The New York Times: Counting bodies and column inches

Since Jeffrey Gettleman’s beloved machetes remain sheathed after a peaceful (and therefore thus far apparently uninteresting) Kenyan election, America’s paper of records put Africa’s other most important story on its front page yesterday. That’s right, Oscar and Reeva. It was a blockbuster, stretching from the front page (above to the fold) to occupy an entire page in the paper’s international section. Struck by its length, I went back to The New York Times’ archive to review the paper’s reporting about another killing in South Africa — that of 34 striking mine-workers, last August at Marikana. Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, in just this one article: about 2300 words. The 34 dead at Marikana, in the month after their murder by South African police, about 1,000 more. 30 days, 1,000 more words, 33 more bodies.
It is hard to interpret this as anything other than rank racism. I do not wish to diminish Ms. Steenkamp’s death, but I think The Times’ own reporting reveals a great deal about the ‘meaning’ South Africans are supposedly seeking. Whether in South Africa or here in the U.S., we fixate on beautiful celebrities and their tragedies at the expense of reporting on the real, regular outrages that mark 21st century life. The Steenkamp/Pistorious saga is a soap opera — effervescent and ephemeral (even when it tells us a lot about domestic violence in South Africa), while the dead at Marikana were all too real victims of the multiple forces that shape life for so many of the world’s poor — migrant labor, globalized industry, criminally negligent police, a weak and incompetent state. Oscar and Reeva were glamorous, wealthy and white; we know their names and now have 2300 words more words about them. The dead at Marikana were none of those things, and in all of its reporting, this newspaper never bothered to tell us their names. (BTW, one mystery is why the paper brought former Johannesburg bureau chief Suzanne Daley to take the first byline on the story? Especially since the current Johannesburg bureau chief Lydia Polgreen is doing just fine. Anyone at The Times who can speak out of turn on that?)

Dan Magaziner

Dan Magaziner is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country and an intellectual historian specializing in 20th century South Africa.

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