Africa: Dateline: Africa

1 December 1990
Africa News Service (Durham)

On March 21, 1990, scores of world leaders gathered in a soccer stadium for a dramatic midnight ceremony. After a long war against South African rule, the last colony in sub-Saharan Africa became an independent nation.

The independence of Namibia was the end of an era that began when the European powers divided Africa among themselves at the Berlin Conference of 1884-'85. It was also, many hoped, a sign of things to come in Africa. The constitution that came into effect that night is one of the world's most democratic. Among its features is an environmental bill of rights, designed to reverse a century of ecological decline.

Coverage of the historic event on the ABC "World News Tonight" was a concise tag at the end of another item:

Meanwhile, at midnight, the flag of South Africa was replaced by a flag of Namibia, marking the independence of the last South African colony. A black government took over power of the country which has a seven percent white minority.

NBC also devoted two sentences to the item; CBS doubled the coverage with four sentences. Only CNN reported the independence of Namibia as more than a backdrop for talks between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who attended the ceremonies.

Although the cost of transporting reporters and camera crews long distances is cited by network executives as a major reason for infrequent African coverage, Namibia was a reminder that the most important reasons may lie elsewhere. All four commercial networks had crews on the spot.

"I think we might have done better on Namibia," says Bill Wheatley, who for five years was executive producer of the NBC "Nightly News." "That certainly is an important place with ramifications for Americans, given the American involvement over the years, and also because of the South African connection. So I think that deserved more time than it got."

David Gergen, an advvisor to Presidents Reagan and Clinton and a former editor-at-large for U.S. News and World Report, says what happened in Namibia was part of a pattern.

"The history of American media," he says, "has been one of general inattention to Africa, except when there's been major famine or conflict." Gergen says "parachute journalism" a quick in-and-out during crisis situations has been the most common response to African events.

But even African crises tend to be undercovered. Before Nelson Mandela's release from prison attracted attention to the fighting in South Africa's Natal province, the killings there went largely unreported in the U.S. press. Yet since 1987, according to several estimates, more people have died in Natal than have been killed in Lebanon and Northern Ireland combined. The fact that the major African story is economic always a difficult topic for mass media to tackle further hampers coverage of Africa.

But economic stories in some parts of the world do attract attention. "We are now getting a lot of coverage of the problems of economic restructuring in Eastern Europe and the social costs of austerity programs," says Pauline Baker, a former Democratic Senate aide now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"People don't have a clue of what's been going on in Africa since the eighties in terms of social costs of economic restructuring. I don't think there's been either sufficient explanation of why the continent is so distressed or sufficient coverage of the exceptions to the rule."

Baker points out that the debt burden which is proportionately heavier for Africa's economies than for countries anywhere else in the world is covered as though it were almost exclusively a Latin American problem.

Africa "has to be undercovered," says John Leonard, media critic for CBS's "Sunday Morning," "because I read all the time I read hundreds of magazines, I get five newspapers a day and I don't know what's going on."

Washington Post columinist Jim Hoagland, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of South Africa, says Africa has gotten short shrift in the media for a long time. "I was foreign editor and assistant managing editor [at the Post] for about eight years," Hoagland says. "And I would have to be honest in saying that Africa weighed relatively lightly on the scales of newsworthiness. As a former correspondent in Africa, I regret that."

New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld also won a Pulitzer for South Africa reporting. Like Hoagland, Lelyveld sometimes has questioned the way news decisions are made. He recalls his stint in Zaire then the Congo as a young reporter. The world's media, he says, congregated in the capital, practicing journalism-by-press-release. His stories made the front page regularly.

"At a time when a place is recognized as being hot," he says, "almost any reasonable development can be front page news or make the network news simply because there's a concentration of journalists there. That creates a media momentum, unrelated to what's really important. Sometimes very fundamental and important coverage gets lost at moments like that as the herd tramples around."

Lelyveld says he began to feel "a little fraudulent that I was writing authoritatively about a subject I knew very little about. I knew the capital and this was a vast country. The rest I was doing mostly on hearsay."

