For ten years now, I've been writing about the Balkans. Among other things, this has involved parsing through media reports, identifying the catchphrases and "editorial guidance". For a year, back in 1995, I had the firsthand experience of how the "news" were made, and it bears an uncanny resemblance to sausage-making. Even so, there are days when I look at what passes for news reporting and go "... what?"
Today, for example, I saw a headline from AFP, "Balkan hopefuls trip over past on way to EU." I open the story, and what do I see? A lazy journalist, a story cobbled together from snippets of local gossip, and some busy editors peddling propaganda talking points. No wonder the news media are dying.
First of all, saying that "the past still bedevils ties between Balkan neighbours" is not news. It's an observation on par with "the water is wet". In other words, superfluous and pointless.
The occasion for this piece of non-news was the visit by Serbian president Boris Tadic to Pale, in the Serb part of Bosnia (RS), where he opened an elementary school. The AFP dutifully reported that this "infuriated" Muslim and Croat officials, who saw in this "an obvious show of special relations" between Belgrade and the RS. According to the AFP writer, it also "stirred up suspicions regarding Belgrade's respect of the Dayton accords."
Earth to AFP: the "special relations" provision is in the Dayton Agreement. It's all perfectly legal and aboveboard.
Now, it is true that Tadic didn't bother coming to Sarajevo, and that this may well be considered a diplomatic faux pas. At the same time, the Bosnian Muslim top cleric, Mustafa Ceric, visited Serbia recently, stirring up the Muslims in Raska region and openly supporting the "independence" of the occupied Kosovo. He also called for incorporating the Sharia (Islamic law) into the Bosnian Constitution (!). That, by the way, went almost entirely unreported in the Western press.
No, the real "news" is AFP quoting Srecko Latal, a rumor-monger working for the IWPR (BIRN, whatever they call themselves these days), who offered up the "fact" that "the idea of Greater Serbia... is still alive" among Serbian nationalist voters.
Latal's name pops up with alarming frequency in Balkans reports of major newspapers and agencies. Why bother doing the legwork, or even copying government press releases (I sympathize; they are boring and poorly written) when you can just call up the BIRN office and have Latal provide some meaty quotes about how Bosnia is on the verge of a new war, or something similarly sensational?
The AFP reporter also includes two quotes by Tadic taken from the media, and another quote from a Serbian daily (with close links to Tadic's party), containing some nonsense about EU being the only hope for the fractious Balkans. I mean, come on! This passes for reporting these days? Call up the usual source, paste in a couple quotes from the press, offer up a speculative and truth-free account of what happened... This can all be done from a laptop at a Starbucks in Paris. AFP hardly needs to pay a reporter to sit in Belgrade, if this is all they are going to get.
To recap a non-story: Serbian president Boris Tadic, an Imperial boot-licker who could hardly in a million years be called a "nationalist" by anyone with half a brain, visits the Bosnian Serb Republic and opens a Serbian-sponsored school. Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic gets worked up and issues a hysterical statement. AFP doesn't actually quote the statement, because there's nothing worthwhile in it, but puts together a story from press clippings and editorial guidance, in line with Silajdzic's claim - and similarly unrelated to the truth.
This is why I refuse to be called a journalist. I actually work for a living.