AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

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?)

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Dan Magaziner

I'm a historian of 20th century Africa, specializing in South African intellectual, religious and cultural history.

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12 thoughts on “The New York Times: Counting bodies and column inches

  1. Well said, the NYtimes at this moment has a Kenyan election story that Gettleman starts out with “tension continued to rise steadily…” Gettleman clearly in whichever 5 star hotel he is holed up in Nairobi is counting imaginary bodies and measuring tension from his room.

  2. The NYT often gets criticised for its condescending attitude to its own readers. It does seem to believe that it is a values guardian and not just a newspaper, and therefore it should report what it sees fit, rather than what readers want. And on those grounds, we can take the Pistorius/Marikana ratio to be an indictment of those values. But an alternative hypothesis is that the NYT has caved to the venal, base values of its readership. Perhaps it has been a little envious of the outrageous mileage the NY Post seems to be getting out of the story. If it is caving to what its readers want, I’m hardly surprised. If a US sporting hero like Michael Phelps shot his girlfriend, I would expect it would get a hell of a lot more coverage in SA (and the rest of the world) than the Sandy Hook shooting got. But that reflects the pathetic values of audiences that they cater for, rather than the publications themselves.

  3. This is ridiculous, the press report on things that get through to people. What the public want to read. If we can get across the terrible morals of murdering someone through reporting on celebrity murders, so be it. You have to realize, a lot of today’s society (however terrible it is) choose to gloss over messy facts and only view the good in the world. The young included. If we can get through to them by showing them the consequences celebrities face then so be it. Though the miners deaths are far more terrible, people are more likely to be affected if the murderer is someone they watched and once admired.

  4. I think the main problem with the NYT’s reporting on South Africa is its SA correspondent, Lydia Polgreen. I think she is easily the weakest SA correspondent the ‘paper of record’ has had in decades. It distresses me how, over and over, she opts for sensationalism over any semblance of balance and factual rigour, gets basic facts wrong, and files second-rate copy. The NYT should be better than this. South Africa is better than this.

    I think Polgreen sees the Steenkamp killing as an opportunity to get on the front pages and really make her mark. But her brand of trumpeting imagined exclusives – wildly obvious in a piece she wrote, last April, about Cape Town being SA’s most racist province, where she was, unknowingly, used by the ANC for political purposes – and her sheer thoughtlessness as a reporter is shameful. I think she really wants to be a great and famous reporter, and in a weird way this very desire is keeping her from becoming a great and famous reporter.

    I am no fan of former NYT editor Bill Keller (I find his earnest liberal opinions as anodyne as they are predictable – reflecting, rather than challenging, conventional wisdom), but go back and read some of his dispatches while Johannesburg bureau chief. Then read some other SA correspondents for the paper, before Keller and after him. Then read Polgreen … and weep.

  5. The press is really a reflection of society. The truth is that people are more interested in seeing a glamorous model/lawyer/reality star who was shot by her incredibly successful athlete boyfriend otherwise known as the blade runner. You think the NYT does not know people would rather read that, than spare more than 3 seconds and a shake of their heads for black South African miners who died in their tens? This is very sadly who the consu$ing public has become.

  6. This is as poor a reporting as the nytimes pieces. While I’m a firm believer that racism is rampant in our societies, I think it is utterly irresponsible to jump so quickly to that conclusion. The focus on oscar and on any story for that matter in the media is purely based on supply and demand – the papers print what they know people want to read. And they are usually right. Oscar sells – he’s an international phenom. Black people killing each other in Africa also sells, perhaps not as much as a sports star with no legs killing his model girlfriend. As much as those of us in the development space would love to hear the feel good stories in Africa – and there are plenty of them – newspapers are in the business of selling and they will only print what sells (i.e. gets readership). It’s up to other forums – like this one – to capture other news that may be left out by traditional mainstream media.

  7. File Under: Gutter Journalistic Use of the Race Card.

    I suppose it would be pointless to point out to that the closest reference point for the Oscar/Reeva soap is OJ Simpson. He’s black. Strange then, how he got so much attention.

    This journalist – one can only presume that he’s one of the new breed of “citizen journalists”, judging by his lack of analytical ability says:

    “It is hard to interpret this as anything other than rank racism.”

    And then goes on to list every reason he can think of to explain all the Oscar column inches – not one of which is about race.

    To wit:
    “we fixate on beautiful CELEBRITIES and their tragedies”
    “victims of the multiple forces that shape life for so many of THE WORLD’S POOR”
    “globalized INDUSTRY”
    “criminally negligent POLICE” – who are themselves black
    “a weak and incompetent STATE” – mainly black as well

    No one in their right minds would argue the toss about the Marikana miners being the victims of many things, correctly identified in this article. But to say that they didn’t get the column inches that the Oscar/Reeva soap got because of racism, is indescribably poor thinking.

    • @Marc, quick question: If the Marikana Miners were white and middle class, would newspapers still not have published any of their names? Would they still be seen as an homogeneous black clump?
      Race is not the only thing at play here, but it is still a card thats on the table. Dan is just pointing that out.

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