Tuesday, July 26, 2005

My Darfur Failure

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff is upset with President Bush for failing to make the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan a high priority. But he also sees the news media as being caught up in covering inconsequential celebrity gossip more than the deaths of 300,000 people by the Sudanese government. He's also got the sorry numbers, comparing TV's coverage, for example, of things like the Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart trials to that of Darfur.

Writes Kristof:
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.
The late Neil Postman, in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, long ago catalogued and warned us of the implications of a media and a society so desperate for constant entertainment "product" that it fails to pay heed to things that are important.

In a sense, by its dearth of coverage of the genocide in Darfur and of other important matters, the media in this country and elsewhere, is simply giving us what we want. "We" being the public.

"We" want coverage of Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, and Tom Cruise because entertainers are our royalty, because we wish that we too could be fabulously wealthy, because we resent their wealth and prominence and would like to see them tarred and feathered. So, the media feeds us what we crave. Meanwhile, people are dying in what is at the least, a sub-theater of the war with world terrorism and Islamofascism.

In part, this state of affairs is a product of our wealth, that is, the wealth of we in the great American middle class. Clearly, by the standards of the world, those of us who compose this social class in America, are fabulously wealthy. We've got money and time on our hands, we like our comforts, and we enjoy ensconcing ourselves in our ever-enlarging suburban castles, popping a movie into the DVD, and being as disconnected from the world as is possible.

Like Cain, who killed his brother Abel, on being asked by God of the brother's whereabouts and condition, we're likely to answer, "Am I my brother's--or my sister's--keeper?"

Of course, the answer is, "Yes!" And while intellectually, we would agree with one of the central themes of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan--that our neighbor is whoever is in need--we claim to be too overwhelmed and too ill-informed to know what we can do not only for the people of Darfur, but for the person in the four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, three-car garage next to us. "I've got enough on my plate just trying to make a living and getting my kids to their soccer games to worry about other people's problems," we may say.

And if anyone should dare disrupt our carefully-constructed personal empires, we're apt to protest like the ancient Hebrews when the prophet Isaiah brought his disturbing messages from God, "Speak to us of smooth things."

I'll be quick to add that I'm at least as guilty of indifference as anybody else. Maybe more so. I live in a nice house in the suburbs. I pay too little attention to the pain of my neighbors. I offer too little money and too few prayers. I haven't peppered my congressional representatives, the White House, or the State Department with emails on the Darfur tragedies. I haven't made enough effort to find information that's on independent web sites and at such mainstream media sites as the one run by the BBC, which has done an excellent job covering Darfur.

Kristof is right to point to the failures of the media and our politicians to address this tragedy. But it's our failure too...and mine.

UPDATE: Ohio blogger Michael Meckler sent this very interesting comment on this post in an email. He's given me permission to share it with you:
I was particularly struck by your comment, "[W]e claim to be too overwhelmed and too ill-informed to know what we can do not only for the people of Darfur, but for the person in the four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, three-car garage next to us." I find the latter situation to be an even greater indictment than the former. Not to take anything away from the genocide in Darfur, but you are correct to associate the "I'm not listening" attitude concerning large-scale foreign tragedies with our failure to connect with our own neighbors and even with our own families.

I live in an area with many older residents, and I try to make time to visit. I am regularly stunned at how infrequently next-door neighbors and children and grandchildren who live in the same town bother to check up on these folks. For example, last week while visiting one older gentleman who no longer drives, I discovered he did not have any bread in his apartment or milk in his refrigerator. He asked if I would go to the store and get him some groceries to last a few days, and I was happy to do so. This gentleman, however, has a grandson who lives in town, but the elderly man didn't want to "bother him." Older folks can be that way, but clearly neither the grandson nor any neighbors had checked in on this gentleman for several days.

There are so many folks who are our neighbors who may be suffering from despair of one form or another, and these individual stories will never make the news either. Yet these individuals are the ones whom it is the easiest to help. All it takes is a willingness to listen, to pay a little attention and to spend a little time.
And Hugh Hewitt has this to say about Nicholas Kristoff's piece:
...Nicholas Kristof is blasting the president and MSM for not doing enough on Darfur.

Note first that Kristof is simply disingenuous in his account of the president's record on Darfur.

But that is to be expected. What's really remarkable about Kristof's piece is its failure to mention that for years a number of groups have been doing everything possible to keep attention and focus on Darfur and Sudan. The refusal by Kristof to even note in passing the work of groups like Samaritan's Purse --work that has been as dangerous as it has been unappreciated by media elites-- is remarkable because a reference in his column to Christianity Today demonstrates he is aware of these long-standing efforts.

