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‘WE ARE THE WORLD’ AS AN OLDIE: “BEEN THERE, DONE THAT”


Danny Schechter 

News Dissector

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.

 

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