No one doubts the New York Times is the greatest newspaper in the history of American journalism. I would even go further – it’s the greatest paper in the history of journalism. Period. It’s the paper of record. That’s why President Donald Trump, whose lies are legion, frequently attacks it. But as the publisher and the staff of the Times know, no media outlet is infallible. The Times has had its own share of gaffes and outright mistakes, some of them monumental, even inexcusable. Although the paper tries very hard – and is the leading voice for liberal causes – it suffers from a blind spot on race. Its reporting on the Kenya terror attack exposed its Achilles heel on race.
I’ve been privileged to be published in the opinion pages of the New York Times several times over the years. I can attest to the rigor of the paper’s editing culture. Its printed work is usually impeccable as a matter of reporting and professional standards and ethics. But the paper shockingly supported the unfounded Iraq War, some of its journalists have been accused of plagiarism, and it’s been sued for gender and racial discrimination. The question for me is whether the paper’s internal culture is genuinely receptive to criticism and self-correction. With so much power to shape public opinion around the world comes great responsibility. Will the Times learn from the Kenyan terror debacle and self-correct?
Many Kenyans saw the publication of gruesome photos of victims of the Dusit hotel terror attack as symptomatic of callous racism by the Times. The images were gory. The morbid bullet-riddled bodies of victims lying in the restaurant turned my stomach. It’s likely the relatives of the victims could recognise their loved ones in those sick photos. This is what I call the pornography of terror. It’s the same thing as the pornography of war, conflict, or famine that characterises Western reporting in troubled spots in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western TV coverage of human catastrophes in the Global South is traumatising. It’s often done against black and brown people. White gore is rarely shown.
I read the New York Times religiously and I’ve never seen pictures of American victims of terror attacks on its pages. I didn’t see a morbid display of victims of the terror attacks at the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. I didn’t see bullet-riddled bodies of the victims of students at Parkland, Florida in February last year. Or victims of the San Bernardino killings in December 2015. Nor those of the Pulse Club massacre in Orlando, Florida. If anything, the New York Times and major American media protect the dignity of the victims and through sympathetic relatives and friends construct endearing narratives of valor and courage about them.
In terror tragedies in America and Europe, the Times and Western media rightly demonise the attackers and humanise the victims. This is journalism’s way of giving victims a voice in death while rejecting the terrorists. American media – like CNN – won’t even name the attackers. This robs the terrorist of notoriety.
Usually, Western media won’t identify the victims until the next of kin have been informed. The pictures of victims that are published show them in happier times, smiling, in the company of loving family, or depict them as innocent victims of malign and evil attackers. This genre of reporting allows loved ones to mourn and promotes healing without re-traumatising survivors and violating the dignity of the dead.
In the Kenya Dusit attack, the Times response was appalling and betrayed an ingrained racism. When Kenyans on social media rightly called out the Times, the paper issued a non-apology apology. The paper said it balanced many factors and said that their Nairobi-based journalist didn’t make the decision to carry the picture. But it refused to pull down the photograph. The Times effectively told Kenyans their opinions didn’t matter. This is arrogant hegemonic white privilege talking. I can’t but believe the Times sees Kenyans simply as subjects, not human beings with a voice and dignity worthy of respect. Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, is a black man in a white institution. He shouldn’t allow this double standard.
I won’t charge the New York Times with wholesale racism. But – and this is no less serious – the paper needs to re-examine and change how it covers Africa and the Global South. There is a racist subculture in its reporting on non-Western, non-white countries and peoples. Its coverage weaves a narrative of helplessness and an inevitability of catastrophe and pestilence. This reporting “others” black and brown peoples. It permits readers in the West to perpetuate racism. But the Media Council of Kenya shouldn’t sanction the Times.
- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua