Flashback: 'The Unnewsworthy Holocaust: TV News and Terror in Cambodia'

In the wake of President George W. Bush's reminder Wednesday about how the “killing fields” of Cambodia followed the 1975 U.S. pullout from Vietnam and the region, a look back at a study, by William C. Adams and Michael Joblove, which documented how from 1975 to 1978 the three broadcast network evening newscasts, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post, virtually ignored the ongoing massacre of millions by the Khmer Rouge. Below is an excerpt, fairly lengthy since I can't imagine this is online anywhere else, from the MRC's 1990 book, “And That's the Way It Isn't: A Reference Guide to Media Bias.” The excerpt starts with a summary and then key findings from the study published in 1982:

The xenophobic reign of terror by the Marxist Khmer Rouge from April 1975 to January 1979 in Cambodia was as brutal as that of any in history. Up to three million Cambodians died of starvation, torture or execution. But despite what George Washington University professor William Adams and research associate Michael Joblove called "the barbarism and the magnitude of the tragedy," major media outlets in the U.S. paid little attention to the tragic events.

To find out what the American public was told about the despotic reign of Pol Pot, Adams and Joblove, with the help of the Vanderbilt News Archive, studied ABC, CBS, and NBC weeknight news coverage from April 1975 through December 1978. They limited their focus to reports about "Cambodian refugees, genocide, general Khmer Rouge policies, and the reconstruction of society." They excluded reports about border clashes with neighbors, simple civil war occurrences, and the Mayaguez incident. Their statistics show that Americans who watched network news never saw the carnage and chaos that consumed Cambodia during those four years.


# "Stories about the 'new society' and death in Cambodia were so sporadic that even the most constant viewers could not be expected to grasp the gravity of the Cambodian crisis." Over the four-year period of the Khmer Rouge rule, the three networks devoted less than sixty minutes on weeknights to the human rights situation in Cambodia. That averaged out to less than thirty seconds per month per network.

# Explicit discussion of genocide was heard on ABC for less than one minute and on CBS and NBC less than four minutes each during the four-year period.

# To show what little mention there was of death in Cambodia, the authors compared the coverage to time given the Jonestown murders and suicides. In the first week alone, three hours of network news detailed the cult deaths, although the death toll was at least a thousand times less than in Cambodia.

# Adams and Joblove dismissed the old network line that without pictures there is no story: "Poignant and striking footage was available without end in refugee camps all across eastern Thailand....The fact that television ignored the upheaval in Cambodia simply cannot be attributed to a dull story with poor pictures."

# The authors blamed the print media as well. "Television caricatures the front page of the prestige press" and "assignment editors rely heavily on the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the wire services to set the network agenda." So it was no surprise when the networks didn't "veer far from the pack" and "provide extensive coverage of a topic given little attention in print." Until mid-1978, little print space was given the events in Cambodia. Only when it picked up did television follow.


“The Unnewsworthy Holocaust: TV News and Terror in Cambodia” by William C. Adams and Michael Joblove. From the 1982 book, “Television Coverage of International Affairs.”

In April of 1975, Khmer Rouge forces overran Phnom Penh. Until their fall from power in the winter of 1979, the world was witness to one of the most bizarre and brutal revolutions of this century. Costs of Khmer Rouge rule were high. An estimated one to three million of Cambodia's eight million people died by starvation, disease, or execution.

No other single episode has involved a greater loss of life during the last quarter century.áYet, despite the barbarism and magnitude of the tragedy, little public attention was directed to Cambodia. It was ignored by the U.S. media, government, and people.

The death toll was at least a thousand times greater than that of the Jonestown murders and suicides, but news coverage of Cambodia was a fraction of that given to Jonestown. Added together over the entire four-year Khmer Rouge period, all three television networks devoted less than sixty minutes on weeknights to the new society and human rights in Cambodia. Nearly three hours were spent detailing the Jonestown deaths in the first week alone.

