Foreign perceptions of Africa could be a journalistic version of the celebrated chicken-or-the-egg conundrum – the reality of the continent or the way it’s told. And if it is, who should be telling the story?
Over the course of the last few days, a very interesting joust has been engaged around the issue of this column’s title. It may have become a tad unfashionable to gripe about whites (thank you very much, Robert Mugabe), but Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has sparked controversy around how African stories are told abroad and, as such, deserves attention.
Kristof has been taking questions posed by readers, and answering them via a YouTube clip. One of the questions (or statement in this case) was, “Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviours”. Kristof’s reply was to explain the difficulty in generating interest for certain stories among readers of his column in The New York Times, if those stories focused on certain issues or locations. “The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.”
As an NYT columnist dabbling in a controversial subject, Kristof has been criticised for his response. The most cogent ones I read was an excellent retort by Jina Moore, who laid into Kristof’s precious “white protagonist”, as well as a blog from the NYTPicker. The NYTPicker’s blog prompted Kristof to provide a better thought-out response, this time in the form of a blog. Many aspects of Kristof’s stance were questioned, but there are several omissions which do need to be dealt with.
At first blush, Kristof makes a lot of sense. As much as we might like to pretend that news coverage isn’t affected by ratings, or in the cyber day and age – page hits – the fact is that if a certain story is commissioned and doesn’t generate interest from readers, it will get canned. Producing good quality reporting doesn’t come cheap, and in the back of every editor and news producer’s mind there surely is the continual niggle about producing stories that sell. Kristof alludes to this in his blog. “It’s also clear to any journalist that it’s very difficult to engage readers and viewers in distant crises. That’s why television has pretty much stopped covering public health and global poverty… The lesson for any television executive producer is not to cover such crises, but to throw a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and have them yell at each other. It will be less expensive, more entertaining and will get ratings up.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. I’m not about to lecture Nick Kristof on how to do his job, but if he isn’t providing the public with stories on Africans doing good things on the continent, then who should? The aid organisations aren’t going to do the honours, not when they rely on old stereotypical view of Africa to keep the funds flowing in. If the trusted journalists out there aren’t giving readers the stories of things happening on the ground, good or bad, then who will?
Kristof’s cop-out is weak and somewhat condescending to the readers of The New York Times. Do they really need to see a familiar-sounding name in a story before they care? This isn’t exactly the Daily Sun, no offence to the readers of that, um, boisterous rag, but one would expect the type of person who reads the NYT, or perhaps the American public in general, to be smart enough to engage with a story from Central Africa, without inserting an American or Westerner into it.
The biggest assumption in this “black victim – white protagonist” narrative arc is that Africa is the way it is because people in the West don’t care. Essentially Kristof’s core concern is to get folks back at home to care. It is an astonishing assumption to make, because even on the face of it, it is completely flawed. Africa receives more attention, in terms of poverty and human crisis coverage, than any other continent on earth. Africa receives more foreign aid than any other continent on earth. A lack of concern or attention is the least of our worries, frankly.
Africa is not the way it is – and Nick Kristof doesn’t get to write stories about human tragedies in Africa – because Americans don’t care. In that sense then, which is the way we are supposed to understand him when he speaks of a white journalist’s burden in Africa, there is no burden. And is he completely blind to the suggestion that Africans necessarily need Americans to improve their lot?
Kristof also acknowledges the fact that his type of writing feeds into the negative perceptions of Africa. “I worry that by focusing on Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe, I’m helping create a perception that all of Africa is a mess — a perception that reduces foreign tourism and growth prospects.” Yes. Indeed. What’s more, he is still pandering to perceptions that are fast becoming outdated and irrelevant thanks to the realisation by many people that not all of Africa is Sudan, Congo or Zimbabwe. China certainly has little hesitation about investing in Africa. Generally, countries don’t pour money into perceived basket cases.
Most glaring of all, how do Africans feel about having their travails viewed only through the existence of a white messiah in their midst, and then pummelled into a form that Kristof deems acceptable to his American readers? He doesn’t say. How is that for a story that isn’t being told?
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas