Media's tepid coverage of 'The Butcher of Bosnia' verdict is disappointing

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A tale of forgotten atrocities

It's a symbol of diminished media ambition, reduced resources and institutional amnesia that even the Chicago Tribune relegated to just four paragraphs at the bottom of page 23 word that the International Criminal Court in The Hague convicted Gen. Ratko Mladic, the "Butcher of Bosnia," of genocide and war crimes

Mladic was once a notorious international figure and regular subject of the paper's coverage when it possessed global and national ambitions. The bloodiest saga in Europe since World War II was a regular page one story, with many dispatches from actual correspondents and its Washington bureau. Unhappy Serbs regularly demonstrated outside the paper over its Bosnia coverage.

Christine Spolar, who covered the war for The Washington Post and, when it was over, later went back for the Tribune, woke up and saw the verdict on Twitter "and I just stopped everything I was doing. And cried. And kept breaking down that morning before work, crying off and on for a good hour."

"If you look at my tweets, I shared a story I wrote in 1996 about the search for the bodies ... To be honest, I forgot to send out the actual stories that helped start the search for bodies ... because the day of digging for the bodies by Physicians for Human Rights is still a very strong image/memory for me. It hit all the senses and I stayed at the graveside/pit for hours and hours." Here's that story.

She's now executive editor of Kaiser Health News in Washington after six years as the editor of a London-based investigative team for The Financial Times. She passed along other stories that still mean much to her, including others from 1995 that reconstructed what happened in the Srebrenica massacre.

The passions elicited by the war are similar for many other reporters, a reminder of the role of searing memories elicited by intimate coverage of life, death, atrocities and corruption. Reporters stay in touch with former colleagues and with translators, as does Spolar, and will rarely feel as deeply about anything they cover as when they observed the shocking tragedy of war.

The inattention of media is typical, though.

Tom Hundley, who covered the break-up of the former Yugoslavia from 1994 to 2001 for The Tribune, is now at editor with the Pulitzer Center, which funds overseas journalism, and occasionally checked in on The Hague tribunal handiwork until the 2006 death of Slobodan Milosevic, the war's most notorious and important figure.

"The guilty verdict for Ratko Mladic comes way too late — more than two decades after the fact — to have any real meaning; too late to provide any real sense of justice for the victims and survivors of his war crimes; too late to serve as a defining historical judgment on that dismal chapter of European history."

He recalls how when Milosevic's trial opened in 2002, hundreds of journalists were on hand in The Hague. They jammed the courtroom and an overflow hall. As the trial dragged into its fourth year, the world and the press lost interest. The tedious pace drained the proceedings of all drama. "Toward the end, the courtroom was nearly empty, save for the occasional Japanese tour group curious to see a real war criminal in the flesh. Milosevic died (he was found dead in his jail cell) before the trial was completed."

The courtroom proceedings against Mladic lasted nearly five years. Even though they were thoroughly documented earlier, the tribunal interviewed 600 witnesses. It was very much the same with the equally guilty Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on nearly identical charges, which all took six years and ended in his 2014 genocide conviction.

"When the Mladic verdict came down last week, media attention was perfunctory. The story barely lasted a single news cycle," says Hundley.

David Rohde, who covered the war for the Christian Science Monitor and wrote, "Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II," says, “I talked with a Srebrenica survivor and he said he hoped the verdict would deter people from carrying out mass killings and abuses today."

But, he said, the amount of time that has passed — 22 years — dilutes the power of the ruling as a deterrent. Rohde, who is now the digital news editor at The New Yorker, also notes that Mladic evaded arrest for about 14 years, so the U.S. and NATO deserve blame. And how the saga reminds one of drastic cuts in international coverage. Too many now out in the field are poorly compensated freelancers.

But here's to The New York Times, which takes seriously readers' interest in subjects far beyond their ZIP codes. It led the paper with the verdict story on Thanksgiving morning. Ditto some others, including CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "I was there for all of this, " she recalled on air while listing the reasons "this petty criminal" is a monster.

They are all pillars of integrity compared to the likes of RT, the Russian TV network, which peddled a counter-narrative, of Mladic as victim and the atrocities being fictions of the West.

The RT account holds no sway with Amanpour, who told me Monday, "Listening to the presiding judge read out all the counts against Mladic as he prepared to render justice, was chilling and threw me back to the past as if it were yesterday, when I was reporting on these crimes first hand. For the victims, justice is vital. For peace and reconciliation justice is vital."

"And if Serbia would only accept it, holding the individual accountable, means that there is no collective vengeance or guilt."

