Telling the story of Sudan Matt 01 Aug 2005

40 comments Latest by Patrick Hall

The United Nations has called the genocide and fighting in Sudan “the worst humanitarian crisis on the earth.” Yet last year, the three network nightly newscasts aired a total of only 26 minutes on Sudan (Martha Stewart’s woes received 130 minutes of coverage). Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans continue to rely overwhelmingly on broadcast and cable television as their primary source of information.

Thankfully, intrepid print journalists like Emily Wax of the Washington Post are risking life and limb to tell the tale. The American Journalism Review tells her story of sneaking across borders, crossing riverbeds with her laptop balanced on her head, carpooling with rebel leaders, eating only dates and antelope, drinking chocolate-colored water, and surviving torrential rains and sandstorms.

“There is such a small group of us covering it. When we don’t go in, it means Americans don’t see what’s happening here,” Wax said. “It’s a heavy responsibility. You can see I am obsessed…Keeping the story alive is so important.”

While many said “never again” after Rwanda, Wax and other journalists on the ground in Sudan deserve credit for backing up those words with actions.

40 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Anonymous Coward 01 Aug 05

They said “never again” after Hitler’s WWII and then “never again” in Bosnia too. Actions speak louder then words, but unfortunately the world likes to do a lot of talking and little walking.

pixelenator 01 Aug 05

Most the people i know rely on TV, not just for info but for EVERYTHING, and beleive EVERYTHING that the media says, giving 130 minutes coverage to martha wasn’t because the american people is more interested to that more than sudan, it is just what the media wants the people to be interested in, the media control us or most of us.

Dan Boland 01 Aug 05

The reason African crises get overlooked by Western media is because there’s no money in Africa (yet). It’s sad but true.

And I agree with pixelenator and his assessment that mass media control what news we care about to a certain extent. I’d like to add that the internet is so vast, that even though the truth is inevitably out there somewhere, you may never find it.

Ryan Platte 01 Aug 05

Try, just try to get an idea out that contradicts what people are told on TV and supporting media. You occasionally see “alternative” ideas leak into the thoughtsphere that doesn’t mesh perfectly with the messages from television, but it’s terrifying how easily and completely people will dismiss information that disputes what the mass media tell them, no matter how well-supported/documented/etc.

JF 01 Aug 05

It’s easy to blame the media (“them”), isn’t it? Everything is “their” fault. “They” tell us everything. We want to know everything else, but “they” only tell us what “they” think we want to hear. We’re mindless, powerless, and innocent. We’re babies. They feed us. PLEASE.

I think the media tells us exactly what we want to hear. We want to know about Martha. We want to know about Tom Cruise. We don’t care about Africa. What have you done for Africa lately? There’s surely a lot you can do from your chair in front of your powerbook, but what are you doing other than complaining about the media?

In general, people don’t care about what doesn’t affect them. This is the oldest trend in humanity. People/countries look the other way until they’re forced to get involved because it directly affects them.

Martha and Tom affect people in the States far more than what’s going on in the Sudan because one influences the culture in which they live and the other might tug at their heart, but only long enough to skip over the ads in Entertainment Weekly.

Ryan Henesie 01 Aug 05

Genocide and suffering are not things that we like to talk about, because acknowledging that it happens means that we either have to DO something, and any act made in defiance of suffering will undoubtedly challenge us and bring us face to face with realities that we do not want to see, or we have to consiously choose to ignore it, which deep down inside makes us feel selfish and ashamed, although I am (as I suspect are many people) very good at suppressing these feelings.

The human mind is limited in its scope, and as a defense we build filters for ourselves to control the information flow into our eyes and ears. Unfortunately these filters often filter out the needs of our fellows in trouble. When I lived in Haiti I saw so much suffering and hopelessness on a daily basis that I eventually learned to filter it out. Not because I was an insensitive person, but because I simply couldn’t help everyone, and I had work to do. Since then I’ve learned that it is possible to change people’s lives just by loving them in practical ways, although I’m still learning to do this, and still not very good at it. That is what Jesus was talking about, and of all the great figures throughout history, he did it best.

The reality is that there is a LOT of news out there, and we have no choice but to filter it. The media covers Martha Stewart instead of Sudan because that’s what people watch, not because the media controls the people. If people started caring about Sudan, then the news would cover Sudan. The news is, after all, a for-profit venture, and relies for its success entirely on getting and keeping people’s attention.

Tragedies like genocide will go on as long as people shut their eyes and ears to it. Kudos to the journalists who’ve turned off their filters. Now tell people - turn off the TV, type in Google news, and load up BBC World Edition in your favorite news reader. Turn off your filters, find issues that you identify with, and turn your attention to it!

pixelenator 01 Aug 05

the media is so strong that our country is on war and sometimes we forget it.

enough already 01 Aug 05

If I am reading this right, the UN has authorized 10k troops to be sent to Sudan. As of last month, only 1100 uniformed soldiers were put in place. I think they could do better.

