SOLOMON: The Media Wrongs of Human Rights

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. officials.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 administration 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. **********************************************Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman Solomon STRETCH RHETORIC"Guaranteeing equal access to opportunity, not equal results, was the motivating principle behind the Civil Rights Act. ...The overwhelming majority of Americans and Californians believe, as I do, that we should promote equal opportunity for all, without regard to race or gender. But at the same time, we believe it is wrong to use quotas, set-asides and other preferences that serve only to pit American against American, group against group." -- Bob DoleIn other words: I believe in the theory of equal opportunity but whether it's a reality isn't my problem. Besides, we've got to win California, and bashing affirmative action might help.***"Folks, that's what this election is about. Does it take a village, or are you on your own? Does everybody want to build their own little bridge, or do you want to build a bridge to the 21st century wide enough, big enough and strong enough for every single one of us to walk across?" -- Bill ClintonIn other words: You're going to have to keep hearing about that "bridge to the 21st century" until Election Day, ad nauseam, because my pollsters say it works. However, I won't mention that it's a toll bridge and a lot of people will lack the resources to get across.***"He is a man of unparalleled honor and principle." -- Jack KempIn other words: When I praise Bob Dole these days, my absurd exaggerations are unparalleled.***"Today is Columbus Day, marking the day an Italian explorer came upon the new world. It's a day that holds special significance and much pride for Italian-Americans, Spanish- and Hispanic-Americans, and all Americans who dare to dream and reach for new horizons." -- Bill ClintonIn other words: I don't worry about offending the small number of Native American voters.

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