- I remember standing in a psychology lab
15 years ago listening to a friend explain the theory of
cognitive archetypes. He told me he could cue subjects in his
experiments to see people behave in a lazy way or an
industrious way simply by having a person in authority
describe the person they were observing as industrious or lazy
My friend was running experiments in which
he had divided his subjects into two groups. One group was told
the person they were about to watch on videotape was lazy. The
other group, who watched the same person on tape doing the same
things, was told the person they were observing was industrious.
After watching the tape, the group told they
were observing a lazy person recounted numerous examples of the
subject's laziness. The group that watched the same person,
described instead as industrious, cited numerous examples of
Could the same person, doing exactly the same
thing, be described in fundamentally opposite ways? My friend said
yes. It all depends on what you're led to expect to see.
And while he gave the process the fancy name
of cognitive archetypes, it isn't really all that startling. The
same process goes by another name, one that many will acknowledge,
but few seem to recognize in operation -- fitting facts to the
Could it be that journalists operate under
the same set of rules? Told that former Yugoslav president
Slobodan Milosevic is a dictator, ethnic cleanser and war
criminal, responsible for the terrible economic plight of the
Serbs, might journalists fit facts to the theory, much as my
friend's subjects saw what they were led to believe they'd see?
You might think so if you've read BBC
coverage of Yugoslavia.
Paul Anderson's "West 'failing'
Yugoslavia," 24 March 2001, is emblematic. On the second
anniversary of the start of Nato's 78-day air war against
Yugoslavia, Anderson began, "Exactly two years ago Nato
launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, to end the
terror in Kosovo."
Here Anderson exaggerates the terror that
preceded the bombing campaign, and ignores the much greater
terror the bombing campaign wrought, not least of which was Nato
bombs falling on Kosovar targets and, among other terrors,
wiping out convoys of fleeing ethnic Albanians.
"Strangely enough," remarks
author Michael Parenti, in To Kill a Nation: The Attack on
Yugoslavia, "all the (war crimes) charges against (Slobodan
Milosevic), except one, refer to incidents that took place after
the NATO bombing had commenced." Parenti continues:
"Yet it supposedly was Milosevic's long-standing atrocity
policies that had made the bombing so imperative."
And the one incident that did occur prior
to the bombing, indeed, served as a Nato justification for the
bombing -- the Racak incident -- appears now not to have been a
massacre of innocent civilians, as the US alleged, but a staged
media event orchestrated by the KLA, involving slain KLA
guerillas killed in a fire fight with Serb authorities who were
passed off as massacred civilians.
"Another oddity," notes Parenti,
is that "the number of deaths for which Milosevic was held
responsible totalled 391," including the phoney civilian
deaths at Racak.
Yet New York based Human Rights Watch puts
the number of civilians killed by NATO bombs at 500 -- a
conservative estimate. So while there's no doubt that the civil
war that raged between the secessionist KLA guerillas and the
Serb security forces prior to the bombing was filled with
terror, the terror that followed was much greater.
The bombing campaign didn't end the terror,
as Anderson alleges -- it kicked it into overdrive.
In the same article, Anderson writes,
"But, even though the Yugoslav people overthrew Milosevic
in a peaceful revolution five months ago, nothing like the aid
they need to deal with the chaos he left behind has
Anderson aptly sums up the post-war
conditions faced by Serbs as chaos, but the origins of the chaos
escape him entirely, though they don't escape one Serb Anderson
interviews, and quotes in the same article. "After the
bombing everything fell apart and it is very hard to start the
Indeed, the chaos was born of the almost
complete annihilation of Serbia's civilian infrastructure -- its
factories, its power plants, its petrochemical facilities,
fertilizer plants, roads, bridges, telecommunications --
destroyed, at the hands of Nato, not Milosevic.
And yet Anderson reports as if Nato, being
the good guys, couldn't possibly be responsible for anything as
heinous. The heinous one, according to the theory, is Milosevic.
The chaos, then, is something Milosevic, not Nato, is said to
have left behind, as if Nato's bombs had never fallen.
Anderson is in good company. Carla del
Ponte, the chief UN war crimes prosecutor, follows the same line
of thought. She has accused Milosevic of a war crime in the
bombing of the Serb Radio-Television building. Lest you think
Milosevic secretly pushed the button to send the cruise missiles
that destroyed the building and killed the civilians inside
hurtling toward their destination, be assured he didn't. But
when the theory holds that Milosevic is evil incarnate, and Nato
above reproach, a little twisting of the facts to fit the theory
-- even if it means standing them on their head -- is normal
operating procedure. And so it is that Milosevic, defined
beforehand as the "war criminal," gets blamed for an
obvious war crime, while Nato, called "humanitarian
interventionists," are absolved in advance. Del Ponte, too,
sees what she expects (or hopes) to see.
Milosevic, says del Ponte, is the guilty
party, because he failed to warn the occupants of the building
of the imminent air strike, and knew of Nato's designs on the
building beforehand. Whether Milosevic knew of the planned air
strike, and chose not to have the building evacuated to score a
propaganda coup, is the smaller point -- a red herring that
allows del Ponte to wriggle out of the difficult position of
having to prosecute Nato. The larger, and more relevant issue,
is the fact that civilian infrastructure, lacking any
conceivable military function, was destroyed by Nato's bombs --
a manifest war crime. Issuing warnings in advance, doesn't
change the nature of the crime.
