Ooh, a hot debate on journalism in Africa!

A hot debate is raging about the quality of journalism about Africa. So we’re told in this summary of the now thoroughly personalized fight. In April, Laura Seay, an assistant prof at Morehouse, wrote a piece for Foreign Policy criticizing journalists covering Africa, and this week Global Post report Tristan McConnell wrote about why she’s wrong. (It’s a bit more juicy than that, so go ahead, take a look.) While mud slinging is never very interesting for me, I’m sort of glad this long festering debate is coming to a head, because it’s an important issue with a lot of misunderstandings. I sympathize with points in both essays, but I think there are problems with both as well. To wit:

On the whole, journalism on Africa is crappier than on other regions

There’s no doubt about it: coverage of the continent of Africa is way behind other regions, involves more of the parachute journalism that Seay criticizes, and employs fewer people covering larger areas. And more reporting on Africa contains hackneyed story lines, predictable clichés, glaring errors and oversimplifications. I am sure there are content analyses out there that show this, but as an intelligent (I hope) reader who has spent some time on the continent and a great deal more studying it, I can tell you it jumps out at me every day I read the paper. This is why criticism of media on Africa is such a popular topic on Twitter and everywhere else: people, especially in African countries, are fed up with the shoddiness of reporting, and tired of the tiresome and predictable representations of Africans. What other continent could be erroneously referred to as a nation in The New York Times, an error that still stands two weeks after this icky article was published?*

But for the most part, this is not the fault of individual journalists

For as much as all the above is true, I appreciate McConnell’s bristling at the broad brush with which Seay paints. First, it must be said that professional journalists, particularly in print, and in Africa as much as anywhere, are by and large an excellent group of people who genuinely care about their subject matter, who are deeply inquisitive, and who are willing to work harder for less money than skilled workers in an array of other professions. The industry tends to attract humanists, and people who believe the truth can set the world free. Not to say you don’t have your egotists and adventure-seeking hacks in the mix, but in my experience these are a minority.

And thank goodness, because if concerns like a career, saving money to raise a family, being close to your loved ones, and having health insurance were the primary motivations for working as a foreign correspondent or as any other kind of journalist, believe me, we’d have nearly none at all. I often wonder whether those who demand such high standards and insist on such a sense of responsibility from reporters have any idea just how little money they make, and how insecure their careers are. Even many established by-lines who seem constantly to be on assignment  live check to check, and make big personal sacrifices to be where they are.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should demand high standards from our journalists, no matter what they’re paid. I hold the profession on an almost sacred pedestal, and can’t suffer its abuse by its practitioners, even from someone who writes for free or for a pittance. But from a much more rational, behavioral-economics perspective, it is simply unrealistic to expect a stellar level of professionalism and critical thinking from people who are underpaid and unsure about their future prospects.

Journalism has never been an industry for those who want to strike it rich — at most it may attract glory-seekers — but it’s shakier than ever now, with a 30% surge in newspaper cuts last year. Some 1 in 3 newsroom jobs have reportedly been eliminated since 1989 (see previous link). Salaried foreign correspondents have been especially hard hit, because for American rags that are having trouble covering the local mayor’s office, that’s the simplest place to trim some fat and let CNN — or freelancers paid a couple of hundred dollars a story — to pick up the slack.

Africa seems to have been particularly neglected, partly because of the American public’s lack of deep interest in it. (If I had a dime for every awful time someone has cited Blood Diamond or Hotel Rwanda to me in a serious discussion about African politics… Really? Do you watch The Ides of March to decide whom to vote for for Congress ? Wait, don’t answer that!) Sloppy reportage on Africa that would cause an outcry if it was about a domestic subject raises no ire from most Americans, and thus is not changed.  Africa is also extra neglected because even many otherwise intelligent editors, intellectuals, etc. still consider it an economic and political backwater, largely irrelevant except for the humanitarian questions it raises and the stunning inspiration it provides for fashion. Those working against this tide of ignorance have to spend so much time correcting misperceptions that there’s not much of a chance to pioneer different approaches. Meanwhile, the fact that a lot of Africans are rightly pissed off about how different media represent their continent does not have a major effect on what gets covered, since even though they are the subjects of the reporting, they are not its main consumers.

