Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories

+ Say, is that a sack of wheat in your closet?   Wondering why your neighbor's garage is stacked with filled burlap bags? Or why the apartment elevator often has the earthy smell of a grain elevator? You can blame Y2K hysteria -- maybe helped along by The San Francisco Chronicle.

In the Chronicle's June 4 regional edition appeared stories of individuals hunkering down for snafus on New Year 2000. Along with an inspiring story of neighbors preparing to help neighbors was a sidebar with this checklist:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency makes the following recommendations:
Stock per person, per month:
  • Wheat: 20 pounds
  • Powdered milk (for babies): 20 pounds
  • Corn: 20 pounds
  • Iodized salt: 1 pound
  • Soybeans: 10 pounds
Is the federal government really so nervous about Y2K that it's asking all of us to sock away more than 50 pounds of raw grain? Not at all -- those were the old FEMA recommendations for nuclear war, army invasion, or other massive catastrophe.

"We suggest that people prepare [for New Year's 2000] as they would for a severe winter storm -- have enough supplies around for about three days," says FEMA spokesman Mark Wilson. "We've certainly never recommended that everyone buy 20 pound sacks of grain. That would be a disaster in itself, a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Perhaps more worrisome, that misleading list of "FEMA recommendations" is now circulating both on the Internet and in print. It appears on the "Individual Preparation for Y2K" web page from The Cassandra Project, a popular clearinghouse for Y2K information that claims to receive 500,000 visitors per month. Under the heading of "What You Need," it accurately notes that FEMA says these are "long-term food supplies," but neglects to include the important disclaimer that FEMA makes these suggestions "in the unlikely event of a military attack or some other national disaster..." (See FEMA web site.) Others may have found the same recommendations in a pamphlet produced by Utne Reader, which was written by the Cassandra Project founder.

Wilson says that FEMA will issue a statement to stop the spread of the misleading information, but it may prove difficult to debunk, like trying to snuff out an urban legend. Come spring 2000, more than a few garages and closets will be crowded with unopened bags of corn, soybeans, and wheat. As a result, it's likely that the most damaging Y2K bugs will be a plague of weevils and roaches feasting on that immense stockpile. (June 4, 1999)

+ The Search for Serb Atrocities   In the weeks leading to the NATO bombing of Serbia, a propaganda war was already underway. As introduced in an earlier Monitor 404 item, the American press spun tales of great horrors: there was a Serb concentration camps in a sports stadium and reports of horrible Serb atrocities. But a French reporter found the stadium empty, and the French press also noted that the source of atrocity claims came from the controversial KLA rebels fighting the Serbs.

The French reporters weren't the only ones telling both sides of the story; the British press also did a yeoman's job in war reporting, even though their government was as gung-ho for pounding the Serbs with bombs as the Clinton Administration. Consider the balanced reports from London Guardian journalist Audrey Gillan. After visiting Macedonian refugee camps in April, she wrote heartbreaking stories of brutality by roving gangs of Serb thugs, then also wrote about misdeeds on the other side, such as the KLA buying £ 4 million of guns on the black market, purchased in part with profits linked to heroin smuggling.

Gillian also showed how stories get distorted during times of war -- for both cynical and innocent reasons. Like other reporters, she arrived in Macedonia to verify reports of Serbian atrocities and "rape camps," the latter being a claim made by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. "Young women are being separated from the refugee columns," he had famously said, "and forced to undergo systematic rape in an army camp. We have evidence from many refugees who have managed to escape that others were taken to rape camps." Wrote Gillian:

...Among the rape victims arriving in Macedonia nobody spoke of anything like the camps the British Foreign Secretary referred to. Benedicte Giaever [a field coordinator for human rights group OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] told me there had been rape, but not systematic and not on a grand scale. The same was true of the killing. "We don't have big numbers," she said. "What we have are consistent small numbers -- two here, five there, ten here, seven there."

"...These people have just arrived and I would say they are still under a lot of stress and tension," Giaever says. "In that situation, 5 people can easily turn into 75. It's not that they want to lie but often they are confused. It's not to say it didn't happen. But a story could have moved around from village to village and everyone from that village tells it as if it happened to them."

No matter how hard she looked, Gillian and her colleagues just couldn't find evidence of the mass murders that NATO was touting.
[Ben Ward, a researcher for Human Rights Watch] doesn't think there is evidence of mass executions. "It is very rare for people not to know someone who knows about people being killed. But there doesn't appear to be anything to support allegations of mass killings," he said. "It is generally paramilitaries who are responsible. It doesn't seem organized. There appear to be individual acts of sadism rather than anything else..."

...Ward believes that those who stayed longer in Kosovo have been subjected to more violence, that many have been terrorized because they have stayed so long. Many have fled terror but some of those Ward spoke to said they were fleeing the NATO bombs. "The Serbs didn't touch us until NATO attacked," a Kosovar told him.

That article of Gillian's appeared in the London Review of Books, May 27. Like the rest of her excellent Kosovo reporting, it hasn't appeared anywhere in the American press -- more about this in the item below. (June 1, 1999)

+ Next step, the Holocaust   Near the end of Audrey Gillan's article on her failed quest to find evidence of mass atrocities in Kosovo (see Monitor 404 item above), she writes:

Another senior OSCE source spoke even more clearly than any of us were inclined to do. He told me he suspected that the Kosovo Liberation Army had been persuading people to talk in bigger numbers, to crank up the horror so that NATO might be persuaded to send ground troops in faster. Robin Cook's rape camp was the same thing, he said: an attempt to get the British public behind the bombing. And wasn't all this a lesson in how propaganda works in modern war?