Moreover, whenever good guys commit some
unspeakable act, it's almost always said they were lured into
the act by a thoroughly cunning reprobate seeking to manipulate
public sympathy. After American bombs killed thousands of Iraqi
civilians huddled in an air raid shelter during the Gulf War,
one US anchorman snorted derisively, "I guess Saddam will
use this for his own propaganda purposes." Perhaps the
highest form of propaganda is to call the legitimate grievances
of the other side a propaganda ploy cunningly crafted to win
Jacky Rowland, one of Anderson's BBC
colleagues, is no less certain that Milosevic -- not Nato -- can
be fingered for the travails of the Serbs. On December 22, 2000
Rowland detailed the economic crisis into which the country had
sunk (Serbs promised international aid.) "Grinding poverty
has driven ordinary people to sell off their personal
possessions," Rowland writes. "Aid agencies are now
feeding tens of thousands of people every month through a
network of soup kitchens."
Years of economic sanctions, which cruelly
continued even after Nato ceased its bombing, to say nothing of
the obliteration of the country's economic infrastructure, will
reduce a country to grinding poverty. Yet Rowland fingers
Milosevic, not Nato sanctions and bombing, for Serbia's growing
economic hardships -- tantamount to blaming a women for her own
Rowland goes further in fitting facts to
theory by pointing to the humanitarian efforts of Nato
countries. "(T)he international community," Rowland
writes, is making "sure that people do not freeze this
winter." Rowland leaves unmentioned that in the previous
winter, with Milosevic still in power and the country reduced to
rubble by Nato bombs, the United States cared not one whit
whether people froze, and blocked EU efforts to provide
emergency heating fuel, compromising eventually by allowing fuel
oil to be delivered only to cities under opposition control.
Everyone else, as far as the US was concerned, could freeze.
In "Serbia's unfinished
revolution" (October 19, 2000) Rowland warns that with the
dinar officially devalued, prices rising, the price of fuel
doubling, and the cost of staples skyrocketing, there are fears
that the winter of 2000-2001 will be more difficult than last
winter, which the "Serbs got through ....comparatively
The difference between this winter and the
winter before, is the difference between Milosevic being in
power and facing the hostility of Nato sanctions and the
IMF-inpsired Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) being in
power, having readmitted Yugoslavia to "the free
world," as Anderson puts it, and earning the approval of
Western governments and their humanitarian concern.
Except "democracy," readmission
to "the free world" and having the international
community working to ensure that Serbs don't freeze somehow
doesn't square with the idea that Serbs will face a harsher
winter under the DOS than under Milosevic, the supposed
architect of Serbia's chaos and grinding poverty. An
inconsistency Rowland steers well clear off. And for good
reason. It doesn't fit the theory.
Left unsaid is that Serbs got through the
winter of 1999-2000 comparatively painlessly because Milosevic's
government controlled prices so that Serbs wouldn't starve or
freeze, while the devaluation of the dinar and skyrocketing
prices are part of the IMF-shock program DOS has long favoured,
advocated, and has now put into practice, despite its effects in
exacerbating the economic hardships Serbs already face from
years of sanctions and the Nato air assault on the economic
infrastructure of their country. Believing Serbs are going to be
better off under the DOS is kind of like believing a women
listlessly moping about because she's anaemic is going to be
filled with energy after a course of treatment with leaches --
but the theory comes first. Facts simply follow, forced into
place, by omission, distortion and emphasis -- and sometimes
they don't fall into place at all, but startling blindness
ensures the inconsistencies are passed over unseen.
It's standard practice these days to refer
to the new government as democratic, even though it came to
power in a coup, or a peaceful revolution, as Anderson calls it,
while denouncing the Milosevic government as dictatorial and
undemocratic, even though it was elected. Tony Blair was forever
calling Milosevic a dictator, a depiction the media were happy
to uncritically pass on, leaving those who knew the Milosevic
government was elected, scratching their heads. But if you want
to justify your own reprehensible actions, it's best to paint
the victim in the most unflattering colors possible.
Unfortunately, once people in authority, like Blair, had painted
Milosevic in dark and menacing black, the media seemed unable to
see Milosevic in any other way.
On the other hand, Milosevic's opposition,
from the KLA to the DOS to Otpor, the student resistance
movement that sought to topple the Milosevic government -- and
all of them on the American payroll -- were seen in a flattering
light, their blemishes safely overlooked, in a kind of "an
enemy of an obvious evil must be good" equation. This,
despite the fact that the KLA had been described as a terrorist
organization by the CIA before the bombing, and the DOS and
Otpor were doing what Washington, and the US public, wouldn't
have tolerated for a second in the United States -- act as tools
of a foreign power to unseat an elected government.
US law prohibits foreign powers from
bankrolling parties contesting US elections, and doesn't look
kindly on foreign influenced organizations that seek to topple
the government by extra-constitutional means, yet the DOS was
bankrolled by the US, and Otpor was trained and its activities
underwritten by Washington. But when you're the biggest and
toughest kid on the block, you can lay down rules that others
have to follow, on pain of having their heads beaten in, that
you don't have to follow yourself, because no one is big enough
or tough enough to beat your head in. In the self-serving
language of the US State Department it's known as being
"the indispensable nation." In the language of the
street, it's known as being a bully and a hypocrite.
In the end, all those American dollars,
pitch forked so energetically into sanctions, air strikes and
into underwriting opposition movements, worked. Milosevic is
gone, Kosovo is being ethnically cleansed of its Serb and Roma
populations, Serbs are sinking further into grinding poverty,
and the media sees what it's told to see -- just like the
subjects in my friend's experiments.