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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Gelber describes time in Bosnia

David Gelber, executive producer for Ed Bradley of CBS' "60 Minutes," spoke Saturday about his experiences covering the war in Bosnia and the impact of television on the media as part of this year's Senior Symposium.

Visiting Professor of Film Studies David Ehrlich introduced his childhood friend with an anecdote about when a five-year-old Gelber informed him that Santa Claus did not exist.

"Since then, he's been proving that what you think is the case, is not really the case," Ehrlich said.

Gelber has covered several wars in the past ten years, but "Bosnia was by far the most challenging experience," he said. During his presentation, he showed 20 minutes of his special "How UN Peacekeeping Failed in Bosnia" which he produced for ABC and Peter Jennings in April 1995. The program focused on the 1994 Serbian assault on Gorazde, a UN-designated safe haven in Bosnia.

While filming in Gorazde, Gelber received home video tapes recorded by the besieged citizens.

"In Bosnia, for the first time in modern history, people had video cameras and could record what was happening to them during the war," Gelber said. "The tapes were amazing, phenomenal... I knew I needed to make this film."

He and the ABC crew smuggled the tapes through Serbian checkpoints by hiding them in their underwear.

"We were trying to be cool. I've never been more freaked out or terrified in my life," he said.

Answering a question as to why he and Jennings chose to focus specifically on Gorazde, Gelber cited a shared belief that had the Bosnian victims been Christians or Jews, Americans would have been more involved.

"Muslims tend to get screwed in the American media," he said.

He said ABC did not initially support the story, but Jennings pushed for its production. Since ABC permitted Jennings to stay in Sarejavo for about 24 hours, only Gelber, a three-man ABC crew, and a fixer traveled to Gorazde. A fixer is a local hired by a news-team who knows the language and the area and can act as a guide and get the crew through tough checkpoints. Gelber called the fixers "the heroes of the coverage."

Gelber said ABC did not want to do the story at first because "foreign news is a loser" for television ratings. Networks rely more and more on focus groups to determine what stories people want to see. The current trend in American media is to turn away from foreign news.

CBS used to adhere to the standard of "tell people what they need to know" when it came to news programming. "60 Minutes" changed the industry by showing the networks they could actually make money in the news business, Gelber said.

Still, 35 percent of 60 Minutes' stories are of foreign news, which is "unheard of" in the news business today.

Gelber said reporters in Bosnia felt they were showing the world a scaled-down version of what happened in Germany during World War II.

"Then, people didn't know about [the genocide], and now people knew about it," he said.

But Gelber also said that the reports sent back to the U.S. did not always make headline news.

"The only time we could make an impact was when there was some grotesque massacre," he said, referring to the 1994 shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace that killed over 60 people.

Large disasters increase interest in foreign events, from both the networks and the American government. But when the excitement dies down, they again become unwilling to get involved, Gelber said.

Commenting on recent events in Kosovo, Gelber raised some pertinent questions.

"What do we do now in a world in which genocide is used as a tool of policy by certain groups, and what is America's role going to be as the only superpower in the world?" he asked.

Kosovo is a place where this is being tested, he said, and the question then becomes whether or not Americans are going to die in order to stop genocide.

"I am certainly an interventionist for Kosovo," Gelber said, "I believe in it."