Samantha Power in Bosnia: A Poster Child for Toxic Advocacy Journalism

Ted Galen Carpenter

The adverse consequences flowing from Yugoslavia’s slow-motion disintegration in the 1990s impacted the entire country, but the turmoil and human tragedy was especially pronounced in Bosnia. Three major ethno-religious groups there—Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Muslims—all maneuvered for advantage in a brass knuckles political, and ultimately a military, struggle. All three factions engaged in ethnic cleansing—attempting to expel all ethnic groups other than their own—whenever they gained control of a geographic region. Fighters in all three armies also committed various atrocities. Serb forces seemed somewhat more inclined to engage in such conduct, but the scope of their offenses, both in numbers and severity, was not hugely disproportionate.

The picture that most Western journalists painted was far from balanced, however. In the overwhelming majority of media accounts, Bosnia’s murky, multisided struggle became a straight-forward war of Serbian aggression aimed at innocent Croat, and especially Muslim, civilians. The goal of those portrayals was to shame U.S. and NATO leaders into launching a military intervention to support the Muslim cause. Such melodramatic lobbying masquerading as journalism became the template for media coverage of subsequent conflicts in such places as Kosovo, Libya and Syria.

One idealistic young American epitomizing the commitment to shrill advocacy journalism in Bosnia was Samantha Power, who in a few more years would achieve fame covering the genocide in Rwanda and publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on that tragedy and the overall issue of genocide. Power was a rising star who eventually would be a high-level foreign policy adviser (culminating with her service as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) in Barack Obama’s administration.

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