In the world of elite media, it seems that nothing matters unless it attracts the attention of elite media. Kristof's focus on Darfur is a good thing. His refusal to report the entire story is not.

While Kristof clearly should have and could have mentioned the relief efforts and advocacy for the victims of genocide in Darfur that's been done by Christian groups, he may have deemed it beyond the scope of this particular piece. Its basic thrust was that while he has been critical of the Bush Administration on Darfur, he feels even more critical of the mainstream media. In an appearance on the Diane Rehm radio show a few weeks ago, I did hear Kristof acknowledge the efforts of Christian groups to be helpful and to keep the genocide happening there in people's consciousness.

But, as to Hugh's broader point, that media elites tend to ignore the efforts of Christian groups in situations like this--presumably because they don't fit with the elites' story lines for those who bear the label Christian--I think that he's right on.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Unite Later links to this post. Thank you.


Paul said...

Our failure too - to some extent. But I think our system is really breaking down here in America.

My personal experiences with our health care system are what led me to recognize that it's really almost hard to describe what we have here in America now as democracy. It's rule by the major corporations.

And a major if not the root cause is how we've come to finance political campaigns thanks to the Buckley v Valeo Supreme Court decision that equates political contributions with "free speech."

Money's been talking with a megaphone ever since. No matter how much Americans may care about the larger world, we've gotten ourselves in a situation where our only choices for leader of the free world are guys beholden to special interests.

Mark Daniels said...

I appreciate your taking the time to read and to comment on this post.

Your comments raise several important points, I think:

(1) Clearly, our federal government could spend a larger percentage of its annual budget on foreign aid. At present, less than 1% of our budget is so spent. The Marshall Plan, with which Europe was reconstructed following World War Two, demonstrates how wise an investment foreign aid can be.

As you know, I support the One Campaign for Africa and am heartened by the victory it achieved at the G8 Summit. To me, the decision to forgive debts is a matter of enlightened self-interest. As a member of the "realist" school of foreign policy, I expect governments to act in the best interest of their people and a wise and targeted program of foreign aid and debt relief for nations in Africa is in America's interest.

(2) But our government's resources are not endless. Fortunately though, much of what our government can do to bring an end to the horrors in Darfur won't cost a penny. The President and his administration already have done some things. It was at US insistence, for example, that the UN labeled what's going on in Sudan as "genocide." One must applaud both former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, for making some effort to put this issue on the front burner of the international agenda.

But I'm hopeful that our government will exert more pressure on the African Union, the European Union, and the organization of Muslim nations to engage in a full-court press on the regime in Khartoum.

The greatest amount of good, I believe, can be done by relief agencies in the NGO category--Samaritan's Purse, Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Relief Services, and others. If the nations and organizations I mentioned earlier can secure a peace, then these relief groups can go in and bring some help to the people of Darfur.

(3) Frankly, I regard every effort to reform our campaign finance "system" in America over the past three decades as sort of misguided and stupid. That includes efforts to "modify" it.

Like you, I regard it as absurd to claim, in effect, that if you have more money, you should have more "free" speech.

But, while I understand the connections you're positing, I'd rather stick to discussing Darfur. Even pols elected under the current system are capable of understanding what's at stake here.

Thanks again for your comments.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Great post and comments. I was just thinking earlier today, before reading this, of Postman's book, in connection with another blogger's post on an unrelated topic. I have long thought that the title AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH is the single most incisive comment that has ever been made about contemporary American society.

Adriana Bliss said...

I wonder that people "amuse themselves to death" because there's so little the average American can do to change situations like Dafur - we can send money to charities, we can pray about it, we can write letters, we can march, we can hear nothing but the news coming out of Dafur. And yet, we can't make our government respond better, differently. I've written letters to Congressmen...and to what effect? I remember the frustration with Iraq, really wanting to believe what I was being told about WMDs because I had to trust the government (a conservative administration I didn't choose). To what effect? I learned the story was untrue (I'm not laying blame...simply that I cannot trust what anyone says). I listen now to Dafur (among other terrible calamity) and all I can do is weep. Utterly helpless because I've done it all and continue to do what I can.

In such a state, I flip the television station and watch the latest foibles of Tom Cruise, or learn what epic Peter Jackson is filming. I make cookies for my children. I do not have the money to make change, to put in a new administration with real vision (such men and women aren't even up for the running), I don't own a large corporation (and yes, I agree, we don't live in a democracy, megacorporations now run the country).

I believe the masses do not choose to hear about Tom Cruise over Dafur, I believe they're helpless to hear about Dafur. We're much imprisoned and simply close our eyes to ease the inevitable pain.