Déjà Vu  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2005

Déjà Vu   

In an eerie echo of the past, the American news media have drastically underplayed genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region just as they did a similar catastrophe in Rwanda a decade ago. But some individual journalists have done outstanding work.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » The Roots of the Strife

Emily Wax didn't hesitate when a rebel leader offered her a lift in a stolen Land Cruiser crammed with grenades, automatic weapons and mortar shells. Three sharpshooters, perched on the roof, scanned the desolate desert landscape as they moved toward the death zones. Her relentless lobbying with the Sudanese Liberation Army had paid off.

To get to the rebel encampment and waiting escort, the Washington Post reporter had to sneak across the border from neighboring Chad and wade into rain-swollen riverbeds, precariously balancing a laptop on her head. A gaunt, ragged fighter ferried her satellite phone.

For three weeks, Wax roamed the rebel-held Darfur region of Sudan, living off dates and gristly chunks of antelope killed by a sniper named Isaac, who doubled as a chef.

When the Land Cruiser got hopelessly stuck, Wax crawled into a sea of mud to help dig it out. At times, there were torrential rains and blinding sandstorms that turned the sky bright orange. Baby Wipes and breath mints became precious possessions in a place where "the bitter smell of the dead hung in the hot air," as Wax described the scene in a September 7 story.

"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, 30, told me in a telephone interview from the capital of Khartoum in late November. "It's a heavy responsibility. You can see I am obsessed."

Wax's fretting over the lack of media attention to what the United Nations has called "the worst humanitarian crisis on the earth" carries with it a hint of déjà vu. When 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered during a spasm of violence in 1994, the words "never again" reverberated throughout the international community. Journalists shouldered a share of the blame for looking away from one of the world's worst catastrophes.

As the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was being observed in 2004, news managers once again were under fire, this time for scant coverage of the bloodletting in Darfur, where millions have faced torture, starvation, rape and murder at the hands of brutal Arab militias known as Janjaweed. Up to 70,000 have been killed.

"Even as the ink was drying on the latest round of mea culpa [about Rwanda], another colossal disaster in Africa was already going uncovered," Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in a scathing commentary for the Los Angeles Times last April. "So where are the journalists?"

A month later she was on the phone with a producer from a major television network pleading for coverage of the tragic events. "I asked, 'How do you want to look back at this 10 years from now? What do you think you're going to say to yourself about not sending a crew to Darfur?' I was literally shouting at her," recalls Bogert, who served a stint as acting foreign editor of Newsweek.

Dick Rogers, the San Francisco Chronicle's readers' representative, took a shot at his bosses in November when he wrote a column scolding newsroom gatekeepers for pushing the Sudan crisis to a back burner. "There was the earnest declaration by so many of us that we were not going to allow another Rwanda to slip by without sitting up and taking notice," says Rogers, who turned to the newspaper's archives to make his point. He counted 36 page-one stories on the Laci Peterson murder case and only three on Sudan--an echo of the era when O.J. was everywhere and Rwanda was a blip. "It is a matter of balance," he says. "Increased attention to [Darfur] is justified."

A scan of Lexis-Nexis paints a disturbing picture. Many of the stories on Sudan published in the nation's newspapers tended to be 500 words or less, giving short shrift to a complex conflict with powerful ethnic, religious and economic factors. Many accounts lacked historical context or perspective, often oversimplifying the bloodshed in Darfur. And few of them appeared on the front page.

Only a handful of newspapers have sent their own correspondents to the scene. Foreign desks more often turn to wire service briefs or an occasional piece by a stringer.

Serious reporting on the subject largely has been absent on the networks and on cable. Last year the three network nightly newscasts aired a meager total of 26 minutes on the bloodshed, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network news. ABC devoted just 18 minutes to Darfur, NBC five and CBS three. By contrast, Martha Stewart's woes received 130 minutes, five times as much.

Sudan took center stage on high-profile network news programs like "Nightline" and "60 Minutes" only a few times during the year. And while CNN's Christiane Amanpour has done some reporting from the region, the Darfur story never became a major player on cable.

