Compassion Fatigue

Dante Ramos reviews 'Compassion Fatigue: How The Media Sell Disease, Famine, War And Death' by Susan D. Moeller

By Dante Ramos
Published November 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Forget the misleading subtitle of Susan D. Moeller's book, for if American news outlets are trying to "sell" international crises, they are doing a terrible job. The cameras rolled as people starved to death in Somalia. Reporters sent back passionate dispatches from Bosnia. Yet sensing little public interest, the network news shows have drastically scaled back their coverage of world news. When the cover of Time or Newsweek features the foreign tragedy du jour, the magazines gather dust on newsstand shelves.

Can the American public really be so callous? "Why, despite the haunting nature of many of these images, do we seem to care less and less about the world around us?" asks Moeller, a professor at Brandeis University. The premise of "Compassion Fatigue" is that it isn't the public's fault. Moeller suggests that Americans are plumb worn out from lousy coverage of world events and are tuning it out entirely -- and that some news organizations are responding by reporting only the most salacious foreign news.

As evidence, Moeller lists crises during which news outlets disserved their audiences with reductive or overly graphic coverage. For instance, the Ebola virus and flesh-eating bacteria captivated reporters; meningitis and sleeping sickness kill far more people but aren't shocking enough to get much ink, Moeller says. She has a point. It can't be healthy when dozens of newspapers and three 24-hour cable news channels reduce complex international crises to melodrama again and again. But Moeller's long catalogue of overheated quotes and desperate situations is likely, on its own, to drive most readers to compassion fatigue (and also to "Compassion Fatigue" fatigue, since the book is often as repetitive as the news reports it criticizes).

Moeller views Americans' disengagement from foreign affairs as a new problem, and she finds a new culprit: profit-minded media giants and the substitution of readership surveys for news judgment. It's a reasonable hypothesis. In Hollywood, marketing techniques produced "Batman Forever"; in Washington, they produced Dick Morris and the Contract With America.

Though Moeller notices that the media have put less emphasis on world news since the collapse of the Soviet Union, she refuses to entertain the idea that Americans actually are less interested in world affairs. She overlooks one of our most ancient traditions: Except during wartime, Americans have unfortunately heeded George Washington's warning against foreign entanglements. It's no coincidence that, like the new isolationism of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, compassion fatigue became rampant when the Cold War ended.

Take another look at Somalia: People there had been starving to death for a year -- and living in political anarchy for longer -- by the time American cameras arrived in 1992. Media pictures convinced George Bush to send the Marines to Mogadishu with humanitarian aid, but most Americans were surprised when a warlord's forces started killing U.S. soldiers. Suddenly, images of a Somali mob jeering at a dead serviceman flooded American TV. "And so was born the 'Somali doctrine,'" Moeller writes, "the inheritor to the 'Vietnam syndrome' that argued that the United States should not get involved in faraway crises when its own security is not in danger." But that doctrine has nothing to do with tuning out news coverage and everything to do with bad old American isolationism.

Dante Ramos

Dante Ramos is deputy editorial page editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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