How to deal with reporters like Alex Preston
Elnathan John | February 11th, 2014


So journalist Alex Preston jetted into town from a posh Western capital. Alex Preston went to a Nigerian city of eerie silence, billowing clouds of dust, darkness and war. Alex Preston wrote a sexy story about a not-so-sexy subject for a sexy magazine. Alex Preston is white. 

It is important not to think too hard in dealing with the above scenario. Thinking is a terrible waste of time when there are people to do it for you. In times of battle for example not everyone goes to war. That is why we have armies. In the same vein although in democracies, government is of the people and by the people, we cede our powers to elected representatives who act on our behalf. The above situation has already been covered by some of the brightest writers from our continent. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a brilliant essay called How To Write About Africa dealing with stereotypes in writing about Africa. Teju Cole wrote about the White Savior Industrial Complex where he found fault with a young white man who tried to save an African country without first understanding the basic issues. And of course one of our brightest writers Chimamanda Adichie gave the moving, now Beyonce-canonized TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, challenging one-sided narratives, especially about Africa. God bless them for opening our eyes.

So the next time a white journalist shows up on our shores with a local cameraman (because bringing in his photographer colleague from London would be too expensive) and reports however factually, a rotten situation in our country, we must look first to his skin. White people should not jet into Africa to talk about our dark sides. It doesn’t matter that there is actually a war going on and apart from figures, no one knows anything about it. That is our business. It doesn’t matter if our army is whitewashing the sordid war with tales of successes and our journalists are too poorly paid to risk verifying the press releases they get. It doesn’t matter if the said white journalist writes an honest story and stays true to the facts. Any journalist who writes negative truth while being white will be rightly splashed the colors of racist Conrad. And trust me, nobody wants to be Conrad. Not after Achebe exposed his dark heart. Such a journalist will be set right on social media by Africa’s growing online population most of whose middle-class sensitivities will be hurt by stories such as those written by Preston.

And really if you think of it, what is a Borno war to someone with an iPad in Lagos? What is thousands of villagers caught in crossfire between Boko Haram and heavy handed JTF soldiers to a young guy working for a nice international organization in Abuja tweeting from a Samsung Galaxy S4 in one hand and holding a DSTV remote control in the other? Why does Preston think it is ok to shove in our faces the thousands of people that die in Nigeria’s tucked-away northeast war and ruin our exquisite middle-class dinners? So what if most of the body count goes unreported? Isn’t there transformation to report? Surely white people can utilize their impartial accuracy (upon which we heavily rely) in reporting the good stuff. Like economic growth. Like our brand new airports. Our winning the African Cup of Nations. Dangote’s Forbes listing. And his sexy yacht Mariya. Surely.

So how do we deal with guys like Alex Preston when they write shit about us? Simple. Attack him on Twitter. For reporting while white. Trust me, there is no comeback when you bring race into it.

In gratitude to Stuart Hall, a socialist intellectual who taught us to confront the political with a smile
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Elnathan John

17 thoughts on “How to deal with reporters like Alex Preston

  1. This is a great, fantastically conflicted, swirling bit of thinking and writing. It gets at the issues around big-foot journalism in conflict zones, national self-regard and shame, race and the lenses history gives us. We need more honest on-the-ground reporting on the conflict in Nigeria from Nigerian journalists, though. (Which would require a respected and truth-seeking outlet for its expression.)

  2. I love the irony in your write up.I have always said it that, it is only true reportage of these issuee no matter how gory the situation appears that would make a change. We sit in the comfort and safety of our homes and offices to attack folks who risk their lives to tell the truth as it is. I will always look forward to thr Prestons of these world who face danger and present such daring reports. Well done ELnathan.

  3. ElNathan, THANK YOU. I love the sarcasm. It takes some courage to denounce and go against our collective laziness. Yes, we middle-class Africans spend too much time and energy sniggering and monitoring what others say about us. We want to change perceptions about Africa? Then let’s empower our journalists, fund new media outlets, own of advertising, tell the world our story.

  4. If we don’t tell our story; others will tell them for us.

    Foreign media prefers sensational news. Not the news about how IT is revolutionizing the continent or the steps each country on the continent is taking towards sustainable development, etc but the news about HIV/AIDS/Malaria, civil wars and sectarian violence, religious turmoil and corrupt practices, etc because to them, that’s what their readers/viewers/subscribers/followers expect the news out of Africa should be about.

    • Absolutely Africa needs to tell its own story! But it must be balanced with telling the truth about crap happening & not sweeping it under the carpet because our tiny uber-privileged-upper-middle-class world comprehends it less than those outside the continent.

  5. The Danger of a Single Story was not the talk featured on Beyonce’s album. It was the We Should All Be Feminists talk. Just felt I needed to point that out.

  6. I wasn’t even sure that this was satire until “and ruin our exquisite middle-class dinners”. Well done on an exceptional piece. FWIW, demonstrating the ability to criticise “one’s own team” when appropriate, as this piece does so well, are what helps white, middle-class people like me to see that African reporters deserve to be taken seriously.

  7. What a wonderful way to miss the point. No one who attacks Alex Preston is attacking him because he is white. Not even because he is wealthy. We’re attacking him because he is stupid enough to write his name at the bottom and thus take the fall for his corrupt and problematic industry. We’re attacking him because he’s the only face we see. While this is problematic, and I understand the problems (he’s not to blame, he’s just a soldier following orders) there are no clear solutions.

    The problem is that GQ cannot, for some unknown reason, publish a story about Nigeria from a Nigerian author. That it cannot and will not recognize the problems with having an outsider tell the story of a people. That it assumes some legitimacy in telling the story. That it thinks there is the possibility of objectivity and truth from people who cant see the nuances. That it’s not taking place in a larger historical context of white people reporting on black people behaving like savages in publications that are sold to other white people.

