Facing the Facts and Translating to Action: The American Media and Government Responses to the Armenian versus the Darfur Genocides

Picture2The American media has long been tasked with the daunting duty of reckoning with evil and presenting it to a relatively naive public.  Genocide—“the darkest word in the human language”—a term not coined until the mid twentieth-century, is the basest of those evils.[1]  The Armenian Genocide and the Darfur Genocide are two of the most infamous examples of this atrocity.  Claiming between 600,000 and 800,000 lives from 1915 to 1916, the Armenian Genocide was the Ottoman Empire’s systematic slaughter of its Armenian Christian minority.  The Young Turk triumvirate had adopted an aggressive brand of Turkish nationalism aimed at creating a “new brotherhood of race,” in which Armenians had no place and so were dubbed enemies of the Turkish state “to be dealt with.”[2]  The Darfur Genocide began in 2003 when two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) aggressed the Sudanese government because they were frustrated by its failure to protect African farmers from nomadic Arab tribesmen.[3]   The government responded by unleashing Arab militias known as Janjaweed, or devils on horseback, to displace and murder the African members of the Xaghawa, Masaaliet and Fur tribes, who are referred to derogatorily as zurqas, meaning anti-Arab reactionaries.[4]  The genocide has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people since it began in 2003; each day, 100 civilians die as a result of the ongoing conflict.[5]

This paper will explore how the American press shaped public understanding of and response to the Armenian genocide, the first non-colonial genocide of the twentieth-century, and the Darfur genocide, the first of the twenty-first century. Despite great changes in the international legal framework, the actions that the United States government has taken in the face of incidents of mass-extermination and violence have failed to evolve substantially between the Armenian and Darfur genocides.  The United States government remains reluctant to admit the gravity of situations like these for fear of having to act—a fear only worsened by the obligations formalized in international law later in the twentieth century.  However, these international agreements, namely the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” and the 2005 “Responsibility to Protect,” have succeeded in improving the media’s coverage of genocide and in making the press a more effective tool for inciting action.

What historians now widely recognize as the Armenian Genocide finds its roots in a deep-seeded racial hatred of the Christian minority by some of the Muslim majority that arose in the final years of the nineteenth century.  Seen from this historical perspective, the Armenian Genocide can be understood as the culmination of escalating ethnic tensions in the Ottoman Empire.  In 1894 and 1895, the government of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Abdul-Hamid massacred 100,000 Armenians, looted and pillaged thousands of their homes, and forced many to convert to Islam.  Persecution of the Armenians continued into the first years of the twentieth century: in 1900, Kurdish villagers attacked and murdered approximately 400 Armenians in the mountains of the far eastern region of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1905, as minority tensions heightened in the Russian Empire, the Muslim Tatars, now known as the Azeris, murdered hundreds of Armenians and destroyed Armenian villages in the Russian-controlled provinces of Baku, Tiflis and Erevan in the name of an Islamic Holy War against the Christian minority.  Because the Russian Bolsheviks had aligned themselves with the Armenians, the Tsarist authorities broke from tradition and supported the Tatars.  In the final major event leading up to the genocide in 1909, the Turks massacred 20,000 Armenians in Adana and Tarsus for political, economic and religious reasons, a harrowing precursor to the genocide that would begin six years later.[6]

Each of these acts of persecution set a critical precedent for the events that occurred during the Armenian genocide and for the way in which the American media would cover this atrocity.  The nineteenth-century episode predicted the religious brand of Turkish nationalism that provoked the annihilation of the Christian “other” in the pursuit of a Turkish state in 1915.  It also provided the historical backdrop for the American press’ Biblical framing of the crisis: “Armenians died on ‘Bible Lands’…that formed part of a common sacred tradition for American Catholics, Protestants, and Jews…‘CRUCIFIXION IS REVIVED’ was the headline in the lead story of the Los Angeles Times in the Easter season of 1915.”[7]   This religious narrative made an otherwise distant crisis and its Christian victims more relatable and sympathetic to the American public.  The 1900 episode of Kurdish brutality in the far-east pointed out that Armenians populated remote areas of the Ottoman Empire, which made it difficult for the American media to acquire reliable information in a timely manner.  The Ottoman Empire granted few visas to American journalists, and most of the reporters who were able to enter the country did not venture beyond Constantinople.  The Russian Tsar’s support of the Tatars in 1905 stands in contrast with the Russian courting of the Armenian minority following Russia’s entrance into war against Turkey in October 1914.  The Tsar declared on December 30th of that year, “a most brilliant future awaits the Armenians.” [8]   By 1915, the Russians considered the Armenians a potential asset rather than a threat due to their strategic location on the border between Russia and its newly created Turkish enemy.  Russian support, however, intensified Turkish persecution of the Armenians.[9]  The brutality endured by the Armenians of Southern Anatolia in 1909 revealed the cruelty that the Turkish forces were willing to unleash upon the Armenian minority.

