Andrew Rice: A professor, a genocide, and NBC's quest for a prime-time hit.

Roundup: Talking About History

One Monday last December, a stranger presented himself at the office of Sanford Ungar, the president of Goucher College, located in a suburb of Baltimore. He introduced himself as Charlie Ebersol, a television producer. A handsome, affable, and royally confident young man--he was sometimes pictured in the gossip pages with his girlfriend, the tennis star Maria Sharapova--Ebersol explained his visit by saying he was doing research for a new prime-time show on NBC. Beyond that, he was cryptic, Ungar recalls. "He said, 'We're going to come back tomorrow and tell you about somebody who works here who's done some very, very bad things.'" The meeting, Ungar says, left him totally baffled. Ebersol remembers the encounter somewhat differently. "Literally five minutes into my going into conversation," Ebersol told me, "he said, 'Are you talking about Leopold Munyakazi?'"

Ebersol was producing a new documentary series called "The Wanted," about international fugitives from justice, and he was exploring an explosive charge: that Munyakazi, a Goucher professor of French, had taken part in a genocide. The day after their first meeting, Ebersol returned to Ungar's office with his co-producer, Adam Ciralsky, an investigative journalist who'd once worked as an attorney for the CIA. They were in possession of what, at first glance, appeared to be a devastating collection of facts. Munyakazi had been living in his native Rwanda in 1994, when many thousands of his countrymen took up guns and machetes against their neighbors at the urging of a vicious government, killing a minimum of 500,000. After the fall of the genocidal regime to a rebel army, Munyakazi was imprisoned for four-and-a-half years. He'd been provisionally released, but then he'd fled to the United States, where he'd asked for asylum. (The appeal was still pending.) The producers told Ungar that the Rwandan government wanted Munyakazi back and had more than 70 pages of sworn affidavits from witnesses who attested to his participation in the genocide. Then they told the president that they'd return the next day with a Rwandan prosecutor, whom they'd flown in for the purpose of a dramatic confrontation.

Ungar, a white-haired ex-journalist with a leonine voice--he had once been the host of NPR's "All Things Considered"--considered himself well-prepared to assess the seriousness of NBC's accusations. His resume prior to taking the top post at Goucher included a stint as director of Voice of America. He had visited Rwanda several times, and, in the 1980s, he'd written a 500-page book about Africa.

Though he oversaw a large faculty, Ungar was slightly acquainted with Munyakazi, a new adjunct who had been placed at the school just that year by the Scholar Rescue Fund, a nonprofit that arranges financial support for exiled academics. He'd heard that Munyakazi had some controversial political views, but, to Ungar, the professor came off as "a very polite, formal person of the old school." "I find it hard to imagine," Ungar would later reflect, "that he's a mass murderer."

Journalistically, Ungar also didn't know what to make of the NBC producers' approach, particularly the suggestion that they were working in concert with a foreign prosecutor. Indeed, the producers had conceived of "The Wanted" as a radically different approach to news-gathering. The stars of Ebersol's show were members of an experienced team he'd assembled to track down fugitives, including terrorism experts and a former war-crimes prosecutor. To Ungar, it all sounded like tabloid television. He got even queasier when Ebersol and Ciralsky returned to his office the next day, December 10, with a camera crew and Jean Bosco Mutangana, the head of Rwanda's genocide fugitives tracking unit. Ungar recalls that the producers asked him to sit for the cameras while Mutangana presented the details of the indictment. He refused. "Having worked in the media myself," he says, "I wasn't about to be fooled."

Those on the other side of the camera recall the scene another way. Ungar was relaxed, even flippant, the NBC producers say. They claim that his employees offered the jet-lagged Rwandan prosecutor eyedrops, so that he didn't look bloodshot on camera. Though Ungar initially wouldn't tape an interview, he did allow the NBC crew to remain on campus to pursue their questioning of Munyakazi. (As a former journalist, Ungar told me, he felt it would have been "hypocritical" to kick them off.) He went so far as to send the NBC crew, accompanied by a Goucher P.R. officer, down to the classroom where the professor was just finishing a French lesson.

After class, a swirling retinue of about ten cameramen, technicians, and professional interrogators descended on Munyakazi, a broad-faced middle-aged man with an accented, lilting voice. The professor, who had been given little notice, was stunned and refused to talk on camera. After some time, two members of the faculty who knew Munyakazi, a philosophy professor and the director of the school's peace-studies program, joined the standoff, which only heightened the tension. The professors angrily challenged the Rwandan prosecutor. "They kept talking about 'competing narratives' of the genocide," Ciralsky says. "Which really could be considered code for denying the genocide."

What was happening was a collision of two different worldviews: the investigative mindset of journalists and prosecutors, with its normative emphasis on evidence, guilt, and verdicts; and the academic mode of inquiry, which is more discursive and wary of definitive judgments. The disdain between the two sides was mutual. "It was really a kind of guerrilla tactic on their part," says Steven DeCaroli, the philosophy professor who stood by Munyakazi that day. To the accused professor's defenders--a group that would eventually become surprisingly large and respectable--his prosecution was not about genocide, but about free speech, and a foreign regime that manipulates the story of the genocide for political purposes. The way DeCaroli saw it, NBC had been duped. "They were coming with a very tightly logical narrative," DeCaroli says. "And I just wanted to suggest that there was another way of reading the same facts."....

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