National Press Club

UN security enables NBC story on Central African starvation threat

June 6, 2019 | By Lorna Aldrich | lorna2@verizon.net

NBC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden watches a documentary film describing the challenges children face in the Central African Republic during an event sponsored by the National Press Club International Correspondent Committee on June 6.

NBC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden watches a documentary film describing the challenges children face in the Central African Republic during an event sponsored by the National Press Club International Correspondent Committee on June 6.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

NBC News Senior Correspondent Cynthia McFadden credited protection by U.N. peacekeepers and support from NBC News for enabling a story on children threatened by starvation in the Central African Republic (CAR) at a National Press Club event Thursday.

McFadden appeared with UNICEF-USA President Caryl Stern, and U.N. Foundation Vice President Peter Yeo on a panel moderated by Carmen Russell-Sluchansky of the Club's International Correspondents Committee, which sponsored the event.

A seven-minute clip of the story preceded the panel discussion. The clip called CAR the worst country in the world for hunger, with 1.5 million children in danger of starvation and where 14 different warlords control 80% of the country. It showed Stern and McFadden visiting a clinic where children, two to a bed, were on the verge of starvation. A worker told them that they don’t turn any child away.

The clip also showed the same children much improved after they received nutrition via a product called “plumpy nut” that contains a days’ worth of nutrition and costs 50 cents a package, which looked somewhat like a granola bar. The children were seen holding the packages and feeding themselves from them.

Somewhat older children were seen playing games laughing and smiling.

The clip revealed Stern and McFaddens’ dependence on U.N. security forces for protection and transportation. Images taken through bullet proof glass showed bystanders angry at their presence. They traveled in U.N. vehicles with armed U.N. peacekeepers and by plane rather than taking the dangerous roads.

After the story aired on NBC, “American people donated in 48 hours $1.6 million,” McFadden said.

Sluchansky asked McFadden how she got the story. She said Christine Romo, an NBC producer told her the CAR story which would have the lead, “What is the most dangerous place in the world for children?”

Learning that the story would include Stern, a friend, McFadden said she wanted to do it. She noted that Romo and Erica Vogel of UNICEF worked four or five months on the preparations.

Yeo explained the U.N. role in CAR. In 2014, U.N. peacekeepers prevented a genocide. Earlier this year, a peace agreement among the 14 factions, he said. The country now has a democratically elected president, he added. Nonetheless, half a million people are displaced from their homes, unable to grow food, he said.

The NBC News story yielded not only money but bipartisan congressional legislation, Yeo said. The U.N. peacekeepers make it possible for the stories to get out, and they depend on money from U.S. taxpayers via the Congress, he said.

Responding to a question on why the story didn’t go deeper into the causes of the CAR crisis and explain why a resource-rich country is so poor, McFadden said the role of TV could only be to direct attention to the crisis, hoping that longer print stories and books would tell the deeper story. TV does make Congress members’ constituents aware and receptive to foreign issues, she said.

Stern and McFadden shared their personal reactions to the story. Remembering the children playing, Stern said, “You are prepared for the pain but you are not prepared for the joy.”

“You have to be able to do your job. If you feel too much, you’re not doing your job. If you feel too little you’re not doing your job,” McFadden said.