Bored encounters with the third world
Some 1,500 people, politicians, administrators, academics, teachers, nurses, bankers, doctors, lawyers, village workers, writers, and documentary film makers from 70 countries met in Baltimore in mid-July to talk about the state of the world. Among them were prime ministers, foreign ministers, internationally known figures like Robert McNamara, ''Sonny'' Ramphal, the secretary general of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, Inga Thorsson (''Mrs. Disarmament'' they called her), and all of them people who are taken seriously by others, and a handful only by themselves. There were some ritual gloom and doom and also lots of hope and practical ideas voiced to improve human lives and, perhaps, to stop human beings from exterminating themselves by nuclear war.
There was scarcely a line about all this in the ''mainstream'' news media of the United States.
The Washington Post ran a story in the Business Section about what Mr. McNamara said about Reaganomics. It also carried a doggy bag full of bits and pieces as a windup article.
The Baltimore Sun ran an editorial on Gloom and Doom. Baltimore's local TV stations for whom it was a local event (the first international event at their brave new Convention Center) gave it one to three minutes mornings and evenings (McNamara two minutes, Peter McPherson -- the head of the US Agency for International Development -- one minute). Evidently, it was not news.
If one of the people who picketed with pamphlets accusing McNamara of being a genocidal maniac because he advocates family planning had shot him, the 25th Anniversary World Conference of the Society for International Development would have made front pages and prime time. But his proposal that there should be a World Central Bank to manage the globe's finances better was not news. Inga Thorsson's blunt message to both superpowers - ''They consider themselves the trustees of global peace. We do not trust these self-appointed trustees'' -- was not considered newsworthy though she is Sweden's minister responsible for disarmament policy.
As a journalist who has reported the world from Asia, Europe, and the US for 35 years, I wondered why. Were all those 1,500 men and women who are respected in their own countries and in their fields of work just a bunch of tedious bores with nothing fresh or worthwhile to say? Some of them, yes. There was a lot of cant and ''development'' jargon -- references, for instance, to ''methodologies, '' ''modalities,'' ''instrumentalities'' - and some rubber-stamp phrases such as ''basic needs,'' ''political will'' and ''resource transfers'' (for money, machines, and skills).
But is that enough reason to ignore the substance of the meetings?
Was there no story in the young woman who had successfully organized the slum dwellers of Bombay to march and demand latrines with water and some human privacy? Would it have bored American readers, viewers, and listeners to learn that there are nationwide networks of young and old people in the US intermeshing with their counterparts elsewhere to protect and improve their environment through community action?
Was it unimportant for Americans to hear that the foreign ministers of Canada , Italy, and France had said that their policies on development aid were diametrically different from those of the US? Was it irrelevant for Americans to learn of the intensity of feeling in Latin America about its northern neighbor's human rights policies?
I think not. And my American friends who spent five days in plenaries and panels and in corridor discussions thought not.
The chief reason for the silence, it seems to me, is the powerful news media's preoccupation with power. Only people with their hands on power -- political power, financial power, the power to hurt Americans -- interest the media. The Shah in office was interesting and the Shah in exile continued to be interesting because, in or out, he could harm Americans. The Ayatollah Khomeini, however contemptously he is regarded by the media, is interesting because he has the power to damage American interests. Poland is interesting because there is a lot of American bank money there at risk. Ordinary people, especially poor people abroad, without power are boring. Ideas untied to power, however courageous and valid and relevant to the poor and rich in the US, do not interest the media.
The world about which the Society for International Development is concerned and the world of the American media are evidently separated by a time chasm. The developing world is process and the media world is event.
Is it not necessary to bridge this gap in the minds of media editors? Is it possible to report events well without reporting the processes which brought them about?
The problem is that events occur overnight and processes manifest themselves over glacially slow periods and therefore seem boring in the agitated world the West has made for itself.
But slow movements pack a tectonic force and will take us all by surprise when they do manifest themselves. Iran was a surprise, Nicaragua was a surprise, even Liberia was a surprise.
Is the choice, then, between boredom and astonishment?