DSiv 01 Aug 05

I think the following experiment would be an interesting one:

A major news website puts on their front page a link to a story about Sudan and right next to it a link to a story about Tom Cruise. Same size/font/color link. To make it fair they could even alternate the ordering/position of the two links.

I’d be willing to bet that the number of people who clicked the link about Tom and Katie would far surpass the number of people who clicked the link about Sudan.

When, for instance, millions of visitors to the news site click the links about Martha at a five to one rate over the links about Sudan that sends a pretty clear message to the producers at ABC news that they should devote their airtime accordingly.

The news is out there, people choose to ignore it.

Kyle 01 Aug 05

Genocide vs. Natalee Holloway

Let’s look at our priorities America.

Steve M 01 Aug 05

This review of Samatha Power’s book “A Problem from Hell” seems appropriate:

Power makes it clear that the only thing that has spurred US government officials to act is the pressure of public opinion. She even quotes an official as telling a human rights group ‘the phones aren’t ringing’. So I’m going to do something today, and I’m asking you to do the same thing. I’m going to call my representative and ask him to condemn the genocide in Darfur.

Darrel 01 Aug 05

It�s easy to blame the media (�them�), isn�t it? Everything is �their� fault.

Only if you are a republican. Then it’s all the liberal media’s fault.

think the media tells us exactly what we want to hear.

Well, that’s the problem…with both us and the media. We should be open to listening AND being told things we don’t always want to hear.

Another big issue is just a total and complete lack of education in this country on world matters. Watching lsat week’s coverage of Africa on PBS taught me more about that continent than 16+ years of an american education system did.

Darrel 01 Aug 05

The news is out there, people choose to ignore it.

That’s not entirely true, either.

To take your example, for every one story on the Sudan, there’s likely 100 Tom Cruise stories. It’s not a matter of ignoring as much as it is even finding it to begin with.

Look at local news broadcasts: 40% weather. 40% sports. 10% ‘lead story’. 10% ACTUAL GLOBAL NEWS.

Anonymous Coward 01 Aug 05

This is the exact reason why I don’t have cable anymore. How many hours did CNN spend covering the blonde girl who went missing in Aruba. Now, if she was black, would it have even be covered? Why are there a ton of female Asian-American reporters but no male? Why do the non-white reporters sound stereotypically white? The news media is making this coutry go backwards culturally. I felt this country was more cultured in the 80’s. Would another black rock band like Living Color make it big again? I doubt it.

The worst thing is when you talk to people who think they are so educated because they watch CNN all day long. I’m so glad I don’t have cable anymore, and might even get rid of the TV entirely. Its pollution for the brain.

Brad 01 Aug 05

I think this particular case also may an Africa issue. Many Americans have come to view Africa as a lost cause, and reading about yet another humanitarian crisis there just makes their eyes glaze over. They can’t feel engaged because they feel helpless or overwhelmed by the scope of misery on that continent. There was a tremendous outpouring of support and concern after the tsunamis—and not just because the areas hit were tourist destinations. Would you see a similar response to a natural disaster like flood or famine in Africa, even if it killed many more people? I don’t think so. And I don’t think it has anything to do with race, it’s more a feeling of hopelessness. How can the media turn that around? Maybe there needs to be more reporting of “good” news from Africa so people start feeling like there is hope, which might motivate them to start caring more.

Anonymous Coward 01 Aug 05


I see your points. However, I think businesses are becoming increasingly more capitalistic and losing sight of their ethical obligations. The news is supposed to inform and educate. However, these days the media is more about entertaining (info-tainment). But I believe people actually think they are getting informed under the pretense of getting entertained.

The news media also has much better demographic data now, and increasingly only cater to the group with the highest viewership. This is obviously not sustainable in the long run considering the speed in which this country’s population is changing.

At least we still have NPR. I don’t need the fancy graphics and sound bytes.

Darrel 01 Aug 05

The way that they make money is by showing people what they want to see. So the media does not control the people. Quite the contrary, the people control the media.

That’s the theory of perfect capitalism. But it’s never perfect.

The ‘we’re giving the market what they want’ is sometimes true, sometimes just a very weak excuse for not understanding (or accepting) that the market isn’t one definabel, generic demographic.

At least we still have NPR.

Hehe, well, not if the current administration has their way with this evil liberal entity.

David 01 Aug 05

What JF said. Word.

Anonymous Coward 01 Aug 05

Consider this quote from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, from a May 29, 2000, column by the Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby:

In a meeting last December, Albright suggested that, much as she deplored the country’s suffering, “The human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people.” Sudan’s Muslim government may condone the enslavement of black people from the south; it may have pursued a war that has cost nearly two million lives; it may regularly bomb schools and hospitals. But Albright and one of her officials declined to call this “genocide,” explaining that this might require the United States to do more about it.