Similarly, the genocide in Darfur that began on February 26, 2003 was the result of decades of dormant ethnic tensions.  It traces its origin to an ongoing southern Sudanese civil war that began in the latter half of the twentieth century, a conflict in Chad and Libya that spilled over into Darfur in 1976, and local droughts and resource scarcity throughout the 1980s.  However, the ethnic and religious tensions between Africans and Arabs that fueled these events date back to the beginning of Sudanese history.  Arab geographers named the region Bilad as-Sudan, or Land of the Blacks, to broadly define Black Africa, reflecting the racist attitudes of the Arabs, who saw themselves as a separate and superior people.[10]  While resource scarcity was the most tangible and immediate cause of the crisis, as “scarce water resources and grazing land has caused intense rivalry between cattle-raising Arab tribesmen and African farming communities,” this was merely symptomatic of a larger ethnic rivalry that was playing out nationally across Sudan and internationally throughout Northern Africa.[11]  Though the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice Equality Movement (JEM) struggle for government recognition of the Arab oppression of Africans in Darfur is not directly related to the South Sudanese civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Khartoum’s National Islamic Front, “both conflicts have in common…the refusal to accept any longer the Islamic fascism that has ruled Sudan for the last fourteen years.”[12]

Darfur’s geographic location allowed the similar Arab-African conflict raging in Libya and Chad during the 1970s and 80s to spill across the border when the Sudanese president, Gaafar Nimeiry, decided to support the Chadian leader, Hissen Habre, allowing his armed forces into Darfur.  This move “decisively worsened the regional ethno-political landscape.  Tribes which had seen themselves primarily in local terms were suddenly catapulted into a broader artificial world where they were summoned to declare themselves as either ‘Arab’ [progressive and revolutionary] or ‘zurqa’ [anti-Arab and reactionary].”[13]  The civil war in southern Sudan and the spill-over from the Chadian-Libyan conflict contextualize the Darfur genocide as part of broader geographic and historical tensions rather than as an isolated event.  This context should have altered the international discussion of the Darfur situation to place its ethnic-cleansing element at the forefront.

Though the genocide began in 2003, it garnered almost no American media attention until Secretary of State Colin Powell publically labeled it as “genocide” in September 2004.[14]  In fact, The New York Times only mentioned Darfur once in 2003 as part of a “World News” brief.[15]  Any other coverage the conflict had received dismissed it as “tribal clashes in Western Sudan” over scarce resources, with “no mention of the political and military dimensions of the crisis: demands of rebels for power-sharing, the challenge to the Sudanese government posed by rebel military attacks, or how the government intended to deal with the insurgency.”[16]  The media either simplified, or did not address, the genocide for its first year.

This simplification of the causes of the genocide demonstrated the same lack of attention to the actual history of the conflict of which the media was guilty during the Armenian Genocide.  Just as many Americans had little awareness of the isolated Armenian population, few Americans had ever heard of Darfur before the genocide began: “its [Darfur’s] history was a mystery nobody particularly wanted to plumb, but now there was a good story: the first genocide of the twenty-first century.”[17]  The Convention in 1948 introduced the solemn term “genocide” into the official lexicon for describing mass-extermination.  Secretary of State Powell’s use of this powerful nomenclature gave the media its angle of moral outrage with which it could carry coverage of the conflict, despite the fact that many specific details of the genocide remained unclear. Unlike in the Armenian case, the press was able to call attention to Darfur by engaging in the debate over whether it was genocide.   Still, there was great confusion in the early years of the crisis: few understood what exactly was occurring.

The American mass media often ignores the historical roots of conflicts to focus on the attention-grabbing gore of carnage, the politically-minded plea for relief efforts, and the emotional recounting of Western rescue missions.  Media consumers, whether in the last ten or 100 years, have always been largely uninterested in reading about the historical origins of conflicts.  Sensationalism is the central tenet of the media’s strategy for disseminating information; headlines such as “WHOLESALE MASSACRES OF ARMENIANS BY TURKS” and “THE MOURNFUL MATH OF DARFUR: THE DEAD DON’T ADD UP” certainly attracted more readers than a focus on historical accuracy would have.  While it is important that the American media recognizes atrocities, one must contemplate whether a thoughtful consideration of the conflict’s historical causes could have strengthened the media’s calls for intervention.  Perhaps this sort of approach would have provided the American people with the information necessary to sympathize with the persecuted groups while constructing a justification for intervention that could survive even after emotional sensationalism had faded.

