The Public Policy

We Want Your Money

The poverty of celebrity performance on behalf of foreign aid.

By 7.25.05

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U2 made more money than any other touring band in the first half of 2005. The Irish rockers pulled in more than $48 million in six months with an average ticket price of $96. So, naturally, I was a little suspicious when Bono, U2's lead singer, told me he didn't want my money.

Bono said he wanted my "voice" to join the chorus of youngsters gyrating around the world at Live 8 performances leading up to the Group of Eight Summit representing the world's wealthiest nations. He and Bob Geldof, a fellow rocker and organizer of Live 8, were all over TV proclaiming their quest to "end poverty." And I wondered, how can you end poverty without money?

The truth is, you can't end poverty without a combination of aid, free markets, private property ownership, and democratic governments. And when the G-8 leaders agreed to send billions more to Africa, my president pledged both aid and U.S. partnership to achieve economic and social reforms. But reporters covering Live 8 and the G8 conference were so enamored with celebrity that they glossed over those facts -- and journalists abandoned the watchdog role they're so proud of.

When President Bush wants more money to fight terrorism, the media want him to account for every dime of it, all the while crying about skyrocketing deficits. But when billions of dollars in foreign aid are pledged, they simply cheer and ask, "Why not more?" This is ludicrous considering some of the corrupt African governments that have sucked away previous aid -- $20 billion in Nigeria alone.

The Media Research Center's Free Market Project (FMP) released a new study showing how unquestioning the media are of foreign aid. During broadcast coverage of Live 8 and the G8 Summit, more than a third of the news stories on the five major networks insisted that Live 8 wasn't about money. It is amazing that a single story could suggest this, let alone a third of all coverage. It was a worldwide fundraiser, but according to the media, this push for $50 billion in aid was about "raising awareness" or a "walk to justice" -- phrases lifted straight from press releases.

The study found reporters falling all over themselves to promote Live 8. ABC's Dan Harris admitted he was "a little jealous" of Good Morning America reporter Marysol Castro, who was in Philadelphia for the Live 8 concert. Castro gushed, "You know, it was truly extraordinary...160 bands performing in nine cities across four continents." Later she added that "Stevie Wonder still makes me weak in the knees."

Meanwhile, the real issue -- African poverty -- went largely ignored in the fundraising hype. Fewer than 10 percent of the stories in the FMP study alluded to the complex causes of African poverty. Only a few explained why the disadvantaged nations need to institute individual property rights and impartial court systems before they can begin to grow economically. From time to time trade was mentioned as a possible solution. But again, many of these countries don't have the means in place to grow an economic system. Where that is the case, lifting trade barriers won't do much good yet.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour ignored those issues, tugging instead on viewers' heartstrings. She shamelessly exploited poor children in her stories, using them to make her point: U.S. aid is too low. "Is it fair to hold people who are dying every day because they live on less than $1 a day, is it fair to hold them accountable to their bad governments?" she asked on a July 2 CNN special titled "Can We Save Them?"

Journalists and celebrities routinely said America doesn't give enough, even though we give more than any other country. And they were comparing U.S. government aid with the money other governments give -- leaving out billions of dollars in donations from private U.S. sources. The Hudson Institute monitors private giving to developing countries, and its review of the figures for 2003 revealed $62 billion in donations. That was three and a half times more than the government gave in official aid that year.

Bono expressed the sentiment of Live 8 participants and news anchors alike on ABC's June 30 World News Tonight when he said he was "always going to be disappointed with the numbers." It's easy for him to say that; he's got the $48 million. And it's easy for reporters to fill air time with celebrities. But journalists need to do the difficult work of reporting on the realities of Africa's situation, and they need to be honest about how generous Americans really are. Honest, thorough reporting -- now that's something I'd pay to see.

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About the Author

Herman Cain is a corporate executive, radio talk show host, and syndicated columnist from Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Cain previously served as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of Kansas City and as the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. In January 2011, Mr. Cain established a presidential exploratory committee.