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Kill your TV
On two continents, American firepower knocks television programming off the air -- just in time for National TV-Turnoff Week.

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By James Poniewozik

April 29, 1999 | Does television cause violence? American pundits, educators and talk-show guests will continue chewing this ever-gristly question for a good while yet after the murders at Columbine High School. But it might be more instructive to put the question to 10 or so Serbian TV workers who were unfortunate enough to be in their place of employment when NATO rained kiloton after kiloton of high-yield media criticism on it last Friday.

By the logic of the attackers, of course, it is just as well that we cannot do so, since the employees' objectivity on the matter would be hopelessly compromised by the fact that they were killed. NATO justified the controversial decision by describing the broadcast facility as a biased arm of the Serbian war machine. The alliance -- which has essentially used 24-hour-cable networks as public-access channels for lengthy, well-spun press briefings for the past month -- criticized the broadcasts for giving Slobodan Milosevic an uninterrupted platform; President Clinton argued that Slobo "uses it to spew hatred and basically spread disinformation."

In other words, it's a tool of a vast Balkan conspiracy. Ah, sweet foreign policy! It may be sloppier than domestic, but give it this: You can't yet launch Tomahawks against Matt Drudge. Now to be fair, the alliance appears right that Serbian TV has functioned as a mouthpiece, restricted in its aims and in its coverage of the war. (Though now that Belgrade's Studio B has aired Vuk Draskovic's dissent against the Serbian war effort, will we be sending in the Army Corps of Engineers to boost its broadcast wattage?) But that's also beside the point. How comfortable should we be with combatants (and a notoriously media-hostile president) acting as TV critics, deciding whether broadcasters across enemy lines are fair enough to be spared a two-thumbs-down from the sky? (And really, is a bad review from a foreign aggressor going to harm or build a station's credibility among the bombing targets? Have we learned nothing from Parental Advisory labels?)

More broadly, how comfortable are journalists with the principle that warring parties can justify attacking broadcasting offices on the grounds of whether their reports are aiding the enemy, since that's pretty much how any army is going to regard opposition media, balanced or not?

Comfortable enough, apparently, at least from this distance. American journalists have been at no loss for words in dissecting the minutiae of munitions, in advocating internationalism or isolationism, but they have been little moved by the deaths of their little Slavic brethren: It was more or less left to international groups like Amnesty International to observe that targeting a civilian site violates the Geneva Convention. The Union of Cypriot Journalists called the attack a "crude violation of the fundamental principles of international law"; the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists said the attack "permanently jeopardizes all journalists as noncombatants in international conflicts." The CPJ, mind you, gets all manner of coverage when it releases reports (like last month's) on journalists killed on the job by non-Americans, but its objections went largely unnoticed, except by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post.

But you can say this much for the NATO attacks: They were the most powerful observance yet of National TV-Turnoff Week. The 5-year-old annual ritual of cranky publicity from TV-Free America began last Thursday, enlisting schools and civic organizations to usher in a Boynton cartoon paradise of healthy, humanistic pursuits. (The TVFA Web site suggests building a birdhouse and planting a garden; trashing the local McDonald's or evicting the members of one's rival ethnic group are not listed, but there's always room for improvisation.) The organization offers an organizer's kit particularly aimed at elementary schools, with their ready stock of youthful "volunteers."

 Next page | Should "Buffy" have been pulled off the air?


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