Numbers! Atta Boy!

Numbers! Atta Boy!

Mother Jones cartoon: "The Science of Why We Don't Believe"
Facts, truth, numbers matter and so sad that public television and radio doesn’t seem to care. Yesterday’s Richard Attenborough’s production on Nature and today’s NPR report on the war in Somalia should both flunk journalism class.

For my news on Somalia I go to sources in Somali and Kenya, and to the diaspora of Somalians mostly in the U.K. For my news on the natural world in Africa I mine the multiple NGOs and excellent science writers world-wide.

For a more global perspective, BBC, Agence France and Reuters are excellent.

But every once in a while I need an American fix. I need the unique perspective that governs my native culture’s perspective on the world, and then I turn to journals like the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic and Science.

And until recently, national public television and radio.

But more and more I find NPR and PBS either pandering to the masses or moving celebrity above facts. It’s particularly true with regards to reporting in Africa, where NPR’s stories have become so superficial that they’ve lost almost all value. And that’s not as bad as when their news is simply dead wrong.

Yesterday evening’s national screening of Sir Richard Attenborough’s memory lane, and this morning’s report by Steve Inskeep from Somalia, are perfect examples.

Both had redeeming components. Attenborough’s compendium of so many years of natural history filming provides us with an incredible chronicle of how global views about conservation have changed. His own mea culpas of his younger days collecting and consuming rare animals was a wonderfully honest admission of that change.

And Inskeep’s wonderfully personal interaction with African troops, allowing them to broadcast their accuity and sensitivities, is strides beyond the staid reporting of foreign bureaus with their latent racism.

But we can’t allow news to carry lies and misinformation, no matter how much other redemption the story may have. In the end, when NPR explains to you that Somalia success is dependent upon western military training, or when Sir Attenborough concludes that mountain gorillas are still threatened, those critically important statements must be substantiated by … the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And they aren’t.

Attenborough’s sloppy use of facts throughout his film was terrible. The worst was when he announced there are now 480 Virunga mountain gorillas left.

There are now 800 Virunga mountain gorillas left. And Attenborough’s factual portrayal of Borneo’s rainforest numbers and the Arctic’s water temperatures and ice cover was also incorrect.

Inskeep’s portrayal of the successful Somalia war as a combined African military force couldn’t be further from the truth. The Somalia war had African peace keeping troops since 2007. And before that the Ethiopians had invaded the country several times.

The African peace keepers for the first four years of their mission were mostly Ugandans, Burundians and a smattering of Nigerians, and they were an abysmal failure.

Did you register that? Abysmal failure.

It was not until the Kenyans decided to unilaterally invade Somalia in October, 2011, that anything began to change. And everything that has changed since has been entirely and only because of the unilateral Kenyan military involvement, and which Kenya announced was publicly not allied to the African peace-keeping force.

And the Kenyans were trained and funded and quite probably directed by the Americans and French.

These are important … facts. The sinister problem is that they might, in fact, not change the overall stories much of either Attenborough’s portrayal of how global views of conservation have changed and positively so, or Inskeep’s contention that routing terrorists in Africa must be by Africans.

But the “overall story” is never the whole story, and the more we try to condense a richly complicated situation into a headline, the less we are actually learning and the more we’re being primed to learn even less the next time around.

“Public” broadcasting is simply becoming too American in America. Acuity and depth is being trumped by what’s considered good entertainment. It’s a shame.

But it’s wrong.