Seay’s criticism of reporting on Africa may be on point, but she doesn’t resolve this final paradox in the least. Journalists may be in love with lofty ideals, but that doesn’t mean the industry is a social service, even if we talk about it like is — for the most part, it’s a business, albeit a frighteningly underperforming one. Writing and reporting on Africa aren’t likely to improve based on business pressures. For-profit outlets have much bigger fiscal fish to fry than a few smart, disgruntled people who know better about Africa; and ad sales are made to companies in rich countries.

Journalists still need to listen to the criticisms 

McConnell paints U.S.-based academics with the same broad brush that he says Seay uses on journalists, accusing her of casting stones from an “ivory tower.” This is really silly — if anything a cheap solution to the strains on correspondents in Africa is to regularly consult academics, whose expertise is free, and cultivated through years of careful study of history and theory, something Seay points out in her Twitter riposte.

The fact is that the street credibility of “being there” that puts a swagger in the gait of many a foreign correspondent — I’m not gonna lie, maybe me too — is really no proof of the legitimacy of their work. If you didn’t ask the right questions, talk to the right people, understand the history, then who cares if you witnessed the blood, sweat, and tears first hand, recorded the sound and the fury? Understand I am not pointing at anyone particular here, but it’s not a point of logic I follow. Absurd arguments throughout recent history have often been based on street cred — think of the colonial officer who has spent years at his post and returns to London to report on the savagery of the natives, or the white southerner of the 1950s who says folks up north “can’t understand the race problem down here because they don’t live it.” Or OK, for an example closer to home, think of Thomas Friedman, who almost always mortars together his glib arguments with some anecdote assuring us he’s physically been to the place under discussion (even if it was to take a taxi from the hotel to the golf course). He spent years in Beirut and Jerusalem and wrote a fine narrative of his experiences there which however totally misdiagnosed the underlying causes of the conflicts he witnessed (in my view, at least).

Unfortunately, the credibility-of-being-there argument seems to be the point in McConnell’s essay that has been most celebrated on the web, if the summary linked to at the beginning of this post is any indication. As journalists, if we think what we do is noble, we need to listen to these criticisms, whether they are from near or far, and see how we can improve our work. Clearly, there is room for it.


I mentioned that journalism is not a social service, but maybe it should be. As the business model crumbles ever further, it would be interesting to have Seay evaluate, say, work funded by the Pulitzer Center or another organization that is devoted to upholding excellent journalism in all its ideals, rather than struggling to get accidental hits from readers who were searching for vacation tips or for a review of The Last King of Scotland. From what I’ve seen, her criticisms do not hold up against much of the excellent work that has been funded in this way, which is telling. What if even more resources could be marshaled for such projects? It’s not impossible or unprecedented — philanthropic or idealistic investors have provided the foundation for entire newspapers and outlets in the past (think The Bay Citizen and the Hellman Family Foundation).

Involving more African journalists in Western outlets is another great and ultimately essential idea, but as McConnell points out this is not as simple as Seay makes it sound. Foreign correspondents are not just reporters but also interpreters (as are, for that matter, financial journalists and other specialists). Assuming the primary audience for American publications remains American, the task of foreign correspondents will continue to make issues distant from the reader accessible and interesting. This will require training — I know that would need training if you assigned me the task of reporting on American affairs in a way that was engaging and accessible for, say, Rwandans. Luckily, there are many good training programs out there for African journalists, though I’ve not heard of many aiming to train foreign correspondents for international publications. Willing and available talent exists, and it needs to be cultivated just as American journalists are.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Would love more thoughts on how media on Africa can be improved — preferably by addressing it as the systemic problem it is.

*NB: Throughout this post I am essentially discussing the work of American correspondents in Africa, since that country’s media scene is the one I am most familiar with. I suspect similar points could be made about media in most other rich countries.

The power of social media — and its lack of inherent goodness

Shame on me, I still haven’t read Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. But I just found this clip from Al Jazeera English’s The Stream from last September, in which the presenters give Morozov the space to reorient the conversation away from the not-very-useful debate about whether social media is good or not. Worth a watch.

