Media Beat, Aug. 16, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

It's Not Always White Hats vs. Black Hats

In westerns and countless other on-screen dramas, ''bad guys'' get away with evil deeds until ''good guys'' give them what they deserve -- usually in the form of violent retribution. Such Hollywood formulas offer us clear plot lines and some satisfaction.

The news business, of course, is supposed to be different from show business. Good reporters have no intention of pinning black hats and white hats on cardboard cutouts. Journalism, when it works well, provides a window on the world that allows us to glimpse real complexities.

But too often, when conflicts escalate, news coverage resembles the scripting of classic Hollywood flicks. The plots become familiar: Bad guys clash with foes, who must be the good guys.

In early 1993, as federal agents squared off with David Koresh and his followers in Waco, news accounts depicted Koresh as a dangerous lunatic manipulating true believers. Those depictions were generally accurate.

But somehow, with Koresh wearing the media's black hat, much of the press failed to scrutinize his enemies -- the feds who ordered a pair of reckless raids that left 91 people dead. Later, a simplistic backlash reversed the demonology, as though the government's wrongdoing somehow justified Koresh's actions.

News media and the public seem to have a hard time observing violent confrontations without choosing up sides -- even when all sides merit condemnation.

In the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serb forces have engaged in horrific brutality. During the past few years, most of the atrocious human rights violations in the Balkans have been perpetrated by Serbs. Yet other combatants are also guilty of organized cruelties.

This month, Croatian government forces attacked the Krajina region. As Croat soldiers took control and expelled many thousands of Serb civilians, the White House winked.

With the U.S. media's black hats firmly affixed on Serbian heads, the Clinton administration and numerous American news outlets conveyed a tacit message: Only one bad guy at a time. The Serbs are the bad guys; the Croats aren't.

Perhaps the most slippery word in present-day news reports from the Balkans is ''the.'' It may be convenient to refer to murderous Serbian troops as ''the Serbs'' -- but other Serbs, including the civilians recently exiled from the Krajina, are victims of this war.

With ''the Serbs'' so extensively demonized, it's as though the U.S. media had run out of black hats for anyone else in the Balkan war. Yet, the Croatian army's blitz into the Krajina -- propelled by aircraft, tanks and artillery -- killed uncounted Serbian residents.

''The Croatian army has gone in shooting people like rabbits,'' said former BBC reporter Misha Glenny, who was interviewed Aug. 11 on National Public Radio.

The NPR interviewer, Noah Adams, seemed eager to hold the U.S. government blameless for the Croatian army assault. ''It isn't clear that the U.S. encouraged it,'' Adams asserted. ''In fact, it probably just did not discourage the action.''

''No, I'm sorry, it is extremely clear that the United States encouraged this action,'' replied Glenny, the author of ''The Fall of Yugoslavia.''

Glenny noted that the United States has denounced ''ethnic cleansing'' and other vicious policies implemented by Bosnian Serb troops. This month, however, ''the U.S. government has condoned and encouraged the cleansing of the Serbs from the Krajina.''

And Glenny blasted the notion that because Bosnian Serbs have engaged in atrocities, ''we can then condone the committing of those same atrocities to another set of people just because they happen to be the same nationality as the Bosnian Serbs.''

Although U.S. news coverage tended to portray the Croatian offensive as driving Serb occupiers out of the Krajina region, Glenny stressed that the Croat army was expelling Serbians who ''had been, until five days ago, living and farming this territory for over 300 years.''

In wartime, when truth is apt to be among the first casualties, journalists often emphasize some sufferers and virtually ignore others. In the process, as the grisly war in the Balkans continues, the equivalent humanity of Muslim, Croat and Serb victims can be obscured.

With so many horrors being inflicted en masse, the yearning for a violent solution is sometimes evident in news reports and commentary. The desire to see justice done -- to end the anguish of innocents by sending in good guys on white horses -- is understandable.

Yet, in Waco, the impulse to intervene with unanswerable firepower led to further loss of life. In coverage of the Balkans war, simplistic media scripts could fuel similar impulses -- and end up widening the bloody arc of tragedy.

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