3: International media coverage of the Genocide
George Washington University
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Steven Livingston: Thank
you very much. I will be giving my presentation in English.
I first of all come to this with a deep sense of gratitude.
This is an excellent conference. I can only echo that
again and again. It’s also heartening to know
that this isn’t the only conference that I’m aware
of that’s going on in North America. I just returned
from the far reaches of Pocatello, Idaho. Idaho State
University as well has devoted a major conference to this
issue, so there is an awareness, a consciousness that continues.
Through some odd sense of good fortune,
I happened to find myself in Africa in April-May of 1994.
I was in the Sudan trying to understand why the American news
media did not pay more attention to that particular humanitarian
crisis. At the time, I was spending a lot of time with
Donatella Lorch of the New York Times, at that time in the
New York Times, Bill Prest (?) of the Christian Science Monitor,
and other mostly American correspondents trying to get a sense
of how they go about doing what they do. And what I
came away from that experience with is a tremendous respect
at an individual level for the kinds of hardships and things
that correspondents do in the name of bringing us a story.
So my remarks if they are to be understood as critical are
not directed at individual journalists, but instead it’s
at, if there’s criticism to be given, it’s at
the nature of the institutions in which they find themselves
So with that said, I also encourage all
of you, I’m a professor, and I like talking with students
and interested members of the community, if there’s
anything of my talk that you’re interested in following
up with me on, this is my email address, and I welcome you
to contact me if you are so interested.
There are two points, I think, are important
for us to keep in mind when talking about media and the international
affairs if it’s Rwanda, or Bosnia or wherever, and that
is that there is a political context, and a media context,
and they interact. I’m a political scientist,
but I teach something called “Political Communication,”
which is a direct recognition of the fact that to understand
media you have to understand politics, and to understand politics
you have to understand the news media. For the political
context of Rwanda, I think that one of the places we can turn
to most immediately is with the recollection that at this
point in time, we were, the United States was in the immediate
post-Cold War era, and not quite sure what it’s foreign
policy objectives were after nearly 50 years of containment
The second point that I’m going to
focus on, if nothing else in the background, is the idea that
to understand also the media is to understand that institutional
basis that I referred to a moment ago. I think among
the things that we need to keep in mind is, is that by 1994,
you had a handful of corporations owning most of the western
news media, and bringing to that enterprise then a set of
criteria as to what constituted good journalism, that didn’t
always necessarily translate into spending the resources and
time to cover some distant crisis in Africa. So those
are the two things I want to have as the background.
I’m going to have to speak quickly here.
I think for us to understand Rwanda, and
the American response to Rwanda, the place to begin is in
Somalia. I’ve written several articles about this.
I think it’s a good idea for us to quickly refresh our
memories as to what was going on in Somalia. The United
States began an airlift operation in the summer of 1992 that
transmographied, translated itself into a security mission
that involved the use of troops by 1992, and then by 1993,
with the Clinton administration in power, we have the battle
of Mogadishu, the young American Delta operators, special
operation forces, whose bodies were put on public display,
and this part of the media environment that Americans found
themselves awash in by October, 1993. These events in
Somalia lead American scholar and statesman, George Kennan,
among others, to simply call into question whether the United
States was involved in the proper course of foreign policy
after the Cold War. I hope that without reading this
is in English in some sense, the translators can read what
I have here on my PowerPoint slide overhead. What Kennan
is saying in this slide is essentially writing in the New
York Times, that he believes that American intervention in
Somalia would have been unthinkable if it had not been for
television coverage that he thinks prepared the American public
and Congress or agree to or acquiesce to, an intervention,
that in his view, offered no rationale beyond the idea that
there was an emotional component to it.
He says that if that’s true, then
the traditional role of the diplomat and the policy maker
is threatened. It’s threatened in the sense that
foreign policy in the United States or any other country will
be directed by the impulsive, emotional content of a rather
fickle attention that’s paid to some crises and not
others by media. That’s something that really
should be given some thought. At the time that Rwanda
was going on, at the time that Somalia was going on, there
was the Sudan, there was Afghanistan, there was Angola, there
was a long, long list beyond Bosnia of crises that deserved,
in their own right ,to be paid attention to by all of us.
So only some crises at any given point in time are paid attention
to. And Kennan’s response to that was, “that’s
dangerous, because it leads to an erratic foreign policy.”
I’m not saying I agree with that, but I am saying it’s
the view of the realists, such as Kennan, at the time.
Well, does the CNN effect, understood as
this ability to reposition the agenda priorities of the United
States government, or any government, does it exist?
Through some studies and investigations that I don’t
have the time to go into, I have concluded as have other scholars
and observers that actually it was overstated. Kennan
misunderstood and others misunderstood the power of media.
First of all, there wasn’t that much media attention
to Somalia until the Bush administration drew attention to
Somalia. And if you’re talking about media as
a causal agent to policy, you can’t have policy makers
drawing attention to something, and then blame it on the media.