Throughout the Kosovo War, there was a steady escalation of propaganda. In March, the Serbs were operating concentration camps. In April, the theme became Serb rape camps. And in May, overreaching rhetoric suggested that a Holocaust was at hand.

The spectre of Nazi Germany was raised by Clinton in a May 13 speech, where he said that Serbs had conducted a "vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred." Painting Milosevic as the new Hitler, the president continued: "Political leaders do this kind of thing. Do you think the Germans would have perpetrated the Holocaust on their own without Hitler? Was there something in the history of the German race that made them do this? No. We've got to get straight about this; this is something political leaders do... though his ethnic cleansing is not the same as the ethnic extermination of the Holocaust, the two are related; both are vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred."

Invoking Hitler and the Holocaust is the trump card in American political debate; politicians know that this raises quick emotions, but with risk of backlash anger. Why did an artful fellow like Bill Clinton take such a chance? Likely it was a suggestion of Leslie Dach.

Just before Clinton's Holocaust speech, PR maven Dach was hired by the White House for a special 30-day assignment to improve the public's view of the war on Serbia. "There's a feeling that the next month is critical in terms of American public opinion," the Washington Post quoted an anonymous source reportedly familiar with Dach's assignment. Dach has consulted for the Democratic party since the Dukakis presidential campaign. Besides the Post, only the Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe noted the hiring of Dach, who heads the Washington office of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. But no media noted that the White House has used PR flacks to stir up public ire before.

As a sidebar to his excellent feature, The Judi Bari Bombing Revisited: Big Timber, Public Relations and the FBI, author Nicholas Wilson includes a valuable sidebar titled, Lies, Damn Lies and the PR Industry. If you haven't read that yet, we urge you to do so now. There he shows how another PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, similarly whipped up support for U.S. entry into the Gulf War against Iraq. One of their most successful deceptions was the famous incubator story: "...I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators ... and left the children to die on the cold floor," said "Nayirah, " a 15-year old Kuwaiti girl. Only much later was it revealed that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and hospital officials interviewed after the Gulf War had ended said no infants had been dumped from incubators.

It will take some time for the truth in our current war propaganda to sift out. Maybe the rape camp story is real, or maybe it's another fake like the baby incubators. But right now, any reports of systematic atrocities should be justly viewed with skepticism. Gillan certainly came away from the experience with a cynical view: "Watching the television images and listening to the newscasters thunder about further reports of Serb massacres and of genocide, I feel uneasy about saying that they have very little to go on. Yet almost every newspaper journalist I spoke to privately in Macedonia felt the same way. The story being seen at home is different from the one that appeared to be happening on the ground." (June 1, 1999)

+ Chevron decides what's news   Ready for a quiz? Imagine this: A United States Senator holds a press conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the last minute, however, one veteran reporter is barred. Did he offend the Senator? No, he was blocked by the transnational corporation hosting the Senator's conference. It seems that his news organization had revealed embarassing information about the company. Now here's the test: this outrageous act of journalistic censorship was reported in A) a few national newspapers, B) most papers in the Bay Area, C) just a single newspaper. The answer is C, but that's not even the punchline -- that lone newspaper is in far-away Nigeria.

In mid-May, the Lagos Guardian explained to Nigerians that Chevron officials had blocked Wendell Harper, an accredited radio news reporter with twenty years of experience, from attending a March 29 news conference by Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Harper reports for KPFA, whose parent organization is Pacifica Radio. Last year, a different reporter for Pacifica won journalism awards for exposing Chevron's involvement in the murder of Nigerian protesters.

Fred Gurrell of Chevron's Public Affairs office told KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya that "Pacifica does not report news" and hung up on her. When the Lagos Guardian asked Gurrell why Chevron would make such an assertion concerning a fifty year-old news organization, he simply said: "That is our opinion."

Speaking from San Francisco corporate headquarters, Gurrell later told the Nigerian paper, "When we hold news conferences we invite news reporters, not advocates. News conferences are for news. But if Pacifica makes an inquiry to us, we will consider it as we do for other advocacy groups. But news conferences are for reporters. We consider Radio Pacifica as an advocacy group."

Chevron hates KPFA and Pacifica because of a story last year by "Democracy Now" reporter Amy Goodman, who investigated allegations that Chevron had loaned helicopters to Nigerian troops last May to remove demonstrators occupying a Chevron offshore drilling platform. The troops shot and killed two of the demonstrators and wounded others. The occupiers later told Pacifica they'd thought the helicopters were bringing Chevron representatives to discuss their demands for community improvements and repair of environmental damage caused by the company.

Chevron press releases admitted that they flew the Nigerian soldiers to the platform, but claimed that the protesters were armed and holding hostages. In addition, the corporation said, "it has no responsibility for the use of commercial equipment and facilities by the regime for military purposes." Such claims of innocence anger Nigerian activists, who say that the military's notorious "mobile police," are commonly known as the "kill 'n' go." In a similar incident a few months later, troops also attacked villages and set houses ablaze, killing four or more. Human rights groups claimed that Chevron trucks, helicopters, and boats were likewise involved in this January, 1999 incident.

Feinstein, by the way, was at the refinery to thank Chevron for their support of her efforts to eliminate MTBE from California gasoline, a topic completely unrelated to the corporation's gripe with Pacifica. Her office has made no statement about Chevron's censorship of KPFA reporter Wendell Harper. Nor has her office made any statement about human rights abuses in Nigeria. In March, however, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D - Ohio) called for a congressional investigation, as reported in the Monitor. "By continuing to operate with impunity behind the shield of such military repression, U.S. oil companies are accepting extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses as just another cost of doing business in Nigeria," Kucinich said. (May 24, 1999)

PREVIOUS 404 Report

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor Issue 62 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.