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Week of 2.12.10

Transcript: Caring About Congo

BRANCACCIO: There's a new film on the way that documents the challenges of reporting stories of war and catastrophe around the world for American audiences. There is so much terrible news streaming our way that a lot of us—you know you've done it—simply tune out. The documentary is called "reporter," and its central figure is Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. Filmmaker Eric Metzger gives us a fascinating inside view about how Kristof breaks through and gets us to think deeply about people and issues half a world away.

Thanks for doing this.

METZGAR: Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: Eric, let's start by talking about the idea of psychic numbing, the idea that people at home cannot cope with yet another image of ethnic cleansing, of horror, of violence from somewhere in the world. That ultimately we just shut down.

METZGAR: I think it's something that's built into all people. And one of the things that Kristof, the subject for the film, thinks about constantly is how to get around psychic numbing in his readers. Which, as you said, is just this difficulty in processing mass suffering.

BRANCACCIO: So the central character in your film, the legendary columnist Nicholas Kristof writes for the op-ed section of the newspaper. He has, as your film puts it, the summoning power of an editorialist. He can say, "Take a look at this" with his writing. And he's thought a lot about how to break through on these crucial human rights issues around the world. And what do you—you tag along with him on a trip?

METZGAR: Yeah. The point was to make a film about Nick creating a column, ultimately, and what it means to—to go into a place where you have a sense of what's going on, and ultimately to find a single person and turn it into a column that outrages the readers enough to inspire action. It's—it's—it's very hard for Nick to just kind of shout and scream and say, "Look what's happening here all of a sudden." It's just not like that. I think there's a certain—there's a certain brand of psychic numbing that—that happens when a crisis has been going on slowly for so long. People just, I think, believe it's part of life. It's just the—the order of things.

BRANCACCIO: Metzgar's film tracks Kristof as he tries to find a central character for his column - the person who will become the face of the crisis in eastern Congo. It has to be a story so heart wrenching that it breaks through to an American audience bombarded with daily news reports of tragedy. Along with him on this bumpy ride are a young school teacher and doctor, who won a contest to see the crisis—and Kristof's coverage of it—close up.

HBO CLIP:

KRISTOF, VARIOUS INTVWS: Did he actually see the people or just hear it from someone else. Is there anyone here who actually saw it? Did she see it? So she is stuck in the village because she has no money for transport to come here? Is she pregnant as a result of having been raped? When was she raped? What will she do with the child, will she love the child?

BRANCACCIO: Now, when you're on this journey with Mr. Kristof, it does become clear that he's using different kinds of ways of connecting with the—wider audience. What is his philosophy about getting these stories through to people?

METZGAR: In general, Nick's columns when he's overseas, when he's not doing from America, political stuff, health care stuff, when he's overseas looking for stories, generally what he's doing is he's trying to find an individual whose story, in essence, will inspire the most outrage in his readers over breakfast. So he really, really goes in search of one. And—you know, he doesn't go into a village and find someone who's suffering and take their name and info and turn around and type it up for the next three days. He goes and finds 50 to 100 people a day and does all the checking of the facts at the different huts, and then goes here and checks. And oftentimes, those days he'd talk to 100 people and none of them would become a column. We're very moved by the plight of one individual. Which is why—we're not suckers, but we're moved so much more by just the storytelling. Which—why we love hero stories, we track victims' stories, but we don't like the big numbers.

BRANCACCIO: So he's resolute. He's sort of almost dispassionate in the way that he looks for these terrible stories.

METZGAR: He is. And it feels that way. And it's really quite off putting to—to watch it in person. And it took me a while to start to understand sort of the—the cold calculus of what he's doing. Once the first column he created went out into the world while we were still on the ground in Congo, I started to sort of understand the power of his selection process.

BRANCACCIO: But you were on a journey about this. Because it's very vivid in the film. Let's actually listen to how you put it in the film.

HBO Clip

METZGAR: The next morning we were out again. By this point I'd grown deeply suspicious of Nick's method of seeking out the worst suffering in order to tell a story. But my misgivings kept crashing into the same hard logic, that the saddest stories exist whether or not Nick finds them, and if those stories have the greatest capacity to inspire action, then Nick's strategy makes sense functionally. Regardless, this kind of dismal illumination doesn't feel very good.

BRANCACCIO: So it's starting to sink in for you that if he can find the story that connects to the public in the United States, to public policy makers, they can deal with more than just the individual?