So, "almost with a sinking feeling," he left the pack, venturing into the countryside and filing stories quite unlike those of other reporters. Although his dispatches ran in the paper, they were buried deep on the inside pages. And when the New York Times downplayed the story, other papers followed suit. Years later, Lelyveld said he still felt a bit guilty that "in a sense, I had taken the Congo off the front page."

Codi Simon, former foreign editor at National Public Radio, acknowledges that what's being reported in other media influences coverage at NPR. "It's a combination of factors," she says, "like what's in the papers, what's on the wires."

"In the past year," Simon says, "Africa hasn't been a priority of ours not because we're not interested and not because we don't care but because so much else is happening in the world. It's very hard to find the air time right now to fit in an important but frankly secondary story from anywhere else."

Even journalists who say that Africa is a priority are affected by the pressure to concentrate on other areas. John Barth produces the public radio show "Marketplace," a daily program designed to acquaint U.S. listeners with global economic issues.

"I cannot possibly go for a week without doing something about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe," he says. "There's too much going on there that is immediately important to our government and the businesses that are cutting deals there."

Africa's real problem, Jim Hoagland says, is that it "is becoming increasingly irrelevant economically to the rest of the world."

Roger Wilkins, who teaches at George Mason University and has served on the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and the New York Times, disagrees. "I think Africa is undercovered," he says, "and I don't believe that decisions are made on the basis of its economic importance."

Like others who have questioned editors and producers about the lack of Africa coverage, Wilkins has heard, time and again, that there is no constituency for news about Africa in the United States. "Let me tell you something," he says. "A very substantial proportion of the people in the United States are of African descent. And it's only the ignorance and the racism of people who make news decisions that keep those stories real stories, powerful stories, interesting stories from reaching our television screens and our newspapers."

Wilkin's assessment gets strong reactions from media decision-makers. "That is something which I categorically reject," says NPR's Codi Simon. "I do not think it's a question of racism. That's something I completely disagree with. It is not because these are black people who are starving. There are starving people everywhere who are not covered."

If you don't think racial factors play a role, Wilkins counters, look at who's making the choices. "What is news and what is newsworthy," he says, "is basically decided by middle class, middle age, white American males people who have a very narrow slice of human experience but who overvalue the ability of their limited experience to give them a broad world view. Most of these are people who have never had a close African-American friend, let alone an African acquaintance."

Finding out whether Wilkins is right about what sort of people are making news decisions is no easy task. News organizations whose daily business is asking probing questions of others are remarkably reluctant to give straight answers about their own institutions.

Katherine McQuay, media relations manager for the "NBC Nightly News," says that asking about the ethnic composition of the show's editors and producers is an "unfair" question. Neither ABC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor nor the Wall Street Journal would provide any information about the racial make-up of their editorial staffs.

Round-about inquiries, though, suggest that there is not a single African-American making decisions about foreign news at the television networks or at any major national newspaper. There is more diversity, though, at some of the strong regional papers such as the Detroit Free Press, where a black foreign editor reports to a black managing editor for news.

Bill Kovach, curator of Harvard's Neiman Foundation, agrees that the background of news decision-makers helps define what is news and what isn't. "All major news organizations are run" he says, by people who are "white, generally Anglo-Saxon, predominantly male. And they see the world through that prism."

Kovach, who was Washington bureau chief for the New York Times and for two years edited the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, uses himself as an example. "I'm Albanian-American," he says, "and things that happen in the Balkins are inherently important to me. No matter how good an editor I am, I'm not going to follow African news in the same way."

African stories will continue to disappear, Kovach says, "until newsrooms have more blacks who consider their African heritage important."

There is, apparently, a long way to go before that happens. Joseph Foote of Southern Illinois University conducts an annual "visibility" survey that identifies the network television correspondents who are seen most often on the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC. His latest survey received press attention for its finding that only six women are among the 50 most visible reporters.

But Foote found no black reporters among the 50 most visible correspondents and only two in the top 100, ranked 59 and 69. No black women made the list.

At the print newsroom level, though, there have been significant, if limited, changes in the last decade. What Newsday deputy editor Les Payne used to call "the unwritten rule" against assigning black reporters to cover Africa has been relaxed. Payne was among the journalists who complained that the same editors who would think it absurd to refuse to send a Jewish reporter to the Middle East would routinely bar black reporters from Africa, on grounds of potential bias. Now, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Detroit Free Press have all assigned black reporters to the Africa beat and the exper-iment has been judged a success.