What, if anything, were Americans told about human rights and society in Cambodia from their preferred source of international news -- early evening, network television news? To find out, we examined Vanderbilt University's Television News Index and Abstracts for weeknight news coverage from April 1975 until December 1978.

The Vanderbilt Archive loaned compiled videotapes of the stories we had identified from the abstracts. Stories selected were all those about Cambodian refugees, genocide, general Khmer Rouge policies, and the reconstruction of society. Excluded were purely military stories about border clashes, civil war, and the Mayaguez. Research was conducted at the television news studies facilities of George Washington University's Gelman Library. The findings were generally consistent for all three networks.

A Few Sad Seconds

Stories about the "new society" and death in Cambodia were so sporadic that even the most constant viewers could not be expected to grasp the gravity of the Cambodian crises. As shown in Table 6F, from April 1975 to December 1978, NBC aired 11 stories (17 minutes 35 seconds) on life in the "new Cambodia," compared with 13 stories on CBS (28 minutes 55 seconds), and 6 stories on ABC (11 minutes 25 seconds). This averages out to less than thirty seconds per month per network on the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

ABC offered a little over four minutes in 1975, and the next year carried one human rights story about Cambodia. Two years passed before ABC returned to the subject. In April 1978, ABC viewers heard anchorman Tom Jarriel say President Carter had condemned Cambodia as "the worst offender in the world" with regard to human rights. Carter had apparently not been watching ABC News.

CBS focused on human rights in Cambodia for sixty seconds during 1975, for six minutes, ten seconds in 1976, and for the same amount of time again in 1977. CBS stepped up coverage in 1978. In April 1978, CBS ran two special reports -- each over four minutes. Later in August, after Senator McGovern's call for armed intervention in Cambodia, CBS spent two minutes and twenty seconds on the subject of Cambodian human rights.

NBC's nearly 18 minutes of coverage over four years almost equaled a single night's coverage of the Guyana massacre. NBC did broadcast a "Segment Three" (4 minutes 30 seconds) feature on human rights in Cambodia during the evening news on June 2, 1978. Once, NBC even opened its program with a lead story on Cambodian suffering (7/20/75). The twenty-second story concerned an attempted escape of 300 Cambodians; only 12 people had survived. This story and its placement were quite exceptional. No other Cambodian human rights story was ever made the lead; the few stories that were aired were usually placed midway through the broadcast. Overall, in 1975-78, very little time was devoted to the steady stream of refugees who succeeded (or failed) in escaping what they called the "terror" of their homeland.

This accounting of air time on human rights in Cambodia does not measure the number of times when, in a story that was otherwise about a border clash with Vietnam, the regime might have been referred to as "harsh." However, the figures are actually generous because they include air time devoted to any discussion of the "new society" created by the Khmer Rouge, some of which dismissed or ignored reports of genocide. When this "harshness" was specifically mentioned, treatment of the subject of mass murders varied wildly -- sometimes treated with skepticism, sometimes as undisputed fact, sometimes as mere rumor. The issue of genocide was explicitly addressed less than one minute by ABC, less than four minutes by CBS, and less than four minutes by NBC.

On August 21, 1978, Senator McGovern called for an international force to invade Cambodia in order to stop the genocide. The incongruity of George McGovern advocating military action in Southeast Asia was enough to attract some attention. ABC interviewed the Senator and included a follow-up clip of a refugee's personal story of tragedy. CBS covered the subcommittee meeting at which the plea was made. NBC gave minimum coverage with a twenty-second summary.

Network Silence Despite Numerous Reports

Why was the massive loss of life in Cambodia given so little attention?áIt was not that the networks were uninformed about the new regime; as soon as news of the deaths reached the outside world, the networks were alerted. As early as June 24, 1975, in a speech covered by all three networks, Secretary of State Kissinger stressed that Cambodians had "suffered a terrible death toll" under the Khmer Rouge. CBS also mentioned that Freedom House had compared the Cambodian events to the Nazi annihilation of 6 million Jews.

