A little video prominently displayed on the New York Times website today by one Patrick Barth is interesting to note. (I won’t give the link because I wouldn’t like to give it a viewership.) The story, such as it is, is apparently about the hopes of South Africans after the World Cup. But one of the first sentences Mister Barth utters is this: “Despite the colorful displays of unity, there are some economists who believe that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world.”
And so begins yet another media story saying, Yes, all fine and well, but…
You know those stories? Remember the one that went, Yes, it’s all fine and well that Mandela is in power, but what about when he goes? Then when Mbeki took over, and South Africa didn’t fall off the edge of Africa, it was, Yes, but let’s see how the first five years go. Then when Zuma took over, it was, Yes, he sounds fine, but just wait…
You pick your event over the last sixteen years, and there will be a naysayer, a complainer, a person who sees the glass half-empty. No, there will be plenty of them. Now it’s the soccer. People who were positive – absolutely and unequivocally positive – that South Africa couldn’t do it, could never bring off such a huge event, are now saying, Yes, but it’s still the most unequal society in the world.
Says who? According to Mister Barth, “some economists.” Yes, that famous group of Some Economists Who Are Easy to Quote When You have Noone Else to Rely On. Many of us journalists know how a story like Barth’s gets produced. He will propose a story that might be more positive – like how the World Cup brought together a black and white couple from Sandton and Diepsloot who never would have met otherwise – and it will be rejected by his editor in New York or London who is still living in 1980 and has this fixed idea about what a news story should be (namely, bad news that makes you go, “See, I knew they would fail. I knew there’d be an earthquake under the stadium. It’s just like I told you. See, it’s in the Times, it must be true.”).
And so Mister Barth puts together a video relying on two interviewees and “some economists.” And once again, people who see it will be left with a negative impression of South Africa – wasn’t apartheid, AIDS, township violence enough to keep them sated for a while? – when the country deserves praise more than anything else.
But praise and good news, as we keep seeing, don’t make a good story. It’s not only no news that is bad news, as the saying goes, but good news too.
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