Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps (Africa edition)

Earlier this month, Slate’s Jack Schafer wrote a hagiographic piece in praise of Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times bureau chief for East Africa.

The Africanists are not pleased.

Given the New York Times’ position in the hierarchy of US media and the fact that it is one of the only newspapers with dedicated African coverage… Gettleman’s reporting has not eluded close observers of African politics.

For the last month, the participants on H-Africa, an email listserv of African academics interested in the continent’s history and politics, have been dissecting Gettleman’s reporting.

It includes discussion of the a-historical use of tribe, Gettleman’s experience as a journalist and of Africa before he got the job (we learn that he had very little), as well as highlighting the practice of some publications (the New York Times is a chief offender) to often delete any record of offending content (following public complaints) when articles from the papers’ print editions are uploaded onto their websites.

Some of the participants suggested complaining officially to the Times’s editorial board or its foreign editor. Good luck.

That’s Leo Africanus venting here and here. You can read the (sometimes colorful) H-Net posts here and here.

I hate going negative, but I’m going to side with the Africanists on this one. Not all Gettleman’s articles induce cringes, but a good number do. It’s like he’s trying for all the cliches.

The factual errors don’t help. I recall one description of the Lord Resistance Army as a “drugged-out street gang living in the jungle.” One can quibble with smaller details (there is no jungle in northern Uganda, let alone streets) but more importantly, this is a spiritual rebel force with strict codes of conduct, and drugs are unimaginable. This is no gang of willing thugs, but a disciplined force formed by fear and abduction. It would be like calling Colombia’s FARC a bunch of right-wing ideologues in the coastal plains. Unimaginable. This is Africa’s longest-running rebel group, not a new kid on the block, and one expects more from the nation’s most venerable newspaper.

The contrast is sharp with superb reporting by the Times’ Lydia Polgreen (West Africa bureau chief), or the roving Gregg Zachary. But the chain’s only as strong as it’s blah blah blah, and, tragically, the Times is no longer a place to go for reliable reporting south of the Sahara.