'WE ARE THE WORLD' AS AN OLDIE: "BEEN THERE, DONE THAT"
As the story is told, it was a slow news day at NBC back in 1985 when staffers looked up at an incoming satellite feed on one of their many monitors. The newsroom fell silent as a parade of harrowing images from the dying fields of Ethiopia streamed from the Third World into the third floor at 30 Rockefeller Center. The scenes of babies with bloated bellies and famine victims dying on camera in so-called feeding camps were as unbearable to watch as they were hard to ignore. They were soon being screened in living rooms across the planet as television news forced the world to confront a human disaster, which most politicians continued to downplay.
The electronic gaze of a thousand Betacams could not be ignored, however. When TV responded, the world reacted. Soon, rock stars started singing, aid started flowing and many lives were saved. Despite the uplifting if misleading lyrics of "We Are The World" (we Americans were not the world), many of us did care, at least for that minute, about a part of the world we knew very little about.
Judging by all the awards that the networks later added to their trophy chests, it was TV's finest hour. At least, that's the official story.
If truth be told, the truth was only told because one creative and dedicated photojournalist, the late Kenyan cameraman Mohammed Amin, took it upon himself to document the horror. At first, few in the news world wanted the story. He had footage but few takers. Many networks waited for the crisis to become cataclysmic before dispatching their crews. When BBC and NBC got on it, the rest of the pack followed so as not to be left behind. In a country of starving people, the only real feeding frenzy was among competing media outlets.
It was confirmation of the old adage that Africans only make the news as victims, when they suffer calamities, coups and conflicts. TV news lives for powerful images, and in this case, the graphic pictures meant more than a mere thousand words. They were a substitute for words and explanation and analysis and context. As a result, charity, not change, defined the response. Images without interpretation go in one eye and out the next. The famine was the story du jour; the follow-up was not.
And so, here we are at the dawn of a new century, and the bodies are again being stacked like cordwood as the land fails to feed Ethiopia one more time. This new mass famine threat is driven by uneven development, poor agricultural practices, climate changes, a legacy of war and inadequate aid, and counterproductive International Monetary Fund programs. Those most affected hope that CNN will come to the rescue and then perhaps the international community will follow.
While the Mozambican media reports criticisms of the West's slowness to respond with relief supplies to the flood victims, Media Channel advisor Z. Pallo Jordan, a member of South Africa's parliament, emphasizes the importance of continuing coverage and concern in a recent e-mail to me: "They will probably raise money while the pictures of babies being born in trees are on the air, but that will dry up soon. The calculation is that Mozambique's reconstruction has been set back 10 years! So on top of having to catch up after their civil war, they now have add another ten years to that just to get to where they were before the floods. What we worry about is the period after the hullabaloo has died down and the reconstruction of infrastrucrure has to start from scratch. There are the roads, schools, factories, farms etc. that have been devastated. The immediate appeal for bandages to cover up the wounds is urgent but what about what comes next?"
This time around, however, there is no crusading Mohammed Amin or major news presence. The development agencies and charities who trucked in food and catered to the dying--however imperfectly--in the l980s saw TV news as an ally to rally the public to the plight of the world's poor and oppressed. As the news biz merges with show biz, that's rarely the case anymore.
Increasingly, those trying to do something to alleviate suffering see the media as an enemy--a force that diverts the public away from what's really going on. (Mother Teresa once said, "Facing the media is more difficult than bathing a leper.") The traumatized people who are watching their country disappear under water as floods engulf Mozambique may get some airtime on CNN, but the aftermath is sure to be ignored. As for Ethiopia, you can almost hear the cynical mantra: "Been there, done that." And what about Africa's AIDS crisis and its millions of discarded orphans? To quote the movie Donnie Brasco, "Fuhgeddaboudit!"
In England, with a long tradition of international documentaries, leading development and environmental private agencies have just released a study that confirms what many media critics have been noting for years: Coverage of the poorest parts of the world has largely been abandoned. Charities that traditionally study the problems of the poor are now studying the practices of rich media companies. The Third World and Environmental Broadcasting Project (3WE) explains why: "TV remains the primary medium through which the British public is informed about the developing world. Increasing global links are the fabric of our society...."
"Even as business and politics have globalized," writes John Vidal in the Guardian, "and as more people than ever are traveling abroad, so British TV, the prime source of information about the five billion people living in the larger world, has become more insular, shallower, more opinionated, narrower, consumer-led, less intelligent and more self-obsessed. Our world map is diminishing even as our ignorance is increasing."
The data is undeniable. Years ago, Globalvision's human rights series Rights & Wrongs interviewed media analyst Andrew Tyndall, who documented a 50 percent decline in the United States on coverage of the news of the world. We noted that Rupert Murdoch had introduced a feature on his local news shows called "The World in a Minute." (link to video) This latest British study presents a similar picture: Total hours devoted to factual programming about the world is down 50 percent. ITV is off by 74 percent, BBC 2 by a third, Channel 4 by 56 percent. What are these channels running in their place when they do cover the world? Celebrity-dominated wildlife and travel shows. African lions are on the air constantly; African people, rarely.
The performance of news programs is just as bad. Most U.S. networks shut down many of their overseas bureaus years ago. But what's worse, public broadcasters who once prided themselves on in-depth reporting increasingly resemble the private commercial news outlets. Media Tenor, the German research firm that does detailed monitoring internationally, has just documented this pattern in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Their charts on coverage trends (http://www.medien-tenor.de/english/special/000109.html) offer an indictment of blatant media failure.
When shows about human rights, environmental issues and development subjects are made, they tend to get aired in marginal time slots, to smaller audiences, and without advertising or promotion. No wonder the ratings suffer. In the U.S., PBS would not even distribute a human rights series I co-produced for Globalvision on the ground that--get this--"human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series." This ostrich-like behavior feeds the erroneous conclusion that "people" don't want gutsy global journalism, even providing a phony pseudo-scientific rationale for doing ever fewer such shows. That in turn inspires talking heads to blather on about "compassion fatigue" without explaining that the poor quality of programming--or just plain lack of it--is what feeds negative and uninformed views about the world.
What this means is that more and more people are being condemned to die out of public view. It is only the independent media, and new on-line services like One World Online (www.oneworld.org), with its more than 700 NGO partners, that keep these urgent issues in focus.
But the Internet will not solve these problems. Communication has to be a two-way street, with more African voices heard and seen. As an Associated Press report pointed out last month, "If you live in North America or Europe, there is a one in six chance that you used the Internet in the late '90s. If you live in Africa, however, that probability drops to one in 5,000, according to a new report issued by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization." The conscientious Chilean diplomat Juan Somavia, who heads the ILO, warns that "countries lacking the skills, money or infrastructure to develop information technology are falling victim to a burgeoning 'digital divide.'"
What's worse is a "news divide," where media companies focus on the least important stories and ignore the most urgent. Instead of enabling change, they have become an obstacle to it. Instead of facilitating democracy, they threaten it by refusing to inform and inspire. I will be in England next week at Leicester University for a conference (http://www.le.ac.uk/cmcr/cp46/NEWS.html--CKTK from ALEX) on International News to discuss what media insiders, researchers and activists can do about this.
I became a journalist to help spotlight the problems of the world. It is now clear that global media is one of them.
Danny Schechter became known as the "News Dissector" as a radio newscaster in the l970s. He is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org and author of "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" and of the forthcoming "News Dissector" (Electronpress.com), a collection of his columns and writings.