Spin Control in NATO’s War (9/99)

The mainstream media in the United States were aware that the Pentagon and NATO were releasing biased and false information regarding the war in Kosovo. Yet they continued to pass on the information to the US public as if it were gospel.

"The media were once more asked to sort our a few kernels of facts from a barrage of distortions and half-truths from government information manipulators…baloney-ladened military briefings in Brussels…cryptic shows at the Pentagon," Newsday’s Washington Bureau correspondent Patrick Sloyan reported in June. Writing in  the American Journalism Review, Sloyan went on to describe how the elite of US media complained to President Clinton, but failed to use their power to challenge the government.

That the US military and NATO kept the US public propagandized and ignorant about this war is a well known fact among mainstream correspondents. Foremost in the undercovered or ignored categories, but widely covered in Europe, were:

  • extensive civilian deaths (2,000+)
  • massive damage to non-military civilian facilities in Serbia
  • the use of illegal cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions
  • Devastating environmental pollution was created by the bombing and burning of refineries and chemical plants

The deliberate destruction of public utilities left many Serbians without power, water and heating. Yet the Pentagon persisted in saying they were attacking only legitimate military targets. How could all of this massive civilian destruction just be collateral damage? Why was a public television station considered a legitimate military target?

According to the London Daily Telegraph of July 22, 1999, "NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia had almost no military effect on the regime of President Milosevic." Based on a NATO inquiry, the bombing "failed to damage the Yugoslav field army tactically in Kosovo while the strategic bombing of targets such as bridges and factories was poorly planned and executed." The US bombed cardboard tanks, wooden missile carriers, and phony blackened roads, wasting thousands of tons of bombs on false targets.

The French Le Nouvel Observatoeur in Paris (7/1/99) described how NATO initially thought that two days of bombing would be enough and that Milosevic would capitulate quickly. But as the bombing dragged on the US began hitting targets  not envisaged by NATO plans. A senior French military official was quoted as saying, "The USAF refused to abide by phase one, two and three. It intended to hit military and political targets everywhere." Another French official added, "We were on a the verge of an open clash with Washington."

Widely reported in Europe was the fact that 20 high-ranking judges of the Greek Council of State openly condemned the NATO attacks, calling them violations of international law, and polls showed that in Greece 95 percent of the people opposed the bombings. NATO forces were repeatedly hindered as they passed through Greek soil. An exemplary case was how Greek resisters changed the road signs in Thessaloniki so that a convoy of NATO armored-vehicles lost its way and ended up in a vegetable market of the town instead of at the Greco-Macedonian border. (Dimitris Psarras, Athens)

The US government felt that foreign press coverage was so out of control that it became necessary to permanently create a new International Public Information Group (IPI), made up of top military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, to coordinate U.S. resources to "influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals." (Washington Times 7/28/99) This new IPI organization will attempt to squelch or limit uncomplimentary stories regarding US activities and policies reported in the foreign press. IPI is de facto censorship as it will use governmental resources to repress foreign news stories that may reach the US public.

The US government already uses private public relations consultants to spin  and distort news stories on a daily basis to favor specific ideological perspectives. How far will the mainstream media in the US be willing to go in ignoring this issue?

How can we conclude that the mainstream media are free, when they give us unsubstantiated  horror stories of rape camps, massacres, and a possible 100,000 Albanians missing, while the military was racking up Serbian civilian targeting and keeping our allies in the dark? Where was investigative reporting? Where was the public’s right to know? Has corporate media abdicated it’s responsibility to the First Amendment?

Only a strong system with internal checks and balances in mainstream media will protect the public’s interests. Diversity of news sources (both foreign and domestic), ombudsman, and reporters with tenure rights are needed in the media today to counterbalance governmental spin doctors and the media elite’s self interests. Anything less means a continued deterioration of informational freedom in the United States.

Peter Phillips Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University and Director of Project Censored. Send e-mail to phillipP@sonoma.edu.