Here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

So social media is a catalyst for democratization? asks the presenter (9:13), after Morozov acknowledges that it helped the protesters in Egypt. Morozov’s answer:

Of course [it’s a catalyst [for democratization]. It’s a catalyst for many other processes. And it may empower certain factions more than others. In some cases, depending on the existing political and social dynamics, it will favor the protesters. In others it will favor the autocrats. There’s nothing about social media itself that predetermines which side is going to win.

I like this guy.

Somali-language anti-piracy song from last year

Obviously you read Jeffrey Gettleman’s story in the NY Times Magazine last week, “Taken by Pirates.” Perhaps you were curious about the music video he mentioned, put together by the Somali community in the UK to ask for the release of Rachel and Paul Chandler.

Abdiwali and some others at Universal TV then turned to Abdi Shire Jama, who was a freelance interpreter in London and a talented songwriter. Jama thought a music video would help spread the word, so he produced a song called “Release the Couple,” soon broadcast on Universal and YouTube. It begins with a Somali kid with a British accent saying, “I hope this message gets to the people who are responsible for holding Rachel and Paul Chandler.” Then, after a burst of synthetic drums and some squeaky Somali music, five Somali singers break into song.

“Our people fled their homes. . . . The host countries did not look at the color of our skins. . . . We need to show our debt to them, for it is the donkey who does not acknowledge the debt.”

Well, here’s the song. Interesting stuff.

Hat-tip AK.

Making sense of Mortenson

All day long I have been utterly fascinated with the revelations about Greg Mortenson’s falsehoods and mismanagement of his organization, the Central Asia Insitute, which he created to build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I vowed to write a lengthy essay tonight to get out all the thoughts this episode has provoked — but it’s 1:00 AM and I still haven’t finished the esteemed Jon Krakauer’s 75-page exposé, “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way.” Thus, I offer just a few disjointed comments, pending my completion of the article and, ahem, the book.

First, let me suggest a partial reading/watching list, which my Twitter feed should continue to augment in the next few days:

  • Ideally, at least one of Mortenson’s books, especially Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I haven’t read them, though they have been recommended and gifted to me on numerous occasions.
  • The 60 Minutes episode from Sunday, 4/17/11.
  • Mortenson’s response in an Outside magazine interview.
  • CAI/Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes’s questions (I believe they came too late to make it into the program).
  • A blog of the Economist parsing of one of at least two insidiously racist assertions in Mortenson’s Outside responses: that the “archaic” Balti language makes locals unfit to retell the dates of his arrival in their village. As a friend who is an anthropology professor specializing in this region wrote to me: “I find that claim to be rather dubious. Even if their language is an archaic dialect of Tibetan, Baltis have been Muslim for centuries and are presumably well acquainted with the Islamic clandar. Also presumably there would be at least one or two teachers or officials in even the smallest village who would be invested in being modern. Or there would be in China at any rate…”The other insidiously racist passage (and shameless passing of the buck) is Mortenson’s suggestion that there is something called a “confidence trick” in “Africa and Asia” whereby local staff take advantage of donors after years of gaining their trust. While certainly possible, this is not limited to Africa and Asia (dude, I’ve heard about some stuff working for the San Francisco city government, believe you me), and is just a lazy reference to a trope, which is an artifact of colonial times, about the dangers of the wily native.
  • Finally, and most importantly, read Krakauer’s article (downloadable for free for about the next 48 hours). It’s astonishing —  even if I haven’t finished it yet — not least because the CAI/Mortenson fabrications occurred in plain view for a decade and a half.

This affair illuminates an intersection of many social and political issues. It’s about much more than the individual, Mortenson. I’m thinking here of the narratives of GWOT; the fundamental problems with accountability of private nongovernmental work overseas; the unquestioning of the American public when we are spoon-fed facile stories of foreign lands populated with casts of wild-eyed fundamentalists, noble savages, and their helpless babies, who need us oh so much.

