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Media supplies simple solutions, writer says

San Diego

Among dozens of speakers and participants in the inaugural conference of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, Isabel Hilton, a staff writer for The New Yorker, offered a perspective on the media’s relationship to such a gathering.

Hilton declaimed her own two media laws: 1. The further away a story is geographically, the bolder the editor wants the writer to be; 2. Conversely, the closer the story gets to home, the less criticism the editor will tolerate.

Hilton’s recent reporting has resulted in such books as, Condemned to Live, about mass rape and genocide in Rwanda, and The Caravan of Doubt, about the case against Chile’s former dictator, Augusto Pinochet. She observed that the mainstream media has become synonymous with distraction, less devoted to information than entertainment.

Today’s media, she said, “tends to reflect power back to itself, and society back to itself. Society wants simple stories with happy solutions. And the reality is,” she said, “society itself doesn’t conform to that.” But the media, she said, gives the public only what it wants.

With the conference’s initial peacemaking panelists to her left and right, Hilton could look out at a crowd of attendees -- but a practically empty media section -- and see her words reinforced.

The institute’s opening had attracted at least two-dozen electronic and print media teams for quick coverage of former President Jimmy Carter’s appearance -- teams that faded away rapidly once the meeting turned to the intricacies of peacemaking.

Others participating in the conference included Mercy Corps volunteer Merita Maksutu, who works on community stabilization programs in Macedonia and indigenous rights leader Pauline Tangiora, a Maori matriarch (who has 50 grandchildren in New Zealand and elsewhere) who once walked from Texas to Washington, D.C., in support of women’s rights.

Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, former U.N. special representative of the secretary-general, was there. With his staff, the ambassador stuck to his post in Burundi during all the dangers, bloodshed and upheaval. Present, too, were Jhala Nath-Khanal, former government minister, and current international department head of the Communist Party of Nepal, plus Hlengiwe Mkhize chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reparations and rehabilitation committee.

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001