Springtime for Slobo on CNN, Fox, CNBC

“What we don’t know is the unknown,” said the trim-looking man with an authoritative manner. He was the umpteenth expert to appear on the Fox News Channel that day and I, who had been watching the Kosovo war on television for more hours than I care to recollect, could only nod in bleary-eyed agreement.

Truth at last.

In most wars nobody, not even the generals, knows what’s going on half the time, but in most wars the generals don’t have to feed three networks that have dedicated themselves to All War, All the Time, as have the Fox News Channel, CNN and CNBC. The cable news channels evidently are hoping that NATO’s bombing campaign will do for ratings what their around-the-clock concentration on the divinely pneumatic Monica Lewinsky did for them in the recent past. They all have their Kosovo logos and special music of a menacing and martial character.

But Kosovo clearly is not Monica. The story has posed peculiar difficulties for the cable networks, not the least of which is that there is no information. Even more crippling is that there are no heroes, no Stormin’ Norman, only properly attired military bureaucrats with forgettable names like Wesley K. Clark, whose concave chests are too narrow to support the six or seven rows of decorations most of them wear. (Given their age and the paucity of wars they have had an opportunity to fight in, one wonders how they came by more medals than you will see in old photographs of William Tecumseh Sherman, John J. Pershing or Dwight David Eisenhower.)

And so the Albanians must supply all the human interest. Infinite amounts of footage of an infinite number of people suffering infinite misery grabs the viewer’s heart, but in some ways these pictures aren’t terribly different from those of Ohio cyclone victims, except that there are many more Albanians and their cyclone was Serbian, not meteorological.

All three of the war channels are sloshing around in a slough of non-information, conjecture, rumor and the panic which comes from knowing that the war, as currently being passed on to the media, is too damnably elusive. That puts a premium on attitude, which Fox and CNBC have lots of, giving them an edge over straight-news-deprived CNN. NATO has tried to help by giving television a handsome supply of tapes recorded by camera-equipped bombs coming down and getting closer and closer and closer to something or other until squiggle, squaggle, streaks and lines and !@#*&!!–and something, whatever it is, is blown to kingdom come. Unless you’re an 11-year-old boy addicted to video games, if you’ve seen one Air Force bombing clip, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Out of this unpromising material the all-war channels each have their way of presenting news from and about Yugoslavia. It takes no delicate analyse de texte to conclude that Fox News is the New York Post on cable. It displays all of Rupert Murdoch’s evident distaste for Arkansas’ most famous Rhodes Scholar. Although it would be inaccurate to say that the Administration’s position is not to be seen on Fox, the predominant tone is hostile, disbelieving and Republican, but not necessarily consistent. From The Beltway Boys (the name of a show conducted by a couple of right-wingers in sad pants) to Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, one of those sprightly blonde political consultants that the G.O.P. has drawers full of, Fox News has corralled most every anti-Clintonian to be found in the political jungles.

Pat Buchanan’s face can be frequently seen and his mouth frequently heard denouncing any participation in this, the eighth–and, one would think, the last–Balkan war of the 20th century. (Time is running out for starting a new one.) Burrowing in from the other side are the talking heads who are going after Mr. Clinton for not hitting hard enough. The general idea that the President is your typical, Democratic yellow-belly is conveyed by ball-peen hammer strokes and by softer digs from Brit Hume, who conducts one of Fox’s talking-head round tables and gets his point across with questions like, “Is it conceivable here that the President is going to be pressured by Congress, of all institutions, to be tougher and seek military action in this conflict beyond what he wants?” The gist of the Fox idea is, whether you hate Mr. Clinton for going to war or for merely pretending to, you’re A-O.K. as long as you stick your tongue out at him.

One of the cooler tongue-sticker-outers is Senator John McCain of Arizona, a legit war hero who has become every channel’s pop-up boy, leading the Republican charge with sound bites which never say that Mr. Clinton is an incompetent, draft-avoiding poltroon. Mr. McCain leaps out at you every time you click a channel changer, issuing a modulated call to arms that reminds you that Mr. Clinton didn’t serve in Vietnam and he did. “We must now prepare for the contingency of using ground troops in this conflict,” the Senator tells us. “We must begin the planning and the movement of troops and equipment in order to carry out that option if it is necessary and that operation, in my view, must begin immediately.”

