Pygmies In Ghana?
N.Y. Times concocted 'darkest Africa'The New York Times is under fire again for fabrications in its stories. This time the accusations come from former Times metro stringer Milton Allimadi in his book "The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created a Racist Image of Africa," in which he charges the newspaper with using racial stereotypes and interjecting racially motivated fabrications into its coverage of Africa.
The allegations result from extensive research Allimadi performed for an academic thesis while a student at the Columbia School of Journalism. The book was released independently a month before the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal and almost a year before the Times' latest reinvestigation of the Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1932 to its correspondent Walter Duranty, who used his reports to cover up the famine Josef Stalin created in the Ukraine to starve the kulaks into submitting to collectivized agriculture.
In "The Hearts of Darkness," Allimadi charges the late two-time Pulitzer Prize reporter Homer Bigart, famous as a Times war correspondent, with "concocting" pygmies to place into his reports from Ghana. Times editors also are alleged to have inserted "fabricated tribal scenarios" into Lloyd M. Garrison's articles on the Nigerian civil war, as well as "editorial insertions of stereotypes and fabrications" into Joseph Lelyveld's articles from South Africa during the 1980s.
The book probes into the paper's archives and examines correspondence between reporters and editors assigned to coverage in Africa. Allimadi cites memos from the Times archives as evidence for his claims against the paper.
As editor of the weekly Black Star, which was founded with support from actor Bill Cosby, Allimadi is interested in the general racial consensus of various periods in U.S. history, especially those ranging from the 1800s to 1950s, a time when the United States either practiced slavery or enforced racial segregation.
But he has looked most closely at the correspondence of the Times from the 1980s to the present – a time when the United States was more than 120 years removed from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and more than 30 years from when Brown v. Board of Education overturned the 1896 separate-but-equal decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.
After Times senior editor William Borders reviewed it he told Insight he would "recommend [the book] to anyone interested in how the American press used to cover Africa." And Allimadi tells Insight that he has a letter signed by Borders and dated Sept. 29, admitting questionable language in the paper's reporting on Africa. Responding to the paper's indiscriminate use of the words "tribe, tribesman and tribal," Borders wrote, "We should know better."
Allimadi reminds that, "People need to realize that past racist practices still condition and influence contemporary reporting." In his chapter "The New York Times as Apartheid's Apologists," Allimadi explains that when the media use the word "tribal" in references to Africa it has "the implication that they are irrational and have no logical or legitimate contributing factors" to explain their behavior. In fact, he tells Insight, while researching the newspaper's archives he came across a Times Style & Usage manual dated 1964 that recommended against using the term.
Kwamina Panford, chairman of African-American studies at Northeastern University in Boston, thinks that tribal explanations may just be laziness. He tells Insight that continual reference to Africans as tribal is an "easy way to describe conflict in the continent instead of doing a good job and reporting the details." He says "tribal terms represent the incorrect exotic, dark and disparaging view of Africa." In Allimadi's view, this becomes a clich? as "reporters reference old articles from papers like the Times and books like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness."
Allimadi sees "The Hearts of Darkness" as his rebuttal to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Allimadi refers to as "just a collection of the most racist depictions of Africa."
"My sense of frustration with the derogatory terms used to describe Africans led me to choose this topic for my thesis. I wanted to trace the origin of control that contemporary Western writers followed," he says.
Of course, the Times is not the only establishment journal made to suffer Allimadi's perp walk. But while Time, National Geographic and Newsweek are all named among the offenders, the Times remains the focal point, referenced in every chapter. As Allimadi explains, "Since I had access to their archives it allowed me to delve deeper into their reporting, plus the Times is simply the main example because it is so predominant in mainstream media. If they change their practices it may penetrate down to other media – especially since so many see the Times as holy writ."
Recently the Times named Daniel Okrent to the position of public editor, where he functions as the newspaper's ombudsman. Okrent was appointed on Oct. 28 to address questions and comments of readers about articles published in the paper.
Allimadi, on the other hand, has appointed himself an unofficial ombudsman for the Times in the area of racism. As he puts it: "I believe the New York Times owes its black readers an apology for its ugly African coverage of the past and an apology for the concoctions by editors to create and perpetuate the racist imagery, such as the case with Lloyd Garrison, the West Africa correspondent when the Times manufactured 'tribal' scenes and inserted them into stories."
It is unclear if Allimadi's claims will be addressed by the new Times public editor. Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for the Times, says that, "As a matter of public policy, we will not discuss what the public editor is planning to write before he does so."
In a statement to Insight, senior editor Borders says, "I told Mr. Allimadi, most of the sections of the book deal with the New York Times report on practices of three or four decades ago. Happily, we have improved our sophistication and knowledge about Africa, improvements that are evident in our coverage of the continent now."
While Allimadi acknowledges that many of his complaints are based on articles from earlier days, he says he does not see why his complaints are any less worthy than those about the 1930s reporting of Duranty. And he recognizes that the Times has improved its coverage of Africa, crediting reporters such as Nori Onishi, Somini Sengupta and Howard French.
"He called our coverage in our pages excellent, which pleased me very much, given the obvious depth of his knowledge and interest," says Borders.
But Allimadi still believes the paper has a long way to go. As he notes, "The Times has not published an apology for the distorted African coverage even after I brought it to the attention of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., [the Times'] publisher. That means that the Times either does not care about its racist depictions of Africa or that the apologies that accompanied the Blair scandal were simply for PR purposes."