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Curry commentary: Gutsy reporting

• March 20, 2006 |

Gutsy reporting

"Who are today's Edward R. Murrows?" the woman demanded, her tone angry.

You could hear a pin drop as the audience looked from her to me, onstage, having just delivered a speech about journalism and public policy.

She had just heard me suggest that what was once called "yellow journalism" in Teddy Roosevelt's era, has in my view, become "green journalism" today, overly biased not toward being liberal or conservative, but toward making money.

This is not a revelation to any serious news reader or viewer, as both newspapers and television networks struggling to improve circulation and ratings increasingly make choices that mean reporting more of what people want to know, and less of what people need to know.

The woman asking the question about Murrow had seen George Clooney's movie of the premier television reporter who found the courage to tell the truth about Senator Joseph McCarthy's slanderous campaign to root out communists, when few else would do so. He stood against the current and paid the price, as his news program was moved from prime time to weekends.

Looking at her, I saw an average American, wanting to know which reporters today would risk standing against the current, to tell the truth few want to hear.

I fumbled.

Forgive me, any colleagues who may be reading this, but I couldn't think of anyone who had risen to Murrow's level of courage. So I mumbled something about there being a lot of good reporters and about how she shouldn't give up hope. As her face fell, I cringed. Why, when we live in times that have give reporters so many chances to rise, could I not name one who had?

I wish I could speak to that woman now, because I have since met the kind of reporter she is looking for. He has repeatedly risked his life to gather a story most Americans don't know much about: the ethnic cleansing in Darfur that is killing people who have no voice in our world, poor, black and living deep in the heart of Africa. Just the name, Darfur, draws blank stares. But this reporter, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, is only too happy to educate you, believing to his core that if a government backs the killing and raping of people because of their race, it crosses the thin line that defines the boundaries of our humanity.

The attackers in Darfur are Arab militias called Janjaweed, which the U.S. says are supported by the government of Sudan. They are blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths among the black tribes in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Kristof has risked traveling into this danger zone six times in two years, and has almost single-handedly kept the story of these ethnic killings alive. In doing so he has focused on telling stories about the most vulnerable, the women and children raped, widowed or orphaned.

Kristof could have done the story once, and moved on. But he has been relentless in bringing stories the rest of America's media have largely ignored, in part because, according to current wisdom, it's not the kind of topic that helps ratings or circulation.

The crazy thing is that Kristof in real life is an exceedingly cautious man, the kind of guy who never exceeds the speed limit. Traveling with him, on my first trip to the killing zone, I discovered an unassuming, disarmingly sweet, mild-mannered guy. He's the sort who would enjoy the use of a pocket protecter, if he knew he wouldn't be ridiculed. And yet there he was, racing into areas being attacked by armed militias, who, if they knew who he was, might like nothing more than to silence him.

After seeing him emerge from interviewing people in a village preparing for a Janjaweed attack, his eyes bloodshot, his hair and face covered with dust from having slept in the open desert, I thought this pocket protector reporter deserved a cape.

I don't know what Kristof would think about being compared to a TV journalist. Newspaper reporters are notoriously snooty about television news.

But no matter what Kristof thinks, he is, in his commitment to the fundamental ideals of news reporting, comparable to the great Murrow.

And he's not alone. I know I can come up with another name. Just give it time.

  • |

What explains ethnic cleansing?

Though the ethnic cleansing in Darfur is now bleeding across the border into neighboring Chad, you can't tell it from the faces of the children at Gaga refugee camp as they rush forward to shake your hand. Animated and giggling, they reach out to meet you, eager to practice their English or French, repeating whatever you say, joyful, curious.

"Hello, hello, ca va, ca va," they say and grin. Their dark faces are chalky white from the dust and sand that also coats their clothes and even their eyelashes. But the smiles belie what these beautiful children have seen, and when you look deep into their eyes, you can glimpse the horror that haunts them.

How could a child not struggle after seeing firsthand the crime of ethnic cleansing, when adults can barely comprehend it?

Only now, after emerging from this place of pain, does this reporter begin to understand the horror of what is happening.