METZGAR: Yeah. That's his goal, ultimately he's walking a very fine line. Because he's not trying to inspire his viewers to react exclusively to this one individual and set up a foundation around this one individual and their family. He wants people to understand that this individual represents the larger, systematic problem "and" It just seems that the best way is to—to—the best way to get the audience to care is to find an individual and towards the end of the—the report, say, "Now imagine her times 5.4 million." And you hope that that's enough to galvanize people.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I was blown away in the film. 'Cause you mention this study that seems to suggest that if you present two or three people in peril or in trouble that people—are sort of interested. But if it's—it's really just when you present one person in peril that people have an emotional response and wanna take action.

METZGAR: Yeah. There are these studies, particularly by a guy, Dr. Paul Slovic, who—who showed that—well, he brought people in for this experiment. The first time, he showed people a picture of a young girl starving in Africa and said, "Will you give money to this girl named Rokia?" And he got X amount of donations. And the second group came out and he showed a picture of Rokia and then—a batch of statistics about starvation in Africa. And he got Y donations, right? And then the last group he simply gave out statistics. And he got, you know, Z number of donations. And it turned out, surprisingly, that people gave by far the most when all they saw was a picture of a young girl. They're clearly turned off by statistics about thousands of people, millions of people suffering. Where do we turn off? You know, at what point is the number so high that we think, "Ah, I'm—I'm overwhelmed. I'm too saddened. What can I do?" Apathy kicks in. So he started to test. Is it when it's ten people? Is it when it's 100 people? So he thought, "Well, I'll start simple. I'll show two people." And it turns out the—the donations, the feelings of empathy, decreased dramatically when the number of victims went from one to two.

BRANCACCIO: When you get into a village and militias have—earlier come in and sacked the place, people were raped, their—farms were pillaged—some months earlier and you find a woman in distress?

METZGAR: Nick ultimately asks, "Who's the worst off here?" And we go around to a few people. Unfortunately a man faints in front of us from epilepsy. We're let up into the village, past many huts, and a woman is brought out who's dying of starvation and she has some broken bones from an earlier incident.

HBO CLIP

METZGAR: And Lena, the doctor who's along with Nick on the trip, kind of leaps into action and says, "Forget this column for a second. Let's take her to the hospital."

BRANCACCIO: You're trying to get the bigger story, but especially the medical student, she wants to help the individual who's in distress in front of her. And who blames her?

METZGER: Yeah. It—it was difficult, I think. Nick has said in—in—if Lena wasn't there, he would not have taken that woman to the hospital. Because he comes across people like this all the time. But Lena and Will and people like myself, who were seeing this kind of devastating suffering up close for the first time, you—you do wanna help the individual in front of you. And then Nick's method—methodology suddenly seems very strange, that he would just take the story and move on. So there was a little—a little battle.

BRANCACCIO: What—what was causing her pain? It was the result of ultimately a bigger picture of starvation.

METZGAR: Starvation and rape, unfortunately. And she—like Kristof was pointing out, and the reason for finding someone like her, is that she's one of four million people who are suffering like this. So he—when we found her, Nick had sort of found his Rokia, to refer back to the earlier studies. This is the woman who's gonna represent the crisis in Congo. Because he had disregarded a few hundred people's terrible stories and he really found the one that, even to the crew and everyone around, crushed us the most, devastated us the most. But also, the way that—the way that Nick told it in his column, it really inspired you the most. And it told the story politically of what was happening in the area. That's important, too.

HBO CLIP

BRANCACCIO: Kristof, you can see he's divided. He—he wants to get you, the team, safely out of there. He wants to bring the story to the wider world. But there is someone in distress right in front of him as well.

METZGAR: Yeah. It brings up a lot of—questions about intervention of journalists, for sure. And I was kind of stuck thinking—what is the greater goal of journalism? Journalism exists because everyone can't be there to witness it. Right? So we've designated these few people who we say, "They're not gonna help out. They're not gonna intervene. They're simply gonna watch and tell people who—who don't know about it." And that's a strange reality when you're there. To—to wake up and read the newspaper or read it online is one thing. But when you're there, the idea that you should simply document the story is very strange. But I will say that Nick intervenes very often. And I'm not saying that he simply moves on. He's—

BRANCACCIO: And you intervened here? I mean—

METZGAR: We intervened.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah. I mean, ultimately we should be clear you do get her to a hospital. But it's not a trivial matter. You have to find out if there's a family member who can accompany her. It's complicated.

METZGAR: It is. It took several hours of negotiations and—and almost arguments to figure out who would take her, how, who would pay for it, who would come with her, who would feed her and take of her. And then a lot is lost in translation, of course. And the aid groups have their own interests in what's going on and it was difficult. Ultimately, like you said, we intervened and it also became a column. So, it's a central scene in the film, that—you know. So ultimately it's sort of Nick's purpose, which is you do find an individual and you tell their story, which serves to describe the larger problem in Congo.