Regions that are culturally and geographically remote from the United States, such as Armenia and Darfur, have proven particularly difficult in attracting attention. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was one of the first to cover the Darfur crisis beginning in 2004, quoted CNN’s Rick Sanchez, “If today, Britney Spears is caught shoplifting topless,” and CNN prioritizes Darfur, while another news station covers Spears, “they will have a million viewers to our 20,000 if we decided we’re going for Darfur.”[18]  Though Kristof criticized the public’s obsession with tabloid journalism, he himself utilized the scandalous title of “Topless Celebrity Shoplifting vs. Darfur” to attract readers, highlighting that shallowness and celebrity were perhaps necessary to attract an audience.  Journalists themselves were and are often uninformed about the historical backdrop of the conflicts they cover, which has profound implications for the public’s conception of them. Had the public comprehended the decades of ethnic-religious hatred and tension that culminated in genocide in Armenia and Darfur, they would perhaps have had a human story with which to connect and a strong rationale to press for government action.

The Armenians, more than two million concentrated in Turkey’s eastern provinces, with no political power and high taxation, had long been oppressed by the Ottoman Empire.[19]  On April 24, 1915, the genocide began when the Young Turk triumvirate ordered the arrest and, ultimately, execution of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals.[20]  The government’s attack quickly escalated as the “government disarmed and slaughtered most of the able-bodied Armenian men so that the Turkish authorities could ensure that they could not defend themselves against a state-imposed genocide…[and] liquidat[ed] the leaders and intellectuals for the Armenian community beginning in the capital city of Constantinople.”  By the end of summer 1915, most Armenians in Turkey had been displaced and sent on death marches across the Syrian desert to concentration camps—it was clear by then that these deportations of men, women and children were in fact mass murders.[21]

The atrocities were sufficiently documented by the various Western diplomats, missionaries, doctors, travelers and other workers who were incensed by what they had witnessed.[22]  United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, wrote in a telegram to the State Department on July 10, 1915, “Persecutions of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions.  Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful population…turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.”[23]  Though eyewitness accounts were frequently sent to the United States government, the American press did not report on the mass deportations and genocide of the Armenian people in a timely fashion due to many factors that obstructed up-to-date coverage.  A poor technological infrastructure made it difficult for news to be dispatched to the US, and the geographical remoteness of the different provinces hindered the collection and evaluation of reliable data that would support the theory that the killings were methodological.  Furthermore, many were skeptical about the scale of the slaughter, as no one in the West could comprehend that a government would seek to eliminate an entire race of its people.  The greatest obstacle to accurate reporting by the Western news media, however, was the Turkish government’s campaign to prevent information about the genocide from leaving the country.  Internal telegrams from consuls to Ambassador Morgenthau relaying information about local massacres in their areas were censored, and the Turkish authorities intimidated many consuls in an attempt to prevent them from sending information to Ambassador Morgenthau or the United States.[24]

Despite all of these obstacles, Morgenthau was eventually able to report extensively to the State Department, though his reports often arrived long after the relevant events had transpired.  The American press subsequently rose to the occasion, sensing a thrilling story about Turkish atrocity that was a newsworthy event in its own right and that could be framed as part of the larger partisan narrative of World War I.  The geopolitical angle was to paint the genocide as a matter of the Central Powers, represented by Turkey, versus the Allies, represented by Russia, with the Armenian population sandwiched politically and geographically in the middle.  The New York Times afforded the issue a great deal of coverage, publishing 145 articles on the topic in 1915, labeling the Armenian genocide as “‘systematic,’ ‘authorized,’ and ‘organized by the government.’”[25]  Though the United States government and media cooperated to influence relief and aid projects, their efforts were ineffective, as the Turkish government resisted all pleas from both the American public and government.  Still, the US government never directly contributed financial resources, only touted the contributions of private charities.

