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Softly softly catches monkey

October 21, 2009

This is a Liberian proverb, the meaning of which we’re still not certain of. We learned it on our week-long trip up country, vernacular meaning “way out in the middle of rural nowhere” and a phrase which confused the hell out of my mother. (“Which country were you in? And why is it up?”)

I thought that it must mean, “Move quietly and you will catch even something so quick and super-sensory as a monkey.” No, I was told, that’s not it at all. “Softly softly” is an animal, a nickname for something that the storyteller could not name in English. Glenna somehow heard, or inferred, that softly softlies actually eat monkeys. Could be…but what is this mysterious creature?

One of Glenna’s magical photos, cropped to avoid my nasty sweaty greasy face…
softly softly
This moment of adorableness brought to you by the Pulitzer Center.

I’m not gonna lie. The softly softly was so friggin’ cute, and I kind of loved wearing it on my wrist like a sleepy little bangle. I very nearly did pay the $10 the boy who introduced me to it wanted. I protested that I didn’t know what to feed it. “Banana,” one man insisted. (“Monkeys,” Glenna countered later. She says she believes this because that shit is funny. I think that, in this matter at least, that’s a reasonable standard for truth.) Either way, it’s not gonna make it through customs.

More about the up country trip — land conflicts, mud pits and pumpkin stew so good we told the President of Liberia about it personally — soon.

Farewell to the Nile?

October 8, 2009

Well the rapids, anyway. I had a hell of a good time rafting them last year (and have since heard from people unknown to me that my guide has picked up my joke about safety kayaks; it was repeated back to me, nearly verbatim, and I said, “Ah, you had the guide from Zimbabwe?” “How did you know?!”)

Last year, I wrote a story about the Bujagali jumpers, four (and sometimes more) guys who make a living hurling themselves into the whitewater of the Nile in Uganda. It’s a treacherous way to earn a living, to put it mildly, but it’s also an endangered job: When the Bujagali dam is finished (soon, soon, they say), the rapids won’t exist any more.

Here’s the skinny on that dam — and the controversy it sparked. Environmentalists were never fans, but the government said it desperately needed the new power supply. The World Bank, in the mean time, did what critics say it does best: Pretend to listen to local concerns, and then plow on ahead with whatever it wanted to do in the first place.

“…Okay, now tell me where he put his hands”

October 6, 2009

This is, unhappily, the sequel to my earlier taken-down on major media coverage of rape in conflict. Turns out I have a little bit of a thing about this…

So the New York Times’ new West Africa guy is covering the violence in Guinea. (Missed it? Here’s the Twitter version: Government soldiers killed more than 150 political demonstrators last week; now reports are emerging that many women were raped.) It starts out fine — a lead about cell phone pictures that prove crimes the government is trying to deny, a quick recap of what happened, some diplo-info.

It’s all well and good until he talks to the rape victims. Here’s an excerpt of his interview:

“We heard gunfire,” she said. “I tried to flee.” With weapons going off, suddenly “it was like a henhouse.”

She ran, but a soldier barred the way.

“He hit me,” she said. “And he tore my clothes off. He ripped my clothes off with his hands.”

Then, she said, “he put his hand inside me.” The soldier hit her on the head with his rifle, requiring stitches, she said. She also had large welts from the beating.

A reporter I respect once pointed out to me that there’s a growing trend in African atrocity journalism — to use sparse, declarative language, preferably quotes, to retell the narrative of the atrocity. That sort of narrative stance and pacing can be powerful. It can also be foolish.

This strikes me as the latter case. Did he really have to include the quote about where the rapist put his hands? (I’m also not sure we need the literal frame-by-frame on this rape, but let’s concede it for the moment.) What purpose does it serve? Do I, as a reader who does not know Guinea or (presumably) rape, understand something better? I don’t think so. Does it create some kind of empathy or broader understanding for this woman? I don’t think so. In fact, she disappears from the story.

So what does it do? It “adds color,” sure. But to what end? My personal reaction is to feel kind of repulsed; I don’t feel empathy for this woman, I feel pity for her. Insert Representational Stereotype Number One: The Pitiful African.

The article continues to rehash several other women’s rapes in rather intimate detail, in some cases not by the women themselves but by men who witnessed the crimes.

