I had the great pleasure to be on Imran Garda‘s show The Stream on Al Jazeera a couple weeks ago. What I loved about being on a network of 250 million households with most of its viewership in Africa, the Middle East and Asia is the global perspective that is imbued naturally into the production of its shows. “Global” is precisely the opposite of the angle taken by most American news organizations, which continue to act like it’s 1965, a land where America is the world only modern economy and the rest of the world is somehow still either involved in a brutal guerrilla war or living pastorally in huts in the middle of some savannah, praying to one day see electricity connected to their village. You may find this to be unjustified exaggeration, but I could introduce you to a plethora of Americans fed a steady diet of US television who are shocked to find out that Brazilian industry is leading the world in biofuels, or that Arabs live in cities and buy iPhones.
Garda, a native of Johannesburg, just wrote a razor sharp critique of the reporting that concerns his home entitled 9 Signs the Journalism on Africa You’ve Just Encountered Is Trash. Major signs of terrible reporting might be constant imagery about how dark the place is, how much everybody is singing and dancing (as opposed to going to work or using the Internet), and the number of times they ask locals what they think of Barack Obama.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen or read a western reporter asking every African they come across what they think of Barack Obama (you know, because he’s black and they are), I’d use the money to travel to Kosovo, or Latvia and ask people there what they think of Mitt Romney, you know, because he’s white and they are…
Ouch. The point is, this kind of language by rookie journalists smacks of condescension, the remnants of a colonial culture that sees the locals as uncivilized, incapable of understanding the marvels of European industrial life. What a great way to purge the media of language that keeps us from seeing people on the immense, diverse continent of Africa as full of people who are trying every bit as hard as us to understand the 21st Century.