They had it completely backwards. That’s my assessment
of it. Instead, Somalia must be understood as a result
of advocacy that was done by members of Congress in the U.S.
aid community, Andrew Natsios among others.
Whether it existed or not, it was assumed
to exist. It became almost doctrinaire that something
like that exists. I’m halfway through. I
have to speak quickly. And this actually had political
expression. The General this morning in his talks referred
to Presidential Decision Directive 25, which doesn’t
require, if my civics education still holds, doesn’t
require Congressional approval, it applies to the executive
branch. And so the Clinton administration put into rules
the idea that before the United States, on the heels of it’s
experience in Somalia, before the United States would respond
to a humanitarian crisis, somewhere among other things, there
needed to be a clear demonstration of national interest.
This even extended to the United States
actually blocking UN effort to address the growing crisis
in Rwanda. Madeline Albright in this particular slide
refers to the idea as “folly.” It’s
interesting she would reverse her sentiment a couple of years
of later as Secretary of State having to do with Kosovo, but
that’s another discussion.
There was also beyond this institutional
disinclination, there was policy confusion. I had a
conference of my own in May, of 1995, where an American general,
General Zinni and other generals were in talking about their
experience, and I had one general say, “that at the
time of the massacres were unfolding, we didn’t know,
we in the Pentagon didn’t know the difference,”
and I’m quoting, “between the Hutus and the Tutus.”
That was General Wes Clark, now he was joking, he was joking
I assure you, but nonetheless his point was we weren’t
clear as to who were the good guys, bad guys to put it in
that sort of American frontier terminology.
There was also the military identity protection
that was at stake. I had General Shali Kashvili, the
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say pointedly to me,
“we are the Army, not the Salvation Army, and if you’re
paying $1 billion a day for an army, you have certain scenarios
that you see them being used in.” There were verbal
gymnastics going on in the State Department, where spokespersons
were going through all kinds of difficulties. “Do
not use the word ‘genocide.’” There
were “acts of genocide,” but not “genocide.”
So this is the political context. Quickly, too quickly
perhaps. Media context: all OJ all the time in the corporate
media. Fewer international news stories. If my
pointer here is working properly, we can just go right down
Here we have percentage of international
news in total media; ABC, CBS and NBC from 1972-1995.
You can see in 1974 during Watergate, there were relatively
few international news stories, and then there’s this
continual increase in attention during a difficult period
of the Cold War. By 1990, ’91, you have the war
in Iraq, and then there’s this continual diminishment
and attention on the part of the American media to international
news stories, including in 1994, practically half the attention
that had been paid previous years.
Now let’s walk through the spaghetti
that you’re looking at right now. General Dallaire
actually referred to this. I like to think in my more
egotistical moments, I introduced this particular graph back
in 1995, and I see it pop up from time to time. What
you have, if it will stay, is the shaded area is the attention
paid to Rwanda, and then you have a number of others.
The diamonds, that’s Haiti. South Africa is at
the dark square. You’ve got Bosnia, the cross
hatch, and you’ve got OJ Simpson, the American football
player. And you can see that in June-July time period, OJ
Simpson received more attention that at any point in time
did Rwanda or Bosnia. That, along the bottom, you can
see some interesting phenomenon here. Let me just point.
In May, you can see an increase in amount of attention being
paid by the American networks to Rwanda, but the reason for
that isn’t directly Rwanda, but rather Nelson Mandela
was being elected to the presidency of South Africa.
ABC sent two satellite uplink crews there. They diverted
one of them to Nairobi to the area, and so for awhile you’ve
got ABC driving additional attention. As soon as that
satellite uplink left Africa, look what happens to the coverage.
Both Mandela’s inauguration, as well as Rwanda, drop
from the television screens. One more minute?
Thank you sir.
Even if we continue on and look very specifically
at the coverage of Rwanda itself, this, what this slide
tells us clearly is, is that at least for American television
Rwanda wasn’t a story of genocide, Rwanda was a medical
story. The lion’s share of coverage comes in July-August,
not April, May. What’s July-August, the refugee
camps in Zaire. How’s that measured? Look
at the datelines. The datelines through Zaire and refugee
camps skyrocket. They exceed anything that even came
close to being covered during the actual genocide itself.
That’s even more true of the presumably omnipotent CNN.
Actually CNN, my colleagues, professional journalist friends
here, can correct me if I’m wrong, but CNN in Africa
at this time, Gary Streiker, one person. That’s
?: (Inaudible question
from unknown speaker)
Steven Livingston: She
was flown in. She’s a parachuter, right?
Unknown speaker: No she
lived in Nairobi.
Steven Livingston: Good,
well good journalism. There are, I’ve got to go,
but there are a number of sources that you can turn to if
you’re interested in this question, and I look forward
to talking with you in questions and answers afterwards.
Thank you very much for your attention.