Amanda Taub has been writing some pretty powerful stuff about the theft of voice and story in Darfur. This article raises similar questions for me: I know poor Adam needed some quotes, and he wrote early in the story that there’s stigma for women who admit surviving rape, and even doctors wouldn’t talk about the rape cases, so I sympathize with quoting, as he does later, a male doctor about what he witnessed.

Two things: One, do we need it? Do we need those quotes to understand what’s happening? There are times when the brutality of violence shouldn’t be hidden; I certainly was blunt and unforgiving in my descriptions of what happens when someone is tortured. But I don’t think this is one of those times.

Two, whether we need it or not, are we complicit? As readers of details that most women themselves wouldn’t share complicit in the theft (by a man, no less) of a story?

I’m not saying Adam, or any other worthy reporter, would quote someone without consent. I believe the women he quoted consented; but getting consent is only half of the question. The other half is how and why we think they’re consenting to talk to us, to give us the details they do; that’s a deal only the journalist knows and can make. And I’m not indicting Adam’s deal.

This may be too academic; this may be a case of me doing precisely what I remind others is so easy, armchair criticizing an article reported in chaos and difficulty. But that’s the best time for me to ask my questions, so that when I’m in Adam’s seat, I what I think I should be doing.

Libraries in Liberia!

October 6, 2009

Well, law libraries anyway. Yesterday, Glenna Gordon and I went to what we’re pretty sure is all of them — there are four, actually, which is three to four more than most people seem to think when we tell them this — in search of what should be a pretty standard document. We think it taught us some useful things, and Glenna certainly got some nice pictures. Check it all out at the Pulitzer Center. Consider this Act I, Scene I in a story we think is going to get pretty interesting.

Meanwhile, I’m at war with myself over at Wronging Rights and Texas in Africa over the Sharati Scandal. If you enjoy seeing one person conduct an intractable argument entirely on her own, or want to get into the thick of dilemmas facing journalists operating in foreign cultures and war-torn regions, check them out.

How journalism got it way more wrong than you’d ever imagine in Darfur

October 5, 2009

Stop right there, and click this link. Amanda Taub, one amazing half of the awesome duo Wronging Rights, spent some serious time trying to answer what should’ve been an easy question: “Who is Abu Sharati?”

She thought his description in the press, as a “representative of the IDPs” — which is to say, thousands and thousands of people in camps scattered across a region the size of Texas, or France, take your pick — was a little weird. One guy can represent all those people?

Turns out, maybe not. It may in fact be that journalists from the Times, Reuters and the AP were duped by a guy who’s fronting an agenda from one of the rebel leaders, pretending to be someone he’s not.

Obviously there’s a case of getting “just the facts, ma’am,” as my mother likes to say. But Amanda rightly raises a bigger and crucial question: Does quoting “the representative of the IDPs” hijack the refugee narrative? She thinks so, and she argues that each person has to retain the right to tell their own story. She thinks Sharati, and the journalists who used him, stole those stories.

I’m still thinking about that. I think the best journalists would want to interview as many refugees as possible and quote them. But that can’t always happen, for all kinds of good reasons. And journalists rely on spokespeople all the time, also for good reasons. But Amanda’s right to remind us that we should push a little more, and think a little harder, about when we should rely on “spokespeople” and when we shouldn’t.

And yeah, maybe we should vet the ones with the really good quotes a little bit better…

Seven rebels killed in DRC, or “Sometimes peacekeepers do shoot people.”

October 4, 2009

In catching up on events that happened in the world while I was traveling from one part of it to another, I hit a Reuters report that the United Nations killed seven FDLR earlier this week (though not with guns, as my misleading headline implies. With rockets. Little ones, presumably.)

Here’s how it apparently went down: The Congolese army, the FARDC, left their camp to go get paid, which happens about once every five to seven years, or just before ‘democratic’ elections, and so they all left the camp pretty much at the same time. The FDLR, savvy little buggers that they are, joined up with their best bros the Mai Mai and attacked the emptied camp.

The Congolese army put the losses at 8:1, their one being a guy lost in an initial exchange of ground-based gunfire between the FARDC and the FDLR. (This is like golf, so FARDC wins!) The UN military spokesman had a little different read on things and told Reuters, “The (Congolese army) asked us for aerial assistance. Our attack helicopters fired five rockets, killing seven elements.” (Technocratic translation: Elements = people.)