Yet, there was a pervasive belief across the American media that it was acceptable for the United States government to remain uninvolved, as the Armenian Genocide was ultimately a problem for the European continent. On July 5, 1913, The Literary Digest quoted Prime Minister Lord Salisbury who offered, “our ships cannot climb the mountains of Armenia,” to explain why England could not intervene on behalf of the Christian Armenians “whose homes and farms were being desolated and drenched with the blood of massacre by Turks and Kurds” during the 1896 atrocities under Abdul-Hamid.[26]  Like the American government, the British thought that the Armenian question should be left to continental Europe.  Though this article was written nine months before the start of the Armenian Genocide, the tensions were already mounting and the Americans would soon find themselves in the same position as the English—President Woodrow Wilson would have to offer a reason for why he would not interfere on behalf of the Armenians.  President Wilson and the media both recognized the limitations of American power to assist Armenia, taking into account the larger international context in which Turkey was situated. President Wilson spent the better part of two and a half years trying to maintain United States neutrality in World War I.  Even after the US militarized in April 1917 on behalf of the Allied Powers, President Wilson viewed Turkey as a mere tool of Germany, and, therefore, did not consider Turkey an enemy of the United States.  As a result, media coverage was largely devoid of anti-Turkish propaganda throughout the duration of the Armenian Genocide.[27]

Most newspapers and magazines reported on both sides of the conflict, though there was a general sense of outrage over the treatment of the Armenians.  The New York Times published a piece written by the Turkish Minister of War Enver Pasha on April 20th, in which he proclaimed: “This is not a war of the Turkish Government but a war of the Turkish people.”[28] Minister Enver framed Turkey’s persecution of the Armenians and entry into World War I as defensive acts that were intended to protect the country’s threatened nationalism.  He said, “we Turks feel that we have a right to exist, especially when the best of us are straining every effort and are catching up with other countries in intellectual and material development.  I feel that there is much good in the Turkish people, contrary to what our traducers say.”[29]  The Minister’s account stands in direct contrast to the narrative put forth by the Armenians, in which they fell victim to an aggressive brand of Turkish nationalism.  Throughout the conflict, the American media attempted to reconcile these disparate accounts, investigating whether the persecution of the Armenians was targeted or merely a part of the Young Turks’ broader retaliatory enterprise against enemies of Islam and the Turkish state. Under the latter interpretation, the Armenians were merely one enemy of the Turkish state, with others including Russia, Turkey’s “hereditary enemy,” and Great Britain “the power which subjugated Islam.”[30]

The American media rarely addressed that while the Young Turks received active military support from the Central Powers, the Armenian population was largely ignored by the Allies.  Charles Vellay, a French author who accurately predicted that the genocide would come to fruition, bemoaned the fact that the “safety of the Armenians themselves unfortunately counts for next to nothing” to the Allies.[31]  While the Turks were a valuable asset to the Central Powers, the small Armenian population posed no strategic benefit to the Allies, and, therefore, protecting the Armenians was not an important goal for the Allies.

Nonetheless, the American press did publish many of the cries for help that came from the Armenian leaders, American missionaries and officials bearing witness to the crimes in the Ottoman Empire, and relief committees and organizations who were sending money from United States.  In one such article, The New York Times quoted letters calling for help sent to the offices of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR) with the hope that exposing readers to the horrors of the genocide would motivate them to contribute to the Committee.  The letters offered gruesome accounts from within the Empire.  Reverend Richard Hill, a member of a relief commission in Tiflis wrote, “the situation here in regard to the Armenian refugees is as bad as we have been led to believe, and to attempt to describe the horrors of it would be altogether beyond me.”[32]  The ACASR used the media to make a plea to the American public rather than directly to its lawmakers.  The hope was that outraged Americans would force US government intervention by making the Armenian Genocide an issue of national, rather than distant foreign, concern.

The media’s power lies in the dissemination of information to a large and diverse readership: a tool that has always raised morale and effected change, but one that is far more honed now than it was in the twentieth-century context of the Armenian Genocide. The great majority of articles about the Armenian condition posed the questions: “Do the people of the United States propose to do anything about such a state of affairs?” and “Is it not time for America to act on behalf of these unfortunate peoples?”[33];[34] While some articles in journals such as The Outlook, The Nation, The Missionary Review of the World and The Literary Digest adopted an analytical approach to the events, the vast majority of media coverage came in the form of short articles with sensational headlines that sought to provide readers with shallow insights into the atrocities being committed. Body counts, references to Christianity, and hypotheticals that made what was happening in Armenia more relatable to the American readership dominated coverage. One particularly haunting hypothetical proclaimed that “If the ghosts of the Christian civilians who have perished miserably in Turkey since the commencement of the great holocaust should march down Fifth Avenue twenty abreast…they would then take four days and eight hours to pass the great reviewing stand.”[35]  A great deal of attention had to be paid to helping readers understand, as most had never witnessed mass-killing and could not begin to comprehend what was at stake.[36]

