The New Monicagate?

In the May 3 issue of The Nation, Michael Massing turns media critic to assess coverage of the NATO bombing campaign in a piece called "The Media's Own Kosovo Crisis." The author divides the media into three camps—TV networks, dailies, and the British press—and ranks their quality, with the networks coming in last. Indeed, Massing writes, after "watching the parade of pundits and pollsters, I had the sense that Ko sovo had simply replaced Monicagate as talk-show fodder."

Massing gives the thumbs-down to CNN for superficial coverage, finding its Belgrade correspondent "too accepting of the Serbian position" and the rest of the coverage "blatantly pro-NATO." Nightline doesn't fare much better, serving up panels of "old fogies" while Fox News Network resembles "Duck Soup." The only pundit Massing seems to like is MSNBC's Robert Hayden, a professor who can hold two contrary ideas in his head at once, i.e., that NATO and Milosevic are equally reprehensible.

Compared to TV, Massing finds the dailies "more comprehensive and less partisan." He heaps praise on The New York Times (big surprise) and says The Washington Post has run excellent analyses of "policy debates inside the Clinton administration." And, of course, the Los Angeles Times has Paul Watson, "its man in Pristina," although Massing can't figure out why more outlets aren't printing Watson's dispatches. (Hint: To do so would be to admit that their own papers' correspondents were too chicken to stay in country, the way Watson did.)

For deep critique, Massing suggests, you have to go beyond the national newsstand. He singles out the BBC and the Times of London for two respective stories, one of which sized up the Yugoslav army while the other darkly foretold the fate of NATO bombers. ("They will help to create a country...which will be a seething cauldron of hatred towards the West for decades.") Not the kind of sentiment you're likely to hear on CNN.

The Nation survey ends by noting the pundits' overreliance on Vietnam as metaphor for a war that is thousands of miles and light-years away. Overall, it's a thoughtful piece. But speaking of Vietnam, what about the U.S. propaganda machine, which has kept a stranglehold on news coverage of Yugoslavia? Could there be a modern-day equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, detailing the administration's secret Balkan agenda? If so, one suspects that the employee who leaks it will be hunted down like a dog, given the way wartime whistle-blowers are treated these days.


Speaking of whistle-blowers, last week, a judge in Ohio threw out a motion filed by George Ventura, the lawyer who is accused of helping reporter Mike Gallagher access the voice-mail system of Chiquita Brands International. That's too bad, because the motion would have deemed it unfair for the county prosecutor to single out Ventura for indictment, when he was obviously not Gallagher's only source. Ventura's trial is now set for July.

Gallagher is, of course, the author of a scathing exposé of Chiquita published by the Cincinnati Enquirer in May 1998. After publication, Chiquita threatened to sue the Enquirer and its parent Gannett Company, which quickly "renounced" the series, fired the reporter, and paid more than $10 million in damages.

After bringing Gannett to its knees, Chiquita turned its legal guns on Gallagher, suing him for millions and prompting the local prosecutor to target him for indictment. Last fall, Gallagher cried uncle, pleading guilty to wiretap violations and agreeing to give up his sources. A week later, Ventura was arrested on the same charges Gallagher had dodged.

There's no proof that Chiquita is calling the shots for the prosecutors in Ohio, although the company does contribute heavily to local campaign funds. But the bananamen must be delighted with a prosecutorial strategy that has pitted source and reporter against each other, scorpion-style, long enough to distract the media from the published exposé, which has yet to be proven false. In early April, when Gallagher named Ventura in open court, it was virtually guaranteed that the source would begin painting the reporter as the bad guy. And the press did not miss a beat.

In an April 7 editorial ("Banana Journalism"), The New York Times praised Gallagher for taking on Chiquita, but accused him of being "unethical" and betraying "the most basic code" of journalism: protecting the confidentiality of your source.

The Times seems to forget that while Chiquita has always been the creator of banana republics, Mike Gallagher was not always a rat. He used to be a respected investigative reporter, working first in Michigan and then at Gannett Suburban Newspapers in Westchester. In 1995, Cincinnati Enquirer editor Lawrence Beaupre lured Gallagher to Ohio, where the reporter penned a series on the cleanup of a local power plant.

Then Beaupre sent Gallagher on an impossible mission: to investigate Chiquita's Latin American activities, which have come under fire since United Fruit first pitched its tents in Guatemala in the early part of the century. The investigation lasted about a year and cost more than $100,000, suggesting that Beaupre expected it to win a journalism award.

In the course of his reporting, Gallagher apparently hooked up with Ventura, who had spent five years working for Chiquita in Ecuador and Honduras. But, according to a motion filed by Ventura, Gallagher also had confidential sources in the CIA, the military, and the local Chiquita affiliate in Honduras. Indeed, Gallagher's allegations required heavy sourcing, and were signed off on by a team of lawyers and a top executive from Gannett headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

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