Defamation vs. Poor Jurnalism: My B92 TV Interview

On the last day of October I appeared to have been libeled on B92, a leading “pro-Western” TV network in Serbia, in a live program in which I appeared as an invited guest.

It subsequently transpired that the network used an unpleasant quote from an article published under my name – but without my knowledge or authorization – in a leading Belgrde daily newspaper. Welcome to the brave new world of southeast Europe’s transitional journalism, post-communist style.

Last Thursday, October 30, I received a call on my cell phone in Belgrade — which I am currently visiting – from a producer with B92 Television, a national conglomerate regarded as the most pro-Western corporation in the country. I was invited to take part in “The State of The Nation” (Stanje nacije), a 30-minute current affairs program that was going to be broadcast live at 6 p.m. the following day, Friday, October 31, and presented by Milos Maksimovic. The topic was to be the forthcoming presidential election in the United States.

I accepted this invitation although I disagree with many positions taken by the B92, because appearing on a network does not imply endorsement of its editorial policy. I have appeared on B92 before, notably on a popular Sunday panel-style program “The Week’s Impression” (Utisak nedelje). Likewise over the years I have accepted invitations from the BBC, CBC, Sky News, ITN, MSNBC, etc. on more than one hundred occasions – although I disagree with many aspects of their corporate philosophy, reportage, or editorial commentary.

While introducing the other guest, former government minister Professor Zarko Korac, the presenter said that “Trifkovic is in the habit of describing McCain as a neurotic cockroach” (koji ima obicaj da nazove Mekejna neuroticnom bubasvabom). I have never said or written anything of the kind, but I did not correct him right away because I was initially uncertain whether he was giving a personal, somewhat colorful interpretative summary of my views of Sen. McCain, or providing a purported verbatim quote.

Having reviewed the recording of the program, I established that the latter was the case: the presenter alleged that I am in the habit of calling John McCain “a neurotic cockroach,” straight and simple. This was an ostensibly factual statement that, to the best of my recollection, was simply not true. I’ve never used the term “cockroach” in connection with Mr. McCain, however apt it may appear to my friends and allies.

Subsequently it turned out that B92’s editors were well covered, legally and even factually. As I learnt today (Sunday, November 2), the said Belgrade daily Glas javnosti published an article four months ago (on July 4, 2008) under my name and under the headline May God Help Us All (“Neka nam Bog bude na pomoći”). In that article, to my chagrin, the incriminated phrase – ”neurotic cockroach” – does appear. This article was an inept translation of a commentary published on this very site on July 1 (Obama the “Patriot”). It is easy to establish that the term I used to describe the illustrious Mr. McCain was not “cockroach” but “scumbag.”

I have never seen this article. It goes without saying that I had not authorized its text prior to publication. I was blissfully unaware of its existence until after the B92 ”State of the Nation: program was broadcast. Glas javnosti is by and large a decent and professionally edited newspaper, but on this particular occason they erred badly, thus providing an opportunity to the B92 crowd to embarrass me.

The paper assures me that they will publish an apology and an explanation on Tuesday, November 4.

I do not look forward to any heads rolling there. I hope that they will take this episode to heart, however, as a warning against the deluge of frivolity, sensationalism, and tastelessness that permeates the media scene in Serbia and other post-communist countries of eastern and south-eastern Europe.

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