When Time magazine put Sudan on the cover of its October 4 issue, it marked the topic's only appearance on the cover of the three newsweeklies last year.

Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio, which has paid more attention to the issue than most news organizations, agrees that much more needs to be done. "The media often doesn't stick too long with one story because there are so many," Jenkins says. "The problem is, TV hasn't gone [to Sudan] much. It's been a couple of newspapers and us."

Given the enormity of the human suffering in Darfur, why hasn't the situation received major story treatment from so many news organizations?

While the overall media performance on Darfur has been disappointingly weak, some news organizations have covered the story with distinction. The Washington Post and New York Times have emerged as leaders in persistent, on-the-ground coverage, not just at the Chad border, where tens of thousands of survivors have fled, but deep in vast wastelands where the Janjaweed have left a trail of scorched villages, rape and wanton killing.

In her highly detailed report "Dying in Darfur" in the August 30 New Yorker, human rights activist Samantha Power praised the Washington Post and New York Times for regularly publicizing the crisis last year. Power won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her book about American apathy toward genocide.

The work of a handful of journalists has been particularly impressive, chief among them the Post's Wax and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He was among the first to provide eyewitness accounts of the horrors, coupling the human element with strong doses of political commentary.

Jerry Fowler, staff director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience, holds both in high esteem. He hails Kristof's passionate columns as the kind of reporting that can drive world opinion. "When the press covers a story like this, it conveys a sense of importance to the public," says Fowler. "It focuses people's attention on it."

In July, the Oregonian in Portland ran an editorial speculating that Kristof's relentless "barking" might have saved "tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands" of Sudanese lives. "Until Kristof began writing astoundingly graphic, intimate and moving columns, the world's press, diplomats and politicians did little more than glance at the genocide and mass migrations that the Janjaweed Arab militias are causing," the editorial says.

Fowler lauds Wax's highly humanized stories. "I hope she gets a Pulitzer Prize for her work in Sudan," he says. "The quality of her reportage and the power of it has been remarkable." In November, she was named "journalist of the month" by Women's eNews, a Web site covering issues of concern to women, for her stories on the plight of females in Africa, including rape survivors in Sudan.

Knight Ridder's Sudarsan Raghavan and New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta also have filed excellent dispatches from Sudan.

While few newspapers have sent reporters to the country, some have taken strong editorial stands on the need for intervention in Darfur and have turned to freelancers for coverage. Among them is the Boston Globe, which has run several pieces from inside Darfur by freelancer Raymond Thibodeaux, Wax's husband.

The few broadcast highlights in Darfur coverage include two "60 Minutes" segments. The show profiled the humanitarian crisis twice in October after correspondent Scott Pelley and producer Bill Owens took an interest in the topic.

Asked why the network had virtually ignored the story on the nightly news, CBS e-mailed this statement, attributed to Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president, news coverage: "We are continuing to monitor the Sudan story through our contacts at the United Nations, in London and through stringers in Sudan... CBS News recently aired a story on the 'CBS Evening News' setting out the situation in Darfur, and will continue to make editorial decisions as to airing updates as the story evolves."

ABC's "Nightline" devoted two segments to Sudan in July and November. At the opening of the November program titled, "Never Again," Ted Koppel implored viewers to "stay with us for a moment before you decide to turn away to something lighter."

ABC spokeswoman Julie Summersgill cited the "Nightline" segments when asked why the Darfur situation had been largely invisible on the nightly news. "We've come back at this a couple of different ways," she says.

Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent, spent most of August broadcasting from the locale. A network staffer says Amanpour "begged" her bosses to send her because she felt high-profile coverage could make a difference. CNN has done a better job than most with keeping Sudan on its news budget.

Time put Sudan on the cover because "we saw a humanitarian disaster unfolding without sufficient public attention being paid to it," says World Editor Romesh Ratnesar. "It's a story that has a lot of interesting questions larger than those raised by the conflict itself, such as how the United States defines and responds to genocide."

Why hasn't U.S. News & World Report devoted a cover story to the tragedy? "There is a lot going on in the world today," says Terry Atlas, the magazine's foreign editor. "Sudan's an interesting case, but it is not the only tragedy in Africa."

