‘The Demonization Was Meant to Pacify Readers to Accept the Brutality’

22 September 2021 — FAIR

Janine Jackson interviewed Milton Allimadi about New York Times coverage of Africa for the September 17, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

NYT: Colonialism's Back--and Not a Moment Too Soon

New York Times Magazine (4/18/93)

Janine Jackson: Benighted. Backward. Tribal. Corrupt. Inherently violent, yet somehow also docile unto imbecility.

Listeners will be familiar with the imagery that corporate media have long used to talk about Africa and Africans. Not just tabloids that blare their racism in crude cartoons–elite media have been key in promoting the narrative in which Europeans represent civilization, which they feel moved to provide, on their own terms naturally, to Africans that could never otherwise attain it.

In 1877, a New York Times editorial explained that inferior intellectual development gave Africans “an old touch, a tertiary or pre-tertiary touch about them, affiliating them with the ancient hippopotamus and the crocodile.” It continued, “Surely this is a case where the introduction of European civilization would be most justifiable and might well repay the cost.”

That’s a long time ago, you say. OK, but the Times piece“Colonialism’s Back and Not a Moment Too Soon,” that argued that “the civilized world has a mission to go out to these desperate places and govern,” ran in 1993.

A new book makes the point, and illustrates it expansively, that dehumanizing coverage of African nations and African people has never been accidental or incidental, but part of efforts to justify violent colonization and resource theft, and to rationalize continued economic exploitation of Black people and the institutionalized racism intertwined with it.

Manufacturing Hate, by Milton Allimadi

Kendall Hunt, 2021

The book is called Manufacturing Hate: How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media, out now from Kendall Hunt. We’re joined now by the author, Milton Allimadi. He teaches African history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and publishes the Black Star News, a weekly newspaper here in New York City. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Milton Allimadi.

Milton Allimadi: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for that excellent summary, actually, of the book.

JJ: Well, I appreciated it very, very much. The book has historical sweep, and that’s appropriate, because the usefulness of portraying African people as savages, as something less than human, really goes back to early contact, doesn’t it?

MA: Yes, it does. And I decided to focus on the precolonial era, when the so-called “explorers” started to go to African countries from Europe, names like Samuel Baker from England, and we’re talking about the early parts of the 19th century. These were actually agents of colonialism, which, of course, was to come much later, the last two decades of the 19th century. They were out there to map the territorial zones in Africa, find the resource locations.

And yet they claimed they were there to discover the source of the Nile, or some other lake. And, of course, as you know, they also arrogantly renamed those large bodies of water. So for example, Luta Nzige, in east central Africa, became Lake Victoria.

And they were very malicious, I’m sure as you recall in some segments of the book, when you read the writings of Baker, when he was describing Africans, and he was saying they were not to be compared with the noble character of the dog. And other such ugly language.

But at the same time, if you read him carefully, that had a specific purpose. Because then he goes on to outline the need for Europeans to come and take control of the African continent, and to force them to start trading with Europe.

So that was actually the primary purpose. The primary purpose was colonial economic control over Africa. The demonization was just the language meant to pacify readers and the citizenship back in Europe, to condition their minds to accept the brutality that would be necessary in order to take control of the African continent. And that was the entire agenda.

So I focused on that, and then I showed how the template created by these so-called explorers was later on adopted by professional writers, including by United States media outlets such as National Geographic magazine and the New York Times, when they started sending writers actually to go to the African continent.

JJ: Along with the adjectives “tribal” and “savage,” that soften the ground for public acceptance of violent interventions in Africa, because, after all, these sort of people kill each other all the time.

MA: Exactly.

JJ: Misreporting of African countries has left holes in basic historical understanding. If you think about an event or a thing that happened, that if Africa were appropriately covered, everyone would know, it would be integrated into our public database, is there a particular event that comes to mind?

MA: OK, very good. So let’s go back to the Battle of Adwa, for example.

JJ: Yes.

Emperor Menelik II; General Oreste BaratieriEthiopian Emperor Menelik II (left); Italian Gen. Oreste Baratieri

MA: Ethiopia was actually the only African country not to be colonized by European power. And why was that? Because Ethiopians took up arms and they defeated an imperial state. And it was shocking to the entire European establishment. And that was the Battle of Adwa, March 1, 1896, when Italy also wanted to get a chunk of territory in Africa.