Remind me again who sets the agenda?

Political Pie 01 Aug 05

Doesn’t it make you feel better to know Sudan is the chair of the “HUMAN RIGHTS” department of the U.N.?

Chuck McKinnon 01 Aug 05

And this is why I can’t understand the reflexive opposition to a “coalition of the willing” taking out thug r�gimes and insisting the UN is the only legitimate forum for action.

It took months — MONTHS — for the Security Council to even agree on a strongly-worded resolution condemning the actions in Darfur. Sudan has sustained no consequences for the repeated, ongoing defiance of said resolution, which means it is totally ineffective as a deterrent.

Meanwhile — and “I Am Not Making This Up” — Sudan was elected to a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Commission in May last year — at the same time the janjaweed militia were slaughtering women and children in Darfur.

It certainly doesn’t help that most African national governments are little better than kleptocracies. Here’s a sampling:

In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004, Ghanaian Professor George Ayittey from the American University documented the following amounts of grand embezzlement among African leaders [4]:

* General Sani Abacha of Nigeria: $20 billion
* President F�lix Houpho�et-Boigny of Ivory Coast: $6 billion
* General Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria: $5 billion
* President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire: $4 billion
* President Mousa Traore of Mali: $2 billion
* President Henri Bedie of Ivory Coast: $300 million
* President Denis N’guesso of Congo: $200 million
* President Omar Bongo of Gabon: $80 million
* President Paul Biya of Cameroon: $70 million
* President Haile Mariam of Ethiopia: $30 million

In total, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo estimated, �corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion from their people in the [four] decades since independence.� [5] Corrupt leaders do not discriminate between foreign aid and other revenue (such as oil wealth) when stocking their Swiss bank accounts, so it is nearly impossible to discern how much pilfered loot came directly from development funds. In many cases, however, it is clear that foreign aid�s only enduring gift to many Africans is a large debt burden, a fact that prompted Lord Bauer to quip that foreign aid was �an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.�[6]

Full details here.

Anonymous Coward 01 Aug 05

Thank you Chuck, finally a realistic response. Someone, please, anyone, defend the UNs actions (or inactions) in Africa. The UN has been talking about the mess Africa is in for decades and we’re still in the same mess (and it’s getting worse). Talk talk talk talk talk.

F it all 01 Aug 05

The UN is bankrupt. It is a joke and as much as I wish it were a fair force to be reckoned with, it is not. Shame on all of them that wrung their hands while tens of thousands were having theirs hacked off with dull machetes. That was nearly 10 years ago in Rwanda and now it’s happening again.

I know what… pass another resolution.

F it all 01 Aug 05

One more thing. It’s a shame Geldof didn’t use his concert to shine a big light on the situation there…

f it all 02 Aug 05

Damn… just like when the President of Rwanda was shot down. It really is Rwanda all over again.

JF 02 Aug 05

Americans are shallow and stupid and we get the shallow stupid news we deserve

I never suggested this and I don’t believe we’re shallow and stupid. I’m suggesting that we get what we want.

Darrel 02 Aug 05

Thank you Chuck, finally a realistic response. Someone, please, anyone, defend the UNs actions (or inactions) in Africa.

I can’t defend its actions or inactions any better/worse than our country’s own actions or inactions in regards to Africa.

Remember, the UN doesn’t have a huge Army. It also has a gigantic group of varied opinions. OUR country can’t even decide on the right thing to do with only TWO major opinions.

The UN is as powerful as the individual countries allow it to be. They can allow it to be powerful by resepcting it. If no one resects it, then it’s just a self fulfiling prophecy.

For now, it seems as if it’s in the best interest for many of these countries (including our own) to remain as-is in perpetuity, as they make a great scapegoat/whipping boy. Huh? Genocide? Well, WHERE WAS THE UN!? Don’t look at us!

Darrel 02 Aug 05

I never suggested this and I don�t believe we�re shallow and stupid. I�m suggesting that we get what we want.

Uh…and if we get shallow and stupid?…

Obviously, I can’t speak for all Americans, but most of what is on TV, mainly news media, is nothing that I want. Like any of the big media giants, they’re simply targetting the most generic demographic they can get. On the plus side, these large generic demographics are slowly eroding away forcing companies to offer something for the rest of the folks that don’t fit into it.

Christopher Fahey 02 Aug 05

Jason, I was being a little hyperbolic. In fact, I don’t think we’re as dumb as the industry treats us, and I think they’re wrong about what we want.

