My friend and fellow BU alumnus Jina Moore, who unlike me, is an actual Africa reporter rather than a dilettante who writes on Africa with an almost excruciating self awareness wrote a thoughtful piece in response to the recent exchange between the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof and Africa blogger texasinafrica.
For those of you who come to this space for my infrequent baseball posts rather than commentary on Africa, here’s the background.
Texasinafrica submitted the following question to Kristof “Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.” Yes, that is a statement and not a question, but forgive me, it’s a paraphrase of Texasinafrica’s paraphrase of the original question.
Kristof, to his credit, took the questions and the nut of his answer, as transcribed by NYTpick was
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.
One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.
And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.
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. Some years ago, Anderson Cooper went out to eastern Congo to report on the crisis there. It was expensive and risky for CNN — and his ratings for those shows fell. 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.
Caught up? Good.
It’s at this point in our story that Moore comes in with a 2X4, albeit a thoughtful 2X4, and proceeds to beat Kristof about the head with it. That 2X4 is the implication that Kristof’s primary interest is either getting Americans to read his columns or, more generously, getting Americans to act in support of poverty alleviation and conflict reduction rather than reporting “The Truth” about various places and people in Africa.
Moore articulates three specific criticisms of Kristof’s response. First, she attacks his focus on eyeballs arguing that doing solid reporting on a place like DRC, even if few people read, watch or hear it is “a kind of journalistic corporate social responsibility.” In other words, she argues that good Africa reporting is the moral price a media outlet must pay for throwing talking heads into a room to scream talking points at each other the rest of the time.
While Moore does add that “we used to just call it journalism, but times have changed,” this old PR flack couldn’t help but be horrified at the invocation of corporate social responsibility. Corporate social responsibility is slight of hand. It is the conjurer drawing your eye to his waving left hand while palming a coin with his right. In the context of journalism, it evokes newspapers that run “serious” stories about Africa so they don’t have to write valuable stories about Africa. History does not require American reporters to scribble the first draft of African history. African journalists can and do perform that function far better than any American. What the American journalist can do that his African partners often cannot is get some elements of this newly minted history into the homes of other Americans. Kristof does this with a success that is unequaled among American journalists.
Moore’s second critique is to challenge Kristof’s assertion that he engages more Americans in African issues by focusing on white interlopers. He has no idea how engaged his readers are, Moore points out, a truism if ever there was one. Measuring eyeballs, clicks or impressions is easy, measuring psychological impact is hard and measuring how an impact translates into action is harder still. But the fact that her statement about engagement is true does not mean that it is useful.
I like action. I think driving action is the point of reporting on ignored tragedies. Expanding the universe of knowledge is the realm of academics. The role of reporters is to diffuse knowledge, to give people the accurate information required to undertake (or decline to undertake) action in the world. For those who want facts analyzed with academic rigor there are the journals. For those who want constant updates or detailed narrative there are books and blogs. For people who are prepared to take action, there are endless resources to enable them. They will not be relying on Nicholas Kristof to tell them what Africa is “really like.” The Americans who care a lot about Africa have arrived there through different paths based on personal experience, academic interest or perhaps even plain circumstance. Surely none of them came to their deep commitment through reading Kristof columns. Rather, Kristof’s power is to get good people who don’t care at all about Africa to care a little, and in a nation of 300 million, that is a valuable service. (Though perhaps this is self-defeating. If Kristof got more Americans highly interested in Africa, wouldn’t it give him more American saviors to write about?)
Finally, Moore argues that the measure of a journalist should not be the number of eyeballs he draws to the word, but the “kinds of stories we see and whether they reflect the place that some of us have dedicated not only our professional but our personal lives to getting to know.” Her subtext appears to be that Kristof is a bit of a dilettante, that he has not spent both his professional and personal life getting to know Africa and that this constraint is reflected in his work. But it is far from certain that experience leads to accuracy. After all, Henry Morton Stanley was more deeply immersed in Africa than perhaps any white man of his generation (and most since), and yet he consistently produced fabulism. Of course, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that lifers can write schlock that short timers can write Truth. But the logic does not exclude the possibility either. For example, Tocquville spent less than two years in the U.S. before writing Democracy in America, which makes less of a dilettante than I, but more than the average Peace Corps volunteer
This rebuttal is not intended as a defense of Kristof’s reporting. Its value and its flaws are evident and widely discussed. Rather it is intended as a defense of his intentions. While it is reasonable to question whether Kristof’s writing overemphasizes the importance of foreigners in fighting Africa’s problems, it is unreasonable to condemn him for attempting to make his stories more accessible to the average American. The record of American media on Africa is poor. They bought into a false narrative that the Rwandan Genocide was caused by state failure. They perpetuated the myth that drought, rather than war/politics was the cause of the Ethiopian famine. They told us next to nothing, right or wrong, about the Congo War. Against this track record, I will gladly settle for accurately reported, widely read columns about Africa in a major newspaper regardless of whether they too often regard the white man as the white knight.