And King Umberto sent an invading army, led by General Baratieri and four other generals. So you have five generals. And you had many senior officers. You had thousands of Italian troops, with African soldiers from the Italian colony of Eritrea also fighting on behalf of Italy. So you had 17,000 soldiers invaded–at that time, Ethiopia was referred to as Abyssinia–and expected to quickly conquer the country. In fact, the invading commander-in-chief, General Baratieri, had promised King Umberto that he would return back to Rome with Emperor Menelik II in a cage, so he could be displayed in the zoo.

But that battle lasted all of six hours. The Italian army was completely annihilated. Two generals were killed. One general was captured. Baratieri, the commander-in-chief himself, who promised to come back with Menelik in a cage, fled the battle scene for his dear life. And he was later tried for cowardice, although he was acquitted. Three thousand Italian soldiers were captured, and they were marched back to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. And they were put to work.

So now you have the tables turned. You have Africans now actually subjugating Europeans to work, almost like enslaved laborers. And they were there until the following year in October, when Italy was forced to pay millions of pounds in reparations before the Italian prisoners were released.

But the interesting part about that battle was how the New York Times covered it. Initially, when Italy invaded and was seizing a lot of territory in Eritrea, the coverage was exuberant, really glorifying colonial conquest, and actually saying we would not be glorifying it if this was a normal situation. I’m paraphrasing now.

JJ: Right.

NYT: Italy's Terrible Defeat

New York Times (3/4/1896)

MA: But this is actually great, because it’s a victory of civilization over backwardness, over barbarians, and over people that had no religious beliefs–when, in fact, Ethiopia had been a Christian country since the third century.

And also, it then said that now Ethiopia could be brought into the international system of commerce, and the riches of Ethiopia are now going to benefit the entire civilized world. That was if Italy was still winning.

And then, when the tables were turned and Ethiopia defeated Italy, the headline was now, “Italy’s Terrible Defeat.”

JJ: Yeah.

MA: It was not “Ethiopia’s Great Victory.”

So that was then, 1896. But now let’s come to the contemporary era, when we see the coverage of the conflict in the Congo, eastern Congo in particular. Mineral-rich eastern Congo. It’s always portrayed, even in the New York Times, as “tribal wars,” when, in fact, it is a war by design, by corporate interests. Western companies, United States, Canadian, British and other European companies, are benefiting from that war.

Now, they don’t fight it directly with European or American soldiers. But they use their puppet regimes in Uganda and Rwanda, who are armed by the US and other Western countries. And the invasion of Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers are tolerated by the West.

And why is this? Because at the same time that all these Congolese are being killed, these Western mining corporations are actually mining minerals from eastern Congo. The general reader would not know any of this because, in their mind, this is just another one of those typical “African tribal wars.”

JJ: You do focus in the book on the New York Times to some extent, which makes sense. It’s an influential voice.

MA: Yes.

Emanuel FreedmanEmanuel Freedman (New York Times1/28/71)

JJ: And also the importance of an editor. Emanuel Freedman was the New York Times foreign news editor during a very important period. And you say he never took Africa seriously, and the reporting reflected that.

MA: Yes, he never took Africa seriously. And unfortunately, he was there for a very long time as the foreign news editor, at very critical times, in the history of, the evolution of Africa. He was there when the apartheid system in South Africa was being consolidated, this very barbaric system of racist segregation in all spheres and all aspects of life, whether economic, whether educational, whether social.

And this is a critical time. If the New York Times, for example, had chosen to take a much more objective approach, rather than embracing and actually providing, I would almost say, PR for the apartheid system, things might have turned out a bit differently in South Africa.

But always, you can also interpret it this way. Because, at that time, of course, the US also had its own domestic issues, particularly in the South, for example. So the New York Times basically took an approach, and accepted the argument by the European minority that was governing South Africa, that Africans are not really used to our system of civilization, and that’s why we need an apartheid system, separateness. And, of course, they never explained why the Europeans had to take the lion’s share of the resources, and why it could not be the other way around.

