The Times Sanitizes Clinton's War
Sure,the Serb leader's concession was big news. But if it was as epochal and as unambiguouslyoptimistic as the Times apparently wanted it to be, no one hadsufficiently apprised the editors of the local tabloids. Patrick Ewing, hiswracked body and his increasingly uninteresting desire for an NBA championshipdominated the New York Post's front cover and relegated the war newsto a banner-"Slobbo Finally Cries Uncle"-at the page's bottom.The Daily News, meanwhile, devoted its front page-"Fire CaptainFights For Life"-to fireman Vincent Fowler, who injured himself on Thursdayin a burning Queens basement; he died Friday. Apparently, and in weird contraventionof what The New York Times must believe, it's possible to consider thetribulations of a ballplayer and of a stock tabloid character-a fireman, forGod's sake-as more pertinent for the moment than a fairly dramatic developmentin Clinton's war. And though Newsday did put Kosovo on the cover, ittranslated the Times' aggressive triumphalism into an uncertain question."Peace?" asked Newsday's cover line, which ran under a photographof three Kosovar refugees, two of whom appeared pretty miserable, despite thePresident's brave humanitarian labors on their behalf. Even The WashingtonPost (no enemy itself of the Clinton regime) undercut its optimistic headline-"YugoslavsYield to NATO Terms"-with a subhed that suggested a redemptive bit of doubtin the mission: "Air Assault to Continue Pending Full Compliance."In other words, and all official optimism notwithstanding, this might notbe the end. The Wall Street Journal's headline went even farther than thePost's by casting Milosevic's capitulation in the conditional mood: "IfPeace Deal Holds in Yugoslavia, Allies Face Tough New Tests."
If youdidn't know better, you'd think The New York Times was particularlyeager to legitimize and justify the military action of a President whom it'srelentlessly defended, and who's slaughtered civilians in order to promulgateupper-middle-class yuppie American values in a part of the world he might, inretrospect, have better left alone.
Thenthere was the Times' editorial on Friday. Not surprisingly, perhaps,the essay was an exercise in the use of language to sanitize, legitimate, obscure.
"...[T]hewar in Yugoslavia is ending," the Times pontificated. "Thanksto the resolve of NATO and constructive peacemaking by Russia, Mr. Milosevicyesterday accepted settlement terms that he had repeatedly rejected. Assumingcritical details can be worked out with Belgrade, more than a million displacedethnic Albanians should be able to return home safely later this year and ethniccleansing in the Balkans will stop. If so, the most dangerous military conflictin Europe since the Second World War will conclude as a victory for the principlesof democracy and human rights."
It wouldtake pages to unpack this artifact of seamless political language: the beggedquestions (who created those million refugees if not NATO?); the abstractions("principles," "democracy," "human rights") meantto shield an administration that killed, and lied about killing, innocents,and that even bombed Chinese territory during the late campaign; the tone ofOlympian self-satisfaction.
"Thesustained bombing has been more effective than many critics allowed," writesthe Times, "and for the most part was conducted with restraint anda proper regard for civilian casualties."
It'sbeen more effective? More effective than what? And at what cost? How do youbomb with "restraint"? What could a "proper regard for civiliancasualties" possibly be? A willingness to apologize after you've bombeda school bus?
TheWashington Post, for its part, admirably implied in its Friday editorialthat perhaps the Kosovo campaign may not have been the West's finest moment.Notice in the Post's language the intimations that there could existother ways of interpreting the experience, other realities besides the one promulgatedby the likes of the government and The New York Times. Okay, the Postdoesn't give us much here, but at least it's something; and I've italicizedthe conditional language in which it's evident: "NATO's steadfastness inKosovo," wrote the Post, "and President Clinton's, maybe paying off. The Yugoslav government yesterday accepted an agreement that,if implemented, could end the war on satisfactory terms."
Thelocal tabloids, unsurprisingly, talked tougher. The New York Post editorializedon the same day that the war "was badly begun and badly waged"; Newsdaycalled the Kosovo operation "one of the worst foreign policy blundersof the last 50 years," called the campaign's settlement "an undeservedblessing," blamed Washington "for the creation of nearly a millionrefugees," complained that NATO had "blundered into this in the firstplace" and closed with the warning that "Kosovo is still our problem,and it is not going away." The Daily News' editorial board ignoredthe development, but the paper published, on page 5, a large photograph of aSerbian woman sitting next to a wall bearing the graffito "NATO 1939 1999"and a spraypainted swastika.
ThankGod none of those is the newspaper of record.
Speakingof the Times, if you're inclined to pay attention to the way the Timeslays out its front page, the paper's May 26 cover was instructive. The middleof the page bore the bland headline "Spying Charges Against Beijing AreSpelled Out by House Panel" and the subhed "20 Years of Success-ClintonBacks More Nuclear Controls." Notice how the line slyly evokes a temporalcontext for the spying that mitigates the current administration's culpability.Chinese spying's been going on forever, the line insinuates. What areyou blaming Clinton for? And besides, Clinton backs more controls. It'snot his fault.