Jim Hoagland says that the Washington Post's Nairobi-based reporter, Neil Henry, has great storytelling abilities, and he "simply wrote a lot of stories into the paper that wouldn't have gotten there solely on the typical, and somewhat stereotypical, 'newsworthy' valuations that we place in drawing up the front page."

Still, says "Marketplace"'s Barth, the lack of Africa interest by editors and producers sets up a hard-to-escape cycle. "Let's say you're a trained journalist," he posits. "And you want to make a name for yourself, especially as a freelancer. Well, you're not going to go to Africa if the editors of major publications aren't interested in running Africa stories."

It is difficult to break the cycle at the editorial level, even with the best of intentions, concedes Roger Wilkins. At the New York Times, he says, no major editing job has ever gone to a black. "Now that's the premier news organization in the United States," Wilkins says, "and it's run by people who would like to do better, I think, but the legacy of the past lives on." Too often, Wilkins says, black talent wasn't nurtured and black reporters weren't promoted. Many of the best left journalism for other fields. "So people who are in charge now," he says, "who would very much like to promote blacks into news decision-making jobs, can't do it."

An informal survey of reporters interested in Africa, both black and white, reveals a deep frustration that seems to go beyond the normal dissatisfaction most journalists feel about not getting enough print or air time for their stories. But individual reporters feel too vulnerable to make their critiques openly. Editors are defensive, they say, and respond poorly to charges of bad news judgement, especially if there is a suggestion of racial bias in the decisions.

Over and over, though, reporters tell stories of major African developments being ignored by the media gate-keepers. Several journalists have tried to interest their editors in the democracy movement that has swept a number of African countries, forcing governments to allow opposition parties, agree to free elections and curtail their own powers with little of the media scrutiny that has attended similar movements in Europe. "One editor told me that nobody cared if African countries got democracy," says a reporter for a prominent paper. A broadcast reporter who lobbied for more Africa coverage was told to stick to "mainstream stories."

"There's a circle that exists here," says David Gergen, "and it's not necessarily a virtuous circle. American foreign policy tends to reflect the geopolitical interests of the country." And Africa, Gergen says, has not been seen as geopolitically important.

Critics of news coverage say that geopolitical concerns, by themselves, don't guarantee coverage in Africa. Covert U.S. aid to the Unita rebel movement in Angola has been a contentious foreign policy issue for years and has been hotly-debated in Congress on several occasions but has not been pursued by journalists, says University of North Carolina historian David Newbury. Even though the removal of Cuban troops from Angola was a foreign policy goal of four U.S. administrations, the issue has remained largely invisible in the press.

Some editors and producers are openly critical of their profession's inattention to Africa.

Ed Turner, executive vice president at Cable News Network (CNN), is impatient with the television executives who say they are covering Africa adequately. "I'm here to tell you that we are not doing a good job," says Turner emphatically, "but at least we know it! So much more needs to be done, and we'll do more, and even that won't be enough."

ABC's Ted Koppel also thinks Africa is poorly covered. The "Nightline" host believes there is "still a certain fundamental racism in this country" which explains why half a million Ethiopians dying doesn't provoke the same response as would the deaths of half a million Italians. Added to the racism, Koppel says, is the difficulty of interesting the American public in international news stories in general.

But for "Nightline," he says, the prime obstacle to increased Africa reporting is the logistical requirements of television. The show needs film, he says, to launch each topic. "We have roughly 35 people who work on 'Nightline,' Koppel says, "and we have five programs a week. On average, that means you've got seven people per program." Taking a correspondent and crew out of the mix for two or three weeks to do an Africa piece can be done as when '"Nightline" entered Liberia with rebels fighting the government of Samuel Doe but it's too difficult and expensive to be done frequently.

Ed Turner, too, cites logistical problems, including the shortage of satellite uplink equipment in Africa. "But that's an explanation," he says, "not an excuse."

"There comes a time," Turner says, "when you say, 'Dammit, we have to do these stories on Africa. These are important things that people need to know about.'"