CNBC has no political line. Rather, it turns over blocks of air time to people like Geraldo Rivera and Chris Matthews, who do have political lines. Or at least Chris Matthews did have an apoplectic anti-Clinton line throughout the months of Monica, but he seems adrift on this one. For one of the medium’s most opinionated motormouths, he has been almost sorrowfully subdued on this trip, a man genuinely pained by what he has seen happen to the Albanians. Nevertheless, bombing doesn’t seem to be his cup of tea. I confess to having known the man and his family for a long time and am fond of them all.

Hitler and Milosevic

I don’t know Geraldo, who has no doubts about this little dust-off in the Balkans or, one suspects, about much else. One day recently, he was holding up a photograph of Hitler next to one of Slobodan Milosevic. Let’s leave it to others to decide what the two men may have common; what stands out with Geraldo and not a few others on these channels is how woefully ill-prepared they are. By the time Geraldo goes off the air, having shown us his satellite photographs of Serbian atrocities and having made sure we have figured out that all that stuff he told us has come from the highest places in Government, we are ready to enlist as soon as Mr. Clinton says the word.

The fog of war seems to have stopped CNN from doing what it likes to do best–get out and bring back the hot poop. Plainly, CNN is next to death’s door for want of information. The Serbians, apparently unimpressed by announcements of the coming of the Information Age, have refused to give CNN the run of the place as the Iraqis did seven years ago. Running the uninformative briefs from the State Department, the Pentagon and NATO hurts CNN worse than what American bombers are doing to what the news readers like to call “Milosevic’s war machine.”

Given that CNN has to go days without much in the way of war news, it has to fall back on Larry King. Having taken too many of the herbal potions he advertises, Mr. King has begun to resemble one of those bug-eyed reptiles in the Budweiser commercials. His eyes are so big and his voice so croaky, he looks like he lives on a twig in the forest, but he doesn’t. He lives in his TV studio, where the nights I caught him he was having famous journalists in to talk about the war. Walter Cronkite, Jeff Greenfield, Ben Bradlee, fellows with big names who don’t know a thing about Yugoslavia or the war and are not famous for posing heterodox questions about why things are the way they are. Suffice it to say that there have been nights recently when the kindly Mr. King’s studio took on the feel and substance of one of those masturbatory journalism seminars, where fame, money, sex and power are not discussed and where older men and women tell younger men and women the commonplace moralisms of politics and the news business.

Some major news events are somber enough that advertising is suspended out of deference to presumed viewer sensibility, but not this one. The Kosovo war is being brought to us by Flomax, a drug for men whose enlarged prostates make them wet their pants.

The coverage gets a jolt every so often with the release of a new atrocity rumor. The Pentagon got off a corker recently with its Good Friday rape story, the one about 20 or 200 mostly Moslem women taken off and assaulted by the Serbians. In a few years, we’ll know if it’s true or not. In the meantime, the Serbs, who have failed to make life interesting by shooting down more NATO warplanes, are getting ready to counterattack on the atrocity front. NATO’s mistaken attack on a passenger train on April 12 certainly provided them with a propaganda photo op. As the days pass and more bombs fall, they will be in a better and better position to assert the death and maiming of innocent civilians. (So far they’re mum about their guilty civilians.)

Calling Mr. Orwell

Dueling atrocities has some TV potential. For the moment the NATO briefing officer, a super-enthusiastic fellow, is Johnny-on-the-spot for the television audience, with explanations of the humanitarian lengths the bombers go to in order to avoid collateral damage. I didn’t, I have to say, hear any of the welter of on-the-air experts speculate on what fun George Orwell would have had with the phrase “collateral damage.” There’s very little joking or irony on all-war TV. None, really.