On July 8, 1975, as eyewitness reports of barbarism were brought by escaping refugees, NBC ran a story with correspondent Bernard Kalb. According to Kalb, "the story [the refugees] have been telling is one of horror." One witness saw "1,500 bodies, all knifed to death." One refugee said people were killed "if they didn't plant rice" and said he had recently seen 1,000 dead bodies. Kalb noted that skepticism first greeted such stories, "but now there are so many that it must be true."

Somehow, this remarkable NBC story did not generate others. The fact that thousands of people were filling up refugee camps across Thailand with accounts of mass murders and starvation in Cambodia was not deemed newsworthy.

ABC's single enterprising story in 1975 was an interview with the then head of state, Prince Sihanouk. This was the only network interview with a Cambodian government official since Kissinger's speech on the massive loss of life, since the Kalb story of atrocities, and since newspaper accounts of forced labor camps and execution. Harry Reasoner was not shown questioning Sihanouk about any of these matters. Instead, the Prince was shown talking about rice production and boosting the economy.

This prompted Mr. Reasoner's "roughest" inquiry:

"Prince Sihanouk, you spoke of the necessary severe and austere government. Now I think of nothing more unlike the Cambodian people than severity and austerity. Have they changed?"

To this hard-hitting question Sihanouk answered:

"No, no, no, no. You know the Khmer Rouge, they are very nationalistic. Also, they want Cambodia to remain Cambodian. When I say severe or austere I mean that we have to walk much more than before. But Cambodians, they remain Cambodians. They like joking. They like laughing, they like singing. So they continue to do it. There is really a general way of life and there is still this way of life in Cambodia."

Sihanouk's depiction of the joking, laughing, singing Cambodian people was not seriously questioned by ABC News that year.

On January 26, 1976, CBS aired an account from reporter Peter Collins about forced evacuation from the cities, forced labor in the fields, and a refugee tale of five workers beaten to death with an iron pipe. Collins concluded that no one had been allowed to verify the refugee horror tales, "but their accounts of life across this frontier are so numerous and detailed, there seems little doubt that the new communist regime is continuing its harsh reform of Cambodia, under what refugees describe as 'a reign of terror.'" But CBS did not pursue the story. Six months passed before CBS again considered this "reign of terror."

A Small Shift in 1978

In 1978, after two years of near total neglect, the networks ran a handful of stories about human rights in Cambodia. On January 18, 1978, CBS covered Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher's condemnation of the "systematic terror and grinding down of the Cambodian people." "Hundreds of thousands of human beings," he said, "have perished under this regime." (Neither NBC nor ABC made any mention of the speech, although five months had passed since NBC had told its viewers about human rights "problems" in Cambodia and nearly two years had elapsed since ABC's last report on the subject.)

A two-part "Inside Cambodia" series by CBS's Bert Quint was aired April 20 and 21, 1978. Quint made references to estimates of one million people having been killed, though he cautioned that the figure "had not been confirmed by neutral observers." "Neither," he added, had "the new rulers bothered to deny them." Refugee accounts of harsh working conditions and mass killings were also mentioned.

Also on April 20, 1978, NBC ran a retrospective on Khmer Rouge rule. John Chancellor introduced the piece:

"It was three years ago this week that the city of Phnom Penh was captured by the Khmer Rouge revolutionary movement, and since then the story of Cambodia has been a horror story: The cities emptied -- thousands killed or allowed to die in the countryside. There have been charges of genocide."

Thus, in the fourth year of its rule, the Khmer Rouge emerged on television as a nasty and tyrannical -- though still rarely newsworthy -- group that was probably implicated in the ominously empty streets of Phnom Penh. David Brinkley, having displayed little prior moral outrage on the subject, called them "iron-fisted murderous savages" in a brief 1978 commentary.

