"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." These words by one of America's pioneer newspaper moguls, Randolph Hearst, have remained iconic to this day, more than a century since he wrote them. The words went on to inspire the great Oscar-award winning movie by Orson Welles, "Citizen Kane".
Randolph Hearst had sent a telegram to his reporter in Cuba, Frederic Remington, in reply to Remington's earlier message to the effect that "all was quiet in Cuba and there will be no war". As such, Remington didn't see any point in staying in Havana. Hearst swiftly replied to his correspondent: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
As they say, the rest is history. The Spanish-American war which was at the centre of the Hearst telegram was fought and won in the press, not on the battlefield. The period epitomised what is now officially known as "yellow journalism". In other words, the epoch of sensationalism and extreme exaggeration.
That era saw two media barons of the day, the celebrated journalist Joseph Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst brawling over sales of their newspapers. To them, it was war. The same tactics are still used today.
Recently it was played out in Kenya. During the country's worst moments of shame--the post-election violence that erupted between December 2007 and February 2008--the Western media tore Kenya into shreds. For the two months, the hitherto peaceful Kenya found itself painted in the worst of adjectives. Four decades of solid achievements after independence were totally forgotten.
It was unbelievable. Most Kenyans, unaware of how bad the "international media" could be, got first hand lessons of what the so-called "objective" Western media are all about. As they watched aghast on their TVs, they couldn't fathom that such demeaning epithets as "savages", "brute stone age characters", "tribal warlords", "ethnic cleansing" and a people of "atavistic hatreds" were the best words that could be used to describe Kenyans.
David Williams of On The Web went farther than most. In a syndicated article, titled "Kenya's Rift Valley explodes in Stone Age violence as gangs kill with bows and arrows", he wrote: "With rival tribes wielding wooden staves and the bow and arrow, this was the Stone Age face of 21st century violence. Countless deaths were reported in Kenya's Rift Valley during ethnic clashes which have been raging since the country's disputed elections last month."
The British weekly, The Economist, took up the chant: "The decision to return Kenya's 76-year-old incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, to office was not made by the Kenyan people but by a small group of hardline leaders from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe ... It was a civil coup. Mr Odinga's supporters were not innocent either. There were irregularities in his home province of Nyanza. Still, it was the meddling in Central Province that was decisive." One wonders how The Economist arrived at such a conclusion in what was obviously a hotly-contested poll.
For the entire two months after the December polls, Kenyans waited anxiously for the Western media to change tack and be compassionate. It never happened. For failing to cultivate its own niche, the Kenyan press--which normally borrows heavily from the Western media--found itself torn between the sensational reporting of the Western media and the hard facts on the ground. It chose sensationalism. At a recent meeting under the aegis of The East African Editors Forum, top editors within the region accepted that they had played second fiddle to the Western media and engaged in a soul-searching of their true call. …