You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level

Alex Perry, an Africa correspondent Africa bureau chief for Time magazine, writes on China’s involvement in Africa. In the process, he describes the DRC as a “sucking vortex”, citing the corrupt rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Julie Hollar at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) takes Perry to task for failing to mention US / Belgian involvement in the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba (and their subsequent support of Mobutu). Perry then makes the terrible mistake of responding to Hollar in comments while not in full control of his own sense of self-importance. Self-harming behaviour (not to mention Time-harming behaviour) then follows.

Jonathan Schwarz (Tiny Revolution) summarises the Perry / Hollar spat and takes the opportunity to quote an apposite passage from Devlin’s book about his time as CIA station chief in the Congo. It’s good, so I’ll quote it myself here:

We moved onto Ambassador Houghton’s office where we were joined by Ambassador Burden for more detailed talks concerning the Congo and its problems…During our discussions, Tim brought up a delicate matter: “Time magazine plans to do a cover story on Lumumba with his picture on the front of the magazine.” He continued, “Celebrity coverage at home will make him even more difficult to deal with. He’s a first-class headache as it is.”

“Then why don’t you get the story killed?” Burden asked. “Or at least modified?”

“I tried to persuade the Time man in Leopoldville until I was blue in the face,” Tim replied. “But he said there was nothing he could do about it because the story had already been sent to New York.”

“You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level,” Burden said pulling out his address book and flipping through the pages. He picked up the phone and put a call through to the personal assistant of Henry Luce, Time’s owner.

So: Time. Apparently at the beginning it was going to be called Facts. May I just say at this point that if news reporting on the internet as we currently know it should happen to get wound up in favour of dedicated news magazine ‘apps’ running on tightly controlled platforms, then – since you can’t link from the web to the content of a proprietary app – no one will be linking to the bullshit with an explanation of why the bullshit is bullshit. It’s pretty obvious that Steve Jobs is nostalgic for the corporate futurism of the 1960s – only now he gets to implement it, woo-hoo – and it just doesn’t look as though end user selectivity features large in any part of the Jobs vision. You’ll get what you’re given and call it knowledge.

Pretty much the only part of Africa I’ve spent any time in at all is Madagascar. I’ve visited twice. They’ve just celebrated fifty years of independence from France. Andy Rajoelina has failed to gain international recognition since he took over (with the support of the army): for what it’s worth, celebrations are reported to be muted as a consequence. I think you have to give the Malagasy population credit for two things. First, they know a stitch up when they see one. Pre-Rajoelina, a South Korean chaebol had some deal under negotiation where (in broad terms) they’d produce corn and bio-fuel on some immense percentage of Madagascar’s arable land (half of it?) and then get to keep all the corn and all the fuel. In return, the Malagasy at large would get, not rent exactly, but at least the promise of being allowed to work as agricultural labourers for the South Koreans. News of this ‘deal’ prompted the ouster of Ravalomanana. You wonder if even Philip K. Dick could have foreseen it. As it happens, Alex Perry sees good things in the ‘deal-making approach’ for Africa:

For all the heat, IMF officials admit that the Chinese model for African development has some advantages. First, it’s quick. Loan talks with multilateral agencies take years. The China-Angola discussions took weeks. “With the West, there are studies, analyses and bureaucracy,” says the Western official. “The Chinese just ask what the government wants, and they don’t question or comment or judge. They just do it.”

My understanding is that the South Koreans took a similar approach: they just asked the then president what he wanted. Lickety-split …

The other thing about the Malagasy is this. When they have a coup, they generally do it with the minimum of violence and fuss. Madagascar is not a wealthy country but it’s smart enough not to waste too much time and effort on civil war when what’s wanted is a change in the administration.

4 thoughts on “You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level

  1. I love the Devlin quote! I must get around to reading that one of these days.

    Perry does seem to have made a fool of himself. That said, blaming the US and Belgium for the fall of Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu… well, it’s not wrong exactly, but I’d say it’s incomplete.

    Lumumba was doomed from the moment he took office. This is a value-neutral statement of fact, not meant to exonerate either the CIA or the Belgians.

    The Congo in 1960 was literally ungovernable. A “nation” of nearly 20 million people, it had less than 20,000 native high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates. Feature, not bug — the Belgians had built hospitals, factories, mines and roads, but had been very careful not to train native doctors, lawyers, accountants or engineers. There were just a handful of local high schools, mostly run by the Catholic Church, and no local universities or colleges whatsoever.

    (N.B., this was abnormal even by the low standards of colonial Africa. Senegal, for instance, opened its first native college — a medical school — in 1918, and at independence had around 20,000 college/university graduates in a population of 4 million.)

    There had been no nationwide elections in the Congo until the eve of independence. In fact, no blacks had ever voted for anything at all until 1957, when a handful were allowed to vote in carefully controlled municipal elections. Neither Lumumba nor anyone in his cabinet had ever been allowed to run anything bigger than a local post office. (Congolese generally were sharply discouraged from that sort of thing; there were no large native-owned businesses and for damn sure no trade unions.) And the new government was riven by ethnic and ideological divisions that pretty much ensured it would be unworkable even if everyone involved had been Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams.

    Lumumba himself was brave, charismatic, passionate and (AFAWCT) sincere in his patriotism and idealism. All of those have fed his legend. But he was also a guy in his early thirties with a limited education and no executive experience whatsoever. And he was quick-tempered, high-handed, arrogant and stubborn. George Washington, Lee Kuan Yew and Nelson Mandela combined could not have governed the Congo of 1960-61, but Lumumba’s particular personality traits helped contribute to his swift downfall and horrible fate. Again, this is not meant to exculpate, just to clarify. A different man would still have failed, and probably been destroyed as well — just perhaps in a different manner.

    In the cold hindsight of history, what happened in Congo — the rapid collapse of civilian government, a military coup, and then 30+ years of brutal and utterly corrupt dictatorship under Mobutu — looks not only likely, but almost inevitable. Also, given what utter selfish, stupid fucktards the Belgians were, it looks like around the 50th percentile of possible allohistorical Congos. It’s possible to imagine alternative Congos that might have gone better — say as well as Gabon or, if you really want to be crazy optimistic, Tanzania. On the other hand, it’s also possible to imagine Congos even worse than what we got; Mobutu was evil and corrupt, but he wasn’t insane or genocidal in the style of, say, Idi Amin or Mengistu.

    Anyway. Congolese history doesn’t lend itself to simple generalizations (well, other than “The Belgians were dicks”). That said, yeah, you would expect a professional journalist to do better all ’round.

    Doug M.

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  3. Good article, up until it was spoilt by a bizarre, irrelevant and childishly paranoid attack on Steve Jobs.

    “…if news reporting on the internet as we currently know it should happen to get wound up in favour of dedicated news magazine ‘apps’ running on tightly controlled platforms” Well, it hasn’t yet, has it, Mr Whitaker?

    From there, you link to a website advertising that TIME HAS AN iPAD APP!!! The Evil Jobs obviously wants to control our news sources!!!
    Yeah, well the Guardian sure has an iPad app too, oh, and so does the NY Times and, er, you can get the BBC on it too, and a growing number of media sites around the world. Why, you can even get fistfulofeuros.net on the iPad too! But your precautionary principle demands that we consider what would happen IF the iPad hadn’t evolved in the circumstances it did evolve in and the Evil Jobs had had his 1960s corporate futurist way…

    I stopped reading after that inanity, pausing only to comment here and note the irony of the headline.

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