Posted by: sean | July 29, 2005

Darfur and Michael Jackson

On Tuesday, Kristof showed us in the Times just how lamentable the American press has been about covering the genocide in Darfur. Generally, Kristof has reserved his criticism for Bush, counting the days of Bush’s silence on the issue (141 as of May 31). But this time, he has been focusing, correctly to my mind, on the press’s lack of Darfur coverage:

[T]o 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.”

I’m outraged that one of my Times colleagues, Judith Miller, is in jail for protecting her sources. But if we journalists are to demand a legal privilege to protect our sources, we need to show that we serve the public good – which means covering genocide as seriously as we cover, say, Tom Cruise. In some ways, we’ve gone downhill: the American news media aren’t even covering the Darfur genocide as well as we covered the Armenian genocide in 1915.

He goes on to tell us that “newsweeklies should be embarrassed that better magazine coverage of Darfur has often been in Christianity Today.” But, according to Kristof, the worst media failure comes from, as usual, television news. Here’s how much coverage the TV networks gave Darfur last year:

ABC: 18 minutes
NBC: 05 minutes
CBS: 03 minutes

By contrast, these three networks gave Martha Stewart 130 minutes of coverage last year. Furthermore, after 2 years of genocide, NBC has still yet to send a reporter to the region. But in case you think that networks don’t want to send reporters to Africa, Kristof reminds us that ABC was able to send Diane Sawyer to Africa for a special hourlong edition of “Primetime Live” — to cover Brad Pitt. To emphasize his point, Kristof gives us some more star spangled numbers:

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.

So there you have it, in the UK, the BBC has unsurprisingly done an excellent job of covering Darfur, but in the US, the television press star has been mtvU.

This letter to the editor shows the most depressing thing about the lack of Darfur coverage:

To the Editor:

Nicholas D. Kristof’s criticism of the news media for their lack of coverage of the genocide in Darfur is well founded. But this criticism begs an important question: Is the American news media’s silence on the Darfur genocide a product of journalistic negligence, or is it a result of the American public’s apathy toward conflicts in Africa?

Though neither alternative is desirable, the first is unquestionably preferable to the second. While bad journalism can be dealt with, a nationwide indifference toward human suffering in Africa is a possibility almost too frightening to fathom.

Wes Henricksen
San Diego, July 26, 2005

Naïve Mr. Henriscksen starts to address the real issue, but while it’s clear that the press is not doing it’s job, what’s really disconcerting is that the they are giving the American public exactly what it wants: Tom Cruise, Jue Law and Michael Jackson. “Nationwide indifference toward human suffering in Africa,” or the rest of the world for that matter, is most certainly not “too frightening to fathom.” It’s par for the course.

But there are some people in the US who have been paying special attention to Darfur. Professor Eric Reeves, of Smith College, has been on unpaid leave since 1999 in order to research and publicize the conflicts in Sudan. The New Republic online is offering a one week “crash course” on Darfur by Reeves, which is worth taking a look at for a good introduction to the issue. For more information, you can visit Protect Darfur, an informative British website on the issue, or you can sign a petition by Africa Action demanding US action in order to stop the genocide in Darfur.



  1. Sean,

    I appreciate your comments regarding the Darfur genocide, Mr. Kristof’s piece, and my letter to the editor regarding that piece. I think you’re right that the last sentence I threw into my letter–the “too frightening to fathom” sentence–sounds naive. However, while you and many others may rightly point out that Americans don’t seem to care about the suffering of foreigners (or the suffering of Americans, for that matter), I prefer to believe that part of the reason that that is so is the lack of media coverage of such suffering.

    There’s something to be said of America’s apathy. Indeed, it is legendary worldwide. But I think it is contributed to by several factors, including the media’s lack of coverage of worldwide events such as the Darfur genocide. Other factors include our geographic isolation from other countries, our large geographic size, and our economic and military dominance.

    In short, although America’s apathy toward tragedies such as the Darfur genocide may be, in your words “par for the course,” I believe that Americans are not so by their nature. And they would become much less so if people in places of influence would lead the charge in opening Americans’ minds to the suffering of the neediest at home and abroad.

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