Veteran Black journalists cite uneven, insincere media coverage of Mandela death

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(NNPA)–Black journalists who covered South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement had both praise and censure for the mainstream media’s coverage of Nelson Mandela since his death on Dec. 5, according to a survey conducted by Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms,” a blog posted twice a week about Black journalists and issues that concern them.

For American journalists of color who covered the African nation’s liberation struggle—particularly, when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and elected president in the first all-race elections in 1994—it was a challenge to maintain objectivity.

“For Black journalists, covering South Africa and Mandela was always a tricky balancing act, because for many — like me — he was an icon before I was ever a journalist, and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was the first political cause I cared about while in college,” said Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post foreign editor who was in South Africa before and after Mandela’s election. “How do you ‘objectively’ cover the end of apartheid when you — like me — had gone to divestment rallies in college and played ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ at house parties? And how to write ‘objectively’ about a racist system that oppressed Black people in South Africa?”

Perhaps, because of that inherent racial connection, some of the six journalists who responded—all African-American men— were particularly sensitive about mainstream media’s coverage of Mandela’s death. For example, some criticized the media for not painting a full picture of “Madiba,” as Mandela was known among his people, and the African National Congress’ struggle for freedom.

Sunni Khalid, a freelance broadcast journalist, covered stories in South Africa in the latter part of 1989, just before Mandela was released from prison after three decades; in November 1992 and in 1994 when Mandela was elected president of the newly-democratic South Africa.

His criticism of the mainstream media’s coverage of Mandela and the Black South African freedom struggle began back then, he said.

“I got sick and damned tired of hearing White commentators talk about their fears that Mandela would emerge from prison and call for a racial bloodbath,” he told Prince via e-mail. “That was never Madiba’s option, nor the ANC’s. They consistently preached full equality, which scared both White Americans and White South Africans.

“I almost got sent back by my editor for telling the IHT [International Herald Tribune] that White American journalists on the scene cared as much about Black South Africans as they did Black Americans, which was not at all,” he added. “She might have if Bill Keller [then Johannesburg correspondent for The New York Times] hadn’t agreed with me!”

This time around, he said, several news reports made some “egregious errors,” including one television reporter’s assertion that Winnie Mandela-Madikezela was Mandela’s first wife and the overall sanitization of Mandela’s legacy.

“The CNN stuff was the worst, describing Madiba in MLK (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) terms as a ‘man of peace!’” Khalid said. “For chrissakes, he was imprisoned because he took up arms against the government! And he refused his release several times because he would not renounce the armed struggle. When he was released, it was because [South African President F.W.] De Klerk agreed to HIS terms, elections, freeing political prisoners and unbanning of the ANC [African National Congress], PAC [Pan African Congress] and others.”

Jon Jeter, author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People, and a Washington Post correspondent in South Africa from 1999 to 2002, said he has paid little attention to mainstream American news coverage of Mandela’s death since it was told from a “White supremacist view,” which makes the stories “neither true nor interesting.”

“Because White supremacy is nothing more than a form of self-adoration, news stories of Mandela’s passing — Bill Keller’s obituary in the NYT is one of the few I read — emphasize his ‘forgiveness’ of White people, at the expense of what he — and the ANC [African National Congress] — meant to the struggle of people worldwide to emancipate themselves from racist, colonial oppression,” Jeter said. “He (Mandela) has far more in common with Malcolm X and Fidel Castro than he does Barack Obama.”

Jeter added that most news organizations ignored some of the more controversial aspects of Mandela’s philosophy and history.

“I hold Mandela in high esteem but there is no doubt that many people believe that Mandela and the ANC betrayed South Africa’s Black and brown people, leaving them materially worse off than they were during apartheid. What mainstream outlet explored that very real tension….?

“What corporate news outlets have explored Mandela’s enthusiastic support of the Palestinian liberation movement, or his public contempt for the Israeli occupation?” Jeter continued.

“By depoliticizing Mandela and rendering a portrait of him that is one-dimensional, the media does what they have always done, from ‘Birth of a Nation’ to hip-hop: appropriating the culture and iconography of African people to nullify its revolutionary reflexes and perpetuate hegemony over darker-skinned people.”

Still, some Black journalists were pleased with both the breadth and depth of the news media’s coverage of the iconic leader’s death.

“Nelson Mandela is certainly deserving of the wall-to-wall coverage he received last week, not unlike the well-deserved attention he received when he was released from prison 23 years ago,” said Askia Muhammad, writer for the Final Call newspaper, news director of WPFW-FM in Washington and columnist for the Washington Informer.

Richburg, who is now living in Shanghai, added, “Overall, I think the coverage, and tributes, have been pretty comprehensive, and also touching on some of the controversies — like how Mandela was viewed with suspicion by many on the right in the U.S. because of his ties to Cuba and Libya; and how he was seen as ‘too moderate’ even by those within the ANC. It’s all been there in the reporting after his death.”

Sam Fulwood III, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who covered South Africa for the Baltimore Sun, said the coverage mirrored the “celebratory” nature of the funerals of slain activists which he witnessed during his reporting.

“While the story was a funeral, it was largely celebratory — of Mandela, deservedly, and of the country in general. I think our understanding of South Africa was heightened during the period that Mandela was president and the coverage of the country tracked toward the hope and optimism. I sensed some of that in the coverage of the funeral,” he told Prince.

Howard W. French, an author, Columbia University professor and Times bureau chief for West and Central Africa, praised the coverage and said he hopes it increases public attention on African issues.

“In the ordinary course of things, hardly a week goes by in my life when I am not asked to explain to someone the reasons why Africa occupies such a small place in the American public consciousness and in the media in specific. Given that, it was strangely disorienting to see the attention devoted to the passing of Nelson Mandela, who was honored with the broadest and most respectful commemoration of anyone anywhere in recent memory,” French said.

“Going forward, I wonder whether this event will have any follow-on effect in terms of getting the American media and the public at large to think of Africa differently, which could begin with something so simple as thinking about Africa more often.”

Special to the AFRO

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