Kicker? The Mai Mai are in the Congolese army! In the euphoric “peace” that broke out after Rwanda gently nudged its troops across the border earlier this year, more than 20 militia groups were “integrated” into the FARDC. Of course, in late September, 20 of those groups said, “Game off.” Why? Cuz the government wasn’t paying them! Maybe the Mai Mai should’ve just followed the FARDC to the payday window instead of attacking them…

But here’s the bigger point: The United Nations called out a strike against a rebel group in an ongoing conflict. This not my momma’s UN DPKO, the one that treated all parties to a conflict as if they had equal grievance and wrote neutrality into their mandates. This is Peacekeeping 2.0 (er, well, probably 3.0), where “neutrality” doesn’t get in the way of doing the job. File this one under “Rwanda, Lessons from.” But the ROEs on the 3.0 mandates have their own issues…and if I get a chance, I’ll whip up a post on that in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, watch this — and that — space.

Of time, tweets and other relative journalism matters

October 3, 2009

Yes, it’s come to this. I am about to reference something I read on Twitter. Er, a tweet. I am going, in fact, to quote a tweet, and I believe strongly that there are rules for that.* Anyway, Rebecca L. Weber, in South Africa, tweeted this: “If I were in a different time zone I would be having a very productive day so far.”

It’s so damn true. I usually keep my computer set to New York time when I’m abroad, even for 8-month stints. It helps me keep in mind when I can call a Stateside office and expect to reach someone, what time my story is “really” due, etc. The problem is that I feel incredibly productive in the early hours of my day–“Look how many emails I sent, and it’s only 7 am at home!” But in the Great Lakes, that means it’s at least 1 p.m. (daylight savings time makes all this tricky.) By the time it hits 10 a.m. “at home,” and I’m still on the computer, I look up to find the sun changing positions in the sky, and I realize absolutely no one I meant to interview in their offices is even there any more. I think, “It’s okay, I’ll go first thing tomorrow morning, it’ll work out fine.”

But at home, that’s 1 a.m., and any reasonable person would be in bed.

* The Twitter addendum

I’ve thought about this for awhile, watching the way other news organizations jump on and off the Twitter wagon. Here are my ideas on Rules for Journalists Quoting Tweets. Did I miss any? Am I being too harsh?

1. As a general rule, don’t quote tweets.
Why? If the tweets aren’t coming from Tehran, it’s just lazy. Tweets are creeping into what used to be “man-on-the-street” (MOS) space, that part of an article where you quote ordinary Americans and what they think. (You may notice that journalists, at least national journalists, tend to do that less and less. That’s for another time.) We used to get those quotes by going outside, walking up and down the sidewalk and getting rejected at best, but usually snarled at, by 12 or 13 people before one consents to talk to us. And if we’re doing this right–and “right” includes whether we have time before our deadline, which is often out of our control–we should be talking to at least a half-dozen people before we choose the one quote that will stand in for the American Everyman. As Patrick White, journalist extraordinaire at the Toronto Globe & Mail once told me of tromping the pavement in the Bronx for a murder story, “I stayed out until I started hearing the same things from three different people, which is when I know I’ve done enough reporting.”

2. Do not confuse tweets with not conversations.
This links to Rule #1, but it bears sussing out: Part of the MOS interview — or any interview at all — is the context of all the things not printed in the paper. For every quote I use, I usually have 30-60 minutes worth of material you’ll never read. That’s extreme (and it can drive an editor crazy, all that over-reporting), but I learn the same things from it we all learn in a 30-second MOS on interview: where a person is coming from, how they speak, what their body language is… That’s all important stuff when judging how to use what someone has told you. You don’t get any of that on Twitter.

3. Don’t quote a tweet you can’t corroborate.
This seems to me to be a clear lesson from the Tehran stuff. And I think the media learned it pretty quick, contrary to a lot of the criticism that has been bandied about.

4. If you’re not in, say, Tehran, try to get contact info and call the tweeter.
Why? See Rules 1-3.

5. If you feel you must quote a tweet, make sure you can say yes to this question: “Is this tweet Tehran-worthy?”
I don’t need to rehash the (sometimes ridiculously euphoric) conversation about what Twitter did for the flow of information during the protests in Tehran. But that’s an extreme case, in which you can’t do any of the above.