"For henchmen like Syria's Bashar Assad, who are still slaughtering their own people, this verdict will hopefully resonate through time. You can run, but you cannot hide for ever."

The Time Inc. deal

A sign of the times: The story didn't make page 1 of my print edition of The New York Times (just a refer at the bottom). The $3 billion all-cash Sunday evening sale of  Time Inc. to Des Moines-based Meredith Corp., a smart longtime magazines operator, means that one of the most efficient operators in its industry will now own iconic Time, Sports Illustrated and People, among many titles. But it doesn't necessarily mean that Meredith, whose forte has been running monthlies, notably goliath Better Homes & Garden (circulation, 7.6 million), keeps some of its new and famous weeklies forever, as I suggested here last night.

It might just put one or more on the block, says Samir Husni, a magazine analyst at the University of Mississippi. As for journalists, he suggests that rampant cost-cutting is not necessarily a given. His qualifier, however, is the reality that Time Inc. titles have always been rather richly run. And that era is clearly over. And Meredith has always been seen as far more frugal (though, by and large, also a good place to work).

A former Time Inc. executive maintains, "It says that Time Inc. was really struggling with an inexperienced management team and with a portfolio of weeklies, which may be the least ideal frequency for the digital age. The idea of little Meredith acquiring the esteemed Time Inc. would have been unimaginable" not long ago. For sure.

So what's up with the Koch brothers? They helped to fund the deal. But their role remains unclear, as Recode was candid enough to concede on the precipice of the deal Sunday evening. Hmm. As the former "Saturday Night Live" news team of Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler used to put it, "Really?!"

Why blocking AT&T-Time-Warner deal is more than mere politics

Bloomberg editorializes, "The Justice Department’s new head of antitrust enforcement, Makan Delrahim, is getting plenty of grief for his surprise decision to challenge the merger of AT&T and Time-Warner. He's been accused of stretching the law 'beyond the breaking point,' and of helping President Donald Trump act on his long-running grudge against Time-Warner’s flagship news network, CNN.

"Actually, Justice is to be commended for spelling out its rationale and making a compelling case — something it had failed to do in the run-up to the announcement. A big point in its favor: Consistently applied, this new thinking on anti-trust could in fact reduce the need for other kinds of anti-trust regulation."

The morning Babel

Congress returns Monday so there was lots of chatter on the pissing match between Trump and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, calls for Congress to go public with its tradition of keeping quiet over sexual misconduct claims and settlements involving members, and debate over taxes. "Trump & Friends" filled us in on Trump's tweeting since returning to the capital yesterday, though the primary one is about taxes, not the NFL, college basketball or Al Franken.

On CNN's "New Day," the fight over who will literally this morning lead the financial protection bureau was at the forefront of a chat in which co-host Chris Cuomo tagged Trump a hypocrite for talking the talk during the campaign about going after Wall Street and "now wants to great rid of the one animal that protects people from Wall Street on the lending side." Pundit David Gregory said the problem was that the agency strikes some as distinctly partisan and as "the cauldron of what captures the huge divide of how far" the government should go in regulating the financial system.

"Morning Joe's" co-host Joe Scarborough went after Trump's latest free press attacks, including on the Russia investigation, and how all politicians need to unite to support the media. "We've got to speak out together." Former Obama White House spokesman Josh Earnest was eloquent on the need for journalists to bring to America stories from around the world, such as the crisis of migrant flows. He was fine, even if not asked about the Obama administration's own debatable record on press access (and even seeking to prosecute them for leaks). As longtime investigative reporter James Risen wrote last year in The New York Times, "If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama." (Risen took a buyout over the summer).

The sophisticated mind of Steve Kerr

Long ago, I interviewed Steve Kerr, then a Chicago Bulls player, about the murder of his dad, Malcolm, in Beirut when the father ran American University. He was impressive then, and now, as the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he's even more so, as is apparent in an interview with David Axelrod for his podcast, which also now has a CNN version. His take on why the team isn't going to the White House for the traditional champions visit (technically, Trump didn't invite them after it was apparent there was unease) is thoughtful, but so is his take on why NFL owners are staying clear of quarterback Colin Kaepernick

An unlikely duo

What do celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and Tom Ricks, a longtime Pentagon and national security journalist, possibly have in common? Okay, Ricks eats food. Now there's a bit more: Bourdain told The New York Times book review that Ricks' new "Churchill and Orwell" is at his bedside right now. And the paper names the book one of the 100 most notable of the year. It was all an early Christmas present, says Ricks.

