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.

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

  1. 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.

    What are your favorite sources for news and analysis about Africa?

  2. You had me with you right until you mentioned Lydia Polgreen. I’m afraid that on the email lists that I frequent no one is more likely to raise the hackles of Africans than her. And the amused outrage is heightened by the notion that as bureau chief of the Times, that she directs a lot of the coverage of the region. Makes one long for Howard French.
    In any case, outrage at safari journalism only goes so far, in my crowd we’re writing our own stories of Africa

  3. I agree that Gettlemen’s not worthy of Shafer’s pucker-up valentine. But your sin is worse than Gettlemen’s, I think: You describe the LRA as a “spiritual rebel force.” You think that’s a better description of what they are than comparing them to a “drugged-out street gang”? I don’t. I’m sure the LRA has a “strict code of conduct,” (don’t street gangs too?) but it’s really hard to figure out what that might be among a group whose entire modus operandi strikes me as completely and utterly batshit. They’re led by a lunatic with a messiah complex who’s been mutilating and murdering for years and years. Raping, pillaging, abducting, torturing, etc. etc. etc. Nice “code of conduct.” I would say that the platitudinous, politically correct way that “human development professionals” talk about Africa is often every bit as condescending as the stuff in the Granta article in its refusal to recognize the severity and insanity of some of these intractable situations. You might argue that characterizing Kony as a homicidal headcase does nothing to, say, “advance our understanding of the situation in northern Uganda,” but I have no interest in understanding the LRA at this point. I just want them destroyed so the people in Uganda et. al. can get on with their lives. Trust me, if Gettlemen had described them as a “spiritual rebel group” with a “strict code of conduct” and been done with it, as you apparently are here, there’d be a hell of a lot more anger. And for good reason. These people aren’t “spiritual rebels.” They’re psychopaths.