"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


sensationalism gives me headaches

I generally like Guardian Africa correspondent David Smith's coverage of the continent. It's not just the same-old, same-old; he writes stories about web access in South Africa and getting Nigerian chiefs whose ancestors engaged in the slave trade to apologize. Smith is generally able to avoid the "Africa: Land of Rape and Lions" m.o. For that, I'm grateful.

But this report from Congo, well, um, oh, dear:
Is there anywhere in Africa to rival the mystery and mystique of Congo? Henry Stanley explored there, Joseph Conrad's Mr Kurtz went mad there, and Muhammad Ali fought there.
That's quite a few tropes for one sentence, don't you think?

But that's maybe to be expected from a Congo first-timer. I remember how disconcerting it was to walk across the border for the first time (especially since that resulted in my detention a few minutes later.)

Meanwhile, The Kristof is in South Kivu this week. He posted this bit of needless sensationalism on his blog late last week:
I’m overnighting in Rwanda, heading overland to Congo right now. It’s one of the most important and neglected humanitarian stories in the world, and I hope I can shine a light on it. If you have some issues you’d like me to look into, let me know.

Rwanda is always a lovely stop. Kigali is a clean, lovely city (plastic bags are banned), where you can safely take taxis. ...And now off to the much messier, bloodier world of Congo….
There is so much wrong with these two short paragraphs that it's hard to know where to begin. Oh, wait. I know:
  1. You can safely take a taxi in Bukavu. In fact, a shared taxi system is the way most Bukavans get around. You stand on the side of the street facing the direction you want to go (On the main drag, the Avenue Patrice Lumumba, your choices are "to the border" and "away from the border"), hail a cab, negotiate a price, and ride.
  2. You can say a lot of things about how awful the DRC conflict is. But calling it underreported is just incorrect, especially when your newspaper runs a piece about rape in the Congo on a regular basis. I got 112 stories in the international press from the last month by searching "rape Congo" on Google news. That's not underreporting.
  3. That you can't see the blood doesn't mean that Rwanda isn't messy as well. Or that substantial parts of the mess in Congo aren't directly to related to decisions made in Kigali. Failing to tell the whole story is bad journalism.
Enough with the sensationalism, Kristof. There's a lot more to Congo than the war, and a lot more to the war than rape and minerals.

(Thanks to @alunmcdonald for the tip on the Guardian piece)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one! Have you seen that you can win a trip with this guy...?!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 5:18:00 AM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

Hey, while I'm generally down on media coverage of Africa, I don't see much wrong with the David Smith paragraph there. As someone who reads a lot and loves (*loves*) boxing, I think of both Conrad and Ali when I think of the Congo; I just also think about a lot else. He's contextualising the place for a readership that will probably never go to central Africa, let alone a country in which tourism is not a well-developed industry.

It's basically equivalent to saying to a readership of people who will probably never go to Paris, 'ah, gay Paris - where Antoine Doinel grew up and fell in love; where Charlie Parker fled to play his music in peace, where Danton announced "if only Marat had my legs and Robespierre's balls, perhaps this Revolution would not be doomed"'.

I'm sure a Parisian would be aghast that I've reduced an extraordinary city to Truffaut, American Jazz musicians and an event in the 18th century. But it will resonate with people who have never been to Paris.

We have to bear in mind, most readers of the Guardian have never been to Africa or studied it. Short of writing an essay, the journalist has to delve into some easy touchstones to put the Congo in some relatable light.

That however, does not excuse inaccuracy or sensationalism, which is what Kristof is getting into. It's no longer 'Paris of culture and history' but 'Ah, Paris, a hotbed of racial tension, where the banlieue erupt avec la haine at a moments notice, they smell of onions and hate the English'.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 5:27:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Western Sahara - now there is a country that is mysterious and never talked about. Where is the sensationalism on Western Sahara?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 7:15:00 AM

Blogger Rachel said...

Ha! Yeah, the David Smith one was awful. But it was kind of amazingly awful:

"A jug of hot milk was the only drink proffered. I asked whether there was any chance of a coffee. After another wait, the coffee appeared. I took a gulp. It was, without a shadow of doubt, the most unutterably dreadful cup of coffee ever made. I quickly reached for the water."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA in his upscale hotel in Kigali!!! HAHAHA fantastic.

But Kristof -- such a different matter -- he lost me forever on March 5th of this year when he wrote this:

"When the International Criminal Court issued its arrest warrant for Sudan’s president on Wednesday, an 8-year-old boy named Bakit Musa would have clapped — if only he still had hands."

With an accompanying PHOTO of the little boy. With a photo. With a PHOTO. It's so heartbreaking. I hate it. Disrespectful, dehumanizing, awful. I mean -- there just are no WORDS for that...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 8:12:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Ranil, fair enough. But did you read the whole Smith piece? As Rachel points out, it was pretty bad as far as these things go.

(Also, the last sentence of your comment? Pure genius.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 9:04:00 AM

Anonymous Sean Jacobs said...

I love David Smith--he's got South Africa down, but that was too easy.

Good looking out.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 12:22:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I love David Smith, too, which is why that piece bothered me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 5:49:00 PM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

No, I didn't - perhaps I should have, after reading that comment!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 11:19:00 PM

Anonymous Andrew said...

Sensationalism is what gets people on TV. As sad and annoying as it may be just ask Pat Robertson what it has done for his career and pocketbook on the 700 club...

Thursday, February 04, 2010 10:10:00 AM


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