Belgrade or Bust

The Washington Post reports that when three U.S. journalists–the Post’s R. Jeffrey Smith, the Los Angeles Times’ David Holley, and Knight-Ridder’s Lori Montgomery–were expelled from Yugoslavia this week, editors from these news organizations “made phone calls vigorously protesting the detention, and appealed to Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic and other top Yugoslav officials to let the correspondents go to Belgrade.” Chatterbox is sure that if he were an editor at one of these news organizations, he would have done the same thing. But he also thinks the sense of entitlement on the part of the U.S. media has become a wondrous thing to behold. Look at it from Yugoslavia’s point of view: We’re the enemy. We’re dropping bombs on their country. And they’re supposed to act all hospitable toward our reporters?

Call it Peter Arnett syndrome. During the Gulf War, Peter Arnett got to hang out in Baghdad and report on the bang-bang for CNN. Now everybody thinks that’s the norm. It isn’t, of course. During World War I, a former Reuters correspondent named Geoffrey Pyke managed to get behind German lines–but not by asking permission; he ginned up a false passport and posed as a printing-machinery salesman. The Germans arrested him and sent him to an internment camp. During World War II, William L. Shirer and Howard K. Smith reported from Berlin before, but not after, U.S. entry into the war. True, some American correspondents made their way into enemy-occupied territory at the end of that war, but they were just a few paces ahead of the Allied forces, tended to be carrying guns, and in many instances were surrendered to. (The prisoners at Dachau were, famously, liberated by Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune.) Vietnam was a bit different. The North Vietnamese saw some propaganda advantage in allowing U.S. journalists in for brief visits–most notably Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times in December 1966. Many people were scandalized by this. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. went so far as to liken Salisbury to Tokyo Rose. The comparison was, of course, ridiculous, but is worth remembering as an indication of how unusual it was for a U.S. reporter to be filing from behind enemy lines. (For most of these examples Chatterbox is indebted to Phillip Knightley’s 1975 book The First Casualty.) Even during the Gulf War, Arnett wasn’t permitted to stay in Iraq the whole time; and Bob Simon of CBS, wandering into enemy territory, managed to get himself arrested.

Don’t get Chatterbox wrong: He thinks Slobodan Milosevic is a very bad man. But it isn’t because Milosevic is expelling Western reporters. It’s because his troops are slaughtering ethnic Albanians by the truckload. If the Western media want to vent about their lack of access, they should do so to the U.S. military, which for more than a decade has pursued a heavy-handed censorship policy during wartime. The U.S. military is on our side, and is supposed to be more accommodating to our reporters. Even in an age when cable television and the Internet have internationalized the news media, no sensible person would deny that the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Knight-Ridder, and even CNN are organizations that maintain some loyalty, or at least sentimental attachment, to the government and citizenry of the United States.

–Timothy Noah