by James Graham
The western media's tendency to simplify, sensationalize and stereotype constructed a political reality of right and wrong in the Kosovo conflict. Instead of analysing the many and varied complexities and causes of the conflict the media largely ignored them. Kosovo has been disputed since the fourteenth century and has changed hands many times. However the media only analysed the recent history of the region concluding that the break up of Yugoslavia and its diverse ethnic groupings was to blame. It was not even the causes of the conflict that consumed the media's attention but its effects. These included the refugees, Serb atrocities and the NATO air strikes and resulting damage. All were more sensational and such had more intrinsic news value. This coverage failed to promote a critical discussion of the situation and what NATO or anyone else could do regarding it. Stereotyping is a favourite ploy of the media and the average Serb soldier and Kosovar Albanian got their share. The Serb Soldiers were described as ill disciplined, paranoid and drunk, the Albanians as innocent and helpless. Every picture of an Albanian refugee, mass grave or even the mention of the word genocide acted as justification of the war to the public. The weaknesses of the western media allowed a consensus of support to form in favour of NATO's Kosovo intervention.
Mainstream media criticism of NATO was reserved for its methods and results not the actions themselves. The bombing of the Chinese embassy received widespread condemnation. This correctly focussed on the harm done to international relations. The media also extensively analysed the harm done to US-Russian relations through NATO's intervention. Disagreements between the NATO allies were also keenly reported. These were somewhat exaggerated but did construct the question of NATO unity that previously was unheard of in the mass media. Only in journals like Insight on the News were comments like the "United States may be stepping into its greatest foreign-policy debacle since Vietnam" heard. Criticism of NATO's intervention in Kosovo only existed on non-core issues and on the fringes of the media.
NATO's bombing of Serbia allowed Slobodan Milosevic to appeal to his people's nationalism and patriotism. Control of Serbia's mass media allowed him to gain popular support by promoting Kosovo as the cradle of Serb civilisation. This diverted attention from Serbia's woes. The creation of the Kosovar Albanians as internal enemies largely avoided history and reason. History was only touched on in the case of myths to justify the current resentments and aggression. Those who construct such an enemy have every reason to perpetuate and exaggerate the threat they pose. Hence the Kosovar Albanians had to be suppressed rather than be allowed to survive as a distinct culture within Yugoslavia. Milosevic was also able to paint the NATO countries as the root of all Serbia's problems. The NATO countries were characterised as imperialistic aggressors and intent on destroying the Serbian race. There are not many people who can ignore such intense symbolic calls to nationalism and the majority of the nation quickly supported Milosevic's policies. Milosevic used his own mass media to construct political reality as skilfully as the NATO governments.
The Kosovo conflict illustrates how two sides in a confrontation can manipulate the mass media to gain popular support for their causes. They both used symbols, myths and patriotism to socially construct their opponent as a mortal enemy. The mass media's power is such that they can and in the case of Kosovo did socially construct the course of history.