FAIR: Media coverage of human rights

The Anarchives (tao@lglobal.com)
Wed, 23 Oct 1996 01:13:53 +0000 (GMT)


By Norman Solomon / Creators Syndicate

The man who won the presidency 20 years ago called human
rights "the soul of our foreign policy." Jimmy Carter liked to
talk about human rights. In sharp contrast, during the 1996
campaign, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have reinforced the
prevailing media judgment: Human rights aren't very important.

Around the globe, it's no secret that Washington is more
concerned about economic markets and geopolitical clout than
human rights. Many regimes enjoy good relations with the White
House while using brutal repression to crush dissent.

Here at home, we're in a vicious cycle: Politicians say
little on the subject of human rights. Journalists don't perceive
it as a key issue. Politicians don't see much press coverage and
figure they can skip it.

What's lacking is vigilant -- and independent -- media
attention to human rights all over the world. While political
jailings and torture are widespread, American editors and
reporters are inclined to take their cues from top U.S.

If the president or secretary of state condemns a particular
nation for human-rights violations, the media focus is likely to
be extensive. So, for instance, we've learned plenty about
horrible abuses in Iraq. But we don't hear much about the
documented torture in bordering countries that are longtime U.S.
allies -- Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Some news accounts are exceptional. But a story needs
amplification to make a big noise. If other media fail to follow
up, there's no "echo effect," and the unusual reporting doesn't
make a lot of difference.

Meanwhile, "the language of human rights has been co-opted
by everybody -- including oppressive governments -- and certainly
in Washington," says Susan Osnos, communications director at
Human Rights Watch. "Failure to take action doesn't get covered
very much."

The advocacy director of the group's Middle East division,
Joe Stork, adds that print coverage has improved in recent years
but "remains extremely uneven." A human-rights story gets more
editorial mileage when it "coincides with the dominant `spin'
from Washington." And on the tube, "aside from major atrocity
stories such as the genocidal campaigns in Rwanda and Bosnia,
human rights seldom makes the TV-news sound bite."

In fact, television's foreign news is dwindling. "Overseas
coverage has declined on the networks by some 50 percent over the
last 10 years," says veteran TV news producer Danny Schechter.
Solid reports on human rights are "episodic," he told me. "The
main problem is how the issues are covered -- often in ways that
deal only with victims." Routinely, what's televised is
"superficial and decontextualized."

Since 1993, Schechter and partner Rory O'Connor at
Globalvision have bucked the trend by producing the public-TV
program "Rights & Wrongs." No distribution help has come from the
national PBS system -- run by executives who "never backed away
from their statement that human rights is an insufficient
organizing principle for a TV series," Schechter notes. "They
made that statement before we even produced the series."

Resisting the arrogance at PBS headquarters, "Rights &
Wrongs" airs on 140 stations; viewers get journalism that
ventures wide and deep. Funded by foundations and the Independent
Television Service, "Rights & Wrongs" is battling to challenge
media complacency.

Every day, news blips go by us without any reference to the
human-rights implications. That's what happened last month, when
the Clinton adminstration confirmed plans to sell nine F-16
fighter jets to Indonesia's dictatorship.

Now, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to a Catholic
bishop and an exiled activist who've been part of the long
struggle for human rights in East Timor -- a country occupied by
Indonesian troops since 1975. In a way, the award also serves as
a belated booby prize for Jimmy Carter and mainstream media.

Inaugurated in January 1977 -- just 13 months after
Indonesia launched its bloody invasion of East Timor -- President
Carter stepped up U.S. shipments of weaponry to the Jakarta
regime as it continued with wholesale murder of Timorese
civilians. Before Carter left the White House, the death toll
reached an estimated 200,000 people, nearly a third of the entire
population of East Timor.

Dazzled by Carter's idealistic rhetoric, American news media
ignored those grisly realities -- and, for two decades, paid very
little attention to the torture and slaughter of Timorese people.

Clearly, we need much more than a return to human-rights
platitudes in high places.


The above article is this week's "Media Beat" syndicated column
by Norman Solomon. "Media Beat" appears in about 20 daily
newspapers around the country and on CompuServe.

If you like what you read, please contact the editorial page
editors at newspapers in your area and urge them to carry the
column! (It's distributed to daily papers by Creators Syndicate.)
Suggestions from readers have been very effective in getting
newspapers to publish "Media Beat" on a regular basis.

For more information, send e-mail to <mediabeat-info@igc.org>.