LGD note: I recently wrote this essay looking at New York Times reporting in Darfur for a class on conflict and reporting. I thought it would be interesting to post here. Some of the footnotes I couldn’t include as links, so if for some reason you need a fully annotated version, please comment.
The biggest news story about conflict in Africa in the last five years has undoubtedly been the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, which has often been called genocide. The current violence in Sudan’s western state emerged in 2003 just as peace agreements were finally being made to end the 20-year civil war between Sudan’s north and south. The conflict propelled a region that had once been regarded as a backwater onto the forefront of the international stage.
As reporting picked up steam in 2004, a story emerged about Darfur that was replayed in various forms: Nomadic Arab tribes, in league with Sudan’s nefarious government, were attempting to exterminate the black Africans of Darfur through a campaign of terror, rape and fire.
But scholars, Darfur experts and some aid groups have questioned the accuracy of this mainstream reporting on Darfur. In the last two years, this has coincided with a waning interest in the Darfur conflict among the American public.
In this essay, I follow the reporting on Darfur through the course of four years and several articles in the United States’ most influential newspaper, The New York Times. Through the evolution of the reporting, I show the ways in which the Times constructed an over-arching narrative about Darfur, why the story was relevant and popular, and why myths came to influence the reporting.
A War of Arabs against Africans
The earliest reports on the violence that began in Darfur in 2003 found reporters groping for a way to tell the story. The uncertainty of the situation is evident in the first article to mention the current Darfur conflict in the Times on January 17, 2004. The mostly well-sourced article quotes refugees in Chad to shed light on what may be occurring in Darfur, relating tales of killings by men on horseback, rapes and escapes in the middle of the night. The reporters admit that their sources for these stories are limited: “It is impossible to travel in Darfur to verify these claims,” they write.
But in support of the refugees’ descriptions of chaos are numerous comments and figures from institutional sources, including the United Nations, the United States Agency for International Development, the International Crisis Group. It also includes comment from Darfur-based rebels and the Sudanese government. The take-away is a well-sourced and believable description of terrible violence that is affecting thousands of people.
What is much less clearly described – but manages to come across as equally certain in the article – is the explanation of why the violence is occurring. The answer implicitly offered is that the war is a racist one of Arabs against Africans.
Oddly, the lede begins with an explanation, but never backs it up with facts. “As Africa’s longest-running civil war comes to a close in one corner of this vast country, a terrifying new theater, fueled by old ethnic divides and old-fashioned greed, opens here in another.” This conflict pits “the country’s Arab-dominated government against Darfur’s black African insurgents,” the article continues later. There is no mention of how this conclusion has been drawn. With little qualification, the Times established a racial over-story to the conflict.
This is troubling for several reasons. First, to name one group “Arab” and the other “African” is extremely confusing. The two are not mutually exclusively terms, as evidenced by more than 76 million Egyptians, and millions of people across the Sahel that claim Arab ancestry despite looking “black”. This distinction is even more odious because it implies that one group is native and the other is foreign. Thus, were it possible to distinguish between a person whose grandparents immigrated to Darfur from the Borno area of Nigeria – which is actually the case for many Darfurians – and an Arab whose family had been in the region for centuries, the former would be implicitly described as a native in the article and the latter, as a nonnative Arab.
In fact, “Arab” and “African” actually seem to be code words for racial categories – Arab and Negro. The hesitancy to use these actual terms is likely a result of the fact that they are left over from a racial science that has rightly fallen into disfavor. The implied racial difference between the two groups in the conflict is reflected in an obsession with skin color which only grows more strong through the years of the Times reporting on Darfur. A typical passage from a 2007 Times article shows how. “Adam Shogar, a commander of the … non-Arab rebels …, stretched a coal-black arm at Yassine Yousef Abdul Rahman, his copper-skinned, brown-eyed counterpart from an Arab insurgent group, studying him carefully with midnight eyes.”
The race obsession in reporting the Darfur conflict is particularly troubling because it has no basis in objective reality. Anthropologists have shown that claims of Arab ancestry in Sudan are largely political ones with an infinitesimal basis in actual genes from the Arabian peninsula.
This unfounded dichotomy between Arab and African further obscures the causes of the conflict by implying that a racial bond exists between Arab leaders in Khartoum and the Arab tribes of Darfur. “The conflict has pitted Arab nomads and herders against settled black African farmers,” a May 2004 article says, and then points out that the government is “Arab-dominated”. The problem with this is that histories of the region show that the Arabs of Darfur have little, if anything, in common with the Arabs living on the Nile far to the east. In fact, whereas Nile Arab communities are some of the richest in Sudan, nomadic Arabs like those in Darfur have been poor and the subject of derision.
As the Times reporting progressed through 2004, the description of the war as a racial one of Arabs versus Africans became a shorthand that needed no further explanation. By June 2004, an article about then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s impending visit to Sudan contained no information about the background for the conflict except its racial element. Sudan is “accused of ethnic cleansing for having supported attacks against black Africans,” the article reads. “The Bush administration has repeatedly accused the Sudanese government of supporting Arab militias, called Janjaweed, of systematically attacking hundreds of villages…”
Only years later did Times reporting reveal that many Arab tribes did not take part in the violence against the “black Africans” and that the rebels had also behaved questionably. But these facts were worked into articles as a change from the status quo (“Militia Talks Could Reshape Conflict in Darfur” reads one headline) or molded into the enduring meta-frame of a story of racial hatred.
