Covering Africa Through Celebrities
“Africa is sexy and people need to know that,” declared U2 singer Bono (New York Times, 3/5/07), promoting his new (RED) line of products that propose to save Africa one iPod at a time.
Celebrity interest in Africa is not particularly new, but today more stars than ever seem to be converging upon the continent, with television crews seldom far behind. But, as Bono clearly understands, what media tend to find sexy about Africa is not Africa itself, but the stars like himself who have taken up causes in the region. In television news in particular, with its typically cursory treatment of subjects and emphasis on the visual, African countries and issues are to a striking degree seen through the prism of celebrity.
Diamonds and DiCaprio
When Blood Diamond, a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was released in theaters last December, it prompted a brief spike in news coverage of Sierra Leone’s recent bloody civil war and the role of diamond smuggling in its funding. In just one week, Sierra Leone’s history of “conflict diamonds” was mentioned 11 times on the news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC. In comparison, during the entire length of the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, the central role of diamonds in the conflict came up a grand total of 26 times—an average of just over twice a year.
For stories about Africa, this kind of celebrity coverage is par for the course. In fact, in the past two years, the networks mentioned Sierra Leone only 24 times, and besides the 11 mentions that concerned Blood Diamond, one was a story about actor Angelina Jolie, one was about musician Kanye West, and two involved actor Isaiah Washington—meaning nearly two-thirds of the network news coverage Sierra Leone received in those two years was generated by U.S. celebrities.
Though several of the Blood Diamond-tied segments did briefly explain the past and current problems surrounding conflict diamonds, few delved deeper. For soundbites, most didn’t look past DiCaprio and his fellow cast and crew on the one side, or a representative from the diamond industry on the other; only three of the 11 stories included outside expert perspectives on the issue, including one extensive interview (ABC Be Seen, 12/12/06) with an Africa policy expert from World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization involved in conflict diamond work. Besides Blood Diamond star Djimon Hounsou, a U.S. citizen originally from Benin, not a single African source was interviewed in any of the segments.
Hounsou tried to focus media attention on the ongoing issue of child soldiers at three different points in an interview on NBC’s Saturday Today (12/9/06), but each time anchor Campbell Brown diverted the conversation, taking Hounsou back to the favored media storylines of the movie itself and the diamond industry’s PR counteroffensive.
It’s hard to say how much of the Blood Diamond coverage would have actually addressed the issue of conflict diamonds themselves had the diamond industry not launched a multi-million-dollar damage-control PR campaign in response to the film’s release (NBC, 12/9/06), giving the media a fight to cover rather than just another story about bad news from Africa. When Kanye West remixed his song “Diamonds Are Forever” as a protest against the diamond industry’s abuses in Africa, it failed to register on the networks; the one pre-Blood Diamond network mention of his song (ABC Good Morning America, 9/2/05) did not even note its political message.
Madonna in Malawi
Just a few months earlier, pop star Madonna’s adoption of a child from Malawi set off an even bigger firestorm of news coverage, prolonged by Malawian civil rights groups’ challenge to the adoption and questions around whether the star skirted Malawi’s laws governing foreign adoptions. The networks returned to the story 38 times, which constituted their only mentions of Malawi the entire year, and more than two-thirds of the coverage they’ve devoted to the poverty-stricken country in the past six years.*
During that time, Malawi suffered from two devastating famines for which the United Nations and aid agencies issued dire warnings and urgent pleas for aid (Guardian, 10/19/05); on October 15, 2005, the Malawian president declared the entire country a disaster zone. The two famines combined received a total of six mentions on the networks during those years—one of which led with a mention of rock star Bono’s trip there with then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill (ABC, 5/20/02).
In an interview on NBC’s Dateline (11/1/06), Madonna mused, “All the criticism is ultimately a blessing in disguise because now people know about Malawi, and now people know about the orphanage there.” On NBC’s Today Show (10/26/06), anchor Matt Lauer agreed: “The one thing you have to say, a lot of people before this didn’t know what Malawi was. And at least they’re talking about the situation there now.”
