A Good Reason for Media-Bashing

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A Good Reason for Media-Bashing

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof takes his fellow media professionals out to the woodshed, and rightly so. He writes:
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.

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.

... 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.

... 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 .... Serious newspapers have done the best job of covering Darfur, and I take my hat off to Emily Wax of The Washington Post and to several colleagues at The Times for their reporting. Time magazine gets credit for putting Darfur on its cover -- but the newsweeklies should be embarrassed that better magazine coverage of Darfur has often been in Christianity Today.

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.

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.

"Generally speaking, it's been a total vacuum," said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, speaking of television coverage. "I blame policy makers for not making better policy, but it sure would be easier if we had more media coverage."

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.

... 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 while we have every right to criticize Mr. Bush for his passivity, I hope that he criticizes us back. We've behaved as disgracefully as he has.

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