Media blackout on Darfur

Fewer villages in Darfur are left to be destroyed,butthe killing — and the use of rape as a weapon by the Sudan government’s Janjaweed and soldiers — continues. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the BBC on July 3: “We have learned nothing from Rwanda,” an atrocity which we were told would never happen again.

Eric Reeves of Smith College in Massachusetts, the principal historian of the horrors in Darfur, wrote on Aug.11(www.sudanreeves.org) that the genocide there could become “much worse” as “the international community has abandoned these people to genocide by attrition.” And on Sept. 8, Salih Booker, executive director of Washington-based AfricaAction, warned:”The death toll continues to mount.” The Americanmedia, withfewexceptions,havealso largely abandoned Darfur.In”All EarsforTom Cruise, All Eyes on Brad Pitt” in the July 26 New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has often reported from the killing fields, writes: “If only Michael Jackson’s trial had been held in Darfur.” Mr. Kristof noted that: “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 (except for ‘60 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.” This appalling performance by broadcast and cable television is not surprising if you believe newspapers are invariably the source of in-depth coverage of vital stories.

There has indeed been serious reporting on Darfur in The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times and other papers; but most of the print media have little to be proud of in their coverage of this genocide, whose total deaths could well reach more than 1 million by the end of the year, thereby topping the numberofcorpsesin Rwanda.

In the July 26 Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp interviewededitors across the country (“Newspaper Editors Shoot Back at Kristof’s Darfur Complaint”).

Steve Butler, foreigneditorof Knight Ridder, explained that,”We have been keeping our Iraq coverage going and that is a moreimportant story.IthasU.S. soldiers there, people are very interested in it, and it lends itself better to breaking news.”

Of course, Iraq requires extensive coverage, but to what extent are a newspaper’s priorities dependent on the degree of current reader interest? Isn’t it also our responsibility to inform readers of crucial stories in which they would have little or no interest until we tell them through our reporting? As for Darfur being deficient in breaking news, every morning before I go to work, I click onto a number of Web sites, starting with the Paris-based Sudan Tribune (sudantribune.com). I start there because I have been covering the Khartoum government’s crimes against its people for more than six years.

From a range of international news sources on the Sudan Tribune site, I have picked up many breaking stories, and have included them in previous columns.

In the Editor & Publisher roundup, most editors tried to exculpate themselves by agreeing that “the Darfur story should get more attention due to its seriousness. But, each reminded Kristof of the realities at today’s daily papers. Budget cuts, other worldwide stories like Iraq and terrorism, and limited reader interest, require a broad approach, they said.” Broad, indeed! How many stories about Darfur, and how often, have you seen in your daily paper? Well, it’s your fault if you haven’t seen much. You haven’t shown sufficient “reader interest.”

After all, as John Yearwood, world editor of the Miami Herald, told Editor & Publisher: “If we don’t cover the Michael Jacksons, that will be our demise. That is what the public wants. But, we ought to make the commitment to also give Darfur or Rwanda attention if we can.” It’s too late for Rwanda. And the refrain “if we can” conveys more of a dismissive approach than any sense of urgency about Darfur. Years from now, if somebody makes a movie on Darfur as powerful as Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” I expect there will be a compelling editorial on the tragedy of Darfur in the Miami Herald and other newspapers, whose readers hadn’tsomehow”demanded” more about Darfur back then.

But Mr. Kristof reminded all of us: “As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: ‘Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.’ ” On Sept. 18, Mr. Kristof reported: “One group, www.BeAWitness.org, prepared a television commercial (‘Genocide is News’) scolding the networks for neglecting the genocide and Washington affiliates of NBC, CBS and ABC all refused to run it.” Have they no shame?

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