BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. "In Congo," wrote reporter Somini Sengupta in the New York Times, "the problem up to now has been an absence of genocide. Four years of war have killed more than 3 million people through displacement, starvation and disease as well as coldblooded murder, but the blame is shared among all warring parties. The carnage has been mutual." Last month in the town of Bunia, UN peacekeepers stood helplessly by as warring militias hacked up babies and old men and dumped their bodies into a water tank. The international world knows it cannot sustain the stain of another Rwanda, but then it was claimed to be caught by surprise. It can't say that now. But what about the American people? Do they know what is happening -- what is certain to happen? Philip Gourevitch is author of "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda," and he joins us now. Welcome to On the Media.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so over the past several weeks the American press once again seems to have discovered the fighting in Congo. Does the coverage reflect a rise in the level of violence there?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Not completely. There was a massacre of a thousand in that region just last year. There have been killings like this periodically for some time which have not been covered at all in the American press. Right now there's this flareup, and it's a flareup where the coincidence of UN presence and UN ineffectuality in the face of killing --killings taking place under the nose of people who are supposedly there to represent our concern -- that's what making this a story right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So the presence of outside observers makes this a more visible story. What about news organizations themselves? Do they have many people on the ground?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: No, they don't have enough people on the ground. The way Africa's covered, and I don't think many people understand this, is it's covered as if it were one place, almost. You know, there's, there's Africa -- and many places -- I think NPR is one -- have an African correspondent. I mean the only way to sort of compare that is to think of an Asian correspondent or a European correspondent who's supposed to cover 27 countries in let's say half of which there's either a war or a definitive election taking place at any given moment. When I was covering Rwanda over the years, people would say to me "Oh, look! You know, there's a series of articles. Rwanda is back in the news!" [LAUGHTER] But in fact as I always said, "No, no, no, the news is back in Rwanda."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you think African wars are treated differently from wars in other parts of the world because of their apparent intractability -- and, and here we may have the, the whiff of racism -- well, we can't solve those problems.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I really don't think it's necessarily exactly racism. I think that it has to do with a kind of political imagination. In other words Africa doesn't threaten us. It doesn't involve us. And the terrible thing is that the brutality of Africa is particularly graphic often because the arms are relatively small arms. The killing is done with machetes, with hand guns, with basically stoned kids running around with Kalashnikovs and hatchets. This is something that people basically look at and immediately say that's insane and nobody can give me a reason to understand it. So the failure is -- if you don't cover a story like this steadily, then there's no way to describe it except by saying, you know, the words that you get when you look at the press coverage of the Congo war -- a bewildering flock of incomprehensible forces with virtually indistinguishable claims. Well that's almost like telling a reader -- do not try to absorb this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I take your point; however if one follows from the Middle East which is the one foreign story that's covered heavily in the United States, you find that in the Israel-Palestinian conflict it seems to be an endless march of incomprehensible violence as well.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: There's a certain level on which though one has a sense of the players. One comes to distinguish between the new prime minister and Arafat and the way that the Barak and the Paris governments approach things and the Sharon government - one-- and these are words that I can throw out here and assume that your listeners will basically recognize who these names are. But if I tell you that the Musevani [sp?] led factions versus the Bemba [sp?] factions in parts of the Congo were really unable to sit down at a table with Kabila Jr. after a while because of the way that the Kagami and the Mugabe factions were, were figuring -- this is gibberish! And yet it shouldn't be any more gibberish to most Americans, presumably, than what was going on in the Balkans. They knew the difference between a Mladic and a Karadjic but they still don't know the names of the masterminds of the Rwanda genocide even though they're on trial in UN tribunals in Arusha [sp?].
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And when the public does get information from Congo as we've heard recently, usually the spectre of what happened in Rwanda is invoked, and we know it's on the minds of the UN. So let me ask you whether you think Congo does present another Rwanda to the world?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well I think that Congo presents a Congo to the world. [LAUGHS] Which is to say the situation in Congo is in and of itself deserving of the world's attention, not purely because of the example of Rwanda. The example of Rwanda was the story of a government setting out systematically to eliminate a section of its population; to exterminate a minority group. In Congo, you have the opposite -- you have small groups of people involved in piecemeal killing; the quote that you from Somini Sengupta's article in the New York Times saying the problem Congo has is that they don't have genocide is precisely that if one says well is this another Rwanda -- the answer technically is no. And therefore people can say well we don't have to deal with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But what about the role of public opinion? I mean one of the reasons why would did go into Somalia -- how disastrous that may have been -- is because the American people were shocked and, and horrified by the pictures that they saw and the stories that they read. If the media coverage of Congo were stepped up, would that prompt action?
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Africa is not a priority. It's not a priority for the government; it's not a priority for the business community; it's not an economic priority; and it's not a press priority. I mean you cannot be constantly on top of every misery on earth. How are you supposed to cover the war in Liberia and the war in Congo and the situation in Sudan, which by the way hasn't gotten any better since you last heard about it, and the situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the situation in Ivory Coast which is dreadful, and the sort of happier story of the somewhat improved aftermath of the Sierra Leone war so that people aren't totally discouraged, and a completely difficult story to unravel of what's been going on in Angola of late? And then what about Zimbabwe? So my problem is, you know, on the one hand I do think that a great deal more could be covered about these things, but I think that one should be cautious about sort of assuming that in an ideal world everything would be covered equally, because one thing I can say is, if you want to know about what's going on in these places, the internet has become a tremendous service! It's available. And the fact is, most people don't feel like it's something that they actually are being deprived of. It's painful but true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Philip Gourevitch, thank you very much.
PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and is author of the book about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda called "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families."