More deeply, it makes me suspicious of charity as a solution to complex problems. The violence and inequality in regions such as AfPak — and indeed the world — are political in origin and demand political solutions. To the extent that we can ameliorate problems with charity, without also reforming the power imbalances, laws, and crippled economies beneath them, we sometimes risk simply whitewashing, and we will necessarily create cases like Mortenson/CAI.

And the truly saddening thing is that a lot of evidence shows we want to continue believing fairy tales like Mortenson’s rather than face the difficult necessity of reforming our relationship with the world. A saccharine story and a donation are exponentially easier to digest than the systemic reform that is truly needed for any lasting change.

Take the fan base’s responses to Krakauer and 60 Minutes. Monitoring the comments to the articles above and the #Mortenson Twitter feed, it is easy to see that many, many people are ready to forgive Mortenson, without further ado.

His heart was in the right place. He really raised awareness about the need for education. Sure, some money was wasted, but a lot of it ended up in good places. The media is sensationalist. It’s a beautiful vision.

Please, please, don’t take our easy, breezy bedtime story away from us…

Digital Utopians, Party Poopers and Real Revolution

There have been some snickers of late at the timing of Evgeny Morozov’s new book, The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (good NY Times review here). The revolutions in the Middle East supposedly gave the lie to his criticism of cyberutopians and their hypocritical Western government backers. I must admit I was momentarily caught up in the snickering — Facebook, social networking and more generally, the amazing advances in communications technology played a huge role in the overthrowing of Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s regimes.

But two things have recently led me back to my fundamental sympathy with Morozov’s view (part of which I wrote about last year in one of my best-named blog posts ever, “Mao and the Facebook Panoptican“).

"My social network" by Luc Legay

One is the incomplete revolution in Libya, which has reminded us that although the Internet has made social networking more efficient than ever (it didn’t invent it, obviously), the price of change in violent systems will still be sweat, blood and sacrifice. And the Internet does not reduce complex history and politics — like that in Libya — into simple stories of good and evil that read like the Readers’ Digest version of Lord of the Rings (or worse).

Second is this short piece in Mother Jones about unabashed video game booster Jane McGonigal. The comments here from some of the notable cyperutopians are so patently, jaw-droppingly absurd that I re-realized how much we desperately need voices like Morozov’s. Take a brief look at this interview of Wired cofounder Kevin Kelly (referenced in the MJ article). Or McGonigal on the power of video games:

“When every family in the remote villages of Africa, or in what today are the slums of India, or throughout Nicaragua—when they and everyone else in the world has access to The Long Game, that will mean greater access to education, culture, and economic opportunity as well.”

Point is, even if his timing is slightly off — through no fault of his own — a smart cynic like Morozov is essential to taking this ridiculousness down a notch. (HT to my pal grist.)

I leave you with an Outkast classic you may find relevant… or at least good music.

Too much to keep track of

A few of my loyal readers have asked me why I haven’t been more vocal as of late. It’s a darn good question. The events in the Arab world in the last few weeks are a culmination of all the things that I have written about most on this blog.

Below, I offer a few rather pitiful explanations for my silence, which I hope you will indulge.

  • This is a particularly bad time for half-baked long-distance punditry. The information we have — and I am, of course, expecially thinking of Libya here — is mean and unreliable. With real lives in the balance, I have been reticent to contribute to the din without having firsthand information to contribute.
  • Events are unfolding too fast for me to offer the kind of thoughtful commentary for which I try to reserve this blog. My last post was practically irrelevant, news-wise, in about a day. Should I write a blog post about how calling the Libyan government’s apparent massacres of unarmed protesters does not qualify as genocide? (Which is how a number of interviewees, including defecting Libyan officials, are describing it on TV.) Such points are important (HT @texasinafrica), but it doesn’t feel right devoting a whole post to them from afar.
  • Most of all, there’s just too much to keep track of. I admit this reluctantly. As much as the wave of revolt washing across the MENA region emanates from some common urge for freedom, the local grievances of people are dizzyingly different from place to place. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is not Egypt’s multitudinous shebaab are not Yemen’s impoverished throngs are not Libya’s dying young people are not Syria’s somewhat more restrained malcontents, etc. The uprisings are all drawing from the same font of dignity, but they are nurturing different species of trees. Analytically, this makes it very difficult to comment on them en masse. And I would need to spend all day, e’eday blogging to comment on them all individually. Regrettably (for this purpose), I have a day job.

