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More than 10 years ago, I brought to the attention of editors at The New York Times my expose of cases of journalistic concoctions by reporters and editors during the newspaper’s African news coverage. I was virtually ignored. So you can imagine how I felt when Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and fakery came back to haunt Times editors. Times editors have known for years that reporters and editors committed ugly transgressions in the past. Blair’s only mistake was being caught.
When Times reporters such as Lloyd Garrison and Joseph Lelyveld – who recently was brought back as interim executive editor to repair the fallout from the Blair case – filed news stories from Africa between the 1960s and the 1980s, the paper’s editors routinely fabricated scenes and manufactured quotes for their articles. In some instances, the editors wanted articles to conform to the racist stereotypical biases that American readers had come to expect in reports from Africa.
Times editors’ assertions that Blair’s concoctions and fabrications reflected a “low point” in the newspaper’s 150-year history are disingenuous. Some of the low point came during the 1960s, as I discovered when I dug up documents from the newspaper’s archives in 1992. I was then a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia and was researching the paper’s coverage of Africa.
When African countries began winning independence in the 1960s from former colonial power Great Britain, The New York Times sent Homer Bigart, the famous two-time Pulitzer winning reporter to cover the transition. In Ghana, Bigart wasn’t impressed by independence hero Kwame Nkrumah, as a letter he sent to Times foreign editor Emanuel Freedman in January 1960 reveals:
“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics,” Bigart wrote. “The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr. Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.”
When I first discovered Bigart’s letter, I assumed it reflected the ranting of one racist reporter with a perverted mind. As I read the reports that he filed from Africa that purported to be straight news reporting, I saw a near-perfect correlation between the language he used in his letters and the feelings he expressed in the “news" reports. Bigart’s favorite terms in reference to Africans included words such as “barbaric,” “macabre,” “grotesque,” and “savage.”
Typical of the prose he relished was an article by Bigart published in the Times on January 31, 1960, under the Bigartesque (or shall I say bigoted?) headline “Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria.” Focusing on a reported incident of communal violence, Bigart assumed a jaunty and derogative tone, writing:
I discovered that foreign editor Freedman shared Bigart’s contempt for Africans, as became evident in his letter to Bigart dated March 4, 1960: “This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in The New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?”
Colluding with Freedman, the foreign editor, Bigart concocted scenarios to fulfill his and Freedman’s morbid fantasies about Africa. For example, as independence neared for what was then Belgian Congo, Bigart complained to Freedman in a May 29, 1960 letter from Leopoldville, which is now Kinshasa: “I had hoped to find pygmies voting and interview them on the meaning of independence but they were all in the woods. I did see several lions, however, and from Usumbura I sent a long mailer about the Watutsi giants.” (The reference to Usumbura was to Bigart’s stopover in what’s now known as Bujumbura, in Burundi.)
The Belgian Congo had experienced the most bloody and brutal history of European colonial rule and exploitation in Africa. During the rule of King Leopold II, an estimated 10 million or more Africans were exterminated and countless more permanently maimed or disfigured, all in the quest for wealth. Under the Belgians, African slave laborers, who did not deliver their designated quota of ivory and rubber to their European masters in the Congo, had their hands severed, in order to motivate other slackers. Yet Bigart’s utmost concern was to find pygmies to malign.
Having failed to find Pygmies for his news report, Bigart employed the next best solution – he concocted them, as evidenced by his article, published in the Times on June 5, 1960 under the derisive headline “Magic of Freedom Enchants Congolese.” The article began: “As the hour of freedom from Belgian rule nears, ‘In-de-pen-dence’ is being chanted by Congolese all over this immense land, even by pygmies in the forest.”
“Independence is an abstraction not easily grasped by Congolese and they are seeking concrete interpretations,” Bigart added, before continuing to denigrate the pygmies: “To the forest pygmy independence means a little more salt, a little more beer.”
Was this some sort of aberrant episode between Bigart and Freedman? Hardly. The Times tolerated concoctions so long as the newspaper managed to get away with it. In the newspaper’s African coverage, primary consideration was given to creating scenarios that depicted barbarism and savagery. Even when Times reporters complained, editors continued to insert concocted scenes and quotes into their articles.
