Reading Between Bosnian Lines

A Respite From Television Highlights Differences Between the Media

My cable has been disconnected for two weeks now. I'm beginning not feel so bad about the United States' inaction in Bosnia. That must seem like a non sequitur. Let me explain.

Like most Western citizens, I have received daily updates for the past few years on the progress of the genocide perpetrated against Muslim in Bosnia. Jennings, Rather and Brokaw have all been yelling about the killings, rapes and refugees. Current and former presidents have now gone on CNN, babbling about quagmire, to explain why the U.S. has complied with global inaction. The United Nations, MacNeil and Lehrer's favorite organization, became an accomplice to the destruction of one of its own members nations. I have had to watch all of this.

So you understand what relief it is not to see what the war has most recently wrought on Bosnia. I'd much rather read it in the Times the next day, because then I don't have to feel so terrible about yesterday's news. Whereas television is immediate, newspapers are consistently behind the curve, dealing in the past tense. Essentially, they allow you to feel guilty yesterday, whereas television hits you with instantaneous guilt. Newspapers delay the pain.

Call me selfish but I much prefer belated knowledge or wrongdoing. If I had seen the videotape of the Serbian capture of the "safe haven" of Srebrenica, I might have been compelled to fly over there and take up arms. But as it is, regret is the best I can muster from reading yesterday's news.

A televised indictment of Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, might have caused my venom to rise to near-O.J. levels. But a printed account allows me to nod in agreement, concur that these men should have been captured earlier and that they are wrong. If I saw it on TV, though, I might yell at these slimebags and call for our government to crush them. Thank god for my health that the cable broke.


Newspapers have the space to place any situation, particularly this one, in context. Print journalists are now allowed to reason away diplomatic ineptitude as a consequence of this conflict's complexity. They explain who holds what territory and delve into the history books to note who has held that territory before. The main purpose of a newspaper, after all, is to rationalize even the most outrageous of events, fit them neatly into columns and write a first draft of that puzzle called history,

Because the reporter today has become an interpreter of events instead of an observer, he or she cannot show me the bombing of a marketplace. The reporter might decry genocide, but as long as it is invisible to me, I am able to empathize on an intellectual plane rather than a visceral one.

Camera operators are not so adept as reporters in sorting out events. They do not presume to know the answers, but seek rather to capture the situation in order to allow you to draw your own conclusions. By their very failings, they succeed. That is, reporters' reasoning often evolves into rationalization. But a lack of pretense on the part of those wielding the camera allows the action to take center stage.

It must have been a very different war on television, full of urgency and action and demanding of a response. I'd imagine that from watching it, one would have expected some sort of revenge is which good defeats evil and follows with a sermon about right and wrong. But unfortunately for the Bosnian Muslims, the war was fought in bloodstained print. Alas, our capital is not Hollywood--no one's requiring a happy ending.

The differential high lights the contrast between a television nation and a government engulfed by newspapers. I can't help thinking what would happen if this were truly a television war, fought in real time and not in the reprints of yesterday's news. Because while the print media describes the war as drawing to an end, the curtain has not closed. The situation is extremely malleable, and more creativity might be expended than is necessary to maintain the current momentum of Serbian victories.

Slowly, the Bosnian Serb forces led by Karadzic are overwhelming the Muslims who occupy the lands which they consider "Greater Serbia." The newspaper version reads like a finished piece of history. The television asks us at every moment if this is how we desire to write the history. So the real war here is to be fought over the medium, which in itself will surely determine the outcome of events. No one likes unhappy endings on television.

Joshua A. Kaufman sent this dispatch from the safe haven of Roslyn, New York.