And we find Emanuel Freedman, rather than looking at the seriousness of the apartheid system, was focusing on trivial stories that would caricature Africans and show them as, essentially, people that are uncivilized.

So, for example, he would send memos to New York Times correspondents in Africa, and ask them things like, Oh, we hear that in Africa, where the concept of the wheel was not known until recently, bicycles are now proliferating. Could you do us a piece on that? And he would say, Do they have bicycle garages? Do they ride naked on the bicycles? What impact is it having?

And then the second major story that was going on in Africa, of course, was decolonization. So in the late 1950s, the New York Times sent Homer Bigart, who by that time was well-known in American journalism. He’d won the Pulitzer Prize twice, before he joined the Times, actually, when he was with the Herald-Tribune. So he was sent to cover how independence was faring in Ghana, which, of course, was the first African country south of the Sahara to win its independence from Britain in 1957. And then from there, he was to go to other African countries that were about to win their independence, and then file his reports.

So when he gets to Accra in Ghana, he writes this letter, and now I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have it in front of me, to Emanuel Freedman. And he’s confessing that, I really cannot get answers to what you asked about the so-called emerging republics. The leaders are “either crooks or mystics.” And he says that Nkrumah, who was, of course, this great Pan-African hero, and first prime minister of Ghana, was like “a Henry Wallace in burnt cork.”  He says, I pretty much prefer the “primitive bush people,” because “cannibalism,” after all, is the best “antidote” for the population explosion that everybody is complaining about.

How did I find this? I found this, actually, when I did the research and I went to the archives of the New York Times many years ago, when I was still a graduate student at Columbia. And when I came upon this memo, I knew the extent of the racism. But this was still a bit shocking.

Then I said to myself, maybe this was one individual deranged reporter.

JJ: Right.

NYT: In-de-pen-DANCE comes to the CongoNew York Times (6/26/60)

MA: But then I went and I saw the articles published under his byline around that time. And all the language in the articles reflected the language in his personal correspondence with Freedman as well. Terms like “savages,” “cannibals,” “macabre,” those are the kind of words he used in his news stories.

But then there was also a lot of distortion, and even fabrication. So, for example, when he left Ghana, he went to the Belgian Congo–it was called the Belgian Congo at that time–about to get its independence. And he wrote another memo to Emanuel Freedman, and he said he had been hoping to find Pygmies. And, by the way, Pygmies, one of the most maligned people in all of Western writing about Africa, the Pygmy.

So he said he wanted to find Pygmies, to interview them as to what independence meant to them. But he could not find them. They were all in the woods, for example, he said. But then when this article appears in the New York Times, now he’s saying: to Pygmies, independence means they can now have more meat, they can now have more beer, they can now have more salt.

And, of course, it’s so sad, because the Belgian Congo experienced perhaps the most horrific history of European colonialism in Africa under demonic King Leopold II.

JJ: Yes.

MA: He is estimated to have exterminated as many, during his regime, up to 10 million Congolese. And this was the moment where the Times could have taken a serious look, and perhaps interviewed some maybe elderly survivors of that genocidal era, or at least the descendants of those who suffered under Leopold. But, instead, this was the kind of story, demonizing the Pygmies, that Bigart and Freedman were focusing on.

So it was beyond just inheriting the template from the so-called explorers. It was adopting it and even exceeding it in maliciously distorting the image of Africa.

And when the reporting did not really conform with this image, they sometimes took matters into their own hands. So I found a letter written by a Times correspondent in the 1960s. I believe it was ‘66. And this was Lloyd Garrison, a descendant of the famous abolitionist William Garrison. And he was complaining about the edited and final version of his article that he read. He found that the editors had inserted a scene describing Nigerians dressed in grass leaves. This is something that Garrison did not himself write.

JJ: Mm-hm.

MA: And he was shocked when he saw it in the final version of his article. And to his credit, he was one of those who took this seriously and complained about it, and said he had found this type of reference to “tribesmen” in his other articles in the past, and he strongly objected to that.

JJ: Finally, Milton, you have been working on these ideas for some time now. And for some time, people have been saying, this is all very interesting, but…. I wanted to ask you to talk a little about your efforts to get this information about media into media.