The right is split on net neutrality

Will Sommer, an editorial writer at The Hill, does a nice weekly look at right-leaning on the side. It's called Right Richter and is here. Interestingly, reaction to the Trump FCC's move on so-called net neutrality — essentially dumping Obama-era restrictions — "has divided pro-Trump internet forums like nothing I've seen before. That's because ditching net neutrality is going to be a bad thing for anyone who uses the internet (Vox has a good explainer on net neutrality). The tech-savvy Trump supporters on the forums like Reddit and 4Chan often realize this, and they're tied up in knots over why Trump would do this to them."

"While the comments on both sites often supported Trump for keeping net neutrality, others argued that ending net neutrality would at least screw over Facebook and Google more. 'When you hear 'net neutrality,' think 'antifa,' wrote another user."

Next ...

Not a day has gone by of late without similar word. Now from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"A graduate of the University of Virginia’s M.F.A. program has filed a complaint against a prominent professor and award-winning author, John Casey, accusing him of sexually harassing her and other female students from 2012 to 2014. Mr. Casey, whose book "Spartina" won the National Book Award for fiction in 1989, did not immediately respond to requests for comment."

Friedman's scoop

It's a reflection of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's cachet that he got four hours with Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, and was clearly left with a sense of a positive revolution imminent. "Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style," he wrote.

The prince has thrown lots of royal family members and businessmen into a "makeshift gilded jail," as Friedman puts it, inside the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, allegedly for ripping off the state financially.  The crown prince claims, 
“About 1 percent are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About 4 percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court. " Sheesh, even the finest American prosecutors would be jealous of those percentages.

It's one reason the interview is interesting and might leave you to wonder if a great journalist was too kind by half in heralding the crown prince. He quickly was derided from both media folks on the right, such as the Daily Caller, but also fans of his on the left whom I know (who asked not to be quoted). It would not be the first time first time the American press has gone somewhat overboard in heralding salutatory political and cultural change in Saudi Arabia.

David Remnick on Ronan Farrow

Speaking to CBS about Farrow coming to The New Yorker with his Harvey Weinstein reporting, "As once was said of Ben Bradlee, he exhibited the guts of a jewel thief. Not that he did any thieving; he did the work. I give him enormous credit. This is not somebody who's been doing this for 20 years, and the stakes are high, whether it's to the institution of The New Yorker or to his personal reputation, to say nothing of mine."

'60 Minutes' on Syria

If you missed it, check out a Sunday night piece with gripping video (we had to shield out 8-year-old from certain moments) of the constant Assad regime bombing of hospitals. Here it is. You want to see heroes in action? Watch these doctors. (Parenthetically, one might have recalled the last revealing interview the show did with the deceitful and murderous Assad. It was by the now departed Charlie Rose.)

The Times helps The Post

Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post had Mar-a-Lago pool duty (as in White House correspondents, not swimming) and thanks Emily Cochrane for assistance with protest sign documentation.

Cochrane of the New York Times spotted "these supportive signs" along the way to the airport: “Blacks for Trump 2020, “Welcome home President Trump,” Hillary for Prison.”

"As we traveled along, the number of anti-Trump protesters increased. Some of the signs spotted read: 'President Trump is fake news,' 'Go Away and don’t come back,' 'Mr. Mueller is coming for your orange ass,' 'Real news, fake Trump,' 'Resign,' 'Clueless' and 'Phony.'"

Boy, pretty rhetorically imaginative down in Palm Beach, don't you think?

A Kosovo reminder

The Mladic conviction conjures up a weird cable news footnote. It involved a long-departed, but very good MSNBC show hosted by John Hockenberry. During the Kosovo conflict, he hosted the show from a refugee camp in Albania. One night I was the first scheduled guest in the Washington bureau, but the satellite transmission was interrupted with 30 seconds to go and, bingo, a producer, Rani Brand, informed me that I would be the host in 25, 24, 23 to tell folks there was a satellite problem and quickly introduce a previously taped piece on the war from Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski (with 10 seconds to go, I do remember asking, "What the f--- is the piece about?").

With no time to fret, I did fine and at the first commercial break, got applause from the clearly petrified control room, then in Secaucus, New Jersey. Hockenberry soon returned. The next night I was again the first guest scheduled. And, yes, with two minutes before air, same problem with the satellite. With two minutes to fret, I wasn't quite as good.

Thankfully, though the satellite was still down after the first commercial, Brian Williams was in the New Jersey studio, about to head home after his day had ended. Seamlessly, upon return, I went from scheduled guest to emergency host to actual guest, with Williams as host. The glories of live television.

Corrections? Tips? Please email me: jwarren@poynter.org. Would you like to get this roundup emailed to you every morning? Sign up here.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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