But what have TV viewers really learned about Malawi? Those newscasts that looked at all beyond Madonna to the circumstances in the country did not stray far from generalizations like “poverty, hunger and disease” (Dateline NBC, 11/1/06)—which is what most Americans have already heard repeatedly from the media about most of Africa anyway. Not one of the stories on Madonna’s adoption even mentioned the recent famines, which, combined with the AIDS crisis (noted by 11—fewer than a third—of the Madonna stories), have been a major cause of the swelling orphanages; an exploration of the deeper roots, like exploitative Western trade and aid policies, was completely off the media agenda. While the networks turned five different times to entertainment reporters from People, US Weekly and Sky News, only once was a Malawian civil rights leader heard from.
Ultimately, the media frenzy merely reinforced the American public’s perception of Africa as a helpless, depressing continent full of children in need of charity. The entire story revolved around that concept of charity, and the debate over Madonna’s action was framed as a question of whether she should have taken the child from Malawi or simply given the child’s father—who was still alive and in the picture—money to support him there; to question what would need to be done beyond band-aid solutions never seemed to cross journalists’ minds. Then again, if Lauer’s take is any indication, they seemed to be proud enough that they had even mentioned the word Malawi on air.
Nightly news notables
Many of those Madonna and Blood Diamond segments appeared on the networks’ morning or daytime shows, which have traditionally been somewhat “lighter,” but celebrity hooks have even penetrated the supposedly more sober and substantive evening newscasts.
Africa-based stories are none too common on the networks’ evening newscasts to begin with. In 2006, all three networks combined aired a total of 114 stories with a sub-Saharan African country, region or citizen as a primary subject (43 on ABC, 39 on NBC and 32 on CBS). In 2005 the numbers were even lower, with a total of only 85 stories across the three networks; once again, ABC led (with 31 stories), with NBC close behind (30) and CBS trailing (24).
These counts include lengthier segments as well as shorter headline-type briefs read by anchors, yet the numbers still come up well shy of even a single mention of Africa per network per week. According to media researcher Andrew Tyndall, in 2005 that Africa coverage totaled less than one-half of a percent of newscast time (USA Today, 10/4/06).
With the attention paid to Africa so scant to begin with, it’s remarkable that of those 199 Africa stories in the last two years, 31—more than 15 percent—came packaged with a celebrity angle.
Leading the charge is NBC Nightly News, which contributed more than half of those celebrity stories. Of the show’s 70 Africa-related segments, 18 featured celebrities—that’s a quarter of NBC Nightly News’ Africa coverage. Many of those focused on Bono, with whom NBC anchor Brian Williams traveled to Africa in May 2006, a trip that generated seven stories, six of which prominently featured the rock star. Bono also figured prominently in NBC’s coverage of the Live 8 concerts and other celebrity activism around the G8 meeting in 2005, which generated six stories that year.
ABC and CBS also managed to work star hooks into some of their slim Africa coverage: Celebs could be found in eight of ABC’s 74 stories and five of CBS’s 56 stories. In 2005, all such stories involved the G8 celebrity activism, while in 2006 the two networks featured Blood Diamond, Madonna and Bono, as well as George Clooney’s Darfur activism.
Live 8 love-in
One might argue that the huge Live 8 concerts were legitimate stories to be told. What’s much harder to justify is that the celebrity-studded shows were the second-most-reported Africa story on the evening news that year; those 14 segments were only barely edged out by the 15 pieces broadcast on the crisis in Sudan.
And Live 8 coverage was scarcely about Africa at all; the concerts might have offered a useful springboard from which television news could have explored the G8’s economic policies that have kept most African nations mired in poverty, but media seemed happy to keep the focus on the celebrities—most prominently Bono and UK singer Bob Geldof—who did nothing to force the issue, since they seem to count the political leaders as allies who just need a little coaxing at times.