The media focused on reporting to raise awareness and start “conversations and even draw[] people to meetings on the Armenian massacres” throughout the United States.[37]  The emphasis on exposure rather than analysis was likely born out of the extraordinary nature of this type of crime.  The media had largely accepted that its powers to influence the response to this tragedy stopped at drawing people to discussion as the likelihood of government action diminished. An article in The Literary Digest offered, “The Government has made informal representations to Turkey through Ambassador Morgenthau ‘pointing out the bad effect upon public opinion in the United States of the treatment of the Armenians,’ but beyond this, so Washington dispatches say, nothing further can be done.”[38]  This sense of hopelessness was echoed throughout the mainstream press during the final months of the genocide.  The United States government was unable to bring about tangible change, although Tribunal Sentences were issued in 1919 and the Allied Powers had made wartime promises. Ultimately, media coverage alone was not enough to bring about justice for the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Since the Armenian Genocide, the American government has been faced with genocidal situations to which it could not turn a blind eye.  In the 87 years between the end of the Armenian genocide in 1916 and the beginning of the Darfur genocide in 2003, international policy, America’s role on the global stage, and mass media all underwent massive transformations.  In particular, two resolutions ratified by the United Nations, the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (Convention), which defined genocide in legal terms, and the 2005 “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which obliged the international community to intervene to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities, have enabled the United States media and government to take a more active role in influencing mobilization on behalf of victims.  In 1943, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide, using it in print for the first time in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), in which he referenced the Armenian case as a seminal example of genocide.[39]   He went on to help the United Nations write the first draft of the Convention, which was adopted on December 9, 1948.  The Convention changed the rhetoric for discussing attempted decimation of populations and empowered victims of extermination by giving a legal definition for genocide and placed responsibility on the international community to intervene.

However, while it has encouraged the media to use more forceful language when discussing genocide, the Convention has not been successful in persuading governments to intervene on behalf of the victims of genocide.  In April 2003, the United States reported to the UN Commission on Human Rights that brutalities including rape and ethnic cleansing were occurring in Darfur.  In September of that year, Secretary of State Powell first called the situation genocide.[40]  The government of Sudan signed the Convention on October 13, 2003 after the mass-violence and killings had begun, and tensions had been escalating particularly quickly since the high profile April attack by the SLA on the El Fasher airport.[41]  Though the Sudanese government continues to deny any allegations that the situation in Darfur is genocidal, the United States has determined it to be so, and President Bush publically labeled it a genocide on June 1, 2005.[42]  The Sudanese government has been under pressure from the international community since 2003 to stop the violent genocide in Darfur, but it has continuously refused, proving that the Convention has been ineffective in bringing an end to these atrocious crimes.

The problem extends beyond just the failure of resolutions.  The United States government has not been sufficiently proactive in labeling genocidal events as such. Samantha Power, current United States Ambassador to the United Nations, concluded in her seminal 2002 book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide:

Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence.  They trust in good faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy.  Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone.  They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.[43]

Ambassador Power’s analysis of the American response to genocide captures perfectly the way in which the United States handled the Armenian genocide nearly a century before the publication of her book—by largely ignoring the problem and issuing pleas for the violence to stop without actively intervening.  Furthermore, according to Ambassador Power, the United States has learned little from the “century of genocide”, as the twentieth century is commonly referred to, still not offering any policy-related relief in response to genocide.

Ambassador Power’s words unfortunately continue to hold true for the response to the Darfur Genocide.  During the first two years of the crisis, before the ratification of R2P, the United States and the United Nations were both hesitant to refer to the situation as genocide, repeating the pattern that had emerged a decade earlier during the Rwandan genocide, out of fear that doing so would obligate them to intervene.  A Humanitarian Officer in Darfur, Allan Thompson, offered in 2004 that “[b]y most accounts, North American media have drastically underplayed the situation in western Sudan, despite evidence of massive violations of human right and a government supporting forces wreaking havoc on innocent civilians.”[44]  Ignoring the facts and portraying the events occurring in Darfur as mere instances of fleeting tribal conflict allowed the United States to defer action.  The ratification of R2P placed responsibility on every State in the UN to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing and obliged the international community to assist States in fulfilling these responsibilities by using diplomatic, humanitarian, and other means.  The ratification of R2P in 2005 coincided with increased media attention to the atrocities in Darfur.[45]  However, though Darfur was the first test case for R2P, The New York Times did not invoke R2P by name in discussions of Darfur until January 2008, when it acknowledged that the policy had not helped end violence in the region.[46]  Again, this second resolution, despite its powerful language, did little to motivate governments to intervene.

