The Times Sanitizes Clinton’s War

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


You would have thought it was V-J Day, the way The New York Times carried on last Friday in the wake of Milosevic’s capitulation to NATO force. “Milosevic Yields on NATO’s Key Terms” screamed the paper’s headline. “50,000 Allied Troops to Police Kosovo.” Then the subhed “Million Refugees Can Return”—just to reassure you that everything’s going to be just fine. Order up watermelons, bunting and a keg of beer; call out the fifes and drums. 

Sure, the Serb leader’s concession was big news. But if it was as epochal and as unambiguously optimistic as the Times apparently wanted it to be, no one had sufficiently apprised the editors of the local tabloids. Patrick Ewing, his wracked body and his increasingly uninteresting desire for an NBA championship dominated the New York Post‘s front cover and relegated the war news to a banner—”Slobbo Finally Cries Uncle”—at the page’s bottom. The Daily News, meanwhile, devoted its front page—”Fire Captain Fights For Life”—to fireman Vincent Fowler, who injured himself on Thursday in a burning Queens basement; he died Friday. Apparently, and in weird contravention of what The New York Times must believe, it’s possible to consider the tribulations of a ballplayer and of a stock tabloid character—a fireman, for God’s sake—as more pertinent for the moment than a fairly dramatic development in Clinton’s war. And though Newsday did put Kosovo on the cover, it translated the Times‘ aggressive triumphalism into an uncertain question. “Peace?” asked Newsday‘s cover line, which ran under a photograph of three Kosovar refugees, two of whom appeared pretty miserable, despite the President’s brave humanitarian labors on their behalf. Even The Washington Post (no enemy itself of the Clinton regime) undercut its optimistic headline—”Yugoslavs Yield to NATO Terms”—with a subhed that suggested a redemptive bit of doubt in the mission: “Air Assault to Continue Pending Full Compliance.” In other words, and all official optimism notwithstanding, this might not be the end. The Wall Street Journal‘s headline went even farther than the Post‘s by casting Milosevic’s capitulation in the conditional mood: “If Peace Deal Holds in Yugoslavia, Allies Face Tough New Tests.”


If you didn’t know better, you’d think The New York Times was particularly eager to legitimize and justify the military action of a President whom it’s relentlessly defended, and who’s slaughtered civilians in order to promulgate upper-middle-class yuppie American values in a part of the world he might, in retrospect, have better left alone.


Then there was the Times‘ editorial on Friday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the essay was an exercise in the use of language to sanitize, legitimate, obscure. 

“…[T]he war in Yugoslavia is ending,” the Times pontificated. “Thanks to the resolve of NATO and constructive peacemaking by Russia, Mr. Milosevic yesterday accepted settlement terms that he had repeatedly rejected. Assuming critical details can be worked out with Belgrade, more than a million displaced ethnic Albanians should be able to return home safely later this year and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans will stop. If so, the most dangerous military conflict in Europe since the Second World War will conclude as a victory for the principles of democracy and human rights.”


It would take pages to unpack this artifact of seamless political language: the begged questions (who created those million refugees if not NATO?); the abstractions (“principles,” “democracy,” “human rights”) meant to shield an administration that killed, and lied about killing, innocents, and that even bombed Chinese territory during the late campaign; the tone of Olympian self-satisfaction.


“The sustained bombing has been more effective than many critics allowed,” writes the Times, “and for the most part was conducted with restraint and a proper regard for civilian casualties.”


It’s been more effective? More effective than what? And at what cost? How do you bomb with “restraint”? What could a “proper regard for civilian casualties” possibly be? A willingness to apologize after you’ve bombed a school bus?


The Washington Post, for its part, admirably implied in its Friday editorial that perhaps the Kosovo campaign may not have been the West’s finest moment. Notice in the Post‘s language the intimations that there could exist other ways of interpreting the experience, other realities besides the one promulgated by the likes of the government and The New York Times. Okay, the Post doesn’t give us much here, but at least it’s something; and I’ve italicized the conditional language in which it’s evident: “NATO’s steadfastness in Kosovo,” wrote the Post, “and President Clinton’s, may be paying off. The Yugoslav government yesterday accepted an agreement that, if implemented, could end the war on satisfactory terms.”


The local tabloids, unsurprisingly, talked tougher. The New York Post editorialized on the same day that the war “was badly begun and badly waged”; Newsday called the Kosovo operation “one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the last 50 years,” called the campaign’s settlement “an undeserved blessing,” blamed Washington “for the creation of nearly a million refugees,” complained that NATO had “blundered into this in the first place” and closed with the warning that “Kosovo is still our problem, and it is not going away.” The Daily News‘ editorial board ignored the development, but the paper published, on page 5, a large photograph of a Serbian woman sitting next to a wall bearing the graffito “NATO 1939 1999″ and a spraypainted swastika.


