— Ken Opalo (@kopalo) July 3, 2019
The New York Times shows how not to write an Africa job advert
In case you missed it, the New York Times (NYT) found itself in trouble (yet again) with Kenyans online last week.
This time the reason was a job ad for its Nairobi bureau chief position, which has been vacant since Jeffrey Gettleman exited in 2017.
The person the NYT is looking to fill the position, the ad says, “has a tremendous opportunity to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania.”
It described the region as “an enormous patch of vibrant, intense and strategically important territory with many vital story lines, including terrorism, the scramble for resources, the global contest with China and the constant push-and-pull of democracy versus authoritarianism.”
As a lifelong African, I’m overjoyed that a benevolent New York Times correspondent will soon patrol our pirate seas & deserts, occasionally telling our unexpected stories of hope. I live for the white gaze https://t.co/7t6IJjyf3C
— Larry Madowo (@LarryMadowo) July 4, 2019
In addition to “jumping on news” and covering conflict, the new bureau chief would also have the “chance to delight our readers with unexpected stories of hope and the changing rhythms of life in a rapidly evolving region.”
The job ad triggered hundreds of tweets, comments and even hilarious but poignant skits. One of the most popular, and to which NYT’s international editor eventually responded, was a spoken word skit by three poets: Anne Moraa, Aleya Kassam, and Laura Ekumbo.
We made this for you
— The LAM Sisterhood (@sisterhood_lam) July 4, 2019
Dr. Livingstone, I presume?
Then there was another version, this time designed as an application for a job ad that seemed better suited for an 18th-century explorer than a 21st-century critical journalism role.
Just saw the ad for Nairobi Bureau Chief and I really think I'm the man for the job.
— Nairobi Bureau Chief (@munene_mwarania) July 5, 2019
The @nytimes are seeking a replacement Nairobi Bureau Chief to reinforce their paternalistic, fetishizing correspondent gaze. Here's an ad to help them get the right person for the job (using actual text from the job posting). Apply at https://t.co/7xXD8nfTEc #BureauChiefNiWewe pic.twitter.com/PoQUXNeoxs
— Jim Chuchu (@jimchuchu) July 5, 2019
Hard to distinguish this @nytimes ad for a Nairobi Bureau Chief from a call to join a 19th Century expedition with Livingstone & Stanley
— Kagoshee™🇰🇪 (@Puffkagochi) July 4, 2019
In his response, NYT international editor Michael Slackman owned up to approving the job ad.
Dear Lam Sisterhood,
Thank you. I loved and learned from your “dramatic reading.” I deserved it! https://t.co/0QrSN3ivYI
— Michael Slackman (@meslackman) July 7, 2019
But then he added that he had decided not to write a new job description and instead approved one issued 18 months ago. The problem, which his responses didn’t seem to acknowledge, was that the wording was as problematic now as it should have been then.
But I plead guilty to taking a short cut: Rather than write a new job description, a posting from about 18 months went out. I gave it a cursory look, and approved it. Mea Culpa.
— Michael Slackman (@meslackman) July 7, 2019
18 months ago is not ancient history. This advert was as dodgy then as it is now.
— Nanjala Nyabola (@Nanjala1) July 8, 2019
Think I found someone who meets the New York Times' East Africa Bureau Chief's job description pic.twitter.com/flHBJorXn5
— Ryan Cummings (@Pol_Sec_Analyst) July 4, 2019
A previous attempt to fill the position, in January this year, coincided with the terror attack on Dusit D2 complex in Nairobi that killed 21 people. A news story by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, who was scheduled to replace Gettleman, controversially included graphic images of the victims.
Although the NYT refused to remove the photo, choosing instead to move it to a less prominent position in the story, the media house quietly reassigned Kimiko to London. The crisis also forced the newspaper to convene “a group of people to come up with clearer guidelines” on such issues.
The decision to repost Kimiko seems to have been inspired in part by how extensively the image scandal went. It was the subject of petitions not just to censure the media house, but also to deport the journalist and/or deny her a work permit.
— Media Council of Kenya (@MediaCouncilK) January 17, 2019
Jeffrey Gettleman, who served as bureau chief from 2006 to 2017, was also accused of “mile wide, inch-deep” reporting. His book, Love, Africa was heavily criticised for, among other things, his writing that “sinking time into a lighter story” would have been irresponsible of the NYT’s main person on the ground.
Critics also accused him of “liberal, middle-class condescension” towards the people whose stories and lives he was tasked to cover.
The NYT’s current scandal is part of a larger conversation on how Western media houses cover the African region. In 2015, CNN International sent a senior executive to Kenya to apologise for a news story that had described the country as “a hotbed of terror” before then president Barack Obama’s visit. The problem is not just the sweeping reportage and racist undertones of such news reports, but also the stereotypes they promote.
In Gettleman’s Pulitzer Prize profile, for example, the former NYT bureau chief is praised “for his vivid reports, often at personal peril, on famine and conflict in East Africa, a neglected but increasingly strategic part of the world.”
Nearly every sentence in the recent job ad was problematic because it shows the kind of stories that the NYT expects from “a wide range of countries”. Stories of hope, if the ad is to be instructive of how the media house views covering the region, are ‘unexpected.’ A good place to start in rethinking the entire job description – and coverage of Africa’s 55 countries and more than 1.2 billion – might be the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal essay “How To Write About Africa.”