According to historian Gérard Prunier, the Western world perceived Darfur as the archetypal “African crisis”: “distant, esoteric, extremely violent, rooted in complex ethnic and historical factors which few understood, and devoid of any identifiable practical interest for the rich countries.”  He continued, “Once the international media got hold of it, it became a ‘humanitarian crisis’—in other words, something that many ‘realist’ politicians saw (without saying so) as just another insoluble problem.” [47]  Prunier echoes Power’s point: the international community remains fundamentally incapable of addressing genocidal situations in a constructive manner.  As in the Armenian case, the government deemed the situation in Darfur too difficult to resolve and therefore gave it little real policy attention.

Rather than accepting the government’s shortcomings as it had during the Armenian Genocide, the media became a powerful outlet for political discourse on the topic.  In the eighty-seven years between the Armenian and Darfur genocides, the nature of the American press had drastically transformed.  Most importantly, the sheer number of news outlets and stories published had increased exponentially since the Armenian genocide.  In 1970, The New York Times introduced its op-ed pages to “provide a forum for writers with no institutional connection with The Times— writers whose views would very frequently be completely divergent from [The Times’] own.”[48]  As a result, more perspectives have entered the news—politicians, humanitarians, and historians now write in the mainstream press, not just reporters.  Coverage of Darfur was therefore more analytical than the incident-focused articles that dominated the press coverage of the Armenian Genocide.  Improved methods of transportation and communication such as more efficient commercial air travel, superior photographic technology, cellular phones, enhanced video capabilities, the television, satellites, and the internet all provided the media greater access to Darfur than was possible in 1916.

As a result, reporters and politicians could more easily travel to Darfur, though in many cases visas could take more than six weeks to procure or would not be granted at all.  Like the Ottoman Empire did during the Armenian genocide, the Sudanese government has taken extensive efforts to block reporters from accessing the Darfur region.  The Sudanese government mandates an escort be present if the press is granted access and “even then, soldiers can limit access to pillaged villages or displacement camps.”[49]   However, these methods are no longer as effective as they were during the Armenian Genocide.  In April 2005, Sudanese authorities placed Brad Clift, a photographer from the Hartford Courant under house arrest after he “photographed displaced people in Nyala without proper authorization.”[50]  Luckily, he was able to communicate with the Courant by cellphone to tell them that he had been unjustly accused.  Publicizing stories like Mr. Clift’s further sensationalized the situation in Darfur and rendered it more significant to a US audience as US reporters became invested and placed in positions of potential harm.

Perhaps even more notably, Darfurians could relay their own experiences to the international community: individual stories of the genocide’s victims were and continue to be told in the mainstream press—a feat which was impossible during the Armenian genocide.  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff recorded the story of “a real expert,” Magboula Muhammad Khattar, a 24-year-old widow who was gang raped along with her two sisters by the janjaweed and whose husband was murdered by the Janjaweed.[51]  Samantha Power spent the first half of her influential August 2004 piece in The New Yorker, “Dying in Darfur: Can the ethnic cleansing in Sudan be stopped?” chronicling the genocide through the experiences of a Darfurian refugee living in Chad named Amina Akaber Mohammed.[52]  In a particularly gruesome episode, Ms. Mohammed witnessed her son being beheaded by the Janjaweed. “I wanted to find the rest of his body,” she told Power, but she was too afraid of the janjaweed to do so, so she buried his head.[53]  These individual accounts gave the conflict a human element, one that had been lacking in the reports of the Armenian Genocide.

Throughout the Armenian genocide, quantifying the dead was the most powerful and shocking way in which journalists could frame the crisis: they did not have access to the victims’ stories.  The only individuals quoted by the press were Americans describing what they had witnessed and Ottoman officials attempting to justify or minimize the atrocities that were occurring. Similarly, the aggressors have been provided a voice during the Darfur genocide: Samantha Power recorded a conversation with Musa Hilal, the coordinator of the janjaweed in Darfur, who was number one on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Most Wanted” list of janjaweed killers.[54]  Though she chronicled his story with as much diligence as she did Ms. Mohammed’s, she passed harsh judgments, exposing him as a murderer who was merely courting “Western journalists, staging elaborate shows of African-Arab unity.”[55] However, this kind of condemnation was never expressed in the press during the Armenian genocide.