Consider the case of Lloyd M. Garrison, a descendant of the great American abolitionist, who was the Times’ first West African correspondent during the 1960s. Garrison covered the Nigerian civil war but was expelled by the military government there for alleged bias in favor of Odumegwu Emeka Ojwuku’s Biafran secessionists. In a letter from Nigeria dated June 5, 1967 Garrison complained bitterly that “tribal” scenarios had been concocted and inserted into the edited version of his story, which had been published on May 31, 1967 in the newspaper:
“The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves’ is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression there are a lot of tribes running around half naked,” Garrison complained about the concoction by the Times editors. He protested the numerous use of the derogative term in his story, and added: “Tribesmen connote the grass leaves image. Plus tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn’t fit, and is offensive to African readers who know damn well what unwashed American and European readers think when they stumble on the word.” Garrison noted that the concoction “invites the image of savages dancing around the fire.”
Moreover, my research shows that the fabrications were not confined to the 1960s. Consider the case of Joseph Lelyveld, when he was a correspondent in South Africa twice. His early tour of the continent during the 1960s was cut short when the apartheid regime expelled him for suspected socialist leanings. He returned to South Africa as the Times’ correspondent during the 1980s.
Lelyveld once wrote a series of articles about South Africa’s segregated education system and how it discriminated against Blacks by denying adequate funding to their schools. Editors, who were perhaps sympathetic to the apartheid regime, distorted the article, prompting Lelyveld to fire off an angry letters to the foreign editor. In one letter, dated January 6, 1983, Lelyveld complained that “virtually all the original reporting” conducted over a one month period had been omitted. In one story, the subject of white control and racial hierarchy in the education system was completely deleted, he complained. The printed version of the article was like “a salami sandwich without the salami, just slabs of stale bread,” and he added, “if you prefer a baseball image, the wind up without the pitch, in other words a balk.”
When another article was tampered with, Lelyveld sent another angry letter to foreign editor, Craig Whitney, dated April 18, 1983: “I wrote the following sentence: ‘the idea of a referendum among blacks was never considered for the obvious reason that it would be overwhelmingly defeated.’ That became: ‘officials made it clear that the idea of a referendum among blacks… etc.’ To what officials did the rewrite person talk? How does he or she know they made it clear? This exact phrase has been written in my copy before. Officials make damn little clear here.” Lelyveld later wrote, “Move Your Shadow,” a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the corrosiveness of apartheid. He later became managing editor of the Times in the early 1990s, and then executive editor, before retiring in 2001. He is now the crisis-time executive editor.
While one can understand why the Times’ publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. and the newspaper’s top editors would prefer the public to believe that Jayson Blair’s misdeeds are uniquely aberrant, the evidence clearly shows otherwise. Moreover, Sulzberger and the Times’ editors can’t pretend that they are unaware of my research.
Long ago, on January 26, 1992, during the early stages of my research, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) which is reputed to be the bible of journalistic integrity agreed to publish a paper I wrote on the subject of the Times’ African coverage. CJR later backed out, claiming some editors felt “these things happened a long time ago.” When I read CJR’s pre-publication edited version of my paper, it was clear that CJR editors feared the possible reaction by editors at the Times – many writers secretly hope to end up working for the Times. The following is what the Review’s editors had inserted into my paper on my behalf:
“Recently, the Times granted me access to its archives, including correspondences from the 1950s, when the paper sent Bigart to Africa on a temporary assignment. After studying the archival material, I interviewed several present and former Times reporters. The following excerpts from that material and from lengthy interviews are not intended as an indictment of the Times – whose African coverage has occasionally been distinguished – but as a means of highlighting a problem that all news organizations need to address.”
So I did the CJR editors a favor and sent a copy of my paper to Times publisher, Sulzberger, Jr. Eventually, I received a letter from Joseph Lelyveld, who at the time was the Times’ managing editor, on behalf of Sulzberger. Lelyveld agreed that my research had unearthed articles with “crude and ugly” language. However, there was no offer to publish a correction and later when I proposed to publish an article in the Times to shed light on the ugly episode the paper’s editors did not respond.
Finally, in February this year, I published a book, “The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created The Racist Image of Africa,” (Black Star Books, ISBN 0974003905) which details western newspapers' history of demonization of Africans as well as the Times concoctions and fabrications.
In March, I sent copies to Sulzberger and to other Times editors, before Jayson Blair’s concoctions burst into the limelight. I have yet to receive any response from the Times or any offer of publishing an apology for the wrongs that were perpetuated against Africa. Until that occurs, all the genuflections regarding Blair’s cheating could be construed as a public relations campaign and the newspaper’s motto of “All The News That’s Fit to Print,” will ring hollow.
Milton Allimadi, a former Times stringer, publishes The Black Star News, a weekly newspaper in New York City. His e-Mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created The Racist Image of Africa,” is available through, www.amazon.com, www.justbookz.com, www.theheartsofdarkness.com, St. Marks Bookstore in the West Village and Hue Man Books in Harlem.