A Newsweek spokesman said the magazine would not comment on why it hasn't devoted a cover to the issue.

Sometimes major news developments have placed Darfur on editors' radar screens. There was a flurry of headlines last April when the United Nations dubbed it the world's worst humanitarian crisis and again in September when Secretary of State Colin Powell called the carnage "genocide" during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Some took notice when the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience issued its first ever "genocide emergency" alert in response to atrocities in Western Sudan.

But firsthand reporting from the scene has been all too rare.

Journalists and critics cite a number of factors for the scant coverage of such a harrowing and significant story, including the difficulty of gaining access to Darfur, budget constraints, the war in Iraq and a presumed lack of interest in Africa.

There's no doubt that lack of access is a major obstacle. Early in 2004, the Sudanese government created a news blackout; visas for journalists and aid workers were nearly impossible to obtain. By April, permission to enter was granted sparingly through a long, tedious process. Once in country, journalists cooled their heels in Khartoum waiting for permits to travel to Darfur, a region about the size of Texas. If they were allowed in, there were more delays waiting for documents from local authorities in towns and villages.

"You need a bucketful of patience to overcome this," Knight Ridder's Raghavan said in an e-mail message just after he had returned from a trip with African Union soldiers on duty in Darfur. "Half the battle in covering this story is getting to it."

Until September, the government assigned minders to accompany correspondents. "Every village and town has its own security and intelligence apparatus. Government spies are in every camp, every village," says Raghavan, who tried to protect sources by interviewing them out of sight in a tent or in his car.

Journalists tell of traveling by donkey or camel or in dilapidated vehicles that broke down as they tried to reach remote territory, where some of the worst atrocities are occurring. Inside Darfur, food and potable water are hard to come by.

At times, even when correspondents reached the elusive destination and filed their stories, competition for the front page pushed Sudan coverage deep inside the paper. Some journalists say that compassion fatigue may have taken hold with editors weary of a complex armed conflict that has been going on for decades and is difficult to sort out.

International news budgets, already slashed in most newsrooms, are more likely to be consumed by the war in Iraq and, to a much lesser extent, developments in Afghanistan (see Drop Cap, page 12). Arguably, events in Sudan hold few foreign policy implications for the United States.

Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report sees the war in Iraq as the major reason Darfur has drawn so little attention from the networks. "The story from Iraq has been so huge this year that it's crowded out all the other international news," he said in December. "Almost every part of the world has been undercovered on the nightly news."

Time's Ratnesar also sees the pre-occupation with Iraq as a major factor. "If this was unfolding five years ago, many of the correspondents who are in Iraq right now would be in Sudan, and a lot of media budgets would not be quite as strained as they are now," he says.

The San Francisco Chronicle considered sending a staff writer to the region. But, says Managing Editor Robert J. Rosenthal, "the idea succumbed to the competing and costly demands of a heated presidential campaign, two national political conventions and the Iraqi war." Instead, in May, the paper ran a two-part series by freelancer Benjamin Joffe-Walt, who also has reported from the region for London's Sunday Telegraph.

"We're fortunate to have resources," says New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira, whose paper has three bureaus in Africa. "Some people have to make hard choices."

Some critics say something other than tough logistics, budget considerations and Iraq is at play.

At the annual dinner of the Overseas Press Club last April, Human Rights Watch's Bogert talked to editors about coverage of Darfur. After hearing various explanations for why so many had stayed away, she concluded, "With or without a war in Iraq, American journalists are generally slower to cover mass death if the victims are not white. The Rwandan genocide is a case in point."

Bogert says that coverage has improved significantly since her tirade against the media in the Los Angeles Times last April, but "there's no question [the media] are not doing as much as they could. Frankly, things are not getting better in Darfur. The attacks continue," she said in December.

Glenn Ruga, director of the Center for Balkan Development, watched in the 1990s as mass killings followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Balkans are in Europe, he says, so the public and the press paid more attention to rape, murder and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. He describes the Sudan situation as a vicious cycle. "Editors have to believe the American people are going to take an interest in it. But that's not going to happen until there's better coverage. Clearly, the media must take the first step in realizing this is an important story."

