Jerusalem One

Manipulating the media

Intelligence Digest: 4 February 1994

Most people are aware of the biases (one way or the other) of the everyday media. What is less well known is the way the media themselves can be the subject of manipulation. The following example. taken from the Yugoslav civil war, is an object lesion in media manipulation and the long-term effect it can have.

This example is interesting in itself because it goes a long way to explaining the disastrous public image of the Serbs; and it is interesting because it gives such a clear demonstration of how public opinion in the Western democracies can be molded, through using the media, by quite inexpensive techniques. The facts of the case are
described below.

The public relations firm of Ruder and Finn Global Public Affairs has for some time represented the Bosnian and Croatian governments and the way in which it operates on their behalf was described in an interview given by Mr. James Harff, a director of the firm.

The answers provided by Mr. Harff to questions about his modus operandi are very honest and extraordinarily enlightening. This is what he said:

Harff: For 18 months [he was speaking in October 1993], we have been working for the republics of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, as well as the [Muslim] opposition in Kosovo [part of Serbia]. Throughout this period we had many successes.

Question: What are your methods of operation?

Harff: The essential tools in our work are a card file, a computer, and a fax. The card file contains a few hundred names of journalists, politicians academicians and representatives of humanitarian organizations. The computer goes through the card files according to correlated subjects, coming up with very effective targets.

The computer is tied into a fax. In this way, we can disseminate information in a few minutes to those we think will react [positively]. Our job is to assure that the arguments for our side will be the first to be expressed. Speed is vital, because items favorable to us must be settled in public opinion. The first statement counts. The retractions have no effect.

Question: How often do you intervene?

Harff: Quantity is not important. You have to intervene at the right time with the right person. From June to September, we organized 30 meetings with the main press agencies, as well as meetings between Bosnian officials and [US Vice-president] Al Gore, Lawrence Eagleburger, and 10 influential senators, among them George Mitchell and Robert Dole. We also sent out 13 exclusive news items, 37 last
minute faxes, 17 official letters, and 8 official reports. We placed 20 telephone calls to White House staff, 20 to senators, and close to 100 to journalists, editors, newscasters, and other influential people in the media.

Question: What achievement were you most proud of?

Harff: To have managed to put Jewish opinion on our side. This was a sensitive matter, as the dossier was dangerous looked at from this angle. President Tudjman [of Croatia] was very careless in his book Wastelands of Historical Reality. Reading his writings, one could accuse him of anti-semitism.

In Bosnia, the situation was no better: President Izetbegovic strongly supported the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in his book The Islamic Declaration. Besides, the Croatian and Bosnian past was marked by a real and cruel anti-semitism. Tens of thousands of Jews perished in Croatian camps. So there was every reason for intellectuals and Jewish organizations to be hostile towards the Croats and Bosnians. Our challenge was to reverse this attitude. And we have succeeded masterfully.

At the beginning of August 1992, the New York Newsday came out with the affair of [Serb] concentration camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. We outwitted three big Jewish organizations - The B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress. We suggested to them to publish an advertisement in the New York Times and to organize demonstrations outside the United Nations.

This was a tremendous coup. When the Jewish organizations entered the game on the side of the [Muslim] Bosnians, we could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind.

Nobody understood what was happening in Yugoslavia. The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated. But, by a single move, we were able to present a simple story of good guys and bad guys, which would hereafter play itself.

We won by targeting the Jewish audience. Almost immediately there was a clear change of language in the press, with the use of words with high emotional content, such as "ethnic cleansing", "concentration camps", etc. which evoked images of Nazi Germany and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so powerful that nobody could go against it.

Question: But when you did all this, you had no proof that what you said was true. You only had the article in Newsday!

Harff: Our work is not to verify information. We are not equipped for that. Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us, to aim at judiciously chosen targets. We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it known that Newsday affirmed it.

Question: Are you aware that you took on a grave responsibility?

Harff: We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to be moral.

_A remarkable confession_

This is a remarkable confession which has the ring of truth about it, even if Mr. Harff has an interest in promoting his professional competence and the effectiveness of what he does. It goes a long way to explaining why the Serbs have had such bad press despite being far from the only sinners in the Yugoslav civil war. There are wider implications, too. For all their image of professionalism and hardbitten cynicism, the Western media are clearly easier to manipulate than their operatives would like to admit. This is an important consideration in understanding the reactions of Western democracies to world events.