By late 1978, the occasional network stories had even begun to stop "balancing" the reports of mass execution with reports of "cleaning up the cities." Death estimates that had earlier been simple "reports of mass death" (NBC, 7/8/75) became in 1978 "stories of one million killed" (CBS, 4/20/78), "hundreds of thousands, possibly 2.5 million killed" (CBS, 8/21/78), "one hundred thousand to one million" (NBC, 6/2/78), "one to three million" (NBC, 9/21/78).

Why Did the Networks Dismiss Cambodia?

Nightly news cannot cover everything. The criticism that broadcast news people themselves make most frequently is that the program is too brief. In this light, they note, the omissions and compression imposed by brevity are unfortunate but also unavoidable. (The subject then shifts to affiliates which resist expansion to an hour of network news.) Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand why the tragedy of Cambodia never secured any sustained attention.

One explanation is ideological. Events in Cambodia appeared to contradict the supposed Lessons of Vietnam. The wisdom Americans were to have acquired in Southeast Asia was that leftist guerrilla insurgents were nationalistic and relatively benign, were likely improvements over the corrupt rightist regimes they replaced, and were certainly not worth any significant expenditure of U.S. diplomatic, economic, or military power. As one telling New York Times headline put it: "Indochina Without Americans/For Most, a Better Life" (April 13, 1975). Unfortunately, Pol Pot's epigones of Marx-Lenin-Mao had not read this particular script. Thousands of Cambodian refugees brought stories of mass death and murder, but this "unverified" news could not be easily broadcast or printed to fit the Lessons of Vietnam.

There are other possible reasons for the lack of coverage. However, some of the usual explanations are inadequate.

When television news downplays a story that would otherwise appear to merit more coverage, the reason is often that the story lacked "good pictures," lacked drama and controversy, or lacked human interest. Television news, students of the medium repeatedly note, places a premium on stories that can be made visually interesting and that create emotional involvement by showing continuing sagas of conflict, danger, irony, humor, tragedy.

Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule should have qualified superbly for the dramaturgy of television news. Only one barrier hampered coverage: camera crews were not invited inside the borders to beam home pictures of death, executions, and the forced march into the countryside. Poignant and striking footage was available without end, however, in refugee camps all across eastern Thailand. The horrible tales of death told movingly by escaped Cambodians made Kalb's July 1975 story strong and vivid. With continuous daring escape attempts, the uprooted and terrorized families, and the vandalizing of an historic culture, human interest stories were scarcely in short supply. The fact that television ignored the upheaval in Cambodia simply cannot be attributed to a dull story with poor pictures.

An even less convincing argument for the lack of coverage is that the outside world did not really know precisely what was going on within the jungle borders. Pol Pot did not issue a press release confirming the number of deaths as 3 million or merely three hundred thousand. Nor was it announced how many of the deaths should be attributed to starvation, the forced march, disease, bullets, or being clubbed to death. Not knowing exactly, the line goes, the media prudently overlooked the subject entirely....

Silence from the White House, Post, and the Times

In addition to ideology, another plausible explanation for the low level of television news about Cambodia was the strange silence from the White House. Scholars observed a decade ago that television, even more than the print media, is obsessed with the presidency. The absence of presidential concern about Cambodia would thus be likely to decrease the prospects for network coverage still further.

Neither Carter nor Ford directed any sustained attention to events under the Khmer Rouge. Both administrations engaged in the ritual of an annual condemnation of the regime, but little more -- no major diplomatic offensives, no continual publicity efforts, no stream of speeches, and no public debate over more overt moves. With little but token gestures from the President, at least one major factor that would promote network coverage of the subject was absent. (This is also partly circular, because greater media attention would likely have stimulated more concern with the subject at the White House.)

One other explanation for the lack of concern with Cambodia is that television caricatures the front page of the prestige press. Assignment editors rely heavily on the New York Times, Washington Post, and wire services to set the network agenda. Television news usually seems afraid to veer far from the pack and is unlikely to provide extensive coverage of a topic given little attention in print. While this explanation begs the question of Post and Times coverage, it does help account for television's pattern. In fact, until mid-1978, the Times and the Post gave very little space to events in Cambodia....

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center