In fact, in an ABC interview (6/30/05), Bono sang Bush’s praises: “Remember today that this president committed to try and get all African kids into school. . . . Bill Clinton did an incredible thing on starting this debt cancellation. He deserves real credit. And now, President Bush deserves credit for finishing it out.” When NBC asked Geldof (7/3/05) if he thought Bush “got” that lifting Africa out of poverty was important, the singer responded: “Yes, I do, actually. You know, I know it’s weird, but I think he does.”
Meanwhile, besides brief clips of various other musicians and performances, viewers got mostly one-line generalizations about organizers “raising the awareness of African poverty and pressuring world leaders to do something about it” (CBS, 7/2/05) or wanting “aid doubled and better trade deals for Africa” (NBC, 7/2/05), with the occasional longer laundry list of demands: “Complete debt relief for the world’s poorest countries, and a firm commitment of long-term funding to combat famine; the deficits in education, training and security that keep the poor poor; and epidemics, starting with AIDS” (NBC, 7/1/05).
While TV cameras trained on Bono and Geldof transmitted messages of praise and declarations that the concerts and the G8 were a tremendous success for Africa, African leaders and activists ignored by the celeb-happy media were soon lamenting the G8 outcomes as a game of smoke and mirrors, and a near-complete failure. Within weeks of the summit, it was revealed that most of the promises made—which hadn’t fulfilled the demands of activists in the first place—were quickly being dismantled or were false to begin with.
For example, the debt money and the aid money announced at the close of the summit, which were understood to be separate, turned out to be one and the same, meaning half as much money was being put towards Africa as had been promised. And the touted 100 percent debt relief for several countries turned out to be committed only for the following three years. No changes in the heavily imbalanced trade playing field were enacted (London Guardian, 9/6/05). And the list goes on.
Africa Action (7/8/05) called the G8 a “stunning failure,” and the World Development Movement (7/8/05) called it a “disaster for the world’s poor.” Demba Moussa Dembele of the African Forum on Alternatives said (Institute for Public Accuracy, 7/13/05): “We feel betrayed by the political messages championed by the celebrity leadership of Live 8 and Make Poverty History. We believe that their demands have failed to confront the underlying causes of poverty and injustice.”
Africa Action later pointed out (7/6/06) that before the G8 summit, African countries owed a combined total of $15 billion a year on debt payments; after the vaunted debt relief agreements, they owed $14 billion a year. Only a quarter of African countries were even eligible for the debt relief program, which required them to enact harmful neoliberal economic stipulations, like privatization of vital services such as water and education, and acceptance of heavily unequal trade rules that prevent true economic development. What’s more, none of them actually received 100 percent debt cancellation.
The G8 summit was an important, and largely disappointing, moment for African countries, but for American TV audiences it played as a feel-good series of concerts with a happy ending.
Leveraging his star power
It was in the shadow of that media-created myth that NBC anchor Brian Williams traveled to Africa under Bono’s wing in May 2006 to report on how “he’s leveraging his star power to help the poor and the powerless” (5/19/06). Indeed, much of Williams’ Africa tour played more like hero-worship than reporting: “He boldly convinced the eight wealthiest nations to forgive massive African debt, and he’s successfully lobbied President Bush for billions” (5/22/06); “Because Bono was able to relieve Ghana of debt to richer nations, the clinic is out of debt now and offering more services” (5/23/06); Bono “has leveraged his own name to open doors, raise money and heal what ails an entire continent” (5/19/06).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bono himself served as Williams’ primary source in most of the segments. A few soundbites came from mostly unnamed African citizens, while all of the “expert” sources in Williams’ story were Westerners offering thoughts primarily about Bono rather than about Africa; the U.K.’s Gordon Brown talked about how Bono “inspires” (5/22/06), the Global Fund director (5/24/06) praised Bono’s “tough-love approach,” and Christian author Rick Warren raved (5/19/06), “I love the way that he’s leveraging the fame that he has for good.”
Williams didn’t bother to speak on camera to a single African expert while visiting the continent—or anyone, for that matter, who might have cast doubt upon Bono’s humanitarian image or his prescription for “saving” Africa.