CNN's immediate solution to better international coverage is a program that airs stories contributed by television agencies, many of them government-controlled, from countries around the world. It's a kind of global soapbox, Turner says, that gives U.S. audiences a different prism on the world. For the longer term, Turner is hopeful that the development of portable mini-broadcast stations will take advanced transmission technology into the field.

Although he expects to encounter opposition from African authorities who would like to remain in charge of what is sent out from their countries, Turner says such attitudes are not unique to Africa. "We have the same problems in countries as 'civilized' that's in quotes," he says "as the United Kingdom and across Europe. Africa is not alone in its desire desire by the governments to want to control what goes out of there."

Victoria Brittain, assistant foreign editor at the Guardian newspaper in London, hears similar complaints often, but she thinks they're unfair. The principle obstacle to access, she says, is the economic crisis in African countries. "The infrastructures of all these countries are very frequently on the verge of collapse," she says, "which means that their level of information is extremely poor, their [government] ministers are all too busy to brief journalists, it's extremely difficult to get around in their countries."

"It's the physical, economic and social crisis in Africa that makes it difficult to cover," she says "It's not, in my view, something to do with Africans being particularly unwilling to cooperate with journalists."

But the worst problem for reporters covering Africa is not indigenous to the continent, says Brittain, who has reported for the Times of London, the New Statesman and the BBC. "Dealing with all the Third World's issues is extremely difficult," she says. "But it's mainly difficult because you have to bludgeon your editors to give you space to cover these issues." As an editor now herself, she tries to be sensitive to the Africa stories that may not be getting the exposure they merit.

Among the most frequently cited reasons for the dearth of Africa reporting is a low level of public interest. Some editors say that even if Roger Wilkins is right that the black community is as important a constituency for Africa as, for example, the Polish community is for news of Eastern Europe, the pressure for greater coverage isn't felt in the nation's newsrooms.

That's important, Bill Kovach says, because commercial considerations are increasingly important components of news decisions.

As print and broadcast media have been bought by larger corporations, many editors and producers have felt a growing pressure to cut costs. In 1989, the "Today" show planned a week-long series of live broadcasts from Africa with host Bryant Gumbel. It would have meant the largest exposure Africa had ever had on commercial television. Five reporter/producers were assigned to develop story ideas. But before filming could begin, the project was suspended. Executives at General Electric, which owns NBC, had balked at spending the money for Africa, according to network sources.

As for print media, Kovach says, newspapers are giving more attention to "issues that concern the consuming public, which inordinately is white, middle class-upper class, suburban."

Editors are under pressure, Kovach says, to increase circulation among that kind of constituency. "I've worked for news organizations," he says, "where we've done African stories that gained a wide following among the black readers of the community. But the advertising department and the business side of the newspaper were not interested in those stories because the advertisers weren't interested."

Jonathan Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and public television producer, says that the quest to attract new readers with "soft news" such as stories about celebrities means something else has to be eliminated. "And Africa," he says, "would be near the top of most editors' lists."

News executives agree that if a broader interest in Africa were demonstrated, all the obstacles to better African reporting would be overcome.

"I don't think there's any doubt," says NBC's Bill Wheatley, "that if editors and producers feel there's substantial public interest that they'll find a way to do coverage."

The Post's Jim Hoagland understands why some critics charge that the lack of Africa coverage is itself partly responsible for a lack of public interest.

"There's a great deal of validity to that," he says. "We become as readers and therefore as editors also familiar with characters, with specific people, we become interested in their fate. If you don't have information about those people on a fairly steady basis, you don't know who they are. We've just faced this in Eastern Europe, where we've had to introduce an entire new cast of characters to the readers, and now they know who Vaclav Havel is."

Whether that knowledge translates into interest is a topic of debate. Many editors and producers assume a widespread fascination with the Czech playwright-president. But surveys by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press - established by the company that owns the Los Angeles Times - suggests that the level of public interest in Eastern Europe has been exaggerated.

"The survey results themselves are surprising to us," says former Center director Donald Kellerman. Despite extensive media coverage, only 6% of those polled by the Center said they closely followed the Havel visit to the U.S. and only 14% could identify him. By contrast, 77% of the public could identify Nelson Mandela and his release led public interest ratings for an extended period.

