Foreign Policy by TV

CLARENCE PAGE

December 10, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hears dispatched the noted artist Frederic Remington in 1898 to Cuba to draw pictures of America's war with Spain. When Remington cabled that there was no war and he had nothing to draw, Hearst wired back, ''You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.''

Hearst made good on his promise. With relentless Page One coverage of Spain's alleged affronts, he helped press America into the Spanish-American War.

History repeats with the war in Somalia. This time television has furnished the pictures and President Bush has furnished what we hope won't be a war, but just might.

I'm glad we're there. Our cause is noble, workable and just. But I am troubled that the Somalia buildup confirms how much America's foreign policy is driven, in these post-Cold War days, by the assignment desks of the television networks.

Why has the United States become so concerned all of a sudden with Somalia while it continues to ignore, say, the Sudan, where other innocents have similarly been starving and suffering? Or Mozambique, Liberia or Haiti? Is it too much to ask for a little consistency in our foreign policy?

Or are we destined in the new world order to whip around and respond only to those crises that move us with powerful pictures?

If you haven't got pictures, the laws of TV rule that you haven't got a story. The message to the world's evil strongmen might well be, if you want to avoid trouble from the superpowers, keep television cameras out.

In Somalia's case, it was the lack of central authority that allowed journalists freedom to roam Somalia and take in its suffering in all of its misery. Unfortunately, 300,000 people had to die and a presidential election had to pass before the video finally brought results during the slow news days of President Bush's lame-duck period.

TV-driven foreign policy is worrisome because television is a powerful but fickle medium. Wielded by courageous reporters and crews, it can perform commendable service. But, while stories sometimes get on TV because they are important, other times stories become important because they are on TV. All TV stories are ''Page One'' because every story that makes it to television fills the screen and, presumably, one's attention, regardless of its true importance in relation to the day's other events.

Somalia is an important story, but it was also important two years ago before 300,000 died of starvation. After the regime of Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre fell in January 1991, after having acquired tons of guns during years of various alliances, East and West, Somalian leaders begged the United Nations to help ensure stable change.

Instead, the rest of the world pretty much ignored Somalia as its rival clans fell into war with each other, central authority collapsed and hundreds of thousands were left to starve like orphans of the Cold War.

It is such indifference by the developed world that has driven Third World nations to call for a ''new world information order'' to reduce the dominance of Western news agencies and give greater importance to the plight of the developing world, instead of sending in the cameras only where there is mass starvation or fighting -- if then.

Accordingly, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, the first U.N. secretary general from the African continent, complained last summer that Western nations and their media were much more eager to intervene in the European slaughter between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians than in the slaughter and starvation taking place in Africa.

Asked why he put such a high priority on their fate, Mr. Boutros-Ghali responded acidly, ''Maybe it's because I'm a wog.'' His choice of words was historically significant. ''Wog'' is a racial slur with colonial roots. Possibly an abbreviation of ''westernized Oriental gentlemen,'' it was popularized by British colonials to malign non-Europeans, including Egyptians.

In his own way, Mr. Boutros-Ghali was saying that our interests and actions are shaped by the values with which we grew up, even when we try to pretend we are totally ''objective'' journalists. We're not. The very notion of ''objective'' journalists was a construct of 19th-century newspaper owners like Hearst who wanted to sell the public on the idea that news was not tainted by special interests. Instead of trying to be ''objective,'' we should strive to be fair.

So, while Mr. Boutros-Ghali should be pleased that the U.S., at long last, has intervened in Somalia, we also must ask: What next?

It is not our getting into Somalia that worries me. It is our getting out. Television is much better at giving us reasons to be there than it is at mapping a way out.

The United States must begin the end game now. Even while our troops are making sure people are getting fed, we should be pushing the United Nations to take over the task of working with clan leaders to re-establish central authority and set up an interim government while we make a graceful exit.

It is the U.N., not the United States, that is best equipped with moral authority and a worldwide consensus among nations, big and small, to impose order in Somalia and elsewhere. Now that the Cold War is over, the United Nations is free to act with support from East and West, without regard to whether the Soviets or the West benefit the most from any particular tilt.

It is an opportunity the world must take. Television will give us the pictures, but only leadership will end war.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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