November 3rd, 2009
01:13 PM ET

Thinking about 'News' – The global sex trade vs. boys in balloons

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/02/16/un.trafficking/art.streetscene.cnn.jpg caption="Aid agencies say young women are being forced into prostitution around the world – including Russia's capital."]

Tanya M. Acker
AC360° Contributor

At the Women’s Conference hosted by Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver last week, I listened to Somaly Mam, a human rights activist who has made the liberation of girls from sex slavery her life’s work, describe her experience of being sold into sex slavery in Cambodia at 10 or 12-years-old. (Ms. Mam did not know exactly how old she was when she was first imprisoned in the brothel, as she lost all conception of time during her confinement.)

She talked about the fact that child sex slaves are raped sometimes 20 to 30 times a day and also described the horror of watching her best friend murdered, an event which ultimately prompted her to attempt a successful escape.

I then heard Ms. Mam and Nicholas Kristof describe the widespread tragedy that is the global sex trade in girls and how in many cases, as these girls are valued by their brothel masters at only a few hundred dollars a person, those brothel owners often think it efficient to execute the “recalcitrants” publicly in order to send a lesson to the others.

And then, as I listened to Lisa Ling correctly point out that much of what passes for “news” these days consists of talking heads yelling at one another, I thought about how, as one of those talking heads, I have spent more time arguing with right wing anchors about such inanities as whether the President is simultaneously a socialist and fascist who wants to impose his own version of martial law, than I have discussing the plight of these girls.

Our broad and vital civil liberties – liberties that are among the best aspects of our social and political culture – may allow us the corollary indulgence of treating any grievance and/or mood swing as a compelling news item. Ms. Mam’s story, however, suggests it might be appropriate to take a broader approach toward determining “newsworthiness.”

Stories about the global sex trade in women and girls may not be as sexy as protests featuring complaints about the President’s allegedly absent birth certificate, but I cannot believe that when offered an appropriate diet of digestible news and information choices that Americans will continue to prefer to graze on the junk.

It may be that the perceived immediacy of certain of our countrymen’s “grievances” is what gives rise to the perception that those grievances are the benchmark for determining what is relevant or newsworthy. For many, the 10-year old sex slave in Cambodia is too far removed to inspire much passion or outrage; indeed, the myopia to which all political partisans are susceptible may give rise to a belief that her plight is simply not as important as the “news” item which will better lend itself to the politically useful sound byte.

But when those partisans lament the fact that nothing changes, they should perhaps be reminded that they have, in many cases, often demanded little change. It is one thing to cast a vote on November 3. It is quite another to reiterate that demand by insisting on a regular diet of accurate, relevant information – and also by reminding policymakers that their substantive decisions are being monitored at every turn.

When all we do is “tweet” about the latest instance of manufactured outrage instead of taking a stance against the truly outrageous, however, we may fairly deserve the indifference toward real harms that we often get from political decision makers.

The passion and power of American voices has changed lives and liberated people around the world. We saw the end of apartheid not because politicians in the first instance thought it necessary to end our nation’s support of an oppressive regime, but instead because of the grassroots mobilization of millions of committed Americans who decided that the power and prestige of this democracy would no longer be used to underwrite such gross oppression.

Not then being so easily distracted by ginned up “scandals” that became their own “news” because of their easy dissemination via social networking portals (or by ideologically driven “news anchors” who used their platforms to impose a worldview rather than report on the world), we did, for a moment, focus on a real scandal and we made a real difference.

I hope, for the sake of victimized girls around the world, that we can muster the energy and focus to do it again.

Follow Tanya Acker on Twitter @tanyaacker.

Filed under: 360° Radar • 360º Follow • Tanya Acker • Women's Issues
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. wsb-bethesda, md

    This is a very nice thought provoking piece. Now, if you could just get CNN to buy into these ideas, you'd be onto something. By and large CNN does very well covering "news" stories and they clearly are way ahead of everybody else when it comes to international stories. I just want to see less birther stories and a hole lot less of the "strategist/consultants"-as participants in the news deliver process.

    November 3, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  2. Ashanti

    Again, we prove other countries right and fall into the "dumb American" stereotype.

    November 3, 2009 at 1:21 pm |