And although the American public watched closely the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kellerman says, "a few days later, a few weeks later, they told us repeatedly in one way and another that they are confused by the events, the cast of characters change, they do not have a sense that this is something with which they can empathize."

So if the Times Mirror surveys are right, the same factors that cloud public understand of Africa apply also to areas of the world that get far more sustained press attention.

David Gergen thinks what Africa needs is an organized constituency to press its case. The Middle East, he says, gets coverage that is "disproportionate to the number of people who live there and, if you're a sub-Saharan African, I think you'd probably argue it's disproportionate to the importance of the Middle East."

"We've got to develop a stronger citizen interest in Africa," says Roger Wilkins. "African interest organizations have to become more acutely aware of these issues and begin to act as intelligent and critical consumers of the news product. News executives respond to pressure just like other executives, and they are not getting the pressures."

The potential power of an Africa lobby has been demonstrated in the case of South Africa. Organizations like TransAfrica, with its daily demonstrations outside the South African embassy in Washington, forced media attention to the issue. And in the wake of the publicity, Congress passed economic sanctions against South Africa.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" says there is no shortage of African stories that can interest and move Americans. "It's the human side of the story," she says, "that tends to tap into the interest of people. Every story that I have ever done, every issue that I have ever approached - when I have done it in terms of how people are affected, the reaction has been incredible. I think that's what's missing in a lot of the Africa coverage."

Among the people impressed by the depth of Hunter-Gault's reporting is former South African newspaper editor Zwelakhe Sisulu, who served as a media adviser for Nelson Mandela before taking over as head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Both Hunter-Gault and "Nightline"'s Ted Koppel were well-prepared and sensitive to the pressures Mandela faced in his first days out of prison, Sisulu says.

But he was disappointed, he says, with most of the U.S. reporters, especially television people, who flooded into South Africa after the release, and he came to see their attitudes as symptomatic of an American approach that leads to superficial understanding and poor reporting. "They tended on the whole to be very arrogant," Sisulu says. "They expected people to lie down and let themselves be trampled over" because of the importance of the networks.

Some of the American crews, he says, hired "bouncers" to clear the way for them in crowds. And sometimes the hired muscle came into conflict with the security arranged for Mandela. "The sheer competitiveness of it all was quite terrifying," Sisulu says. "I'd always thought of TV people as journalists. I've now changed my mind; I think they are a breed of their own."

That sort of thing has to change, says Ed Turner, and educating Americans to the fact that they live in an interdependent world is one place to start. "Why is it smart to invest in schooling?" he asks. "Why is it clever to understand your neighbor?" Because if we don't know more about the nations of Africa, he answers, "we are absolutely guaranteeing ourselves more and more difficulties and troubles ahead. Without the understanding of each other, you're bound to be in conflict with each other."

David Gergen, who has co-chaired a recent study on Africa and the media for the Rockefeller Foundation, agrees that out of both morality and self-interest, Americans should be giving Africa more attention. But he's not sure how or when that will happen. "I think, to be realistic," he says, "we ought to see that there are some big mountains to cross to get from here to where we ought to be, and I think those mountains are going to be higher in the next couple of years, not lower."

But some journalists find signs of hope. Jon Kwitny says that while the easing of tensions in Europe may be focusing attention away from Africa, it may also make Africa coverage less distorted. Despite the tragedy of the Liberian conflict, he says, it was refreshing to "finally read about an African conflict without one side being identified as 'communists' and the other as 'freedom fighters.'"

If that Cold War perspective is gone, Kwitny says, "that's one thing to be thankful for."

John Leonard of "Sunday Morning" says that what gets in the papers and on television "are those things that the people who run news organizations or work for news organizations care about. Individual energies, biases, passions - that's how things change." So a few people in the right places who care about Africa, Leonard believes, can begin to change the journalistic agenda.

"It's a real chicken-and-egg situation," says Charlayne Hunter-Gault. "People look at it and say, 'There's no interest in Africa.' Well, there's no coverage of Africa. If there was coverage of Africa, there would be interest in Africa. It's as simple as that, I think."

This article was published originally in "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," a special 1990 edition of Africa News.

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