Mandela: The Media’s Prince Charming

Nelson Mandela
Walter Dhladhla/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela had a way with journalists.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault became part of the coverage of Mandela's death Thursday as an interview subject and a news analyst. Her early visits to apartheid-era South Africa left her with a bond of familiarity, she told Al Sharpton on his MSNBC "PoliticsNation" show shortly after the news that Mandela had died at 95.


"They talked as our people did," Hunter-Gault said of South Africa's white minority and the white majority in the U.S. South.

"They were God's chosen people. Black people just were not made to be first-class citizens."

Of course, she had to be fair-minded as a journalist, Hunter-Gault said, but her Southern background—she was one of two black students who integrated the University of Georgia in 1961—gave her an instant connection with Mandela and South Africa's black majority. Hunter-Gault wrote for PBS "NewsHour" Thursday, "I conducted more interviews with him than almost any other journalist."

The New York Times posted a video in which six Times journalists who had covered Mandela—Ian Fisher, John F. Burns, Donald G. McNeil Jr., Suzanne Daley, Lydia Polgreen and Alan Cowell—shared their experiences


First up was Fisher, Nairobi bureau chief from 1998 to 2001. He described his disappointment that he had not met Mandela earlier in the leader's life, as he appeared weak and tired when Fisher covered Mandela in 2000 in Tanzania, brokering peace in a civil war in Burundi had killed as many as 200,000 people. But then Mandela lectured the two sides about the heinousness of their actions.

"It was hard to overstate the power of those words," Fisher said. His own wife was pregnant at the time. "I think I have a name for our child," Fisher said he told her. Fisher, who is white, then introduced his 12-year-old, Nelson.


From South Africa, Reuters correspondent Marius Bosch wrote, "More than anything else, Mandela's charm, presence, humour and genuine concern for his fellow South Africans made each assignment involving him something out of the ordinary.

"At the end of his first news conference as a free man, Mandela was spontaneously applauded by the scores of journalists present. At briefings for foreign correspondents, Mandela would charm us to such an extent that we often complained afterwards of being too much in awe to ask probing questions."


So went much of the worldwide coverage. American television networks seemed eager to give Mandela his due. They were reverential yet professional. After all, as many said, he was the George Washington of his country and a worldwide exemplar.

"Nelson Mandela was the towering moral giant of the 20th and 21st centuries," tweeted Christiane Amanpour. "We will not see the likes of Madiba again for a long, long time," referring to Mandela by his clan name. Her CNN colleague, anchor Wolf Blitzer, speculated about the crush of journalists about to descend on South Africa.


The outliers were, as perhaps can be expected, Pacifica Radio's "Democracy, Now!" on the left and Fox News Channel on the right.  

"Democracy, Now!" noted that the CIA helped the South African apartheid government apprehend Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, and that he remained on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.


Blogger Jeff Winbush wrote, "While CNN and MSNBC honored Nelson Mandela by turning over their evening programming by covering his life and time, Fox News stayed on message by largely relegating Mandela's passage to the news crawl and pounding away with their anti-Obamacare propaganda. Hardly a surprise as Mandela stood against the very things Fox News supports.

"I flipped the television from Rachel Maddow interviewing Ron Dellums to Megan Kelly chatting with amiably with a medal-winning soldier. While Lawrence O'Donnell was discussing how Mandela dismantled apartheid, turn over to Sean Hannity and there's the ugly mug of RNC chairman Reince Preibus stabbing at the Affordable Care Act yet again.


"However, in fairness, Bill O'Reilly did mention Mandela's passing. If only to remind viewers the father of the modern day South Africa was "a communist," as Mediaite reported.

In print, on the Web and in broadcast, most news organizations were prepared for the moment, given Mandela's long illness. The "PBS NewsHour" aired a 19-minute obituary by Hunter-Gault. BloombergBusinessweek was ready with "Remembering Nelson Mandela's Unsung Economic Legacy."


The Salt Lake Tribune instantly posted "Nelson Mandela's influence touched Utahns." National Geographic offered "Nelson Mandela's Life and Times in Photographs." Newspapers such as the Washington Post and New York Times had editorial-page packages ready. Poignantly, the Post's news story, which led the print edition, was bylined by Sudarsan Raghavan and Lynne Duke, a former South Africa bureau chief who died in April. Duke had titled her memoir "Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman's African Journey."

In Los Angeles, home of the entertainment industry, the Los Angeles Times had Web features on "Actors who have portrayed Nelson Mandela on screen" and "Nelson Mandela and music: 10 essential anti-apartheid songs." 


Merrill Knox reported at 5:02 p.m. for TVNewser, "NBC News and CBS both produced special reports beginning at 4:45 pm ET, with Brian Williams anchoring on NBC and Scott Pelley anchoring on CBS. David Muir anchored a special report on ABC News at 4:46pmET.