During the Darfur Genocide, more compelling, detailed, and frequent relaying of individual stories combined with aggressive calls to action have given the media a new central role in swaying public opinion and forcing government awareness.  Powerful photographs and videos from Darfur make the conflict appear more urgent to the American public—the media no longer asks its audience to picture the suffering, but instead supplies the graphic illustrations. Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus call this “presumed shift in power away from the foreign policy machinery of government to a more diffuse array of nongovernmental actors, primarily news media organizations” the CNN effect.[56]  In the twenty-first century, the news has evolved to become a primary source of pressure on the US government and United Nations, urging these bodies to take decisive action.  The media is essential in both “alerting” governmental authorities and the general public to crises and in “helping build a consensus on the appropriate response to” these events.[57]  Media coverage and bias can spur action in a particular direction.  Scholars Peter Hoffman and Thomas Weiss argue in their book, Sword & Salve: Confronting New Wars and Humanitarian Crises, “Media tools are part of the arsenal of new wars.  Among both high-technology and low-to-no-tech actors, information management is critical to shaping the political and military battlefields…[it] can influence the strategies and resources available to the belligerents.”[58]  The media’s power of persuasion in the age of the Darfur genocide has extended far beyond that of the alerting function it served during the Armenian genocide.

The increased power of media has transformed the Darfur genocide into an international issue in which the general public can engage. Media coverage has spurred celebrity advocacy, ad-campaigns and visits to refugee camps—notable activists include George Clooney, Matt Damon, Benicio del Toro and Angelina Jolie. Heightened media pressure has also resulted in the US government providing over $1.2 billion in aid to Darfur, an amount that is particularly striking considering that no aid was given to the Armenians.[59]

Despite offering increased amounts of aid, the United States has yet to take decisive and firm actions to end the genocide in Darfur. Ambassador Power has criticized this complacency and has called for the US to take on a more active role: “again, the United States and its allies are bystanders to slaughter, seemingly no more prepared to prevent genocide than they were a decade ago…ten thousand international peacekeepers are needed in Darfur.”[60]  Two years later in 2006, Kristof reiterated Power’s argument, quoting Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “ ‘Let us remember what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.’  And it is our own silence that…[is]…inexplicable,…[because]…[i]n Darfur, we have even less excuse than in past genocides…yet we’re still paralyzed.”[61]  On February 26, 2013, the US Department of State released a press statement that “The United States strongly supports international efforts to bring peace, security, and humanitarian relief to the people of Darfur,” but the government itself has yet to take any actions necessary to bring about this goal.[62]

In the 87 years between the end Armenian Genocide and the beginning of the Darfur Genocide, the American media grew in power and influence, but the United States government remained relatively paralyzed in the face of genocide, despite promises and new policies.  The press has improved both in creating a framework that allows individuals form opinions and in revealing the horrors of genocide to the American public through the use of photographs, videos, and detailed eyewitness accounts.  While the Convention and R2P have largely failed at improving the United States government’s response to genocide, they led the media to adopt a stronger vocabulary when discussing systematic extermination.  In a speech at Yale University on December 1, 2014, Samantha Power argued that the United States needs to simultaneously address immediate crises while also thinking about the long-term, a difficult challenge in the context of any conflict, but a particularly daunting one when it involves genocide.[63]

The media aspires to objectivity and therefore gives voice to both sides of conflicts.  When it comes to genocide, however, there is a clear moral imbalance between the sides.  The press increasingly weighs in with critical opinions while still providing a voice to the perpetrators of genocide.  Despite the media’s willingness to take a firm moral stance, governments have resisted changes that would push them toward intervention.  Because the media and the government have different things at stake when dealing with these sorts of situations, they have adopted different approaches to dealing with the atrocity of genocide.  For governments, challenging a state’s sovereignty by intervening is fraught with political risks and costs in blood and treasure.  On the other hand, it was much easier for the media to intensify its coverage of genocide, as doing so only took a review of conscience and a few additional risks incurred by reporters. Despite the political controversy surrounding intervention, the international community cannot allow governments to become complacent in the commission of genocide and other crimes against humanity. Although the Convention, R2P, and the media’s ability to hold governments accountable have resulted in some small changes, more must be done to prevent these atrocities from occurring.


Stephanie Tomasson (’16) is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.


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[1] Richard G. Hovannisian, Looking Backward, Moving Forward: Confronting the Armenian Genocide (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 9.

[2] Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 415.

[3] “Genocide in Darfur,” United Human Rights Council, updated in 2014, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide-in-sudan.htm.

[4] Samantha Power, “Dying in Darfur,” The New Yorker, August 23, 2004, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/08/30/dying-in-darfur.

[5] “Genocide in Darfur.”

[6] Jay Winter, “Introduction: Witness to Genocide,” America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 9-13.

[7] Thomas C. Leonard, “When news is not enough,” America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 304.

[8] Winter,13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gérard Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (London: C. Hurst & Co, 2005), 1.

[11]Abdel Salam Sidahmed, Walter C. Soderlund, and E. Donald Briggs, The Responsibility to Protect in Darfur: The Role of Mass Media (New York: Lexington Books, 2010), 73.

