Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Study of African Contrasts In The New York Times

In Age of Shrinking Foreign Bureaus, Gray Lady's Presence A Welcome Sight

Say what you will about The New York Times, and we often do, but at a time when the nips and tucks in its newsroom budget have become evident, the same, thankfully, cannot be said for its foreign coverage.
Case in point: A front-page dispatch yesterday from Sharon LaFraniere in Mauritania, where the men like their wives fat. The fatter, the sexier. And they're dead serious about that, to the point where thousands of women and teenagers are deliberately overfed, so they become more desirable to suitors -- themselves usually thin -- in the Muslim nation.

For decades, the Mauritanian version of a Western teenager’s crash diet was a crash feeding program, devised to create girls obese enough to display family wealth and epitomize the Mauritanian ideal. Centuries-old poems glorified women immobilized by fat, moving so slowly they seemed to stand still, unable to hoist themselves onto camels without the aid of men’s willing hands.

It's a brilliant slice of life from a place most Americans would have trouble finding a map, assuming they could find the continent in the first place. But the Times' Africa hands have often shown the ability to ferret out stories from remote locales and convey the essence of places we've never known.
That there is a part of Africa where binge eating is encouraged, when so many other nations on the continent struggle with malnutrition and starvation is itself remarkable, which made Michael Wines' piece from Johannesburg yesterday about the turmoil in Zimbabwe even more troubling.
Even when people there are in a position to feed themselves, an inflation rate that may be as high as 10,000 percent often precludes the purchase of staple foods. And government efforts to curb prices are only making matters worse.
Wines' previous reporting from Zimbabwe has kept him off Robert Mugabe's Christmas card list, which is why Harare may be but a memory for him for the short term.
That Mugabe has managed to hang on in the face of internal chaos and stiff international pressure is nothing short of remarkable, not to mention tragic.
Having reporters, rather than relying on wire services for such an explosive story, is the stuff that makes papers great. It may not show up in newsstand sales, but a paper that doesn't stray from its core journalistic mission can finesse that -- something the Bancrofts should continue thinking long and hard about before turning over Dow Jones' keys to Rupert Murdoch.

P.S. Covering Africa may be the most rewarding assignment in a reporter's career as well as the most challenging and frustrating. Wines wrote cogently last year about the particular dilemmas he faces.

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