"On the cable networks, CNN joined [South African President Jacob] Zuma's press conference at 4:44pmET. MNSBC began broadcasting NBC News' special report at 4:45pmET, and Fox News joined Zuma's press conference at 4:46pmET.


As Andrew Beaujon reported for the Poynter Institute, the Associated Press sent a rare "Flash" alert to members to signal its 5 p.m. news story by Christopher Torchia and Marcus Eliason.

Design teams sprung into action. The New Yorker quickly announced a Mandela cover. Time said it would publish a commemorative issue


At 5:13 p.m., Carolyn Ryan, political editor of the New York Times, tweeted, "Wow. Just saw the NYT layout/design staffers draw up a new front page for Mandela news. It's beautiful."

Television networks announced special programming. Target audiences zeroed in on their own angles. The gay press focused on Mandela's openness as president toward gays. Sports publications noted that the former boxer used a high-profile rugby game as a tool in his efforts to reconcile the races. "Sport has the power to change the world," Mandela once said. 


Viewers looking for news of Mandela's death on the black-oriented television networks would not have found it, however. At 5:32 p.m., BET was showing a sitcom, "17 Again," and TV One was airing a commercial for a credit company in a slot marked for the 1987-1993 sitcom "A Different World."

BET did stock its website with Mandela stories, however, and TV One announced that it would air the documentaries "Nelson Mandela: One Man [video]" and "Music for Mandela," and provide coverage on "News One Now," "the only daily live morning news program focusing on news and analysis from the African American perspective."


Johnson Publishing Co., publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, issued a statement of condolence recalling its connection with Mandela and South Africa.

"JPC has published exclusive articles and photos on Mandela in both EBONY and JET, dating back to when he was in prison serving a life sentence for his anti-apartheid activities in South Africa," it said. "Stories included conversations with Mandela as he revealed the private side of his life, a collection of letters he wrote while in prison, his inauguration, visits to the United States and a special message from him to Black Americans.


"John H. Johnson, the founder of JPC, and his family were invited into the home of Mandela when the company launched EBONY South Africa. Linda Johnson Rice, Chairman of JPC, had a special opportunity as a member of the United States Presidential Delegation headed by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, to attend the inauguration of Mandela when he took the oath as the first Black President of South Africa."

…  Journalists' "Curiosity Very Difficult to Satisfy"

Despite reporters' admiration for Nelson Mandela, the man who would become a household name was not accustomed to inquiring journalists when he emerged from prison in 1990.


He wrote in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom":

"From my very first press conference I noticed that journalists were as eager to learn about my personal feelings and relationships as my political thoughts. This was new to me; when I went to prison, a journalist would never have thought of asking questions about one's wife and family, one's emotions, one's most intimate moments.


"While it was understandable that the press might be interested in these things, I nevertheless found their curiosity difficult to satisfy. I am not and never have been a man who finds it easy to talk about his feelings in public. I was often asked to describe the indescribable, and usually failed."

… Media Not Always Eager to Cover the Movement

With the nearly unanimous accolades Nelson Mandela has received since he was released from prison in 1990, it might be difficult to remember the difficulties the anti-apartheid struggle had in securing media attention in the United States.


Media activist Danny Schecter, who has made six documentaries about Mandela and edits, among other activities, wrote in July for the Huffington Post:

"For many years, The US media treated Mandela as a communist and terrorist, respecting South African censorship laws that kept his image secret.


"Reports about the CIA's role in capturing him were few and far between. Ditto for evidence of US spying documented in cables released by [WikiLeaks].

"In the Reagan years, his law partner Oliver Tambo, then the leader of the ANC [African National Congress] while he was in prison, was barred from coming to the US and then, when he did, meeting with top officials. Later, Dick Cheney refused to support a Congressional call for his release from jail.


"In 1988, I, among other TV producers, launched the TV series South Africa Now to cover the unrest the networks were largely ignoring as stories shot by US crews ended up on 'the shelf', not on the air.

"A 1988 concert to free Mandela was shown by the Fox Network as a 'freedom fest' with artists told not to mention his name, less they 'politicize' all the fun. When he was released in 2000, a jammed all-star celebration at London's Wembley Stadium was shown everywhere in the world, except by the American networks … "


Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 1990, Maurice Weaver noted that unlike in the 1980s, "American television, print and radio media have been hamstrung by the extensive restrictions applied by South African authorities. The restrictions limit coverage and broadcast of information concerning what the government calls 'unrest'—about protests, police actions, banned organizations … "

Weaver added, "South Africa Now" "senior producer and anchor Carolyn Craven is less diplomatic about the American media's apparent timidity in covering Southern Africa.


