It's been said that journalism is the first draft of history, and the readers' response to The Times coverage of the Balkan War has been to furiously try to edit this work in progress. Thus, readers opposed to NATO's action object to coverage that seems to tilt against Serbs, while readers in favor of the bombing decry stories they consider pro-Serb. Many conclude the coverage is dictated by the newspaper's being pro- or anti-Clinton.
Some examples: "Your front page story reports that the Serbian death squads are spreading in Kosovo. Why don't you report that the [Kosovo Liberation Army] is a bunch of terrorists . . . ? Clinton is a Nazi in all of this--you are covering for Clinton." Another view, phoned in after NATO planes bombed a refugee convoy: "You guys are apparently a bunch of right-wing nut cases. . . . You keep attacking Clinton. Your stories have Milosevic as the good guy and Clinton as the bad guy. You guys are really a disgrace--and you'll pay for it in hell."
Emotions obviously run high. A photo of that bombing that showed dead bodies brought protests from readers who thought it too morbid for the front page. One mother hid it from her child. On another day, a reader questioned the judgment of editors in placing on Page 1 a photo of a Serbian woman dancing on the wing of a downed U.S. Stealth fighter plane while placing on Page A18 a photo of an ethnic Albanian refugee pushing his grandmother in a wheelbarrow. Was there bias in the decision?
Every day, such decisions--what to put on Page 1, which photos to publish--are made under deadline pressure by editors attempting to faithfully transmit reports of journalists in the field. Since the war's beginning March 24, The Times has published in main news section alone more than 525 stories from more than 20 journalists based in the Balkans, Europe and Washington, D.C., each writing scenes from a complex and unfolding human drama.
Reports may conflict. An example from April 6: A Page 1 story headlined "As Refugees Flood Borders, Kosovo's Men Are Missing" suggested, one reader said, that the male population of Kosovo had been slaughtered. Then he turned to the page where that story was continued and saw an unrelated war story accompanied by an Associated Press photo taken in Macedonia of many young male refugees. "I see a blatant contradiction," the reader complained. The story and the photo were both factual but from different vantage points.
The refugee stories have been so tragic and, in some cases, so horrifying, that many readers cannot countenance any story that is sympathetic to Serbs.
One Times reporter who's been criticized unfairly for such reporting is Paul Watson, who reentered Kosovo after all but a handful of reporters were expelled by the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on March 24. While other reporters had to rely on NATO briefings and other outside sources, Watson was on the scene, reporting what he saw. Watson's bravery cannot be overstated. He covered the Afghanistan and Somalia conflicts for the Toronto Star, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a photo he took of enraged Somalis dragging the body of an American airman through the streets of Mogadishu. In Kosovo, he was arrested, briefly held and released; his life has been in danger often.
Much of his reporting casts the relationship of Serbs and ethnic Albanians not in stark black and white but in shades of gray. Looking at his body of work, a charge of bias simply cannot stand. He writes what he sees, and the truth of his observations cannot be denied.
There's a fire wall between The Times' news and opinion pages, but readers often don't make the distinction and judge the entire package of coverage as biased. Since March 24, The Times has published more than 30 editorials, more than 100 pieces on the Sunday Opinion and daily Commentary pages and scores of letters to the editor on the war. The editorials have generally supported NATO's actions, while the Opinion pieces have been mixed and the Commentary page pieces have been weighted against the war on the theory that "cheerleading our way into war is not the journalistic function--thinking about it is," according to the Commentary page editor, Robert Berger.
In the end, this is war, and it touches on long-standing religious and ethnic divisions and human rights issues that strike a chord in all of us. With any such story, there is ample reason to heed the warning that truth is the first casualty of war, and until the final draft of this piece of history is written years from now, journalists must rely on the truth as they see it and as told to them by its participants.
The readers' representative can be reached by phone at (877) 554-4000; fax at (213) 237-3535; e-mail at email@example.com and mail at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, 90053.