Seth Ackerman and Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) and CNN in particular (by Herman and David Peterson) should put to rest any suggestion that the press is adversarial, at least on questions of war and militarism. Herman and Peterson do not exaggerate when they describe CNN as “Nato’s de facto public information arm” during the bombing, with CNN journalists consistently “rooting for the home team.”

One of the most depressing aspects of this part of the collection for me was finding out that coverage in Britain, France, Germany, and Norway wasn’t much better than the predictably servile performance of U.S. journalists. Although the range of opinion available in Europe still surely is wider than in the United States, the performance of the mainstream press in other Nato countries doesn’t bode well for the future.

What struck me most after reading this volume was what I can only call the “willed ignorance” of mainstream Western (especially U.S.) journalists during the buildup to the conflict and the war itself. One gets the impression that reporters had to work very hard not to report what was in front of them, such as the use of the Rambouillet “negotiations” to force Serbia’s hand, or Nato’s manipulation of the allegedly independent International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia to support the war. Basic skeptical questions — the kind that even cub reporters know to ask of a sergeant on the police beat — went unasked and unanswered during the war. As a former journalist and journalism professor, I felt a sense of shame for my craft while reading the book and remembering what the media coverage was like during the war.

Although its main mission is press criticism, Degraded Capability also provides the facts and analysis necessary to challenge the dominant mythology about the war. After reading it, I became even clearer about the two main distortions that were at the heart of the propaganda victory.

First, the United States and Nato were successful in turning the chronology of events upside down and convincing the public that the flood of Albanian refugees out of Kosovo — which was the result of the Nato bombing — was the justification for the bombing. Though the conflict in Kosovo prior to Nato’s attack was not pretty, the scale of killing and forced removal of civilians was relatively small. As U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark predicted, the bombing itself was the cause of the large-scale flight from Kosovo, not the solution to a problem. Yet the public imagination, constructed in large part by the uncritical reporting of compliant journalists, seems to remain set in exactly the opposite view — that Serbian aggression sent Albanian Kosovars on the run, and Nato bombed to save the day.

Also important in convincing the public of the nobility of Nato’s war were the fabricated reports about Serb killings of Kosovars. Nato claims that 100,000 Kosovars had been killed, along with atrocity stories about mass graves, led the media to throw around the term genocide, making it even more obvious that Nato had no choice but to bomb. The fact that those numbers were pulled out of thin air and later discounted seems to have little effect on public perceptions of the Nato effort.

It is dangerous to minimize the important ways in which the U.S., and more generally the Western, media systems do allow significant freedom of speech. But Degraded Capability offers a detailed case study of why the U.S. journalists should be a whole lot less smug about their performance. As Johnstone puts it, “The freedom to sell ideas — any ideas — is not the same thing as freedom to pursue the truth.”

Even though most of us know that the Western mainstream media have never been the truth-tellers they claim to be in war, Hammond and Herman rightly contend we must continue to point out the media’s failures: “The media still claim to be objective and truthful servants of democracy, contributing to informed public debate rather than helping to engineer consent to policies decided from above. If they fail in this regard and join the leadership in promoting and selling a war, they are de facto enemies of democracy, and servants of the policy-making elite.”

Though there technically is no official ideology in the United States that the press must adhere to, the Kosovo crisis is a painful reminder of how easily journalists fall in behind the party line of the powerful. Degraded Capability not only makes that case but serves as a model of what independent journalism can look like.