MA: Yes, that is a story in itself. And it’s been a great learning experience, actually, to me. And it really lets you look back at the whole concept of objectivity in journalism, which is something they hammer in all the journalism schools, at least when I went to Columbia Journalism in ’92.

Because this research that has now ended up in this book started off as a master’s paper at Columbia, for the master’s degree in journalism. And I said, this is really a golden opportunity, because the demonization of Africa was something that had bothered me for a very long time, even when I was a teenager, a 13-year-old, a 12-year-old, actually. So now I have a chance to actually write something serious that can contribute to a literature which is missing.

So when I did the research, the paper was actually recognized at least by my peers, and by the faculty. It was awarded the James Wechsler Award. And then Columbia Journalism Review invited me to submit it for publication. And, of course, I thought that was very good. This might actually help me  start putting it into a potential book form eventually.

I kept waiting for it to be published. One issue came out. A second issue came out. And now I’m about to graduate, and obviously I would have preferred for it to be published before I graduate.

Mike Hoyt

Mike Hoyt

So then I contact the Review. And I spoke to the editor at that time, Michael Hoyt. And I asked when my paper was going to be published, my article. And then he tells me, “Oh, there’s been a decision made not to publish it.”

And I was very shocked. I said, “Well, when were you going to tell me this?” And there’s no response. And then I say, “Well, what was the problem? You invited me. You seemed very enthusiastic. What happened?”

He says, ultimately, two editors supported publication. Two opposed. And the executive editor at that time, Suzanne Levine, opposed publishing. And I said, “What was the problem or the objection?” He said there was some thought that “these things happened a long time ago.” And then I said to myself, how are you going to write a history and a critique without going back into the history? So I was very perplexed.

And then even more confusing was when I asked to have my paper back. He actually asked me, he said, “Why do you want it back?” Which anyone, of course, would find very shocking, an editor asking you why do you want your paper back, especially after they say they’re not going to publish it.

JJ: Exactly.

MA: Actually, he added onto that. He said, “Why do you want it back? After all, it’s not the same as what you gave us.” And then that really lit up something in my mind. I said, “In that case, that’s precisely why I want it back.” And I went quickly to the Review’s office, which was in, of course, the same building as Columbia Journalism School. I don’t know if it still is.

And something else shocking happened when I walked in. He didn’t expect me to come in that quickly, so he was standing behind a pile of papers. And he was sort of shoving something beneath the pile. And then he sees me, and he’s shocked. And I wasn’t in the mood for niceties; I said, “I just want my paper back.” And then he starts going to different locations and drawers searching for this paper. And then he comes back to the same spot where I’d found him standing, and he pulls the paper out from beneath the pile. And now I’m really shaking my head. I’m saying this is something very strange here.

JJ: Yeah.

MA: I take my paper and I leave. And before I even got in the elevator, I started reading the paper. And sure enough, the Revieweditors had actually inserted an apology on my behalf at the very beginning of the paper. I can read it verbatim very quickly.

JJ: Please.


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 the 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.

JJ: Wow.

Milton Allimadi

Milton Allimadi: “Until we understand how Africa, Africans and descendants of Africans, including in this country, were really made into the Other, we will not understand what needs to be done going forward.”

MA: So even after this insertion, they still decided not to publish it. So I could only read that one way, that this is coming out of a fear of how the New York Times might react to this. So I did them a favor, and I sent it to the publisher of the Times at that time, I believe it was Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.

And to his credit, Joseph Lelyveld actually did write to me. And he said yes, he acknowledged the crude language in their past coverage that my research had discovered. And then he also added that, he did say things have changed since then, because he himself was a part of pushing for that change. In his case, I do agree. But there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

JJ: Is there anything else you would like to add for listeners who might be intrigued by this set of ideas?

MA: I hope that people do get a chance to read this book, because I think until we understand how Africa, Africans and descendants of Africans, including in this country, were really made into the Other, we will not understand what needs to be done going forward, including for domestic issues of racism right here in the United States.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Milton Allimadi. Manufacturing Hate: How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media is out now from Kendall Hunt. Thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Milton Allimadi.

MA: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

The post ‘The Demonization Was Meant to Pacify Readers to Accept the Brutality’ appeared first on FAIR.

Janine Jackson

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