Media Starvation Diet

Media Starvation Diet

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.


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.

In fact, Moeller has done her work so thoroughly that her findings can be used to raise doubts as to whether compassion fatigue truly exists; her research can support a different interpretation. First, graphic pictures alone are not enough to prompt public reaction. As Susan Sontag noted in On Photography:

The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation…. A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude. The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War.

Images without a story fail in the end. And in the Third World today, Americans have no “context of feeling and attitude”; they don’t even know any of the people. In this Age of Celebrity, it is astonishing that even educated Americans struggle to name a single Third World individual, aside from exceptions like Fidel Castro, who has been around forever, and Nelson Mandela, who had to endure twenty-seven years of prison and emerge a saint to earn name recognition.

Why this pitiful lack of knowledge, in what is supposed to be the great Age of Information? The world of fiction suggests that it cannot be due to a total lack of public interest. Masses of Western readers have enthused over the works of Latin Americans like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. After the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, translations of his works, particularly the magnificent Cairo Trilogy, introduced several hundred thousand Americans to the astonishing range of humanity in his home city.

Madonna and Arnold Schwarzenegger are not yet threatened. But why has there been absolutely no corresponding impact in news coverage? Moeller shows that people in the Third World are still portrayed as nameless, helpless wretches; she explains that in Somalia in 1992 “the stories depicted the victims of the famine as bereft of family, alone in their struggle for survival,” and, “as a result, the impression was created of a man-and-godforsaken people.”

What then happens was shown by Herman Melville in his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The story is named for its maddeningly obstinate main character, a law clerk who seems increasingly unable to function in the world but who rebuffs all efforts to help him. The first-person narrator’s feelings toward Bartleby change over time:

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill.

This reaction may not be altogether admirable, but it is deeply human. Yet in the Third World today, in Africa and elsewhere, it is based on a big lie; these are not hopeless places, characterized mainly by “excessive and organic ill.”

Over the past couple of decades, the most significant development in the Third World has been the rise of independent grassroots organizations–labor, education, ecology, feminist and human rights groups, which are changing the political scene in places as diverse as India, Brazil and Zambia. Yet you will rarely read about these organizations, even in the major American newspapers. You will almost never see them on television.

Americans can identify the dishes in Thai restaurants, but they have never been introduced to Dr. Prawasi Wasi, a gentle physician who is that country’s beloved social conscience. In the jet age, Westerners may go on safari to Kenya, but they don’t know about Professor Wangari Maathai, the feminist ecologist who helped start the Green Belt movement there. Its 600,000 members have planted 10 million trees; Maathai’s outspokenness has earned her attacks from the Moi regime as a “subversive” and “traitor.” And how could the Western press have ignored Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician who died recently after spending decades issuing blistering, raucous pop songs attacking one military dictator after another from the smoky, after-midnight confines of his Lagos nightclub?

Leaving out these kinds of people distorts our image of the Third World. The result is to confirm Melville’s hard truth about how humans react when faced with apparently hopeless cases.

How much of this one-sided coverage is because the media are giving the public what it wants? We cannot deny that Western culture has for several centuries included a widespread Orientalist wish to see the Third World, particularly Africa, as exotic, inferior and helpless without us. As Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, says in his provocative essay lambasting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa.”

Nonetheless, we have definitely moved beyond nineteenth-century imperialistic modes of thought. People in the West are confronting their own many-cultured reality; fifth graders today in Iowa or London are offered a view of the world different from what their forebears got in 1899, when Rudyard Kipling held sway.

My experience over the past twenty-five years writing about Third World people convinces me there is an audience for the truth–open-minded, curious, not huge, yet not insignificant either. But people don’t want to read about victims. If I tell them about a Bolivian tin miner who earns a dollar a day, they will turn the page, maybe wincing slightly with Melvillean guilt. But if I tell them the tin miner has a cute daughter named Erica, that he is a fanatic for the Bolivar soccer team, and that he and his friends in the miners’ union used to catapult sticks of dynamite toward the dictatorship’s soldiers, readers are more likely to pay attention.

Moeller’s detailed account of the press coverage of the Rwanda genocide offers more intriguing evidence that the public is willing to go past the Orientalist pattern. She praises the press, particularly print reporters, for getting to the scene promptly. Then she looks at the reaction in the West. She gives an account of a man walking into a store, glancing at a newsmagazine with Rwanda on the cover…and buying instead another publication, which featured the model Cindy Crawford. Moeller calls his behavior “compassion avoidance,” and she is mildly disapproving.

But this man precisely illustrates Melville’s insight. Western governments, with their so-called experts, did not act during the genocide, so how is the magazine buyer going to know what to do? After the killings were over, there were proposals for some kind of permanent international intervention force, but at the time, all of us felt stunned and helpless. He is not a bad man because he turned to Cindy Crawford.

Then Moeller describes a fascinating shift in the West after the killings diminished. Once Rwanda started to seem more recognizable, as a crisis of hunger, disease and refugees, Americans did contribute. Doctors Without Borders said that a bartender in Alaska called–after seeing one of their physicians on network TV–with $9,000 he and his patrons had collected. Moeller concluded: “Americans weren’t naive enough to think that their five dollars sent to Oxfam would rescue a child trapped by genocidal killers. It might however buy a refugee child a blanket.”

Private donations during one emergency after another are of course no long-term answer to misery in the Third World. An unjust global economic order that puts international banks, corporations and arms manufacturers first is the root cause of the poor world’s problems. But here too, there is doubt that “compassion fatigue” is real. In a few short years, the international campaign against landmines came out of nowhere to win tremendous victories and a Nobel Peace Prize. The organized struggle against Third World sweatshops is making an increasing impact. The worldwide human rights effort has even put Augusto Pinochet on the defensive; the Chilean dictator, who had once promoted himself to the exalted rank of “capitan-general,” was reduced to trying to hide out from a Spanish judge in an English hospital.

No one is suggesting that we are at the doorway to a paradise of internationalist cooperation. But people do respond when you first show them that they are dealing with other people on the other side of the globe, not with victims, and when you offer them a plausible way to act that has some chance of success. Otherwise, they will try to ignore what they perceive as a hopeless situation–not because they are inhuman but precisely because they are all too human.

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