Proximity and Myth Building
Before considering why the Arab-versus-African myth became so prevalent so quickly in The New York Times, it is worthwhile to discuss the peculiar rise of the Darfur conflict as a major news item. The proximity model suggests that only conflicts with a spatial, social, economic or political proximity to U.S. audiences will be thoroughly reported here. African conflicts usually lack an obvious proximity, and so go relatively unreported – the other civil war in Sudan and the civil war in Congo killed far more people than the conflict in Darfur, but never got the kind of consistent coverage that Darfur enjoyed in the Times.
However, there are at least two ways that Darfur – at least in the terms in which it was reported in the news – was proximal to the United States during the time when reporting on the conflict began.
• The U.S. had just started a war against an “evil” Arab dictator; the “evildoers” in Sudan were also Arabs.
• The U.S. had recently initiated the global War on Terror, which targeted Islamic extremists; the government of Sudan, which backed the janjawid, has Islamist elements.
The overarching story of Darfur and the region’s hidden proximity to the United States are two variables that we can plug into the literature on myth building to get a better sense of why the Times reported the conflict as a racial one.
Dov Shinar and Gina Stoiciu’s discussion of reportage on the Romanian revolution in 1989 and the first Gulf War may offer some clues as to how a metanarrative on the Darfur conflict emerged almost within the first dew days of the Times’s reporting. Shinar and Stoiciu argue that framing of news events – in the case of Romania, as a courageous, populist uprising against a terrifying, Communist dictator – occurs because of expectations of certain plot elements and ideological dispositions. Thus, in the Romanian example, reporting began with assumptions of “heroism and tragedy”. “Consumers were shown the gory details and told ‘what they meant’ rather than what they were,” they write.
Similarly, Darfur reporting accurately showed the gory details. A June 2004 article about the changing U.S. policy toward Sudan describes “desperate squatters”, numbering a million or more, who “tell stories of murder, rape and harassment.” This description – and there is no reason to believe that it is inaccurate – is backed up by facts and figures from organizations like the United Nations. It is in explaining what these details mean that the Times falls into the trap that Shinar and Stoiciu describe. Sudanese officials are portrayed as inherently untrustworthy, lying and incoherent. Above this scene of terror looms the specter of “Arab militias.” The Times thus make clear who the villains and the heroes are in a situation that, based on the observable facts alone, is quite murky.
The analysis of proximity offers some clues as to why the Times has projected a story of Romanian-revolution simplicity onto the Darfur conflict. The theme has simply shifted from the Cold War to the even more nebulous War on Terror. It is no coincidence that the Arabs are so easily identified as a homogenous enemy in the context of Darfur – the United States is at war with Iraq, an important Arab country. And while both perpetrators and victims in the Darfur narrative are Muslim, the Arabs appear as biological Muslims and the Africans as incidental Muslims. Thus, the Arabs serve as convenient villains.
But why transfer this story to Darfur, which, practically speaking, has no relation to the United States’ other war efforts? I think that the answer must lie in the psychology of the consumer and in the effects of Noam Chomsky’s media filters. The roles of the profit model and flak are particularly relevant. American society’s energy for a good-versus-evil, clearly moral mission with an Arab Muslim enemy could not find a home in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. So that story found a home in Darfur, and media consumers devoured it. Flak from groups like the Save Darfur Coalition – and undoubtedly editorial advocacy from within the Times – helped keep the message on track.
Attempts to Rectify the Story
In the last few years, some anthropologists and Darfur experts have become very critical of the Darfur narrative that I have just described. To be fair to the Times, a handful of articles, even in 2004, attempted to acknowledge the complexity of the situation there. “For generations, race itself has not been all that significant in Darfurian society,” wrote Somini Sengupta in an October 4, 2004 article that admitted it was hard to tell the Arabs and Africans apart (but still maintained they were two separate categories). Another article by the same author, around the same time, admitted that “grievances … had less to do with race than with disputes over land and water rights.”
Still, the nature of these “grievances” was never satisfactorily explained in Times articles. Articles like these were quickly lost in the shuffle of op-eds calling for intervention, and grisly descriptions of Darfur as a locus of evil in the world.
Even when the director of the Save Darfur Coalition, David Rubenstein, had to resign his position in 2007 following charges by aid organizations that his organization’s aggressive media campaign was harming humanitarian efforts, the Times seemed reluctant to examine criticisms of the group. The article on the resignation focused on the organization’s successes, and noted that the Sudanese government was adept at exploiting the tension created by it. Thus, the cast of good guys and bad guys was preserved.
On the whole, Times reporting on Darfur seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot and never really recovered. An obsession with the racial dimension of the conflict and a tendency to simplify along easily digestible moral lines have permeated a great number of the newspaper’s stories. The violence in Darfur has subsided for the time being, and the story has faded from the front page. But if the current political international stalemate surrounding Sudan is any indication, Darfur reporting has done little to deepen our understanding of the country.