Yesterday I was sitting on my brother-in-law’s deck in sunny Santa Barbara reading Maria Armoudian’s new book, Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World. I was incredibly grateful for the sun because the first three chapters are grim. She covers the media’s role in the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust and the Bosnian war. Thankfully I could look up and see hummingbirds after every chapter. Then she moved onto where the media worked constructively by aiding the peace process in Northern Ireland, rebuilding democracy in Chile, bridging ethnic divides in South Africa, improving the lives of women in Senegal –by changing the attitude toward female genital cutting (FGC), and boosting transparency and democratization in Mexico and Taiwan.
As much as I did not want to dig into the atrocities in Rwanda, Germany, Bosnian and the former Yugoslavia, it is important to not look away and to understand the media’s role in these deadly conflicts. Armoudian, who is a fellow of the Center for International Studies and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California, shows the similarities in how the media was used and abused by the various governments as well as by powerful people. She is also the host and producer of a radio show called “The Insighters” on KPFK and WPRR.
These tragedies don’t suddenly happen with no warning. The steps that are taken are frighteningly parallel to steps we see in the media today in the United States. Will we end up like the people in the former Yugoslavia? Can we learn from the media in Burundi, neighboring Rwanda, who helped avert genocide?
As a Vulcan-American, what I found fascinating were the steps the media took in these various countries. For example, in Germany their media propaganda campaign worked because of:
- dire social and economic conditions
- a corrosive web of misinformation
- emotional appeals
- a pervasive and authoritarian message and ideology that grew through control of mass media and public space.
Good thing we don’t see any of there here in the US!
In Rwanda we see how broadcasters persuaded and organized Hutus to carry out genocide against the Tutsis through messages of hate, fear and “noble” lies” They were told they must kill the Tutsis in order to establish a authoritarian democracy, aid development, emancipate the “victimized” Hutu race and end Tutsi domination. Tutsis, they claimed, were rising to victimize Hutus as they had historically done and, therefore, the Hutus must kill “them” before they kill “us.”
The kill “them” before they kill “us” was the part of the story that I didn’t know about, and I worry about how that is the next step in the process here in America. Armoudian opens the book with the story of Jim David Adkisson the Unitarian Universalist Church shooter and his desire to kill “every Democrat in the Senate and House, the one hundred people in Bernard Goldberg’s book,” and “everyone in the mainstream media,” Adkisson admitted, “This was a hate crime: I hate the damn left-wing liberals.”
Where did he hear this hate coming from? He was an avid reader and listener of Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
I found the steps where people were dehumanized and false information spread by the media especially troubling. What surprised me was that broadcasters at Rwanda’s Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was they were widely listened to, even by Tutsis, because of its popular music, entertainment, commentary and what was believed to be breaking news.
Being a typical American, my knowledge of these tragedies was limited to international newspaper reports and the occasional movie and cultural event like “Free Mandela” concerts. What the book does is provide a closer look at not only the media’s power to divide people but also provides examples of how the media can come together to heal a nation.
The story of Studio Ijambo in Burundi was especially inspirational, where Hutu and Tutsi journalist, writers, producers and broadcasters worked together to dispel rumors, stereotypes and hate messages that permeated Burundia.
Because I’m an activist and not an academic or journalist, I found the book very useful to not only understand how the the media was controlled and manipulated but also how we, as part of a new media landscape, can fight against people whose job it is to spread disinformation.