CNN's Kosovo Identity Crisis

Plus: Bob Dole, sex criminal.

| Tue Apr. 6, 1999 3:00 AM EDT

So my big sister calls me this week.

My sister is a major bonus. Great sense of humor. Heart oversized like movie popcorn. And really, really smart.

Anybody who doesn't like my sister has no business being on this planet.

Sis calls me up because she's trying to be a good citizen and has therefore watched hours of TV news reports about the Crisis In Kosovo. Big sis has endured dozens of furrowed brows, scores of scary pictures, and hours of flashy graphics. CNN's special Kosovo theme-music churns like a bellicose jingle in her head.

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And sis calls because after days of Fox and MSNBC telling her what just blew up, she still doesn't quite follow how exactly the whole mess really started, how it might best end, or what to think about it in any case, other than it's obviously really bad.

Just like most Americans. Including the ones in Washington.

My sister's one of the smartest people I know. Her only mistake was in believing, as most of us have been trained to believe since birth, that TV is a good way to learn about a subject in depth.

It is not.

TV is a good way to learn about which subjects are on fire.

Here's how mindless Kosovo coverage can be:

You remember when the news came in last Wednesday that three U.S. servicemen had been captured by the Serbs. Soon, CNN showed Serbian videotape of the prisoners.

CNN also reported that the three captured servicemen had not yet been identified. CNN's anchors repeated this several dozen times for over two hours, often as the Serbian video was playing on the air.

Hello?

The names of all three servicemen were right there on the videotape -- in Serbian, granted, but in HUGE OBVIOUS PRINT -- directly under the faces of each soldier as they were shown individually.

Duh.

Figuring this out was hardly a stretch. Serbian is phonetic, albeit with Cyrillic characters. Any speaker of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Macedonian, or several other Slavic languages could read the names instantly. I speak maybe thirty or forty words in all those languages combined, and even I could read the prisoners' names easily.

Evidently, during a state of war with Serbia, there's not a single person at supposedly the world's leading TV news outlet who speaks Serbian. Or Russian. Or any Slavic language.

Would CNN have covered World War II without anyone on staff who could translate Mein Kampf?

Is it possible that the classy news joint that brings us Bob Novak, Al Hunt, and John Sununu doesn't employ a single person who at least knows enough to realize all that fancy writing probably means something? Or even owns a freaking dictionary with which to transliterate a freeze frame?

OK. Maybe that's asking too much. Fine.

But how about this: the soldiers' surnames were also plainly visible in the videotape -- and in English -- above the right shirt pocket of their uniforms.

And the TV anchors, who are presumably neither blind nor stupid -- although I'm learning to keep an open mind -- prattled over and over that they had no information as to the men's identities.

DUH.

I don't mean to pick on CNN per se. I only have one TV -- which feels a little like saying, "I only have one flesh-eating bacterial infection" -- so I didn't get the chance to see if Fox or MSNBC or maybe somebody on the Weather Channel figured out what all those funny letters meant. Probably not.

We live in an era where war reporting consists largely of Pentagon-approved reporters repeating Pentagon statements and press releases over combat footage provided by the Pentagon.

Which affects public opinion. Which affects national policy. And eventually, it affects even our ability to think for ourselves.

If the Pentagon says that three captured servicemen have not been identified, then their identities are indeed unknown -- even when their names are right in front of our eyes.

My sister now understands better what's going on in Kosovo, precisely because she's no longer waiting around for Laurie Dhue and Laura Ingraham to show her more scary pictures. She's reading up on the subject and forming her own opinion.

Word is that Bill Clinton has recently started reading a book on the history of the region, too.

How thoughtful, after bombing it for a week.



And now, something completely unrelated...

All over Alabama, people are buzzing with joy: thanks to a District Court ruling, sex toys are again legal.

Let's back up here. Actually, Alabama was home to two bizarre political stories this week, both of which revolve around issues usually best kept private.

Weird story #1: Lieutenant Governor Steve Windom presides over a thin majority in the Alabama state Senate, where there was a petty squabble over the house rules. And Windom realized that his opposition would seize the moment and take control if he so much as took a bathroom break.

So he didn't.

Instead, he brought along a pitcher, and for two days the Senate chamber also served as Windom's personal water chamber. Eventually, the opposition relented, possibly just from the smell.

This is why the Lieutenant Governor is called the Number Two man in the state.

At least the dude sticks to principle, among other things. I'd suggest a run at the White House, but frankly, naming the guy king might be more appropriate. After all, he's already proven he can preside over a throne.

Weird story #2: The state of Alabama actually tried to outlaw sex toys. Of course, then only outlaws will have sex toys, and frankly, you don't want the criminals having all the fun.

The law, written by state Senator Tom Butler -- who obviously has more issues than National Geographic -- punished the sale of such devices with up to a year in prison. And what a fine place to clear up any unusual sexual habits prison can be.

It wasn't long before the law was challenged in District Court by six women, each of whom either who sells, distributes, or just really really likes the device in question. As Sherri Williams, the owner of a store called Pleasures, explained, "I'm not just going to lay down and die."

Certainly not in the Shakespearean sense, anyway.

Fortunately, the judge ruled the law was -- in sophisticated legal terms -- insane.

Good thing, too. Otherwise, Alabama law would have an unusual set of priorities:

In Alabama, it would be OK for the Lieutenant Governor to spend two solid days peeing into an armload of tupperware in front of the entire state Senate.

But he couldn't touch himself with a vibrator.

That would be indecent.

In Alabama, vibrators would be considered dangerous to the public and therefore outlawed.

Handguns would be fine. Handguns would be considered constitutionally protected. But not vibrators. Not unless you can get so worked up you can fire a bullet.

Which is doubtful.

In Alabama, the Attorney General, a Republican, would have argued successfully that there is no fundamental right to sell, advertise, or purchase a product solely in pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Ever heard of Viagra?

Gee, I guess Alabama would have to lock up Bob Dole.

Thank God someone is finally trying to stand up to these dangerous sex criminals.


Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.

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