I haven’t read it, but there’s a lot of talk lately about Steven Johnson’s new book “Everything Bad is Good for You”, in which he argues (among other things) that the quality of television has increased significantly over the last 30 years. Putting aside the fact that there are thousands of more programs to choose from, and lets just focus on the top 100 best shows of today and of yesteryear, and you’ll see that it’s true: Look at Deadwood, the Sopranos, the West Wing, The Sheild. Look at the new Justice League and X-Men cartoons. Compare them to The Dukes of Hazzard, Dynasty, Adam-12, The Super Friends. Compare the old Battlestar Galactica to the new one (which is excellent). Even the sitcoms have gotten better. Even the most maligned of all genres, the Reality TV show, can be superior to what used to be on the tube: The Apprentice is vastly superior to most of the garbage on TV in the 70’s and 80’s.

What changed? Did America get smarter? Did we ask for smarter shows? A little. But I think it worked both ways. I think the executives in the entertainment industry showed a little backbone for once, that they stopped showing the kind of contempt for the intelligence of the American people that they showed in the 70’s. They took a chance, following the lead of the independent film industry and some cable networks, and tried making something that wasn’t total dreck for a change. And the chance paid off, to the great benefit of American culture.

The people in the media (news and entertainment) who make the decisions about what to create are human beings who can, I think, be shamed into trying a little harder to not be lazy and contemptuous about the product they make and the customers they serve. I don’t want to just give them a free pass because they’re just doing their job (just trying to make money). If the media makes things better and less mind-numbingling stupid, I think people will still buy those, too.

Anonymous Coward 02 Aug 05

It’s times like this when I have to laugh at the remarkable hypocrisy and hubris of the blogging community.

Lots of bloggers love to talk about their superiority vs. the traditional media outlets, particularly newspapers (I will never forget the day a few years ago when, at a SXSW presentation, a Zeldman-ite proclaimed to me that blogs would soon supplant the N.Y. Times as the news source of record), but when a tragedy like the situation in Sudan breaks out, all the bloggers can do is harp on how lame the media is for not covering it.

I haven’t heard of any bloggers sneaking into Sudan ala Emily Wax or a number of brave and intrepid BBC correspondents have to do any actual reporting on the subject. No, instead, bloggers are content to sit in their comfy chairs, castigating the media by keyboard.

Certainly, the media are deserving of criticism for the lack of coverage of the genocide in Darfur, as some in their ranks have been honest enough to admit, but to see that criticism coming from bloggers is like listening to “fans” scream about the inanity of their hometown team on talk radio (though at least the fans don’t purport to be journalists).

The notion that blogs are anything more than personal Web sites (and, on the whole, bad personal Web sites) is a myth that I very much hope to see exploded in the very near term.

As for why the situation in Darfur is not getting any attention, it’s really pretty simple:

1. It’s in Africa
2. The populations involved are Black
3. There’s no strategic or historical interest for the U.S. (Sudan does have a fair amount of oil, but nowhere near the proven reserves of Iraq or even Nigeria)

As for Christopher Fahey’s comment above, I agree that the media can be shamed into trying harder, but in this case, who’s going to do the shaming? Most Americans don’t give a shit about Darfur (aka Black Africans in Africa (if whites were involved in some way, particularly if they were the ones getting killed, then there might be some interest) killing each other) and the media is a reflection of that.

ek 02 Aug 05

Oops, that was me posting above — forgot to fill in the “Name” field.

Gene 02 Aug 05

Word ek, I too am getting tired of Bloggers being concidered journalists just because they can setup a website and typety type…

Darrel 03 Aug 05


Good points….except for missing the obvious that most bloggers aren’t EMPLOYED to sneak into africa and report. Ie, they have day jobs.

Once the BBC and NYTimes start hiring bloggers, I’m sure we’ll start seeing them over there. There are all sort of ‘citizen media’ around the world doing things like this. Hell, read Jason’s post above on the Iraqi blogger.

Also, bloggers, last I checked, are diverse people, citizens, and consumers of the media. They seem perfectly qualified to comment on the media.

As for them being considered journalists, that’s a different issue. Certainly they don’t have the same credentials that a true journalist would have (namely the education and professional experience). That said, I wouldn’t call any of the columnists in the paper journalists either. They’re essentially bloggers using newsprint instead of pixels.

“The notion that blogs are anything more than personal Web sites”

Well, considering that major corporations and media outlets are actively blogging now, I don’t think your myth will pan out as such.

Patrick Hall 04 Aug 05

JF’s comment:

“There�s surely a lot you can do from your chair in front of your powerbook, but what are you doing other than complaining about the media?”

I think that’s the crux of this discussion. We can fall back into debates about the UN, corruption, and the role of the media. But this is a design site. There is combined brainpower flowing through this URL.

An awful lot of social capital has gone into making it possible for the readers here to be sitting behind those computers. We should be thinking of ways to spend it.