BRANCACCIO: And in case you're missing the bigger picture here, you know, why c—wouldn't they wanna intervene? How many people have died in that eastern Congo conflict?

METZGAR: I think it's up to 5.4 million in the last decade. Yeah. The number is staggering. And—one of the problems with getting the crisis in Congo on the international agenda that—that Nick is really trying to overcome is that it's this slow, ongoing crisis, whereas a month ago we had that earthquake in Haiti. And there's—there's an undeniable urgency to the problem there. You know, relief effort mobilizes quickly. And it's—it's covering the headlines, you know. And everybody steps up and kind of comes together in the way that people did around 9/11. But Congo, it's—it's—it's so plodding and it's so hidden that, you know, the numbers just increase so steadily.

BRANCACCIO: The huge number of casualties makes the crisis in Congo the deadliest conflict since World War II. But Kristof is interested in hearing from not only the victims but also the leaders responsible - sometimes warlords accused of mass killings, torture, rape and sexual enslavement. They're men who command vast private armies, often funded by outside countries.
Sometimes good story telling involves finding your most charismatic characters who may or may not be villains. And you do something—you, yourself, and the team, quite brave. You go deep into the rainforest to meet who?

METZGAR: General Nkunda, who is a former rebel leader in Congo—

BRANCACCIO: But—to say the least—checkered human rights record?

METZGAR: Yeah. You could call him a warlord, probably. You know, he's—he—he's definitely responsible for many, many, many deaths and rapes.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Eric, how did you feel when the plan was to get into a vehicle and go to hang out with this guy?

METZGAR: Well, I first turned down going on the trip because of this line in Nick's itinerary, which was visit the warlord in his—in the bush and spend the night and visit his child soldiers. But eventually I did go, obviously. And it's—it w—it was—it was—it was terrifying and kind of thrilling. And it did have that feeling, you know, when you're on a plane and there's turbulence and you just kind of accept this—this might go down. This might be my last day. And you make peace with it. The drive up there definitely had a bit of that quality, which is, "This might not go well."

HBO CLIP

BRANCACCIO: So you get up there. And you get to meet Nkunda, who was what? He—he seems pretty charming in the film.

METZGAR: He is. He's disarmingly charming. You know, he was friendly. He was outgoing. He was—he was bright and extremely excited about talking about his life and what he thought he was doing to help the people of Congo.

BRANCACCIO: So Kristof lets him say his piece, but then he's gotta ask some questions. The man's won two Pulitzer Prizes. He knows how to ask a tough question. Let's take a look.

HBO CLIP

KRISTOF: The government of course says you have committed war crimes and even NGOs also say that your forces have murdered civilians, raped people and so on.

NKUNDA: They are working on rumors and the influence of politicians. We are victims of international, an international plan against Tutsi in Congo.

KRISTOF: People, some people are calling you a warlord. Is that an accurate description or not?

NKUNDA: eh?

KRISTOF: Some people call you a warlord.

NKUNDA: That's because of those...

KRISTOF: Accusations?

NKUNDA: Accusation of the press, of the politician, of the extremists. But I'm not a warlord. I'm a liberator. A liberator of the people.

KRISTOF: But if there is more fighting, between your forces and various other forces. Some of the biggest losers will be the ordinary people out there, the ordinary civilians. Because when you do have two armies fighting, it's always the civilians who end up suffering the most, isn't it?

NKUNDA: Yes, it's the responsibility of the government of Kinshasa. If the people are suffering it is according to this irresponsibility.

KRISTOF: But at the same time, you look at the Congo, this is a country that should be one of the richest countries in Africa - it's got diamonds, so many resources, and instead it's one of the poorest countries in Africa. It's poorer than when the Belgians were here. 4 million people have died in this war. And isn't one reason for that tragedy the fact that you do have this kind of ongoing fighting by all kinds of militias, none of whom see themselves as warlords, but as liberators?

METZGAR: I wished that whole interview could be the film. It went on for a couple hours. And it was really, really fascinating watch Nick—watching Nick kind of be very sensitive and—and, you know, friendly, and then really pushing him and stepping back. Because, you know, there were men with guns all around the room and it was a delicate conversation. And Nkunda was spinning Nick and Nick was taking it and throwing it right back at him. And—it was—it was really educational to watch him do that, and then turn it into a column.

BRANCACCIO: Now, it took a while, about a year and a half or so but eventually, Nkunda got arrested by the Rwandan government.