If you watch enough television–and you can stay awake–you can learn something. On the Sunday shows, a division deep in the Administration was evident. On one of the shows, Secretary of Defense William Cohen indicated, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has from time to time, that Kosovo may be subdivided, with the largest part going to the Albanians who can set up their own country. On another program, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot made it clear that any such thing would be over his dead body. Partition of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, he said, was a helluva thing for the United States, which believes so strongly in ethnic diversity, to be party to. Of course, Bosnia already has been subdivided into two Bantustans and, for the short run at least, ethnic apartheid might be a quick and dirty solution for the Balkans.

The reportorial swarm has thus far not picked up on what Mr. Talbot said, nor have I heard any comment on a remark by Kevin Phillips on C-Span about the “minaret line,” the line around much of the globe that separates the rest of the world from “the military culture” of Islam. Well, the Albanians are, for the most part, Moslems. Yikes! Will talking-head TV experts and their hosts someday say that NATO bombed the wrong side?

In the end, they will say anything because, my God, there is so much air time to fill. And there is so much Flomax to sell.

CNN’s Kosovo Coverage Strafes Monica Channels

Excerpts from conversations with those watching and those producing the news out of Kosovo.

Robert Sam Anson, former Vietnam War correspondent for Time, author of War News: A Young Reporter in Indochina:

“I watch an awful lot of this stuff. Two or three hours, early in the morning and then at night. Sometimes I catch C-Span. It’s a great way of avoiding writing. I watch all three of the all-news networks. I watch CNN more than anything else. It just bothers me, having Geraldo on. Got into the CNN habit during Gulf War, for whenever there’s momentous things occurring. For Lewinsky, though, I’d watch MSNBC. I think the right-wing spin on Fox on this thing is just lunatic. I’ve spent time in Kosovo several years ago, and I’m very much a hawk.

“There’s a preponderance of people on Fox who are just really critical about this thing, for basically ideological reasons. It’s sort of a complete flip of their slogan, ‘We Report. You Decide.’ It’s more like, ‘We Decide. You Swallow.’ I like CNN. Where else can you watch Christiane Amanpour? There’s just more opinion on MSNBC. I don’t watch Larry King on CNN, or Crossfire. I like Pat Buchanan personally a lot; I just don’t agree with him. This whole business ‘from the right and from the left’–it should be ‘from the right and from the middle of the road.’

“Basically there is no real coverage. Everybody’s just repeating handouts, with the exception of the refugee stuff. No one’s on the ground in Kosovo, understandably. I wish there were more military coverage and a little less refugee stuff. Some of these talking heads, like retired colonels from the American Family Council, you know where this guy’s coming from. They should identify the ideological positions of these think tanks.

“The big networks do awfully well; I especially like David Martin at CBS at Pentagon.

Will King, managing editor of international news gathering, CNN: “We have more people on this story, and more locations doing more reporting on an ongoing basis than either MSNBC or Fox News. We’re in Belgrade, Macedonia, Albania, Oslo, Brussels, Aviano; we’re on the Sixth Fleet ships, and we’re maintaining a full reporting presence in Moscow and London. We have more than 75 people devoted to this story alone. Of course, we’re based in the U.S. but seen globally, so we try to have a very global perspective. In recent years, the U.S. networks have reduced their international newsgathering capabilities, to focus on the more lucrative American audience. They felt that the American audience is not interested in international matters …

“The situation is different than in the Gulf War, especially with access. While we’re still somewhat limited in Belgrade, we’re able to go out and report the story; in Baghdad, the situation was more restrictive. All trips had to be organized in Baghdad through the Ministry of Information. If you wanted to check out a recent strike against a radar site, they might take you there, they might not.

“Here in Yugoslavia, press trips are arranged, but that doesn’t preclude you from going out on your own. But the situation is such that it’s not necessarily that safe for journalists to go out on their own. They may need some protection afforded by organized troops. Some people make their disgruntlement clearly known to media from NATO countries, and it can get very dangerous.

“Another difference is that all the networks use Serbian television a great deal to get images. It’s difficult to get around to all the locations of attacks, so we’ve been using Serbian TV. In the Gulf War, Iraqi TV wasn’t quick to respond to spot coverage, to show both military and civilian sites as Serbian TV does. Serbian TV seems to be quick to show all or many of the strikes that NATO has targeted.”

