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"If the reason you joined a band was to get laid, get famous, get rich — they all went by the way fairly early, so all we're left with is . . . make that record." — Bono

Netaid and the Media: Why Isn't Anyone Watching?

@U2 original story
The setting was a far cry from any cricket stadium or sports arena. Yet when one of Ireland's most famous rock singers stepped to a microphone before the United Nations on September 8th, the sight seemed oddly familiar.

This time, however, it wasn't before thousands of screaming fans or a gathering of his peers. His bandmates, usually as eponymous as the bubble-eye wraparound shades and the dual earrings, were nowhere to be seen.

There was no drumbeat, no bass dirge, no ringing resounding chime of a guitar.

It didn't have the incongruously raucous feel of a rock concert. It didn't have the European decadence and the Las Vegas trash of Zoo TV. There was no fifty-foot mirrorball lemon, no swizzlestick olive antenna. There were no rhinestone cowboy hats, hooded boxing robes or multicolored Mikli shades.

There was, simply, the unassuming presence of the Artist Formerly Known As Paul Hewson. The sonic leprechaun himself. To wit: Bono of U2. In the great scheme of things, it all made perfect sense. After all, if rock and roll were to ever appoint a master of ceremonies, Bono would certainly fit the bill. Whether preparing his remarks in advance or off the cuff, he is a man who speaks well and, unlike most, is able to give a voice to both his heart and his head, whether the subject be personal or political.

On this day, however, he looked positively professorial. The hair, once a thick and wild mane, was cut short and slicked back. His clothes, unlike the cutoff T-shirts and leather pants of his youth, were traded in for a fashionably black waistcoat, shirt and silk tie.

Even the trademark specs had less tint, as if to give light more of a chance to shine in, to give a clearer vision for the speaker. The only thing rock and roll about the man that day was his shoes...and as he himself once said, the stage is but a platform boot.

Today, Bono's biggest asset was his propensity for public speaking...a reputation he solidified by inducting Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all but deifying Frank Sinatra before millions of viewers at the 1994 Grammy Awards.

This time, however, the room had a different vibe. There was no chance to spark up a cheroot with Shaun Ryder, no supermodel hangers on, no corner table at which to nip a lemon vodka, no censors to offend with offhand profanity.

No, this was diplomacy. Serious, heavy stuff. A far from cool room. Given those daunting circumstances, one could only imagine how this "rock star" was going to explain to a room full of well-hewn diplomats what the hell he was doing there.

Minutes later, he summed it all up in one sentence: "I want to see Live Aid through."

Bono was talking about the newly-launched NetAid project, a campaign geared at ending Third World debt by using the Internet to spread the word. Like Live Aid, it is a goal both daring and ambitious, not unlike the one he and his bandmates held themselves to when they took the stage at Wembley Stadium back in 1985.

Only this time, Bono is not just a key player on that stage; he's setting it.

Having spearheaded the highly-anticipated Jubilee 2000 project, he and hip hop artist Wyclef Jean --with whom he co-wrote the NetAid theme song, "New Day" -- are planning to cross three time zones to perform with dozens of other artists at a troika of simultaneous concerts in New York, London and Geneva on October 9th, musical jubilees geared at plugging an effort to end Third World debt by the year 2000.

On paper, the whole NetAid concept displays the same kind of idealism which made projects like Band Aid and USA For Africa seem so innovative in the '80s.

Back then, another Irish singer wrote a song called "Feed the World," and used it to kick off a grassroots campaign to end starvation in South Africa.

True to form, his idea went global practically overnight. Dozens of artists, from the modern to the mythical, joined together to perform on the world stage for one day...raking in $200,000,000 for famine relief. During his U.N. speech, Bono admitted to being swept up in the grand gesture of Live Aid, the rebelliousness of the idea. He saw it as a two-fingered flipoff to all the bigwigs and bureaucrats who wouldn't spend a dime to stop the starvation, let alone find a solution.

"It was an amazing thing, that moment in time, when Bob Geldof and a bunch of pop stars raised $200 million dollars for famine relief," Bono said. "I was so proud of that. We walked around thinking we'd cracked it. We were very excited. We could do what the politicians could not. $200 million dollars!"

Sadly, when the music stopped, he also learned a shocking lesson about how idealism and activism can be cut down by corrupt diplomats in the modern world: he found out that Africa was already spending 200 million dollars every week servicing its debt to the west.

"That made no sense to me," Bono said. "I literally could not understand what it meant. 200 million dollars a week in debt service...that's not the way it's supposed to be, is it?"

With that harsh lesson and reality behind him, Bono now seems to be aiming for a fresh start, literally and figuratively, with Jubilee 2000. This time, he's using both music AND the Web to spread the message, and that's exactly what makes it so innovative and interesting.

By meshing the Internet with international diplomatic support, corporate sponsors, and a musical theme, NetAid aims to raise the same kind of awareness and concern as Live Aid did...on an equally global scale. Only this time, the message is not so much about funding as it is forgiveness. The depressing side of this story, however, is that barely anyone knows its going on.

This is not the fault of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Ever since he assumed the post, he's urged the international community to address the need to end world debt, and on that night he clarified why the goal behind NetAid was truly proper.

It was not the fault of the men and women at such major corporations as KPMG and Cisco Systems, whose financial backing helped launch the NetAid website and whose donations are aimed at eliminating some of the debt. It certainly was not the fault of Bono, who not surprisingly was the most eloquent, intelligent, and impassioned of all those who spoke that night.