Meanwhile,it's hilarious how that story's visually overwhelmed by the Justin Volpe storyto the left of it. The Volpe article takes up fully half of the front page'swidth. It's as if the Times is doing everything it can to distract youfrom the spy report and to steer you instead to the blue-collar gorilla copin the cage-a creature whom all of us in polite society can dislike withoutguilt. Down near the fold, the headline "Officer, Seeking Some Mercy, Admitsto Louima's Torture" tops a piece by David Barstow-whose good, impassionedwriting about the Volpe case has made it clear he believes that the sooner Volpe'sgiven a fair trial and thrown into a hole for the rest of his life, the better.Above the headline, there are two photographs: one of Volpe himself, lookingfrightened and greasy with Marvyn Kornberg, his serpent of a lawyer; the otherof Volpe's grizzled, mustached lug of a father. It's extraordinary, this full-colorand attention-grabbing dramatization of working-class goombah malfeasance hardagainst the news that, um, oh yeah: A bunch of yuppie weasels of the sort wemight have gone to college with might have...you know...presided over the leakingof nuclear secrets out to the Chinese or something...
Buteverything's all right with the world, readers. At least we've got that racistbastard Volpe nailed. Letting secrets go to the Chinese is one thing; lettingpeople think we're something other than multicultural is another.
Small changeand the force of law. ICON magazine's difficulties in paying its writerswould be well known among freelancers even if The New York Times hadn'treported on them on May 3. It turns out, however, that there's an amusinglyornery way to coax money from the publication: Lay down your $10 filing feeand haul the magazine into small claims court, like NYPress contributingwriter Adam Heimlich did in May of last year. Heimlich spent months workingwith ICON on an article about music producers before he grew impatientwith his editor's demands and decided to terminate work in return for his $300kill fee.
Notthat ICON was any more eager to pay Heimlich than it has been to payany of its other unpaid writers. After months' worth of phone calls to the magazine'saccounting department, Heimlich turned to the law for redress.
"Lastmonth I got sick of it and went down to small claims court," Heimlich says.
"Ten dollars to file. And they must have cut me a check as soon as they got the notice that they were going to court."
AddsHeimlich: "It's not even a payroll check; it looks like a personal check.I got my $300 kill fee. And I have a good story, if you want to mention it.If anybody wants a story on producers, with good quotes from Daniel Lanois and Steve Albini and the Dust Brothers, they should give me a call."
Brill'sCommand: Information Must Not Circulate. Ever try getting information aboutBrill's Content's business practices out of the magazine's staffers?It's easier to get false arrest records out of the NYPD, as we found over thelast weeks, when we attempted to follow up on a tip that we'd heard: that atleast one hotel-the Morgan Inn, in Groton, CT-hands out free copies ofBrill's Content to its guests.
Thisis potentially a valid, if minor, piece of news. Disseminating free copies ofmagazines to hotel guests-and claiming those copies as paid circulation-is oneof several dubious methods by which publications inflate their numbers to impressadvertisers, and it would be remarkable to see Brill's Content, a self-proclaimedarbiter of journalistic integrity, use such tactics.
Notthat Brill's would give us a straight answer. First we made a phone callto the Morgan Inn, the general manager of which informed us that he receives,from a Newport, RI-based distribution company called SWA, a number of free,unsolicited copies of Brill's Content each month and-why not?-hands themout to his guests. Then we called SWA, where an official told us that the hotelier'scomment was erroneous, and that SWA distributes nothing for free. Then we repeatedly,over the course of several weeks, phoned Brill's publisher Deanna Brown,who wouldn't let herself be reached with the following questions. In how manyhotels does Brill's distribute copies? Does Brill's count thecopies toward its claimed circulation? (Brill's hasn't been ABC-auditedyet, although it's applied for an audit.) Is the hotelier with whom we talkedcorrect in maintaining that the magazines are free? If not, is it Brill'spolicy to make hotels pay full price for the copies? Half price?
Eventuallywe got to talk to a Brill's staffer the apprehension in whose voice betrayedthe lack of confidence that afflicts those who are paid to pipe it for somebodyelse.
"We'vehad a few promotions like that over the past year that I remember," herwary voice told us. "You know, like, not very big. But I mean, you know,here and there, one or two, I know. It's something we tried out. I don't knowif we're heavily into it."
Wouldshe be the person who answers these questions? Would there be someone more qualifiedto speak?
A sigh."I mean, I'd have to, you know, find out who arranged that, I guess, overhere. Ummm..."
Arethese giveaway copies, or does the hotel buy the copies?
"Youknow, I don't know. I don't really know. If it was-I'd have to find out."
Is thereanyone else who might know?
"Notanybody here on the premises. I'd have to call and research it, actually. Findout. You know... Well, um. Let me take your name."
Meanwhile,Deanna Brown still wasn't talking. If another publication acted like this, Brill'swould hassle it. As it is, maybe the magazine will commission Bill Kovachto write an "Ombudsman" column about this incident.
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