Kevin Buckley, executive editor, Playboy; former Vietnam War correspondent for Newsweek: “My personal favorite has been C-Span, especially the Pentagon briefings–it’s just raw information. C-Span is invaluable for those briefings; I find it absorbing, especially having been to a hell of a lot of briefings in my day, to hear General Wald, Kenneth Bacon, the questions from the Pentagon press corps.

“MSNBC is pretty similar to CNN; I go back and forth between the two. Fox News I watch less; there’s too much shouting. With Fox, it really is a separate war–all partisan debating and yelling, and ‘don’t-you-think-this?’ It doesn’t measure up to the gravity and drama of events in the Balkans. I find the yelling on Fox tends to obscure some of the very good people they’ve had on.”

John Moody, vice president of news editorial, Fox News Channel: “We’re all covering the same story. It’s a little bit like covering a Presidential news conference–we all spell all the names the same way.

“We have fewer resources, and we’re spending a lot less because we are attempting to be as frugal as we can possibly be for what is a multilocation story. We’re also trying to be as accurate as distance and the circumstances of war permit.

“I don’t think there’s been a noticeable ideological difference in how this has been covered. Ideological context? I have yet to see the pro-Serb network based in America.

“I think the President by and large has been given the benefit of the doubt, as long as he’s prosecuting a war on behalf of the country. Now that Congress is back in session, there will be harder political questions asked.”

George Crile, CBS producer: “From my perspective, there seems to be an absence of reporting from Russia; the networks are focused on the immediate problem at hand, but the consequences of an invasion in Russia are being given short shrift. In the long run, that will be the real serious story out of this …

“The coverage of these things is so new, and really started with the Gulf War. The amazing thing about the Gulf War is that CNN was inside. Here it’s a bit more of a mystery–they have no cameras there in downtown Kosovo, and that’s a fundamental change. No one’s actually moving with a Serbian unit, and no one’s really inside the Milosevic inner circle. They’re dealing with people on a much more secondhand basis. It’s hard to be huffy other than to say what CNN did in the beginning is a very tough standard. They were courageous, and did a great job, but in order to get inside Kosovo, they’d have to pay a hell of a price, and no one’s been willing to do that.

“I think people use these services as a quick catch-up. The ambitions for them are sort of modest; no one checking in is trying to get the final word. They just check in to see if something is happening at the moment, and if you find something illuminating, you feel pretty good about it.”

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A Television History: “Like everybody else, I watch CNN, and occasionally drop in to

CNBC. I don’t watch Fox–I don’t know where to get it. What channel is it?

“It’s blanket coverage, more than we can handle. I think it’s good, though. Very good. It’s just further proof that nothing can go on in the world anymore without being televised, whatever it is.

“This is where TV excels. TV always has a problem explaining things, but that’s not its role; its role is to illustrate rather than explain. In terms of the bombings and the refugees, there’s been some very vivid stuff.

“The first big TV war was Vietnam. There’s been a tremendous change in technology since then, and now we’re seeing images as they occur. In Vietnam, they had to ship the film, send it off to Tokyo to process, then ship it by airline to New York. Now it’s not replay, it’s instant.

“There’s not yet any one single picture that will remain symbolic here. In Vietnam, you had the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietnamese suspect in the head, and the little girl running down road, the napalm girl. They’re metaphors for the horrors in Vietnam. Those couple little images probably have more impact than a daily diet of plodding refugees in Kosovo. Hardly anyone remembers any specific battle scenes from Vietnam. Maybe a few connoisseurs remember Morley Safer’s thing on Cam Ne–the Marines with their Zippo lighters burning down huts.

“There’s always a danger, as there was in Vietnam, that people get inured to it. The same refugee stories over and over. Variations of the same story, the same atrocity stories. You get a diminishing return. During Vietnam, you had the wives cooking dinner, and on TV the war’s going on in Vietnam, and every now and then she looks up on the screen and sees body bags zipped up, and she looks up at her husband and says, ‘What kind of salad dressing do you want? Italian or French?’”

–Michael Colton