METZGAR: He did. That was a surprising twist. About a year ago, the Rwandan army came through trying to disarm the conflict in eastern Congo and they arrested Nkunda. And, you know, there had been rumors that, in fact, Rwanda was supporting Nkunda. And so it was—it was a strange turn. And people have not heard from him since, in general.

BRANCACCIO: So Nick Kristof I mean, he's the man who got the story out of Darfur to the American audience very early, seven years ago. Yet it's still goin' on. Do you think his method, in the grand scheme of things, does any good?

METZGAR: Yeah. Well, I think Nick would be the first to say that he's he and we are not gonna stop—stop the problems in Darfur, stop the problems in the Congo. But you—you can make a difference. And he's made a tremendous difference. There would be much more suffering and much more fighting—in Darfur, Congo. There'd be a lot more sex trafficking in Cambodia if it weren't for Nick and the columns that he's written that have brought a lot of attention and light onto these issues.

BRANCACCIO: I was reading a blog in which someone took Kristof to task because not just that he dwells on the individual worst case, which is the other discussion we were having, but also just that he's very negative and that there are good stories from Africa. There are. I've covered some upbeat stories from Africa in my time. And that this casts a very downbeat light on an entire region.

METZGAR: Yeah. I—I've come across that argument a lot. And Nick comes across it constantly. And m—my response is that—the way the Nick works is—a bit like a surgeon. You know, you don't wanna go in and have you surgeon tell you, "Well, I've look you over and your elbow is workin' just fine and your vision's great. And come back later." You know, you'd say, "Well, I came here to know what's—what the problems are and what we can do to fix 'em." And so Nick goes in there simply to say, "Look, there are a lot—there's excess suffering happening here. And people are not shining a light on it. It—you know, Americans are not aware of what's happening, and if they were then maybe they can do something. I just need to tell them about it, American people and the American government."

BRANCACCIO: Pick up the paper and there's Kristof still at it: covering the victims of conflict —and those accused of perpetrating the outrages who might otherwise remain hidden in the fog of conflict. Yet questions remain about who's listening and if this kind of reporting can truly change the trajectory of history.
The—human rights campaigner now working for the Obama administration, Samantha Power she says in the film, "One of the challenges in the internet age, in the age of personalization of one's news, the way you can pick and choose on the Web, is who's gonna put in their search engine, Google, in—in the morning the words "genocide" or "atrocity" or "concentration camp"?

METZGAR: There's just a built-in dilemma in this and stories like Congo in—in relation to the way things are going in the world of journalism, where you can look—you know, I have Yahoo e-mail. And you look at the top searches and it's Christina Aguilera, Tiger Woods, et cetera, et cetera. And who really does wanna put it in "crisis, "Congo," or "rape"? "Darfur"? Why would we wanna do that? And—and that's—that's a really odd philosophical question, is should we seek out suffering so that we can do something about it? You know, do we have time to be compassionate these days when—when you're reading the news on your iPhone and you have 13 minutes and you really are most intrigued by the Tiger Woods story because the Congo story just brings you down and you don't know what you can do about it. It's difficult. And I think it's ultimately psychological. You know, we can talk about the decline of journalism as this kind of external problem, but we're all part of it. We're all allowing journalism to decline.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you've made a fascinating film. I really felt like I went on that journey with your team. Of course, we don't have to face the peril that you do. But what do you hope the effect is of sharing Kristof's working method? What do you hope will happen with this film?

METZGAR: Well, for—for me, film—they're not brochures or commercials for the subject that you're doing.

BRANCACCIO: But you don't, in the credits, for instance, offer, like, where to send your money for eastern Congo. I noticed—

METZGAR: Sure.

BRANCACCIO: —something like that is missing.

METZGAR: In—in terms of human rights issues, I—I just don't believe in this kind of—obedient action-taking, if you will. You know, I think if—if—if me saying at the end of the film, "Visit www-dot," or, "Put your name here," or, "Donate here," that's me telling somebody what to do. And if you need to be told what to do, I don't think that that equals the sustained—compassion that is required for us to really take on these issues. You know, if you really wanna know what to do, it's—takes five seconds to put "Congo crisis help" into a Google search engine and then you're off. And I also—there are a million things you can do. If I tell you one thing that I would do, that directs everyone down one path. You know, you have to figure out what moves you the most and take your own path.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Eric, thank you very much.

METZGAR: Thank you.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Eric David Metzgar is director of the film Reporter, which premiers on HBO next February 18th, Thursday.
Would you or someone you know like to join Nick Kristof on his next global trip? You need more than a passport. Learn about the New York Times contest on our website. Start your search at pbs.org. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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