    The problem is that Alex Preston didn’t think about that once on his flight to Nigeria, for if he had, he would surely have turned around and written about his own countries shit.

    Lets not pretend any of us have a problem with white people because they are pale. ‘Whiteness’ is a problem. Supremacy, privilege and the ability to take what you want before asking is a problem. Abusing the power to depict a people on a global scale is a problem. If Alex Preston wrote for a small Nigerian audience, he wouldn’t have to be lynched, not wait, tortured, no wait… harrassed on twitter. He could keep his white hide safe from all the…tweets.

    Please, lets just recognise that the world is big and we don’t have to pretend that Alex Preston is having sleepless nights. Best case scenario, he learnt something.

  8. Someone should write a response to this piece called ‘How to Deal With Sanctimoniously Self-aware Satire When it Ignores the Ramifications of the Situation it Aims to Address.’ The problem with such an article being written by a white person is not merely the fact that it is written by a white person. The problem is why (and for whom) it is written. Do not kid yourself into thinking Preston came to Africa to write some grand expose because he cares about the plight of the people in Maiduguri, or that his article (or others like it) would play some miraculous part in solving the country’s problem. While the elite Nigerian middle-class is admittedly wrong in blinding itself to these problems, it does not protest merely because some middle-class sensibilities are being offended. It protests because the people for whom these articles are written read them for a sort of patronizing reassurance. Think of some white man sitting in a country club sipping a cocktail. He reads it, feels sorry for those poor souls in Africa who are still suffering because they are not smart enough to get their things together like the west -”they are rejecting Western education? Oh how ignorant of them”- then he remembers to be grateful for the privilege of being a white person in a country club sipping a cocktail and reading GQ. No one is any better for Preston’s article, except perhaps Preston who gets paid a lot of cash for his brave heart-wrenching expose.
    Anyone with half a brain would understand merely from the title of the talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (which is wrongly cited by the way) what Adichie is trying to say. These African disaster stories are celebrated enough in the West that I think a bit of criticism from Africans is in order. The perpetuation of such stories is a form of modern-day colonialism, an attempt to convince us and the rest of the world that Africa is somehow (to paraphrase Achebe) one long dark nightmare, that the west is somehow inherently better. Stories of suffering are exported from Africa and sent to the world. And what gets sent from America to Africa: glossy Hollywood media that portray America as some sort of perfect place. Has GQ featured articles about the oppressive social structures, the racism that plagues the US? No. These are topics too uncomfortable for the white gentleman sipping his cocktail in the country club. But why not write about Africa’s strife, so you can shake your head and feel sorry from far away while being grateful for your perfect country?
    Elnathan should understand the source of outrage, I think, before trying to criticize it.

    • You’re probably right that Alex Preston wrote that article, at least in part, to improve his own status as a reporter and to earn some money. And it’s certainly true that the more tragic a story is, the more it sells, and the more it sells, the better it is for the reporter’s reputation. Because that’s a plausible motivation, we should have some healthy suspicion about what he wrote, and look for confirmation through other sources.

      But if after performing those checks we find that the story is accurate, then he was fully justified in writing it. That really is the end of the matter, morally speaking. The other things you complain about are less-important side-effects. His status will probably improve — good! So should the status of anyone who accurately documents important problems in the world — that is status working the way it should. He will continue to live a life of relative comfort — so what? I’m not comfortable with the distribution of material wealth in the world either, but it’s nonsense to compare Preston’s post-article wellbeing with that of the people he reported on: had he not written the article at all, he’d still be living nearly as comfortably, but I don’t think you’d be complaining about it on this website. I’m not saying that wealth disparity is not a problem, I’m saying it’s a *separate problem* that in no way impinges on a person’s moral right to tell the truth.

      Your argument rests on the assumption that a person’s membership in certain groups should limit the objective truths they are allowed to speak. Are you really comfortable with the implications of that?

  9. If it takes a white man to open our eyes to the real situation on ground, so be it. That’s just one more insult that we Nigerians have pretty much set ourselves up for. I won’t say I agree with every aspect of his article, especially when my president is called ‘addled’ (it is okay for my uncles to call him a fool, but a foreigner? No way. You don’t see me calling Prince Charles names- no matter how disconnected with reality I think he is.) Unfortunately, At this point, these things need to be ‘shoved in our faces’, perhaps then, we will look away from our iPads, and Galaxy S4′s. maybe then we will see that if this situation escalates further, the new airports will be of no use, and Forbes listings will save no lives (ask Biafrans).

  10. Basically, this is a well written piece not devoid of errors, but still a well written piece. I half expected another rambling from a black intellectual about the global “monkey dey work baboon dey chop” type journalism going on. Yes white guys say a lot of wrong things in wrong ways about our wrongs and yes the sleeping-activist on twitter bashes him for doing it, but really at the end of the day, the war is going on, and the fact that we are debating over his whiteness, his right to write about it, Nathan’s swimming against the river’s current current and not asking what we can do to help is the point. Color is just play of light. Absolutely nothing more. There are hypocrites in life, in all shape, form and species. Shut up already about it and go do something positive to help. Of course I’m going to school to write my exam and be a part of an ill equipped labour force in the making. Its your job whoever you are to be inspired by this and to actually do something. Definitely not mine. I am human.

  11. Good article. I think the fact that Preston describes himself as “@GQMagazine Adventurer” says it all, really. Comparisons to Conrad would probably only make him even more self-satisfied.

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