BOB GARFIELD: When On the Media last covered what then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, some 50,000 people were dead. It's now a mere seven months later, and the death toll, by some estimates, is close to 400,000. So, where is the television coverage? It's on a channel you don't get and have probably never seen - mtvU, which is broadcast exclusively to college campuses around the country. Joining me is Stephen Friedman, general manager of mtvU, and Nate Wright, a junior at Georgetown University who traveled to Africa last month as a student correspondent for an mtvU documentary about Darfur. Stephen and Nate, welcome to OTM.
STEPHEN FREIDMAN: Thanks for having us.
NATE WRIGHT: Yeah. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Stephen, I'm going to begin with you. Earlier this month, in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof said, about Darfur, (quote) "MTV is raising the issue more openly and powerfully than our White House." And he added that the mtvU channel is covering Darfur more aggressively than most TV networks. Now, aside from that being a pretty stinging indictment of our own government and our press, is it also an indication of just American apathy overall? When you decided to cover this issue, weren't you concerned that students wouldn't have any idea what you're talking about, you know, much less any passion for the subject?
STEPHEN FREIDMAN: You know, I wasn't concerned, we weren't concerned about the passion. We knew the passion would be there. We did know that there was not a huge level of understanding. We've seen, kind of time and time again, college students are really the engine of social change. When you give 'em the information, and more importantly, you give 'em clear ways to get involved - and they take action.
BOB GARFIELD: Nate, you co-founded a group at Georgetown called STAND - Students Taking Action Now - Darfur - and I guess by definition you're an activist and were of a mind to do what you could, but how would you characterize other students' comprehension of the issue before STAND did its consciousness-raising?
NATE WRIGHT: It was kind of surprising how little people understood about what was going on inside Darfur. Take, for instance, the Arab versus African model. It does do a lot to describe the situation. But at the same point in time, you know, everyone inside of Darfur is both Arab and African. You know, to simply say that it - the sole motivator behind this conflict is itself ethnic really doesn't take into consideration all of the other things that are going on inside of Darfur.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's take a listen to this moment when you ask a man from Darfur who, as you spoke to him, was in a refugee camp in Chad, the simple question - why - why were these armed militias killing his countrymen?
MAN FROM DARFUR: They, they take all what we have.
NATE WRIGHT: Do you know why they came after your village?
MAN FROM DARFUR: Mm-hm. I don't know but it-- [PAUSE] [WEEPING] I don't know why. But we still were surviving, still our life going on.
NATE WRIGHT: Right now, the voice of the people in Sudan has really been silenced, and it's been silenced by the distance, it's been silenced by disinterest, and really by the excuses that people put forward to not getting involved. If the people could speak, they would tell us essentially the stories of what's going on - the witnesses themselves - you know, babies, when they're burning down the villages, are often thrown on to the fires. In the camps, for the people who actually, for the women who remain inside of Darfur, every day they have to choose between starving, by staying in the camps, or being raped by going out to get firewood. And so when you look at a conflict like this, when you look at a genocide, there are always, you know, those who perpetuate the crimes themselves, and then there are also those who remain indifferent. And both of those are ways of perpetuating this tragedy. And so, I think if there's one thing that I took away from it, it is the need to try and remove the indifference and to provide a consequence for those people who remain indifferent when there are tragedies like this in the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Stephen, I want to ask you about indifference. mtvU could probably just as well be named MTV-NotU, because the experiences of refugees in Chad have so little to do with the lives of American college students. Are stories like this so repellant that the mtvU audience simply pushes them away?
STEPHEN FRIEDMAN: You know, it's a good question. I think it's something we struggle with and struggled with as we were trying to figure out how to cover this. I mean, we did a number of public service announcements and featured a young man who had been enslaved for 10 years by the Janjaweed and escaped as one of the "lost boys." We started it with telling the stories from the Darfurian refugees themselves, but when we did this documentary, we realized that it was going to be really important to send college students from the US who our audience back home could identify with. And I think you experience through the eyes of Nate and Andrew and Stephanie, who is a student at Swarthmore, but in fact is originally from Rwanda - her family escaped before the genocide. And I think, through their eyes, we've seen a response from the audience where there's an entrance in - that they can identify not necessarily with what you're talking about - about the really devastation that these people are experiencing, but they can identify with the students and what students are doing.
BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes journalism occurs and has actually a very small original audience, but nonetheless has an effect. Is there any evidence that there have been any political repercussions of your Darfur documentary?
STEPHEN FRIEDMAN: I think, you know, you can look at Harvard University, and they just asked their administration to divest of any companies with a connection to the Sudanese government, and we hear from students at USC and a number of other campuses that that sort of divestment action, similar to what happened with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa in the early '90s, that is happening. So, what is the impact? I'm not sure. I think little by little, students are pushing and realizing they can pressure their administration and maybe their government to do more.
BOB GARFIELD: Good for mtvU for sponsoring and running this documentary. Good for MTV and Viacom for engaging in some serious journalism. I'm going to guess it wasn't a huge ratings-grabber. Will there be a follow-up?
MAN: Absolutely. And this, this I should say - the documentary was just the latest piece - we've been doing programming on the crisis in Sudan throughout the year, and we're committed to this. I think we, as mtvU, as a college network, have the luxury - one - Nielsen rates us once a year, so we are rated differently, and that's a blissful thing. And I think working with college students, I think you can engage in topics more deeply - topics like this are much more nuanced - so yes, we are, we are committed to continuing this and you'll see more programming from us on this topic.
BOB GARFIELD: Gentlemen, thanks to you both.
STEPHEN FRIEDMAN: Thanks for having us.
NATE WRIGHT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Stephen Friedman is general manager of mtvU, and Nate Wright is a student at Georgetown University and co-founder of STAND - Students Taking Action Now - Darfur. [CLIP PLAYS]
WOMAN: You don't need to tell me that it could happen to me to care, you know? Genocide shouldn't have to be explained, why you should take action. It shouldn't have to be explained why people should care. It should be a given. It's time for you to get off your ass and do something about it. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: 58:00 That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Rob Christiansen, Susanna Dilliplane and Nick Gilewicz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.