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 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.
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.
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.And Hugh Hewitt has this to say about Nicholas Kristoff's piece:
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.
...Nicholas Kristof is blasting the president and MSM for not doing enough 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.