Time's Ratnesar cites the imbalance of coverage between the mass killings in Bosnia in the early 1990s and Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands more died. "The fact is you're dealing with black people suffering, and to some extent that, for whatever reason, tends to be ignored by the mainstream media," the editor says.

Some say the trend toward more and more local coverage is a factor. "Newspaper editors are trying to figure out what to do to stop the bloodletting of circulation," says Martha Malan, international editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "One of the theories in vogue out there is local, local, local. That could be a mistake." She adds, "With smaller papers, people in charge don't have a particular connection" to stories like Sudan. "Other things seem more immediate."

The San Francisco Chronicle's Rogers agrees. Darfur "just doesn't push a button," he says. "If you applied the same set of facts to a lot of different places in the world, our reaction would be remarkably different. Pick a place perhaps more familiar to us and it would be an enormous story."

Martin Plaut, Africa editor of the BBC's World Service News, doesn't face the same problems as his American counterparts when it comes to engaging an audience. He talks about historical ties, including the fact that the United Kingdom was a colonizing power in vast regions of Africa and continues to have extensive trade with the Third World. "There's a general knowledge among our public that others might not have," says Plaut. The BBC follows the story "day in and day out. It is our bread and butter. It is rare when we don't have something on Sudan."

To get a sense of the thinking behind their coverage decisions, AJR interviewed editors at five local and regional papers across the country.

Cleveland's Plain Dealer has not sent staffers to Sudan. "Our feeling is in times of stressed resources that our mission in life is to be a strong regional newspaper," says Editor Douglas C. Clifton, who feels there are "acceptable options" for Sudan coverage from the wires. "The issues [like Sudan] that are intractable and ongoing and appear never to have a resolution are the ones that tend, in time, to get smaller and smaller coverage," he adds. When news of the mass killings first surfaced, the story "broke page one repeatedly and then moved inside."

Tim Connolly, international editor for the Dallas Morning News, views Iraq and Afghanistan as priorities and sent reporters to both places during 2004. Connolly says editors at the Morning News have talked about sending someone to Sudan, "but we have not done it yet. We still may in 2005. We do recognize it as a major story."

He adds, "I am not sure it ever has been on the front page; it probably should have been. But we normally try to give priority to staff work for the front page."

At Raleigh's News & Observer, focusing on Iraq rather than Sudan is a matter of foreign news touching home. "North Carolina has had roughly a zillion fighting men in and out of Iraq," says Steve Merelman, an assistant state editor who has overseen foreign reporting. "We are a local paper, and the Iraq war is the story that directly touches a ton of people here. We have decided we would put our eggs into that basket."

"We have spilled a fair amount of ink over Sudan, including a few front page stories, but it has been all wire copy," he adds.

For the Kansas City Star, the Sudan story does have local angles. John Danforth, a former Missouri senator and former ambassador to the United Nations, has played a role in pursuing peace efforts in Sudan. A Republican senator from neighboring Kansas, Sam Brownback, has been outspoken about human rights abuses in Darfur. "That put Sudan on our radar screen earlier than other newspapers our size," says National Editor Darryl Levings. Rather than send its own reporter to the scene, the Star, a Knight Ridder paper, has published stories by Knight Ridder's correspondent there.

Ann Hellmuth, associate managing editor for national/foreign news at the Orlando Sentinel, has not dispatched a correspondent to Sudan. She says the United States, unlike her native Great Britain, doesn't have a deep connection to Africa. "I don't think the African continent, for a lot of American people, is a prime area of concern," she says. "We're very interested in Latin America, so we cover that for our readership. We don't have large numbers of Sudanese living here."

Wire stories about Darfur regularly make the paper, Hellmuth says, often on page three. She doesn't view scarcity of media coverage on this topic as a deliberate oversight due to racial or cultural differences. "People get numb to this if you put it out there too often," she says.

From May to December, Knight Ridder's Raghavan made five trips to Darfur, staying as long as a month at a time or until his visa ran out. In an exchange of e-mails, the correspondent described the challenges of documenting genocide.

