Why is so much outside coverage of the Mali crisis so bad? I don’t mean the conventional wallowing in clichés / recycling old images / harkening back to colonial stereotypes kind of bad, although there’s all that too. I mean the kind of bad that comes from being caught in a Beckettian loop of either saying nothing at all or having nothing to say.
Take al Jazeera. A few years ago, the Qatari-based chain was the thing, and I hear aspiring movers and shakers still try to publish there. Yet in spite of the fact that al Jazeera was said to be devoting more attention to African stories, its site has not been the place to go for Mali coverage. It has been the place not to go for Mali coverage. Check it out: a couple of round-ups of news stories that bring nothing new, little if any original reporting, and a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?
Should I look to The New York Times? Humor me: the ‘Grey Lady’ is my local paper. The best piece The Times has offered consisted largely of block quotes from Bruce Whitehouse. This makes sense — Bruce’s blog is excellent. An anthropologist and fluent Bambara speaker who’s been living and working in Mali on and off for something like fifteen years, he knows what he’s talking about. Still, it makes you wonder what you need The Times for, and it makes me nostalgic for Howard French, who covered West and Central Africa for them in the ’90s. How to get some serious coverage? Here’s one idea. Maybe the next time interim president Dioncounda Traoré goes to Ouagadougou, he should strap a dog to the roof of his car. That seems to merit the attention of the Grey Lady, or at least its editorialists. Unless you’re thinking of the “Arts” section, Mali in and of itself apparently does not. Nor does the fact that over a decade of diplomatic engagement, military training, shadow-boxing in the “war on terror,” and a real war in Libya has failed catastrophically to serve American interests in the Sahel, helping to tear up a secular, multi-ethnic democracy and producing nearly 300,000 refugees and displaced people along the way. You’d think for America’s newspaper of record, there’d be a decent story in there somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong, there is good reporting on what’s going on in Mali. Some of it is even done by professional journalists like Martin Vogl, who’s been in Bamako for a few years and who is always one step ahead. There’s good analysis out there too, but also a lot of quick conclusions based on skimpy evidence, as Baz Lecocq argued in relation to the Sahara. Even the best-intentioned reporters and analysts are going to make some mistakes, given the thin information on the ground. And I don’t want Nick Kristof to bring an intern. But I do think a serious story deserves to be taken seriously. Is that too much to ask, from the Grey Lady or anyone else?
Postscript: I’m talking here about print journalism in English (since it’s an Anglophone blog). That excludes most Malian journalists, so let me offer two brief words on that. First, Malian journalists write for a Malian audience, and part of what that means is that they use a lot of codes which you have to know something about that culture to understand (like my own use of the phrase “Grey Lady” to describe the Times). Not easy for the outside to wade into. Second, there is excellent work done under tough conditions by courageous people. Both the junta and the rebel MNLA have assaulted Malian journalists. Some of the articles, however, are clearly hatchet jobs set up against one or another political figure (e.g., Person X has a secret deal with rebel movement Y, which we know because we captured a cell phone with his number in the call log…). All of which is to say, reader beware!
Photo Credit: Mohamed Camara