In fact, of all the NBC reports on Africa that week, arguably the most substantive was also the only one that didn’t come from Williams on location. His colleague Andrea Mitchell, back home in Washington, reported (5/23/06) on the failures of G8 leaders to follow through on the aid promises made the year before. Even that report only gave viewers part of the story, presenting debt relief as an unalloyed success, treating only aid and trade as continuing problems. And it continued the Bono love-fest, allowing as his only failure a hint of idealistic naiveté. “Bono has gotten them to cancel 100 percent of their debt from 13 African nations,” Mitchell reported, but he “is discovering that political leaders are quicker to make promises than deliver them.”
For his part, Bono maintained a diplomatic posture towards those leaders, telling NBC that “sometimes their hearts are open . . . but their wallets are closed.”
And it’s perhaps little wonder. When Geldof likewise refused to admit failure on his own part or the part of the leaders he supported, columnist George Monbiot (Guardian, 9/6/05) suggested that the star had joined the ranks of the “tabloid saints” who “appeared to recognize that if they rattled the cages of the powerful, the newspapers upon which their public regard depended would turn against them.” And indeed, celebs espousing more cage-rattling causes—like Sean Penn protesting the Iraq War, or Jane Fonda protesting the Vietnam War—often face criticism, rather than adulation, from the news media for their activism.
But if Bono chafes against such limitations, it hardly shows; in any case, he has modeled himself as the ideal media hero, combining ratings-grabbing celebrity power with a cause that offers praise rather than criticism of Bush, and simplistic, often consumption-based solutions.
NBC’s Williams (5/23/06) gave this description of Bono’s stop in Ghana:
In the same segment, Bono judged Bush to have been “very honest in his business dealings with me, as has Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. We did an awful lot of work.”
In the same vein, Bono helped launch the (RED) line of products in 2006 that would donate a percentage of profits to fighting AIDS and proposed, in his own words (NBC Nightly News, 10/13/06), “a way of making it easy for people in the shopping malls and main streets all over this great country to get AIDS drugs to Africans who can’t afford them. . . . This is using the force of consumerism . . . to defend the world’s most vulnerable.”
Of course, the very idea of using Western consumerism to defend Africans would be harder to take seriously if the consumerism-driven Western media talked about, say, the way the old iPod or Motorola phone they tossed in favor of their new (RED) one will likely wind up polluting Africa’s land, like much of the toxic electronics trash produced by the United States (Kenya Nation, 9/27/06). Or the way cotton subsidies in the U.S. that make clothing artificially cheap, thus fueling further consumerism, also squeeze African cotton farmers out of the market and out of a living (Oxfam, 3/15/07).
But the (RED) concept fit nicely not only with media’s preferred economic prescriptions, but also with their bottom line. According to Advertising Age (3/5/07), the money spent advertising (RED) products dwarfed the share of profits destined for Africa. Though (RED) disputed AdAge’s numbers, it’s clear that the campaign has brought in millions for participating companies—and for the media recipients of those advertising dollars.
While viewers are kept up to the minute on Bono’s doings in Africa, major events on the continent have gone almost entirely unreported. The chronically media-neglected Democratic Republic of the Congo, where at least 4 million people have died since 1998 in a devastating conflict (Lancet, 1/7/06), held its first free elections in 40 years in 2006; meanwhile, Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe increased its slide into chaos and hyperinflation; neither of these were even mentioned once on the networks’ nightly newscasts. Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor was seized in 2006 at the request of new President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who launched historic war crimes trials for mass murder, rape and mutilation. This mustered only one brief mention on ABC (3/29/06), as did the Islamist takeover of Mogadishu (6/5/06).
Clearly, following Bono to Africa or reporting on conflict diamonds via Leonardo DiCaprio is both easier and more ratings-friendly than sustaining bureaus and teams of reporters on the ground, researching and reporting on both the bad news and the good from Africa. But as networks under corporate profit demands squeeze their news departments tighter and tighter, viewers can in all likelihood expect more and more clips of Madonna videos and Bono sales pitches substituting for real Africa coverage on TV.
*According to the U.N. Human Development Report, Malawi is the second-poorest country in the world—behind only Sierra Leone.