All during the year 1984, those of us with firsthand experience in Africa knew that drought and famine were cutting across vast swaths of the continent. We also knew that the Reagan Administration, and the West generally, had offered only a small portion of the emergency aid that would be needed. We tried to raise the alarm (one of my articles, “Hunger in Africa,” ran in The Nation on April 14), but almost no one seemed to be paying attention.
Then on October 23 the BBC ran some shocking footage from Ethiopia. NBC first turned down the same film, but then changed its mind. Susan Moeller describes what happened next. “The phones at NBC, like the phones at the BBC in London, began ringing off the hook. Thousands wanted to know what they could do to help…. In the 36 hours after the NBC broadcast more than 10,000 people called Save the Children. By November 2, Save the Children was receiving 2,000 pieces of mail a day.”
Irish rock musician Bob Geldof watched that first televised report and had trouble sleeping. The next day, he started calling his friends in the business. The Band Aid Christmas single, followed by “We Are the World” on this side of the Atlantic, prompted sneers about egotistical rock stars overstepping their zone of competence. But Geldof and his friends ended up changing history despite the cynical realpoliticians; the singers raised millions themselves, but, even more important, they helped create a wave of publicity that shamed the Reagan Administration and other Western governments into greatly increasing aid. In the end, hundreds of thousands of Africans did die. But hundreds of thousands more survived, (and I met some of them a year later in the desert of western Sudan).
But the 1984-85 famine was not the last in Africa. Hunger continued to hit the continent again and again, along with outbreaks of disease and wars, reaching one terrible culmination in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which an estimated 800,000 people died. Hard-nosed Western commentators began to speak of “compassion fatigue,” some of them not hiding their relief that the disturbing wave of internationalist idealism seemed to have receded.
Susan Moeller, who teaches American studies and directs the journalism program at Brandeis University, has made an indispensable effort to analyze how the American media have covered these tragedies. She has gone into tremendous detail (in places probably more than was necessary) to show that US reporting relies too much on stereotypes and strains too hard to Americanize foreign events. She also warns that total overseas coverage is declining sharply; the TV networks devoted 45 percent of their newscasts in the seventies to foreign affairs but only 13.5 percent in 1995, the year of O.J.
She interviewed many of the journalists themselves, and she includes some damning revelations, such as the former New York Times managing editor who says clearly, “The greatest threat today to intelligent coverage of foreign news is not so much a lack of interest as it is a concentration of ownership that is profit-driven and a lack of inclination to meet responsibilities, except that of the bottom line.”
In the end, though, her study raises more questions. She cannot seem to decide how to assign blame for “compassion fatigue”–to the media themselves, or to an uninterested audience. She points out that the newsweeklies sell fewer newsstand copies when they do foreign events; among Time‘s ten worst-selling cover stories since 1980 are features on Bosnia and Somalia. So she partly exonerates the media. Also, she applauds reporters in the field in Bosnia and Rwanda, attributing what she calls the lack of interest in their reports to something new: “compassion avoidance” by the public.