Embedded in the seams of humankind lie “dark angels that every generation must fight”, says journalist Randall Smith.
A lush, limitless jungle, inhabited by the Great Apes of the Mangani. A feral, dreadlocked man in a scanty loincloth flying through the scintillating wilderness as he propels himself from vine to vine. He is no ordinary man, but one raised by wild animals, a friend to all, a primitive, tree-dwelling Good Samaritan. Tarzan lives in perfect harmony with his Simian caretakers, and the rest of the animal kingdom, in this exotic, mysterious and beguiling land.
This was award-winning journalist Randall Smith’s first memory of the continent that would later capture his heart.
But the pretty picture of Africa painted by Tarzan was soon to be marred by the dark splatters of truth.
In the news, Randall saw Africa depicted as a place of episodic tragedy. Guerrilla forces terrorising civilians. Rebels recruiting young children and turning them into killers. Crippling diseases like ebola, malaria and AIDS. Poverty ravaging the economy. Food, water, and hope, scarce or non-existent. Systemic government corruption inevitable. Devastation was commonplace. It was a realm of horror. Hollywood could not have created a better nightmare, though they’ve come too close with movies like Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland.
Randall would later call Africa’s portrayal “one of the great gigantic misconceptions and problems with media throughout the world”.
Following 30 years in the industry, Randall has distinguished himself as an accomplished reporter with a fierce, humanistic drive. He has dedicated much of his career to working with underprivileged minorities, and fought hard to balance a lopsided playing field. By his own admission, his most significant successes are not of the conventional kind; money, adulation, or shiny things. Rather, they originate from something less tangible: heart.
“If it bleeds it leads” is an adage often heard in journalism circles. Although it’s often said with a hint of self-parody, Randall’s philosophy, and his life’s work, opposes this “advice” in principle, and in practice. In fact, much of what Randall laments about modern reporting stems from the industry’s tendency to silently echo this notion.
“My belief is that too much journalism today is focused on blood and guts – not asking the bigger questions that could be helpful to society,” he says. “Journalists tend to cover things that are close to them, and ignore things that are not.”
In 1982, one of the newsrooms Randall worked with won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Kansas City Hyatt skywalk disaster when, in 1981, two skywalks collapsed in the new Hyatt hotel, killing more than a hundred people. For Randall and his team, it was not an isolated disaster to be reported and forgotten, but rather one portending something of greater importance.
So they began by chasing down the building plans at City Hall, and assessing them with the help of architects. The result? They identified the structural flaws responsible for the collapse. The next part of the investigation revealed that the city inspectors accountable for the building during its construction had ignored, or underestimated their duties. And as the final phase of their investigation, Randall and his team inspected other skywalks in the area. They discovered several others with similar failings – proverbial ticking time-bombs requiring detonation. In hours, Randall’s newsroom had accomplished what would later take the government 12 months.
“The city has never had another tragedy of this type,” Randall told The Newsroom. “These three questions were responsible: Why did it happen? Who was responsible? Could it happen again?”
Randall stopped at nothing to answer these questions, but it wasn’t straightforward. He admits to weighing up ethical concerns before deciding to “report undercover”; it seems even doing what’s right has its shades of grey.
In spite of this, Randall’s passion and commitment has been channeled towards righting wrongs and contesting cultural injustices as much as it has been to producing quality journalism.
“The world is not a level playing field. There’s a mistaken impression, particularly by those with access to money and power, that everything is fair,” he says.
Randall talks of the battle with “dark angels” like bigotry and racism, suggesting their permanence, and warning future generations they will inherit the war. He has bemoaned the “economic apartheid” in the US, and fought to correct it.
“I’ve made a point of stressing diversity in all things that I do – friendships, career choices and work. One of the programs that I helped initiate at a former employer made sure that our news organisations always had a pool of talented African Americans for every job,” he explains.
With disappointment, he speaks of political figures like George Wallace of Alabama and Lester Maddox of Georgia, before drawing a comparison to a controversial political figure basking in the global spotlight today.
“Their careers were made by preying on the prejudices of poor whites. In many ways, I see the same today with Donald Trump’s campaign,” he says.
As for Africa? It might not be as idyllic as suggested by the 1912 novel Tarzan, or future versions of the tale, but there is much more to the continent then the doom and gloom perpetuated by the press. During the past 10 years, sub-Saharan Africa has grown more than any other part of the world. They are one of the pioneers of micro-finance, with the development and widespread use of M-Pesa as far back as 2007. Randall says the streets in big cities like Cape Town are safe – his worst experience on the continent so far was a bout of food poisoning.
As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact, and everything we see is merely a perspective, not the truth”.
According to Randall, what we understand about Africa suffers from a lack of context. Randall urges journalists to work harder, and dig deeper, to uncover the truth.
“If you don’t know much about a place, it’s easy to parachute in and take a few snapshots and say there’s a war here,” he says. “The hard work is to dig in and try to put events into context. This is what we’re called in to do as journalists, so people get the real view of what’s going on.”
Despite the many accolades including the Pulitzer prize, the publication of his novel The Kenyan Story, and being appointed University of Missouri’s first Donald W. Reynolds Professor in Business Journalism, it’s not the awards that mean most to Randall.
He recounts his most significant accomplishment: “I saved the life of a young African journalist, Peter Makori, who had been wrongly jailed for his investigative reporting. He now lives in a large American city and has recently earned a master’s degree in public policy,” Randall recalls.
And perhaps the more important question: looking back on it all, what is it that Randall holds closest to his heart?
“I was visiting a journalist friend in his tiny home outside of Nairobi. I had come to meet his wife and their new son. As I was holding the baby, I asked his name,” he begins. “They told me that the child had been named after me: His name is Randall Smith Siringi. My namesake is now eight years old and doing well in school.” – Sergio Magliarachi
Randall Smith was a panellist in Macleay College’s International Reporting Conference on March 23.
Photo from Randall Smith’s University of Missouri profile.