Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Or Never Say "Never Again" Again

The "situation" in Darfur - a euphemism for genocide - is one that belies simple solutions, or even clear cut routes along which to pursue difficult solutions. Obviously, the Sudan's cooperation in the effort to counter extremist groups is an important foreign policy consideration, and as such the interventionist approach is not without obvious costs. Further, the various intra- (and inter-) national players involved and their sometimes competing interests (read: China's cozying up to the Sudanese regime in exchange for oil contracts) only adds threads to the gordian knot constricting around the neck of the beleagured people in the Darfur region. Nevertheless, the paucity of coverage this ongoing crisis is receiving both in the American media and its exalted political circles is astounding. The lack of an easy answer to the crisis is no excuse for the inattention. The lack of coverage also has costs. Without the public's focus on the mass-salughter, it becomes less likely that politicians and policymakers will feel pressured to forge any response at all.

After the world, America included, looked on with passivity as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered, we heard the now familiar refrain, "Never again." Such impassioned declarations, apparently, have the shelf life of under a decde. What was Clinton's most profound failure, has morphed into Bush's updated version. Despite his often lofty rhetoric about freedom and tyranny, this is one policy area where President Bush has largely ignored the strong convictions of the religious right in America - who have been amongst the most vocal and vigilant about trying to halt the continuing violence and mass murder.

In case you missed it Nicholas Kristof recently did his part to rebuke his fellow journalists for their dereliction of duty:

Some of us in the news media have been hounding President Bush for his shameful passivity in the face of genocide in Darfur.

More than two years have passed since the beginning of what Mr. Bush acknowledges is the first genocide of the 21st century, yet Mr. Bush barely manages to get the word "Darfur" out of his mouth. Still, it seems hypocritical of me to rage about Mr. Bush's negligence, when my own beloved institution - the American media - has been at least as passive as Mr. Bush.[...]

This is a column I don't want to write - we in the media business have so many critics already that I hardly need to pipe in as well. But after more than a year of seething frustration, I feel I have to.

Like many others, I drifted toward journalism partly because it seemed an opportunity to do some good. (O.K., O.K.: it was also a blast, impressed girls and offered the glory of the byline.) But to sustain the idealism in journalism - and to rebut the widespread perception that journalists are just irresponsible gossips - we need to show more interest in the first genocide of the 21st century than in the "runaway bride."
A look inside the numbers provides the evidence to back up Kristof's accusations:

The real failure has been television's. According to monitoring by the Tyndall Report, ABC News had a total of 18 minutes of the Darfur genocide in its nightly newscasts all last year - and that turns out to be a credit to Peter Jennings. NBC had only 5 minutes of coverage all last year, and CBS only 3 minutes - about a minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths. In contrast, Martha Stewart received 130 minutes of coverage by the three networks.[...]

If only Michael Jackson's trial had been held in Darfur. Last month, CNN, Fox News, NBC, MSNBC, ABC and CBS collectively ran 55 times as many stories about Michael Jackson as they ran about genocide in Darfur.

The BBC has shown that outstanding television coverage of Darfur is possible. And, incredibly, mtvU (the MTV channel aimed at universities) has covered Darfur more seriously than any network or cable station. When MTV dispatches a crew to cover genocide and NBC doesn't, then we in journalism need to hang our heads. [emphasis added]
Even when the networks have begrudgingly turned their gaze to the region, it has been in the context of American-centric celebrity and sensationalism.

Incredibly, more than two years into the genocide, NBC, aside from covering official trips, has still not bothered to send one of its own correspondents into Darfur for independent reporting.

When I've asked television correspondents about this lapse, they've noted that visas to Sudan are difficult to get and that reporting in Darfur is expensive and dangerous. True, but TV crews could at least interview Darfur refugees in nearby Chad. After all, Diane Sawyer traveled to Africa this year - to interview Brad Pitt, underscoring the point that the networks are willing to devote resources to cover the African stories that they consider more important than genocide.[...]

Condi Rice finally showed up in Darfur a few days ago, and she went out of her way to talk to rape victims and spotlight the sexual violence used to terrorize civilians. Most American television networks and cable programs haven't done that much.

Even the coverage of Ms. Rice's trip underscored our self-absorption. The manhandling of journalists accompanying Ms. Rice got more coverage than any massacre in Darfur has.
In response to Kristof's rant, a group of media executives issued a rebuttal containing many of the usual excuses like viewer interest, competing demands, resource allocation and related cost concerns.

Most editors who spoke with E&P agreed that the Darfur story should get more attention due to its seriousness. But, each reminded Kristoff of the realities at today's daily papers. Budget cuts, other worldwide stories like Irag and terrorism, and limited reader interest, require a broad approach, they said.

"If we don't cover the Michael Jacksons, that will be our demise," said John Yearwood, world editor of The Miami Herald. "That is what the public wants. But, we ought to make the commitment to also give Darfur or Rwanda attention if we can."
First, I would like to point out that despite the factors listed, nothing justifies the landslide of coverage given to runaway brides, missing white females and celebrity trials. It is not a choice between no coverage at all on the one hand, and the hours of panel discussions, probing of minutae and repetition of the same, on the other. Something resembling a better balance is possible without the result being the economic "demise" of the media outlet in question - and if such balance is not possible absent dire consequences, then maybe there are structural flaws that need to be addressed.

Which brings me to my next point. If media companies cannot exist in an environment in which they are able to report on actual newsworthy events, then perhaps the marketplace is not best-suited to deliver the type of news that a well informed populace requires in a healthy, functioning democracy. Forgive such heresy, but I think that when the major networks and 24-hour cable stations are preoccupied with making edgy, smartly packaged, human interest fluff and infotainment, maybe capitalism is not the solution in this particular setting. In light of this, someone should tell Ken Tomlinson to back off of Public Broadcasting and NPR. The fact that those entities operate on a public charter, without the hyperfocus on Nielsen ratings and profits, frees them to make editorial choices based on the profundity of the story, not which celebrity or pseudo-celebrity was involved. PBS and NPR need more money and editorial freedom, not lean budgets and politically partisan censorship and oversight. They are fast becoming the only American outlets to turn for real news coverage. Other than MTV and The Daily Show that is.

(cross-posted at LAT)

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