[12] Eric Reeves, A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (Toronto: The Key Publishing House Inc, 2007), 19.

[13] Ibid, 46.

[14] Sidahmed, xv.

[15] Ibid, 96.

[16] Ibid, 73.

[17] Prunier, 127.

[18] “Topless Celebrity Shoplifting vs. Darfur,” Nicholas Kristof Blog, accessed November 27, 2014, <http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/topless-shoplifting-vs-darfur/.>

[19] Richard D. Kloian, The Armenian Genocide: News Accounts From the American Press (1915-1922) (Berkley, CA: Anto Printing, 1988), xii.

[20] John Kifner, “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview,” The New York Times, December 7, 2007, sec. Times Topics, <http://www.nytimes.com/ref/timestopics/topics_armeniangenocide.html.>

[21] Kloian, xv.

[22] Kifner.

[23] Kloian, xv.

[24] Kloian, xvi.

[25] Kifner.

[26] “Young Turks Misrule in Armenia,” The Literary Digest, July 5, 1913 in Kloian, 1.

[27] Lloyd E. Ambrosius, “Wilsonian diplomacy and Armenia,” in America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 edited by Jay Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 115.

[28] “Enver Says Turks Had to Fight,” The New York Times, Tuesday April 20, 1915 in Kloian, 7.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Talaat Says Turks Fight for Life,” The New York Times, February 18, 1915 in Kloian, 4.

[31]“Young Turks Misrule in Armenia.”

[32] “ASKS FUND TO SAVE MILLION ARMENIANS; American Committee Publishes Letters Describing Misery of Starving Hordes. BABIES DIE WITH MOTHERS Clergyman Tells of Nearly 250,000 Homeless Sufferers Plodding Across Great Plain.,” The New York Times, February 27, 1916, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9D06E0DC1F38E633A25754C2A9649C946796D6CF.>

[33] “The Turkish Atrocities in Armenia,” The Outlook, September 29, 1915 in Kloian, 46.

[34] “The Plight of the Armenians,” The Missionary Review of the World, October, 1915 in Kloian, 49.

[35] Leonard, 295.

[36] Ibid, 296.

[37] Ibid, 299.

[38] “Who Can Save Armenia?,” The Literary Digest, October 30, 1915 in Kloian, 92.

[39] Peter Balakian, “Raphael Lemkin, Cultural Destruction, and the Armenian Genocide,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 27, no. 1 (Spring 2013), 57.

[40] Sidahmed, xv.

[41] “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Signatories,’ United Nations Treaty Collection, updated March 12, 2014, <https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-1&chapter=4&lang=en.>

[42] “The Crisis in Darfur,” International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, Accessed November 30, 2014, <http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/crisis-in-darfur.>

[43] Samantha Power, Preface, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), xvii.

[44] Sidahmed, 52.

[45] “Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide,” accessed November 26, 2014, <http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml.>

[46] Warren Hoge, “Intervention, Hailed as a Concept, Is Shunned in Practice,” The New York Times, January 20, 2008, sec. International / Africa, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/world/africa/20nations.html.

[47] Prunier, 124.

[48] David Shipley, “And Now a Word From Op-Ed,” The New York Times, February 1, 2004, sec. Opinion, <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/01/opinion/01SHIP.html.>

[49] Sidahmed, 54.

[50] Marc Lacey (nyt), “World Briefing | Africa: Sudan: Hartford Courant Photographer Detained,” The New York Times, April 28, 2005, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html.>

[51] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Dare We Call It Genocide?,” The New York Times, June 16, 2004, sec. Opinion, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/16/opinion/dare-we-call-it-genocide.html.

[52] Power, “Dying in Darfur.”

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus, “Humanitarian crises and U.S. foreign policy: Somalia and the CNN effect reconsidered,” Political Communication (George Washington University Press, 2010), 415.

[57] Sidahmed, xvi.

[58] Peter J. Hoffman and Thomas G. Weiss, Sword & Salve: Confronting New Wars and Humanitarian Crises (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 77.

[59] “Sudan,” Global Humanitarian Assistance, accessed November 30, 2014, <http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/countryprofile/sudan.>

[60] Power, “A Problem from Hell,” xvii.

[61] Sidahmed, 84.

[62] Bureau of Public Affairs Department Of State. The Office of Website Management, “Ten Years of War in Darfur,” Press Release|Press Statement, US Department of State, (February 26, 2013), <http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/02/205233.htm.>

[63] Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative of the United Nations, “Presentation at Yale,” The Chubb Fellowship of Timothy Dwight College Lecture Series, Yale University, December 1, 2014.