But it’s not being white on the Dark Continent. It’s that there are so many other bad white reporters who came through before us.
By us, I mean a new generation of Americans reporting on Africa. We are not Nick Kristof. We don’t need a white protagonist, and those of us who have been here long enough are bored by them. Because a story that makes the feature-journalism editorial cut about a white protagonist in Africa is usually the same story we’ve read a thousand times: White person inspired by something he read or saw. Do you know how horrible it is? Moved to something described as “action,” but is often movement, of the white person from American to Africa. I mean, look around me, at how horrible it is! Then the journalist does, and shows the reader, in terms and with tropes that often make thinking people, not to mention Africans, queasy. The story usually ends with a kicker quote from the African who is the object of the white man’s interest, something along the lines of, “I never imagined my life could be any different from the squalor the white man recognized but I did not. Did you see the squalor, by the way? I mean, jeez.”
That story is boring to the new generation of Americans reporting on Africa, for two reasons: One, most of us think it misses the point. But two, those white people are boring. They all think they’ve just discovered something that no one has seen before. But some of us stay in Africa long enough to develop friendships not only with Africans, but with interesting old white people who remember when no one thought Ghana would ever get its act together and Rwandans still lived in circular grass-thatched huts. Those old white people remind us that the white people you often see in news stories are not newsworthy; they’re green.
I’m unfairly maligning a lot of white people doing good work in Africa, and for that I apologize. But there may be a certain amount of cosmic justice in that — if journalism has for generations maligned Africa by puffing up the white people who drop themselves there, maybe it’s okay, at least in a blog post, to correct the imbalance by hyperbolizing about whites people and treating them collectively, as reporters have long treated Africans. I thank those of you good natured enough to allow me the space, and I apologize to those of you whom it still pissses off. If it’s any solace, I’m also about to unfairly malign an entire generation of reporters. Not to mention all the people I just called old.
I appreciate Nick Kristof’s dilemma. Anyone who writes about a foreign place has to bridge the foreignness of it all. But if we don’t write about Americans in Berlin in order to interest readers in Germany, do we really “have” to write about white people in Africa in order to get readers “engaged”?
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.
So if we do want to get people to pay attention to these issues, if we want to preach beyond the choir, it’s a challenge — and it hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters who readers can immediately identify with.
First, who cares? So he got less viewers. The cost of being in the news business should be that for all the money you make throwing Democrats and Republicans in a room to squabble, you spend some of it in a place and on a story like Congo. Think of it as a kind of journalistic corporate social responsibility. (We used to just call it journalism, but times have changed.)
Second, who says the viewers who did watch weren’t engaged? And this is what bothers me: There’s a (possible) tacit omission here that Kristof’s strategy isn’t about engagement; it’s about the number of readers he gets. It’s a marketing ploy.
That’s overstating it. I try to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, in part because he generously engaged impertinent questions on this blog not long ago, in part because we share a trade, and in part because lambasting the New York Times for its Africa work is, in my opinion, a tired exercise, as easily parodied as the White Journalism of Africa I lanced above.
But this is too important. The kind of engagement Kristof says he wants isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about how many clicks he gets on his web page. (Let’s ignore that I don’t know how a journalist measures the engagement her article creates anyway.) Or at least, if we’re going for the ideal of action inspired by sympathy, it shouldn’t be. Engagement should be more than that. And as many people have pointed out in comments on all this, it maybe shouldn’t be the job of the reporter. (I remind readers here, as I sometimes do elsewhere, that Kristof is a columnist. It’s a distinction that matters.)
Kristof also responds to criticism about focusing on the negative in Africa by saying that the problem of DRC isn’t that its awfulness has been over-covered, it’s that it’s been undercovered. “No war has had so few column inches per million deaths,” he says. Which is a standard that journalists ever so slightly younger than me won’t even know how to apply soon: What the hell is a column inch? The Internet doesn’t have them.
Instead, we’re applying a different standard: We don’t measure our endeavour by the number of column inches or even the number of stories we see per million deaths. We measure what we do by 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 — a task that’s made all the more difficult for us by having grown up reading reporting by the bad white journalists who came before us.
Postscript I’ve been reading a lot of Howard French lately, and I think he’s worth thinking about in all this. He came to journalism from Africa, not the other way around. He was moved by particular stories he worked on, and that drove his work ethic but didn’t put an agenda in his coverage. Also, he’s black. I don’t know that these observations are causally related, but this all started by thinking about the color of the skin of the reporter and how it shapes a world view, and my interpretation of his memoir is that the relationship between identity and worldview is the same for French as it is for the rest of us, but maybe his made his journalism better than ours.
UPDATE: Here’s a post with the names, and some links to work, done by journalists I think do or have done the continent proud. Would love additions.