CNN interview: when journos miss the point

By Gift Chinene 

We live in a world of communications. But this world is not a world of honest communications only the politically correct, “tolerant”, multicultural “sensitive” kind are acceptable.

Thoughts and ideas that are outside the accepted mainstream meme of political correctness “niceness” are dangerous communications indeed.

Human beings are a very flawed species when it comes to making judgements about things; we have vested interests, we don’t see evidence in objective or impartial ways. We are not immune to the natural biases of hope and optimism—all the sorts of baggage that human beings have. 

When it comes to the media, people’s infallibility is more confounded. The media tends to operate in a singular dimension, good news or bad news. For reasons that are sometimes understandable, the media does not always give you anything in between because readers, viewers, listeners, are quite busy and want to cut to the chase. That means giving the one point that is interesting and missing out other possibilities around it. 

Reporting on the land redistribution exercise in Zimbabwe has become very commercialised with many reporters merely singing for supper and not digging deep to find the true origin of that which is called the “Zimbabwean land question”. Most reporters on the country have little more than a grasp of current rumour and conventional buzz-words.

This can be seen in the bizarre analogies they drag out of the grab-bag of history. They compare the trajectories that western countries took to achieve “democracy” with what they term “Zimbabwe democratic project” as if those countries went through the same historical trajectory. The analogy is strained. The expectation is ignorant. 

So the journalists’ analyses of the situation in Zimbabwe—with a few notable exceptions—have shown all the bad traits of most political reporting on Africa. They call any situation in which parties disagree “fierce fighting.” They deem a hitch in negotiations to be a “setback” or a “crisis”.

There is simply no appreciation of the historical context of Zimbabwe.

There are simply inaccurate assessments of concepts like human rights, the rule of law, respect for property rights, et cetera. This is not to say that there have been no disappointments in the Zimbabwean story, nor that setbacks will not occur. They may, and indeed are.

But it is unfortunate that many professional observers seem congenitally incapable of boning up on the basics of the science that applies to their subject. Reporters fail provide us with invaluable views on the situation.

Commentators’ inability to accurately put events in context deprives their audience of a solid grasp of the meaning of what they are reporting on. 

For instance, the issue of Attorney General Johannes Tomana and Reserve Bank Governor Dr. Gideon Gono do not feature in the Global Political Agreement. How they filtered their way into that document is anyone’s guess. 

Thursday night’s CNN interview of President Mugabe conducted by Christian Amanpour left a foul taste.

For an acclaimed and award-winning journalist, Amanpour demonstrated that she little understood the “Zimbabwean problem” or the history of the country, or was simply ill-prepared for the interview.

That scant understanding of the issues confounding Zimbabwe made the quality of the interview very weak. It was markedly different from say the 1983 interview of Dr. Joshua Nkomo by BBC’s superinterviewer, Jeremy Paxman. 

The conventional wisdom is that the responsibility for the quality of an interview falls squarely upon the journalist; otherwise the whole exercise degenerates into a mindless exchange of soundbites.

The asymmetry between President Mugabe’s deep understanding of the Zimbabwean struggle and Amanpour’s insistence on soundbites, degraded the value of the interview. The interview almost descended to the ridiculous. 

From the beginning of the interview, Amanpour failed to conceptualise the Zimbabwean problem; only referring to “the first ten years” of President Mugabe’s government and “the last ten years”.

Her choice of these two eras as if they are the most important periods in the struggle for Zimbabwe, made for an embarassing interview. 

It was a wonder how this critically acclaimed journalist was going to conduct an informed and informing interview in half an hour about such an important and complex matter when she completely ignored other episodes in the struggle for Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s history did not start in 1999. It probably took a sharp twist at that time, but that does not erase its chequered history. 

It seemed that Amanpour was not chosen by CNN because she had an informed background and close familiarity with Zimbabwe; but could recite the soundbites in a manner that fit the general editorial stance of the global broadcaster.

She revealed that she was ill-informed about Zimbabwe; confusing the Operation Murambatsvina with the emigration of farm workers from designated farms. She incessantly projected her own, and CNN’s biases into their Zimbabwe coverage. 

Amanpour also showed a lack of understanding of the land question in Zimbabwe and the protracted liberation war fought by Zanu PF and PF Zapu among other many revolutionary parties. She incorrectly referred to land owned by white farmers as “their land”.

Several times President Mugabe interjected and asked: “Have you heard of the Lancaster House Constitution?” or “Have you heard of ZIDERA ‘sanctions’?” or “Citizenship by colonisation?” 

When many journalists think about Zimbabwe and its people, here are the sorts of associations that often naturally come to mind: violence, threats, repression, corruption, political ambition, etc. 

These are soundbites used by western media and their governments to try and reverse the land reditribution exercise in Zimbabwe; to protect their kith and kin. 

Angela Merkel, the re-elected German Chancellor summed it up properly when she told PM Tsvangirai in June this year that economic aid for Zimbabwe will depend on the pace of reforms and on the progress regarding the return of “expropriated” land.

She said there was need to amend the Zimbabwean constitution and “allow for the return of land expropriated under President Robert Mugabe.” This is the general feeling in the west. It degrades the black population that was forcibly removed from their land. 

Is it any wonder, then, that, of all the possible important and interesting stories about Zimbabwe that reporters could cover, about the only one they could seem to imagine reporting on last year was the “Incomplete implementation of the Global Political Agreement”? 

This is just a pretext. 

The truth is not “inappropriate” or “embarrassing”; denial of the truth is both of those things. Denial of the truth is essentially evil because in this way enemies are empowered. Applaud the truth-tellers. 

These so-called “journalists” condemn brave men and women who tell the true Zimbabwean story: about the Mwenemutapa, about King Mutota’s empire, about the Rozvi empire, the deaths of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, Smith’s apartheid era, the Chimurenga wars, our independence and struggles we face today as second class citizens in the Motherland. 

Journalists need not, and indeed cannot, be experts in every field of politics and economics. But there is a need for greater humility among telecasters and front-page raconteurs when they address subjects with complex causes.

It is a shame that the constant coverage on Zimbabwe has consisted so much in unreflective punditry, when there was so much wonderful first-hand information to recount. Source: Zimbabwe Guardian