`Nightline' offers lesson from the Congo

TV/RADIO COLUMN

World news: Ted Koppel reports on a nation struggling with a civil war.

September 05, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

When Ted Koppel takes on the topics dominating the headlines, he often puts his peers to shame. His dissection last month of the evasions by Rep. Gary Condit after the politician's disastrous televised interview, for instance, was controlled, convincing and even-handed.

On Friday, when Koppel introduces the first of a five-part Nightline series on the multiple miseries afflicting the Congo, however, the longtime ABC journalist will acknowledge his own shame.

The murder trial of a former football great or the drownings of her infant children by an anguished mother automatically draw enormous media interest because of strong public interest, Koppel says.

"Less frequently," he says, "we report on events because of our conviction that you ought to know."

The story that he embarks on involves a tangle of butchery, disease and social breakdown, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 2.5 million people. It is complicated, predicated on a civil war that involves at least seven warring parties. It is ugly, trading on a history of brutal exploitation by a once-major European power. And it is a story that has largely escaped the attention of U.S. television news.

The deaths of 20,000 people in Kosovo attracted American media there, Koppel notes in the program. He adds, with evident bitterness: "Because [Congo] is distant, and dangerous, and not easily accessible, we let you down."

His program's oversight is part of a greater pattern of neglect. Many news professionals observe that network and cable outlets hesitate to look beyond U.S. borders, outside familiar stories of conflict such as the Middle East. "There isn't an awful lot of interest in foreign news in this country unless the U.S. is involved," says Herb Brubaker, a television journalist who worked at NBC News for 21 years.

"The failure of U.S. network television to provide persistent coverage of foreign trouble spots ... has serious consequences," Jonathan Randal, a longtime foreign correspondent, wrote in a 2000 paper for a Harvard University research center on politics and the press. "Lack of television footage basically guarantees that these and other conflicts uncovered by television rarely achieve that critical mass that forces reluctant governments to act."

Nine months ago, Koppel and Tom Bettag, Nightline's executive producer for the past 10 years, started to research what they envisioned as a piece on "Whither Africa?" But as Bettag recalls, they reached this insight: "The amount of instability is directly proportional to the amount of wealth."

And, ruing Nightline's early failure to tell the story of the slaughter in Rwanda in the mid-1990s, Bettag said, the two men decided to concentrate on the single, complex story of the Congo. Koppel sees it as the inheritor of landmark TV reports such as Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" on CBS News.

Congo is rich in coltan, a type of ore essential to the production of the cell phones, computers and home video systems so in demand in the United States. Over the past three years, competing militias and armies of neighboring countries have sought control over coltan mines. The trade has led to an enforced servitude that has beggared the country's agricultural economy.

Under a practice started during the Belgian domination of Congo a century ago, soldiers are not paid. Instead they are given the right to levy immediate "taxes" on residents - meaning the soldiers often plunder with impunity. Some of the most powerful moments of the series occur when women who have been raped speak openly and intensely about their experiences. Subtitles appear below their faces to explain their words, rather than having translators drown their voices.

There are currently few homes for reporting like this on television. One might see such documentary work - for that's what this Nightline series is - on PBS' Frontline, or CBS' 60 Minutes or 60 Minutes II, or the occasional CNN special.

Here's why: The end of the Cold War has dissolved the ready-made narrative of us-and-them thought to guarantee interest of Americans in news overseas. At the same time, network news executives required to turn significant profits find quick savings by cutting foreign bureaus. Coverage of Africa has been particularly weak, especially after the fall of the apartheid system in South Africa.

"Television news is deeply invested in the idea that Americans don't care about international news," Bettag says. "We've talked ourselves out of great stories that way."

Among the people featured in the series is Dr. Robert Sussman, a Baltimore-based orthopedic surgeon. He is, as Koppel shows, a humanitarian willing to distribute medical supplies and food where international aid agencies are unwilling to go. Sussman is also a major investor in a coltan mining endeavor, which makes him a business partner with those who sometimes have to cut deals with people from differing warring factions.

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