By way of consolation for these unsatisfying explanations, let me offer a list of what I am following in a vain attempt to keep up with everything.

Got recommendations for other good resources that I should be on? Please let me know.

Finally, a ditty I was thinking about for some reason today:

My thoughts with the people of Libya tonight.

ممكن يسقط؟ - Pic taken during unfortunate 26-hour layover in Tripoli airport, 2006.

“I’m not a racist, but…”

Muslims on a plane: Juan Williams gets the shakes? (Photo by Juan E De Cristofaro.)

I once heard a joke third-hand from a friend, a joke I’ve always thought encapsulated so many things about the way underhanded bigotry is expressed in contemporary America:

When someone says, “Look, I’m no racist, but …” what they really mean is, “I’m a racist. Here’s an example.”

Alas, I have not encountered an example yet where this sentence decoding doesn’t hold at least a little bit true. Take Juan Williams’s comments on The O’Reilly Factor, for instance, talking about GWOT, etc.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

That statement and others got the journalist canned from NPR yesterday.

It’s a bit more complicated than the statement, though. Watch the clip. Williams is actually the liberal talking head and appears to have made his “Muslim garb” comment to gain credibility on O’Reilly’s reactionary show — ironcially, in order to make the argument that painting Muslims with a broad brush is undesirable and dangerous.

In other words, he’s effectively saying: Look, Bill, I’m prejudiced  just like you and your viewers. So trust me when I say that there’s still a need to be politically correct.

I take it as a misguided and unwise rhetorical gambit. It failed to make the confusing point Williams was apparently trying for, and legitimized prejudice against Muslims. Take a look.

Update 10/22: Fox has signed Juan Williams for a $2 million, three-year contract.

Weekend jam: allez Décalé Chrétien!

Nairobi’s Daddy Owen has taken Coupé-Décalé, the Franco-Ivoirian dance craze, to church with his praise song, Kupe De Kalle.

The song is at least six months old, though NPR just picked it up, so it’s been making the Internet rounds a bit more in the last few days. (The NPR article is oddly incomplete in describing the origins of Coupé-Décalé — doesn’t even name the style, which is several years old. For that, read the Wikipedia article.)

This is interesting and unexpected to me for a few reasons.

  • The distance between East and West Africa often seems vast. It is usually cheaper and easier, after all, to fly from Nairobi to London than it is to fly from Nairobi to Abidjan. (Read about some of the shenanigans involved in intra-African flights here.) Thus, talking to some Kenyans, for example, one often feels that people sort of think of West Africa as the bizarro world on the other side of the continent where life is unpleasantly loud and in your face. This song is an example of the digital breakdown of that distance — something that is increasingly common with high speed web connections.
  • There is a mild East African flavor to this version of Coupé-Décalé. It’s hard to describe. It’s not quite as hard-hitting, but a little easier to listen to while kicking back, than those joints from the Jet Set.
  • And Coupé-Décalé is a style that epitomizes raunchiness, ridiculousness and excess — not the genre you’d expect to be mined for church music. (Cue comment from reader revealing that there’s been a gospel Coupé-Décalé movement in the Ivory Coast for the last five years that I don’t know about.)

Check it.

Of course, music has always been one of those things that crossed African divides — borders, languages, politics, religion, great distance — with relative ease. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. In any case, this is awesome. Makes me want to go put on some pointy shoes and spit some gibberish raps.

The importance of logging off

Just me and the mountains (no cell signal).

I was delighted to see the front page New York Times article today. Not only did it describe one of my favorite stretches of the San Juan River west of Mexican Hat, Utah — a river that gave me one of my first tastes of the wilderness as an eight year-old — but it also made a splashy introduction of some points that I think everyone will take more and more seriously in the next decade or so. Namely, that being constantly online shapes the way we think and process information, and that sometimes, we have to get offline.
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Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)