The fault lies with the international media, whose near-total lack of interest in the project poses the most serious threat to NetAid's goal. Despite the U.N.'s sensible decision to feed the event out to every major television network within its signal, only one of the five major outfits in New York City covered the story. In that one instance, a cable news network devoted barely twenty seconds of video to the moment. There was no live coverage. No reporters on the scene. No one-on-one interviews. True to form, MTV and Rolling Stone showed up...but of course, their main question focused on an altogether separate issue: "Hey, Bono...when's the new U2 album coming out?"

There's no real explanation for this. There is nothing concrete to explain why any one person or organization would consciously ignore or brush aside something which strives to help humanity, to do more for the common good.

If the sad truth were to be told, one might speculate that the media just isn't interested in following the beat of the activist heart anymore. Perhaps it was Baby Boomer resentment over how Live Aid ultimately failed, a resentment which has turned into a kind of cynicism now directed at anyone who tries to do anything which dares reach beyond the walls of their own community and into the world at large.

Perhaps veteran network executives are kicking themselves for not having the foresight to see WHY Live Aid could fail, and for failing to address that issue in their broadcasts while the actual event was going on. Perhaps they -- like the artists who performed at both Wembley and RFK stadiums -- got so swept up in the ideology of the day and the spirit of the music that they forgot to ask the most important question of all: how will this work?

Perhaps it's because the media doesn't find the sort of activism once perpetuated by artists like U2, Sting and Peter Gabriel "hip" anymore...an excuse which might be the lamest of all, although there's plenty of evidence to prove this may indeed be the case.

The best example I can cite happened as I was watching video of this U.N. event feed into our studio. A production assistant was asking a young male line producer to cut a compelling soundbite from Bono's speech, in which he commented on the barbaric nature of the debtors prison, and how that barbarism is still evident in today's Third World economy.

That's when I overheard the producer impatiently remark: "Don't they have a remark from Puff Daddy? I mean, Bono's not really our audience...and let's be honest, the '80s are over."

Sadly, it's this sort of nauseatingly close-minded and clueless statement which holds the most water, especially when it comes to explaining the skewed logic of the modern media.

It may also be the only logical reason why this particular event was such a low note on their programming agenda.

No longer taken by the ambitious and righteous plan to help make the world a better place, it's as if network producers saw that silly, over-the-top, ironic view U2 adopted during the Zoo TV tour, and turned it into their own global programming directive.

The result has been a kind of broadcasting that's more about buffoonery than bravery, more about cutting-edge graphics than graphic compassion.

Coverage of serious world issues has been traded in for what network executives consider to be "great video"; the kind of footage you wind up seeing on programs with absurd titles like When Good Animals Attack Bad Cops During the World's Most Dangerous Police Chases.

It's about a ten second soundbite, a pithy political quip, the snide aside from a well-groomed anchor. As Walter Cronkite once put it, "it's about the hairstyle reading the news, not the news itself." It's about ratings, or -- as some arrogant people who claim to be in-the-know insist -- it's, quote, "what the audience wants to see."

With those kind of elitist, short-attention span standards in place, it's no small wonder none of the five major networks believed an educated and eloquent rock star speaking (and singing) before the U.N. was a newsworthy event, regardless of how noteworthy or historic the moment seemed to be.

The only solace or uplift anyone can take from any of this is that Bono is daring to do something the networks and naysayers won't: he's trying to make things right. He's refusing to let the cynics rest on their laurels, to let technology eclipse the humanity of the situation.

Instead, he's using it as a tool to try and right a wrong.

Throughout the '90s, Bono often remarked that the only way anyone could stay relevant amid the ever-updating technology of an already fast-paced world is to throw your arms around it and give it a big kiss. To recognize that rebellion is packaged. To mock the devils -- or in U2's case, the politicians -- and see them flee.

This time, however, he's daring to look the devils in the eye and make the boldest statement of all: let's let bygones be bygones...let's forgive and forget.

What's more, he truly believes in that forgiveness becoming a reality.

"If the leaders of the G-7 go all the way with us, and I believe they have the will, sometime in the new year, one billion people will get a chance at a fresh start," Bono said. "This is a real reason to celebrate New Year's Eve 1999."

That sentiment, of course, hearkens back to a time ten years earlier...when a cowboy-hatted Bono told a crowd at the Point Depot Theater in Dublin on January 1, 1990, "Forget about the past...we're gonna celebrate the future."

If it's true that the media cares less about the activist heart in these supposedly modern times, that statement -- which practically mirrors the sentiment of the NetAid campaign and Jubilee 2000 -- sounds much more compelling today than it was in 1990.

The reason for this is not because it goes against the popular grain of thought about social conscience. It's not because it could come off as an overly cool statement for a decidedly uncool room. It's not rebellion for rebellion's sake. It's not because Bono is lobbying world leaders, or planning a big meeting with the Pope. It's not because he's old, or wiser, or has more kids.

It's because he is still using his conscience to challenge the status quo, to push the boundaries of thought. He's daring others -- the cynics and snides, the unhip and the unconvinced -- to jump into the fray, and help make the world a better place for others.

As for why the media refuses to join in, that will remain a mystery. Then again, if NetAid is a success, it may not be a mystery worth solving.

© 1999 @U2. All rights reserved.