THE medium truly is the message -- that's what South Africa was banking on when it recently ended TV and photographic coverage of the violence that has become a commonplace. The South African leadership is borrowing a page from media guru Marshall McLuhan's book. It is betting that, if the riots are no longer daily television fare, the rest of the world will soon lose interest. Sadly, the bet might just pay off. Apartheid has been around as an issue since it was introduced in South Africa some four decades ago. But only during the past years has it moved from being a media yawn to a lead news item. One reason for this transformation is that the new assault on the barricades of apartheid has been a TV producer's dream.
There was good footage to be had when Washington policemen led Amy Carter from a protest at the South African Embassy. The film of South African blacks venting their anger in rioting has been powerful stuff. Pictures of grim-faced South African police wading into black crowds, billy clubs flailing, recall similarly horrific scenes from the early days of the civil rights movement.
This coverage, more than newspaper accounts or congressional debates, has framed the issue of apartheid in popular thought. It has defined South Africa, correctly, as a moral outlaw. It has implanted the intolerable on the consciences of hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. It has also been a command to change.
It's nonsense to claim, as South African officials do, that TV crews desperate for bloodshed are paying the rioters. The grievances of South African blacks don't need a television camera to find expression. Their anger will go on being vented whether or not anyone is watching. Whether anyone will continue to care is another matter.
By now the lesson of South Africa might seem so familiar that repetition isn't necessary to drive it home. But according to the polls, Americans have only the shallowest understanding of what's actually happening there. The more consequential political maneuvering in South Africa doesn't make good photo opportunities. If the lights are turned off, attention may disappear, too.
That's been true in Ethiopia, where the issue -- mass starvation -- was at least as powerful, the possibility of taking effective action at least as great. A year ago, it was hard to find a news show that didn't feature hunger. But camera crews, which came late to the scene in Ethiopia, also left early. Popular concern for the plight of the Ethiopians diminished, too.
What we know and think about bloodshed also largely comes from the TV coverage. Aim the camera, whether in South Africa or Vietnam or Lebanon, and attention follows. Outrage can be mobilized, demands made for the politicians to do something.
No coverage translates, all too easily, into no public concern. For years, now, Iran and Iraq have been at war with each other, killing off tens of thousands of each other's soldiers and civilians without benefit of a single TV camera. But for all that Americans know about it, that war might as well not exist. The Russians' systematic attempt to depopulate Afghanistan is rarely the stuff of TV coverage. The only way to cover that war would be to invite the experts to air their views, and ``talking heads '' spell death in the ratings wars.
It's not just our neighbors to the East who play this game of pull the plug, either. Britain effectively kept the media at bay while reclaiming the Falkland Islands, and the war in Grenada was over before the press could arrive. Both governments seized the chance to monopolize the war news and inflate their popularity. The strategy worked.
This is why South Africa's ``ban the cameras'' order could prove to be so important. The networks might just decide that there is no story to be told in riots that can't be aired, and thus relegate South Africa to the status of yesterday's news -- another Ethiopia.
That would be too bad. Even though the film crews have gone, mass hunger remains in Ethiopia. Similarly in South Africa, apartheid will remain a fact of life -- a fact calling for action -- even if its consequences are no longer being presented on nightly television.
David L. Kirp, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of California (Berkeley), writes frequently on social-policy issues.