by by Katie Okamoto

illustration by by Drew Foster

As if we needed more proof that television news is produced in a spirit of sensationalism and incompetence. In December, NBC News, working with a Rwandan prosecutor, arrived on Goucher College's campus and confronted Professor Leopold Munyakazi in his classroom with the charge that he had "participated directly" in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The confrontation was to be used as footage in an upcoming NBC program investigating "alleged war criminals and terrorists living in the United States and elsewhere," using tactics that The New York Times compared to NBC's controversial "To Catch a Predator." When the film crew, accompanied by the Rwandan official, set up an interview with Goucher's president Sanford Ungar (former reporter for the Washington Post and NPR's "All Things Considered"), it was the first time Ungar had heard of the allegations. Munyakazi, who was on fellowship at Goucher through the Scholar Rescue Fund, has since been suspended from teaching.

Thankfully, the story about a story has set off controversy--ironically loudest among human rights advocates, who worry that the potentially life-ruining accusations cannot be substantiated.
Briefly: Munyazaki had been imprisoned for five years before being released in 1999 without a trial. After a few years teaching at a major Rwandan university, Munyazaki moved to the United States. There he seems to have taught colleges without trouble until 2006, when he participated in a debate at the University of Delaware in which he referred to the Rwandan conflict as "civil war, not genocide; it was about political power." Shortly thereafter, Rwandan prosecutors indicted Munyazaki on charges of participating in genocide. The senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, Alison Des Forges, said her organization "found some serious shortcomings" in Munyazaki's indictment and believes the accusations to be dubious, according to the Scholars at Risk Network of NYU.
It is the federal government's job to investigate war criminals. It is the human rights law community's job to act as watchdog and keep investigations credible. It is the job of journalists to investigate indictments, false or not. It is not their job to become actively involved in how the story unfolds.
It is, of course, inevitable that the subjects of news stories will be affected by reporting--that's why controversial reporting must be ever diligent and constantly skeptical. Take Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. When Nixon resigned, it was because of words they had written based on many painstakingly selected sources; never did they break their news to officials, they broke it to the public.
NBC, on the other hand, has a history of taking investigative journalism to mean police journalism. Though the network asserts it has reported according to "acceptable journalistic practices," NBC has been accused before of unethical reporter-turned-cop tactics, notably for its so-called parallel investigations in Dateline's "To Catch a Predator," in which the network worked uncomfortably close with the NGO Perverted Justice and local police. In Esquire's 2007 interview with Dateline's Chris Hansen, Hansen tries to explain:
CH: No one at Dateline told [the police] how to make an arrest. I mean that's a police issue. That's not our issue. I mean, just like the police don't tell me how to do the interviews, you know, we don't tell them how to do their business.
ESQ: But didn't some officers wear NBC-provided cameras?
CH: You know, I know in some of the investigation, cameras were put on police officers, yeah. As a production technique, yeah.
ESQ: And who would put the cameras on the officers?
CH: That would be our hidden camera guys.
This is the kind of approach that makes people like Kelly McBride, the ethics writer at the Poynter Institute, rightfully nervous. As she writes, reporters inevitably come in contact with law enforcement in their research, but "they can't be viewed as doing each other's work." NBC did more than go for a gotcha-pounce by showing up at Goucher College with cameras to confront Munyakazi. When NBC brought the Rwandan official to meet the college's president, it became the vehicle of the story; it made its own news.
"Sometimes it appears that the prosecutors are manipulating the media by bringing them along. In this case, I felt like the media were manipulating the prosecutor. You would think if he was coming to this country to finger some alleged war criminals from Rwanda that he would have gone to the Justice Department or the State Department, not typically to a television network. It just didn't inspire confidence that I was dealing with a genuine law enforcement matter," Ungar said in an interview with "On the Media."
Journalism scholars at Poynter and the Columbia Journalism Review are raising this issue of co- investigations, which is a serious one. But fewer people are talking about what it means for journalists to cause news to happen. There is a fundamental difference between a controversial story being made public after all research is done to the best of NBC's ability, and then, after the facts are reported, for Munyakazi to be suspended. But it is another for NBC to have initiated a public reaction before the story aired. The rolling cameras, unannounced confrontation and--most problematic--the collaboration with the Rwandan prosecutor betray the active role the news crew played in the creation of that story.
To lament the rise of sensationalism in the television news media is like adding eggs to an omelet. We know, of course, that television news is a business. Much has been made of the changes being undergone by print media, but the nightly news has also been struggling to compete for consumers who are migrating online. Ironically, for 18 weeks straight, "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" has beat out its competitors for highest ratings, but all the network newscasts have seen increases in viewership since November--which the Huffington Post attributes to the "economic story." Understandably, NBC is anxious to make those ratings last.
NBC's "To Catch a War Criminal" program is the ethically ambiguous product of this flawed moneymaking strategy. On one hand, TV coverage is notoriously lazy and transcription-prone when it comes to questioning the government's official line--as when coverage of the Iraq War consisted of White House rhetoric and star-spangled graphics. On the other hand, TV news wants to titillate, entertain and keep viewers from changing the channel. What easier way to capture the immediacy of breaking news, shock the public with alleged perpetrators of genocide, and come out looking like a hero, than to make sure it all happens?
This is no plea for polite journalists. War criminals and human rights violators are slippery, controversial subjects, and that is why they should be pursued by the law and investigated by reporters--independently.
KATIE OKAMOTO B '09.5 scooped you.