Thank God none of those is the newspaper of record.


Speaking of the Times, if you’re inclined to pay attention to the way the Times lays out its front page, the paper’s May 26 cover was instructive. The middle of the page bore the bland headline “Spying Charges Against Beijing Are Spelled Out by House Panel” and the subhed “20 Years of Success—Clinton Backs More Nuclear Controls.” Notice how the line slyly evokes a temporal context for the spying that mitigates the current administration’s culpability. Chinese spying’s been going on forever, the line insinuates. What are you blaming Clinton for? And besides, Clinton backs more controls. It’s not his fault.


Meanwhile, it’s hilarious how that story’s visually overwhelmed by the Justin Volpe story to the left of it. The Volpe article takes up fully half of the front page’s width. It’s as if the Times is doing everything it can to distract you from the spy report and to steer you instead to the blue-collar gorilla cop in the cage—a creature whom all of us in polite society can dislike without guilt. Down near the fold, the headline “Officer, Seeking Some Mercy, Admits to Louima’s Torture” tops a piece by David Barstow—whose good, impassioned writing about the Volpe case has made it clear he believes that the sooner Volpe’s given 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, looking frightened and greasy with Marvyn Kornberg, his serpent of a lawyer; the other of Volpe’s grizzled, mustached lug of a father. It’s extraordinary, this full-color and attention-grabbing dramatization of working-class goombah malfeasance hard against the news that, um, oh yeah: A bunch of yuppie weasels of the sort we might have gone to college with might have…you know…presided over the leaking of nuclear secrets out to the Chinese or something…


But everything’s all right with the world, readers. At least we’ve got that racist bastard Volpe nailed. Letting secrets go to the Chinese is one thing; letting people think we’re something other than multicultural is another. 

Small change and the force of law. ICON magazine’s difficulties in paying its writers would be well known among freelancers even if The New York Times hadn’t reported on them on May 3. It turns out, however, that there’s an amusingly ornery way to coax money from the publication: Lay down your $10 filing fee and haul the magazine into small claims court, like NYPress contributing writer Adam Heimlich did in May of last year. Heimlich spent months working with ICON on an article about music producers before he grew impatient with his editor’s demands and decided to terminate work in return for his $300 kill fee.


Not that ICON was any more eager to pay Heimlich than it has been to pay any of its other unpaid writers. After months’ worth of phone calls to the magazine’s accounting department, Heimlich turned to the law for redress.


“Last month 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.”


Adds Heimlich: “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’s Command: Information Must Not Circulate. Ever try getting information about Brill’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 the last weeks, when we attempted to follow up on a tip that we’d heard: that at least one hotel—the Morgan Inn, in Groton, CT—hands out free copies of Brill’s Content to its guests.


This is potentially a valid, if minor, piece of news. Disseminating free copies of magazines to hotel guests—and claiming those copies as paid circulation—is one of several dubious methods by which publications inflate their numbers to impress advertisers, and it would be remarkable to see Brill’s Content, a self-proclaimed arbiter of journalistic integrity, use such tactics.


Not that Brill’s would give us a straight answer. First we made a phone call to 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 them out to his guests. Then we called SWA, where an official told us that the hotelier’s comment 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 many hotels does Brill’s distribute copies? Does Brill’s count the copies toward its claimed circulation? (Brill’s hasn’t been ABC-audited yet, although it’s applied for an audit.) Is the hotelier with whom we talked correct in maintaining that the magazines are free? If not, is it Brill’s policy to make hotels pay full price for the copies? Half price?


Eventually we got to talk to a Brill’s staffer the apprehension in whose voice betrayed the lack of confidence that afflicts those who are paid to pipe it for somebody else.


“We’ve had a few promotions like that over the past year that I remember,” her wary 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 know if we’re heavily into it.”


Would she be the person who answers these questions? Would there be someone more qualified to speak?


A sigh. “I mean, I’d have to, you know, find out who arranged that, I guess, over here. Ummm…”


Are these giveaway copies, or does the hotel buy the copies?


“You know, I don’t know. I don’t really know. If it was—I’d have to find out.”


Is there anyone else who might know?


“Not anybody here on the premises. I’d have to call and research it, actually. Find out. You know… Well, um. Let me take your name.”


Meanwhile, Deanna Brown still wasn’t talking. If another publication acted like this, Brill’s would hassle it. As it is, maybe the magazine will commission Bill Kovach to write an “Ombudsman” column about this incident.

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