American planes are bombing Yugoslavia, but you'd never know it if you're watching MTV's Spring Break

By Ken Tucker
Updated March 30, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Ken Tucker rates the TV coverage of Kosovo

The banishment of American news crews from the hottest areas of warfare in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, has had a couple of notable effects in TV-news coverage of the war.

1) The old disconnect is back in effect Because our news organizations cannot send back to the United States dramatic footage of bombings and the plight of refugees, lack of visuals instantly, severely, curtails the amount of coverage. That’s particularly true of the broadcast networks; ABC, NBC, and CBS have barely increased the amount of airtime given over to this most important of current news events; you can watch figure skating, ”Homicide: Life on the Street,” and David Letterman without delay or interruption.

Meanwhile, over on cable, MTV is busy celebrating spring break in all its beery, decadent glory. No MTV veejay will be asking a partying teen what he or she thinks about Slobodan Milosevic, and if the questions was asked, I’ll bet he’d be identified as the character John Belushi played in ”National Lampoon’s Animal House.” For the vast majority of Americans, overseas tragedy barely registers.

On cable’s chief news outlets, CNN is making do with repetitive reports from correspondents well away from the action, such as those stationed at the Avioso Air Base in Italy, while MSNBC is getting into its usual act — taking polls, asking whether the U.S. should be taking part in this NATO effort, with the usual middle-of-the-road MSNBC demographic responding, Yes, we should, but on a limited basis. This translates less as innate conservative isolationism than just another example of hedging one’s opinion because one is not quite sure where Kosovo is on the map.

2) What the U.S. military has learned from the gulf war about handling the television medium Clam up. Details are scant; no one in any position of authority is giving out many details on the success or failure rates of the bombings. The most interesting TV coverage, therefore, is coming from outside America; it’s startling to hear NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, for example, speak much more forcefully and bluntly about the offensive operation than President Clinton has, and it’s fascinating to listen whenever American TV plays British broadcasts of the news, which tend to give equal time to both the NATO-sponsored attacks and the protests to NATO’s policies, something our news organizations rarely do.

Postscript: TV-inspired quote of the week From National Security Advisor Samuel Berger on ABC’s ”This Week,” ”This is not a 30-second commerical, this is a sustained campaign.”