On my mind: Darfur, South Sudan and Rosenthal

AbeRosenthalIt was 10 years ago — next week, in fact — that I wrote a column for the Scripps Howard News Service that began like this:

It’s possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year’s going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle — about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan’s Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan — more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

That was not the last column that I wrote about the horrific conflicts in South Sudan and the massacre of Christians, animists, moderate Muslims and members of other religious minorities. The Sudan story developed in the years after that and, ultimately, helped inspire the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

It has been interesting to watch the mainstream media tiptoe into coverage of hot-button religious liberty issues, especially the rights of embattled religious minorities. I thought about that the other day at the time of the Darfur march here in Washington, D.C. I have been thinking about the South Sudan while watching — with joy — the news that there might be a meaningful Darfur peace agreement in the near future. Still, I have questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I cheer when I pass Darfur marchers here inside the Beltway. I totally support that cause. But part of me has wondered why the Darfur massacres have become such a popular cause on the American left and among our media elites in general. Why, for example, is Hollywood marching for Darfur, when it all but ignored the South Sudan?

Perhaps Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post was on to something important when, back in 2004, he wrote a report about the importance of evangelical Christians beginning to focus on Darfur:

Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the “genocide” taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Aug. 1 letter marks a shift in focus for the evangelical movement, which previously was interested primarily in halting violence against Christians in southern Sudan. The victims in Darfur, a western province, are mostly Muslim.

Get it? Allen D. Hertzke was even more blunt in a 2003 essay for the Wall Street Journal. The problem with the South Sudan, he said, was that the people who were passionate about this genocide were the wrong kinds of people to draw major (positive) media attention. The victims were the wrong faith and the lobbyists were the wrong faith, too. That’s why it was hard to put these massacres in the South Sudan on the front page.

A clue to this puzzle appeared in a … New York Times story, in which the war in Sudan was described as a “pet cause of many American religious conservatives.” Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a “pet cause” of American Jews or apartheid a “pet cause” of African-Americans?

Such patronizing illustrates how the Sudan cause becomes “tainted” by association with evangelical Christians, whose efforts keep pressure on the Khartoum regime by documenting and publicizing its depredations. It isn’t only the efforts of evangelicals, of course. Jewish leaders, Catholics, Episcopalians and African-American pastors from many denominations all contribute.

JebelAwlia lowresYou probably know where I am going with this, if you have scanned the headlines of a major newspaper today.

All of this reminds me of the work of the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who, rung by rung, climbed the ladder in the world’s most powerful newsroom until he reached the top. He covered the world and, as editor, helped shake America to its foundations when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. He changed the Times and, as a journalist, he helped shape his times.

At the end of his career, he began writing an op-ed column called “On My Mind.” In it, he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — especially free speech and freedom of conscience. Here is how the Times obituary described this part of Rosenthal’s work:

His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: “Please Read This Column.”As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes — his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America’s war on drugs.

That’s part of the story. Rosenthal was, in short, an old-fashioned liberal. That may be why, in the end, people started calling him a conservative. That may be why, in the end, many people believe that he was forced out of his beloved Times newsroom because he would not stop writing columns about the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. He would not stop writing about the South Sudan. Rosenthal could not understand why so many mainstream journalists were not interested in this story.

I talked to Rosenthal several times about this, in part because a human-rights activist sent him a copy of that 1996 column that I wrote about slavery and the South Sudan. Rosenthal said that he showed it to several people in the newsroom and asked them why this issue — the persecution of religious minorities — wasn’t a major news story. No one had a good answer. Thus, he pledged that he would write about South Sudan.

Rosenthal decided that, one way or another, political prejudices must have had something to do with this blind spot. Here is what he told me in a 1997 interview, a year in which he wrote nearly two dozen columns about Sudan and the persecution of Christians, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

To paraphrase, Rosenthal had been forced by the facts to grasp this fact — many journalists in the mainstream press just don’t get religion.

What he could not understand, he told me, was that many journalists didn’t seem to want to open their eyes and realize that this was hurting them as journalists. Because of this blindness, many newsrooms were missing stories that did not need to be missed. They were losing readers that they did not need to lose. It just didn’t make sense to him.

Now Rosenthal is gone. But his voice is heard, whenever people gather to protest the genocide in Darfur. I hope that his death causes some journalists to dig out some of his columns and catch up with the big story that Rosenthal, as an angry old journalist who cared about human rights, was writing about long before it was acceptable to write about it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    It seems you are insinuating that the war in southern Sudan was ignored by the American “left”, and Darfur is not, due primarily to anti-Christian bias and preference for the “right” (Muslim?) victims. But this seems questionable.
    First, the population of southern Sudan is routinely described in the media as “mainly Christian and animist”. Are animists also the “wrong” victims? If anything, stereotypical views of the left might suggest animists as the “preferred” victims.
    Second, so far as I know, southern Sudan involved much more of an actual civil war, with a charismatic and powerful opposition leader, John Garang. By contrast, Darfur has often been presented as a straight-out slaughter on the part of the government and janjaweed. This is not to deny that the government was responsible for many many atrocities in the south, but the somewhat greater parity of forces makes the whole issue psychologically easier for Americans to ignore, right or wrong.
    Third, activism on behalf of Darfur is commonly pitched as a way to avoid “another Rwanda”. And I suspect that for many Americans, rightly or wrongly, cognizance of what happened in Rwanda, and of the moral complicity of the US, has been rather slow in coming.
    Finally, a cycnical person might well expect leftists to ignore Darfur, given the widespread opposition to the war in Iraq. But in fact, we routinely hear calls for multinational military intervention against the Islamist forces.
    All in all, I think you are correct in supposing that secular leftists have often underplayed the persecution of Christians, in Sudan and elsewhere. But I don’t think that explains the disparate reactions to Darfur and south Sudan.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    ” If anything, stereotypical views of the left might suggest animists as the “preferred” victims.”

    You must know a different bunch of “left” than I do. But I spend a lot of time with American neo-pagans, whose lack of focus on what was happening to “animists” (which as far as I can make out is a politically correct replacement for paleo-pagan) does seem strange.

    And I did not see any banners festooning a synagogue when it was only happening to Christians-and-animist… nor, for that matter, as I think I have mentioned before, did I see any protest marches on behalf of Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Bahais and “animists” in the USSR.


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