He interviews three to five survivors separately to corroborate a single incident and to weed out exaggerations. That level of confirmation, he says, shatters the Sudanese government's denials that gang rapes, bombings and murder have taken place. He turns to aid workers, U.N. officials, rebel commanders and government administrators to flesh out the narrative and compare details.

"In some ways, covering this story requires basic shoe-leather journalism, patiently knocking on door after door, calling, calling and calling, until you confirm what happened," Raghavan says. In November, when local authorities repeatedly denied him permits to travel to the northern Darfur town of Tawilla to report on a rebel attack and a government aerial bombing, he got there with the help of the African Union, which sent a team to investigate.

Convincing the African Union took a barrage of pestering phone calls, a visit to its headquarters and hours of waiting. Raghavan, who has covered nine wars, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, says it was worth it. The visit provided concrete evidence that the Sudanese government was bombing its own civilians, which it had publicly denied all year.

He lucked out by getting a benevolent government minder who, during his first two trips to Darfur, coaxed security officials into allowing the reporter to visit prohibited areas, including the village of Kailek, scene of one of the most horrific attacks of the conflict. Villagers were held hostage, starved, raped and executed. "This minder and countless other Darfuris are heroes," says Raghavan, who first reported from Sudan in 1996.

"They risked their freedom, their lives, to assist Western journalists and human rights groups. They bared their souls and unveiled to the world the atrocities, even as government spies watched. Many were later interrogated, jailed and beaten. My notebooks are filled with the voices of hundreds of such people."

The Post's Emily Wax, based in Nairobi, shares a similar passion for Sudan and its people. Her August trip into rebel-held territory pushed her to her physical limits. In the end, with the Land Cruiser hopelessly broken down, Wax walked for hours without water or food through pounding desert sun on her way back to the Chad border. Was it worth the price?

"It was totally worth every minute. We got to see the devastation of the villages and meet the people who were left behind and without aid, far from the eye of the international community," Wax says. "The more attention this story gets, the better. Most Americans don't know where Sudan is."

Philip Bennett, the Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news until he became managing editor in January, compares Wax to the newspaper's Anthony Shadid, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his compelling accounts out of Iraq (see "Voice of the People," June/July 2004). Her commitment, he says, drives the paper's coverage and propels the suffering of Darfur onto page one. He believes her reporting has been instrumental in snagging the attention of Washington powerbrokers.

"She has made a personal connection to the story and, as a result, has been able to write with great empathy and power about the human side of the conflict," Bennett says. "This is a woman who two years ago was covering schools" in Alexandria, Virginia.

During the first six weeks of last year, Wax was stuck in Khartoum begging for a permit to get to Darfur. She used the time to interview government officials who claimed there were no problems, no suffering, no violence in Western Sudan. Finally, she managed to slip in with a French delegation. Wax contrasted the government's blanket denials with the human misery she witnessed at feeding stations. When the French left, she attempted to stay, but was discovered by security agents and escorted out.

During her trip with rebel fighters in August, Wax lost 10 pounds and became ill from drinking "chocolate-colored water," as she describes it. "Temperatures got so high, the tires [on the Land Cruiser] would burn," she says. "None of us had showered for three weeks. We smelled like hell."

The soldiers were skinny, ragged and living hand to mouth. One day, they bought a camel in a village market to be butchered for food; another time they shot an antelope after chasing it through the brush.

What motivated a big-city girl from Queens to sleep on the ground night after night, go unwashed and live on camel meat? "Everything about it, I love. I feel part of something bigger than drinking Starbucks and hanging around with my friends," Wax says. "I could be writing 24 hours a day and never feeling I'm doing enough. This is an important part of who I am."

She laments that there are so few journalists on the scene and that there is so much more to be written about what appears to be the first genocide of the 21st century. There is such vast and hostile territory to cover, and "that's the most frustrating thing. We are only seeing about 20 percent of it."

Journalists' eyewitness accounts from Darfur, she hopes, will help hold the guilty accountable. "Keeping the story alive," Wax says, "is so important."

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