THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Thursday, May 13, 1999 ARTS & LEISURE p. C1

Is war too complex a subject for the media to handle?


Western journalists are keen-eyed when it comes to the other guys
trying to put one over on them in Yugoslavia. CTV's Tom Clark, for
instance, noted that “Serbian state-controlled media” supplied the film
of a bombed-out apartment “they said was hit.” Who knows, maybe the
Serbs shelled it themselves to win sympathy on CTV. Maybe they
built it. Western reporters in Belgrade joke about an “atrocities
bus” the government takes them on to see the effects of NATO missiles.
Of course, we lack state-controlled media in the West, even if we have
some publicly owned ones. But in that case, what accounts for the inane,
heavy-handed stuff we get from our own media?

Take a CBC-TV interview last Sunday by Bill Cameron with Janusz Bugajski
of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, on
NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. “It's
taken the shine off the air war a little,” said Cameron. That apparently
hadn't happened after earlier NATO hits on the wrong bus, the wrong
train, the wrong convoy or, in the case of Bulgaria (five times), the
wrong country. “The problem is,” said Bugajski, “we hear mostly about
the anomalies . . . 99 per cent of all the weapons actually have hit
their targets.” So smashing bridges, power plants, railways, TV stations
and the people who work in or live near them is no “problem.” Those are

Bugasjki said he thought “the Chinese were trying to extract as much
advantage as possible . . . from this crisis” -- somehow implying they'd
have been even happier had Beijing itself been hit. But who doesn't like
to seize on a legitimate gripe to exercise a little righteous anger? “I
think it's unfair to say the war is a failure,” Bugasjki added. “It's a
failure in only one sense . . . that it hasn't yet helped the Kosovars
to go home.” Well, that and the fact it was “the war” which led to most
Kosovars leaving home in the first place.

Cameron offered, “I'm trying to think of what the Yugoslav strategy
might be and one part . . . might simply be to absorb so much punishment
that the West will finally be revolted.” What a sweet and narcissistic
idea: The hard-hearted Serbs are counting on the squishy sensitivity of
the Western powers, who are bombing the crap out of them, to -- disgust
themselves? Yuck, we can't take it any more. Stop the bombing! Send
in the grief counsellors.

At least when Serbian media say idiotic things, you can blame it on
state control. What's Bill Cameron and his guest's excuse? Who made
them do it? Maybe it has less to do with being state-controlled
than being merely Serbian, in one case -- or Western, in the other. Even
reporters not state-controlled, aren't stateless. That
state stuff gets inside your head.

But here I am yammering about media on the war instead of the
war. Am I wrong or has that sort of thing become common? Wasn't coverage
of the high-school shootings more than normally preoccupied with the
media's “role?” The same with this war. I have a friend who dabbled in
runway modelling who says, “It's like going backstage at a fashion show
and expecting the models to analyze their social significance.”

Still, if you want a luminous, um, model of war journalism -- well, my
mind keeps returning to Curzio Malaparte's book, Kaputt, about
the Second World War. Malaparte was a celebrated Italian
writer/journalist who supported Mussolini's fascism in a period when it
was still common to distinguish it from Nazism. He covered the war for
Corriere della Serra as a privileged correspondent and often
found himself in situations of great complexity: like a dinner party
given by the German governor of Poland, where an SS official tried to
entrap Malaparte by asking why he'd once described Hitler as a woman, to
which Malaparte replied with some badinage followed by a gruesome tale
of a Jew and a Nazi in Ukraine who ended up -- but you'd have to read
the book, written secretly and published in Naples in 1944. And I still
puzzle over that passage, though I've read it often. “The chief
character is Kaputt,” wrote Malaparte. “Nothing can convey better
than this hard, mysterious German word Kaputt -- which literally
means, ‘broken, finished, gone to pieces, gone to ruin,’ the sense of
what we are, of what Europe is -- a pile of rubble.” That's one reason I
keep thinking of it during the news from Yugoslavia now.

Wars are wildly complex, ambiguous situations, much like the rest of
life, which war journalism occasionally reflects. But often we get pat
analogies like Steven Erlanger's in The New York Times, proposing with a
straight face that NATO occupy Yugoslavia, on the model of Germany and
Japan after the Second World War. The parallels leap right out, don't

One journalist who could abide complexity was Slavko Curuvija of
Belgrade who was assassinated, probably by Slobodan Milosevic's agents,
after the bombing began, for his ongoing criticism of his own
government. At his last meeting with his staff, said a friend, “He told
us two things, that he would not put out a paper to suit the censors,
and that the NATO aggression was immoral and illegal.” It's not all
that complex, just a matter of holding two thoughts in your head
at once; in this case, that Milosevic is wrong, and NATO is wrong. But
it makes the either/or thinking of many Western commentators look pretty

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