It was sparked in 2003 as Arab militias, which the U.S. says are backed by the government of Sudan, systematically began targeting poor blacks in the region known as Darfur — killing, raping, looting and burning hundreds of villages. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been killed, and more than 2 million have been displaced.

Why? Because some of the poor in Darfur, fed up, essentially, with taxation without representation, started to rebel against their government. The Arab-led government, experiencing similar trouble elsewhere in the country, reacted with fury, igniting buried racial tensions among Arabs who've lived in Sudan for centuries.

Thus was launched this reign of terror by the Arab militias known as the "Janjaweed." Imagine the fear of the villagers, seeing them ride in on horses, guns blazing, backed by Sudanese military hardware, including attack helicopters.

Pretty ugly stuff, and though the U.S. has taken the lead in calling it genocide, neither it nor any other country in the world has stopped it. Now this killing is spreading.

The people of Chad living along the Darfur-Sudan border are being killed and raped, their villages looted and burned. Every survivor we talked to described Arabs on horseback, shouting racial slurs, and saying:

"You are black slaves."

"This is Arab land, not your land."

"If you stay, Arabs will come to kill you."

One U.S. official told me the Sudanese government let a monster out of the bottle and now can't put it back.

But the president of Chad, himself criticized for supporting the Sudanese rebels and thus encouraging the violence, says Sudan doesn't want to put the monster back. In a rare interview, he told us he believes the government of Sudan is deliberately pushing the Darfur war into Chad, and he predicted it could spread to other countries as well.

"The clock is ticking. I swear to God," he said, predicting that if the world does not intervene, it could be "worse than Rwanda."

The world is considering sending UN peacekeepers, and the President of Chad told us he would authorize having foreign troops and even U.S. or NATO warplanes in Chad to enforce a no-fly zone, to stop the threat.

Both Chad and Sudan are staging significant military buildups on the border, and rebel groups against both governments are there also, intensifying the threat.

The bottom line is, the fire has jumped the line, and the whole place is set to explode.

Knowing this, you worry about the people in harm's way, including these haunted children in Gaga refugee camp, who seem so happy just to see you smile. Your pockets full of candy are empty as you head to the vehicle, feeling guilty that you can leave when they can't. Through the window, you wave good-bye, and then look down at your hands and see small cuts. The children had grabbed for you so hard, they drew blood.

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Genocide in Darfur

My NBC News team and I are back from Chad's Darfur border, where we confirmed reports that the violence President Bush calls genocide in Darfur is now spilling across the border into Chad. 

Arab militias are killing, gang-raping and burning villages, targeting blacks, yelling racial epithets as they do. 

In village after village along the dangerous no-man's land on the border, survivors told us the Arab militias, called Janjaweed, shouted "Zurga, Zurga" and "Nuba Nuba" — calling them black slaves and threatening to slaughter them if they didn't flee.

We talked to women who have been widowed, children who have been orphaned, and interviewed the president of Chad, who appealed for an international response.

It is a new face of "never again," again.

We will begin airing the first of our reports on "Today," beginning Monday morning in the 7:00 hour and the same day on NBC Nightly News.

I am writing the stories now, and pray I do them justice.

• |

Editor's note: This entry was originally filed on March 4.Dare to care about Darfur

Minutes  before this reporter's flight toward what has been called the world's worst humanitarian crisis: the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan.

Janjaweed attacks, by mostly light-skinned Arabs against black Africans, are stepping up again, now crossing the border into Chad. Both sides of the border are now increasingly militarized and the threat of greater violence looms. 

Caught in the middle are some 200,000 refugees who fled Darfur, running from the killing, rape and burning of thousands of villages. Chad is no longer a safe refuge, not even to the people of Chad in this no-man's land we are heading to. Meantime in Darfur, some 2 million people are also in refugee camps.

There is so much suffering in Africa, why should NBC News venture into this dangerous place and focus on this suffering specifically?

Because there is a direct line from the Holocaust to Rwanda, to Bosnia to Kosovo, and to Darfur — a line that we cannot ignore and allow to be crossed and still call ourselves human. 

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, call it what you will. But above all, call it unacceptable. We must stand behind the words "never again."

The plane's doors are closing. May the stories we bring back make you care.