The War on Television

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Jerome Delay/AP

Pictures of refugees like these have helped bolster NATO's case.

Conventional wisdom has it that television helped turn the American public against the Vietnam War by delivering nightly images into the nation's living rooms of beleaguered U.S. soldiers mired in a hopeless and brutal jungle war. Some also argue that television helped rally support for the Gulf War by concentrating on carefully filtered Pentagon images of flashy and successful surgical air strikes. While it is too early to assess the role of television in the current NATO war against Yugoslavia, some preliminary judgments can be made.

The most important point to note, say both TV insiders and outside observers of the medium, is that television is doing about as well as it can under the circumstances. Without full and unimpeded access to the battle areas, television is relegated to peering in from the sidelines. For images of the military campaign, the networks must rely on whatever information NATO officials dispense in their briefings with video recordings of air strikes. And for ground footage they must rely on censored Serb TV.

The reliance on Serb TV is particularly problematic. "The intelligence community has some evidence that Serb personnel are blowing things up in Kosovo, then bringing in scraps of NATO ordnance and scattering it in the debris," says TIME diplomatic correspondent Doug Waller. Serb officials then tell the Western press that the devastation is the result of a NATO strike.

The need to assert NATO credibility in the face of these tactics may explain the surprising willingness of the alliance to quickly confirm its own errors -- as in the cases this past week of mistaken air strikes on a civilian train and on a civilian vehicle. Though U.S. officials could do without the Serbian propaganda, by and large "the Pentagon likes to have Serb TV still on the air," reports TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. The Serbian footage provides the U.S. military with invaluable on-the-scene observations and details of the effects of NATO operations.

Because the war in Kosovo is affecting a number of nearby locations -- Macedonia and Albania in particular, where journalists are allowed to be stationed -- television executives believe they have several reasonably good bases of operations from which to monitor the crisis. "The situation is being fairly well reported," maintains Robert Murphy, senior vice president for news coverage at ABC. "What's missing are some of the specifics of individual incidents and the vivid sense of actually seeing them." But the basic situation is being reported. Refugees have described some of the engagements and the atrocities of the conflict. In addition, the widespread use of cell phones in Kosovo has enabled reporters to quickly get first-hand information from eyewitnesses to various encounters.

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