" 'Africa, as a continent, is undercovered. Since the emergency restrictions, the news organizations and the correspondents themselves don't want to be thrown out of the country,' said Craven, a former teacher of African history at the University of Ghana. 'In every other country, it would be a badge of honor to cover such a revolutionary story. Part of our mission is (based on) the fact that the newspapers, wire services and TV aren`t doing their job.' "

Craven, who died in 2000, also had been a White House correspondent for NPR.

In 1989, Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times described "South Africa Now" as "a low-budget, low-key—but in its own way absolutely spectacular—weekly newsmagazine that is indispensable viewing for anyone who wants to know what's really happening in southern Africa … " 


The late Roone Arledge, president of ABC News for nearly 20 years, was proud of how he had broken through the intransigence of the apartheid government.

In his 2003 "Roone: A Memoir," Arledge recalled that Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "Nightline," proposed in 1985 that the show stage a debate in South Africa between Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid leader who had won a Nobel Prize, and Prime Minister P.W. Botha. "Such interactions between South African whites and blacks had never happened before, on screen or off. 'Nightline' would make history, and perhaps help change it as well," Arledge wrote.


When "Nightline" was able to pull it off, Arledge said a "Nightline" staffer "told me later that the director from South African television who'd been sitting next to her started to weep. I knew only that, as America listened and bore witness, things would never be the same again for these people. I felt almost a chill, and looking down, saw that my grip had snapped my pipe in two … "

… Mandela Scored Lack of Diversity in S. African Press

In 1992, Nelson Mandela addressed the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers in Prague. He spoke of the deliberate undermining of black newspapers in South Africa and the lack of diversity on the white ones. An excerpt:

"South Africa is indeed a land of ironies. In 1912, when the [African National Congress] was founded, there was a great diversity of media voices in our country. That is now a thing of the past. In 1912 there existed at least two weekly newspapers in the Xhosa language, published and owned by African companies. There was at least one Tswana language weekly, owned by a co-operative of African business interests. At the same time there were at least two Zulu language newspapers, similarly owned and published by African companies.


"In 1913, the ANC was able to establish its own newspaper, 'Abantu-Batho' (The People). [With] the exception of 'Imvo', formerly 'Imvo ZabaNtsundu' (Black Opinion) and 'Ilanga lase Natal', [every one] of these African newspapers has disappeared. Both 'Imvo' and 'Ilanga' are no longer under African ownership, having been acquired by the powerful media giants that dominate the print media in South Africa.

"The false impression is sometimes created that the demise of the black owned newspapers was purely the outcome of market forces. The hard facts of the matter are that successive white minority governments have, since 1910, steadily undermined and destroyed the legal property rights of the disenfranchised majority of South Africans.


"It was the brutal application of racist law that deprived the African community of the economic capacity to build and sustain any autonomous institutions of value. By 1950, virtually every venture made by black South Africans to gain a foothold in publishing had come to naught. We should also not forget that the outright banning of publications played no small part in this.

"The reality is that today, three large conglomerates, drawn exclusively from the white racial group, dominate the print media of our country. This, as you may well imagine, has produced an alarming degree of conformism in the South African print media. With the exception of one daily, 'The Sowetan', the senior editorial staffs of all South Africa's daily newspapers are cast from the same racial mould. They are all white, they are all male, they are all from a middle class background and tend to share a very similar life experience. The same, unfortunately, holds true for the mass circulation weeklies—again with a few exceptions.


"The ANC has no objection in principle to editors with such a profile. What is disturbing however, and in our view, harmful, is the threat of one dimensionality this poses for the media of our country as a whole. It is clearly unacceptable that a country whose population is overwhelmingly black, 85% of the total, is serviced by media whose principal players have no knowledge of the life experience of that majority … "

BBC: Indian media pay tributes to Nelson Mandela

Jessica Best, the Mirror, Britain: Nelson Mandela dead: How's the world's media covered the death of an icon


Michael H. Cottman, Black America Web: Nelson Mandela: A Humble Statesman With a Quiet Power

Joe Davidson, Adam Powell III, Charles Robinson: Nelson Mandela Memories (June 25-27)


James Estrin, New York Times: Recalling and Covering Nelson Mandela (photos by Ozier Muhammad

Michael Gordon, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer: Charlotteans say Mandela never lost the common touch


Emil Guillermo blog, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund: Nelson Mandela taught us how to fight for racial justice—and how to win 

Jamie Harris, Nelson Mandela dies: Newspaper front page round-up

Jonathan P. Hicks, Nelson Mandela: A Brilliant Life of Noble Conviction


Raymond Louw, International Press Institute: Life after Mandela—South African journalists worry about the future of press freedom with the country's staunch freedom defender gone

Jeff MacGregor, Jemele Hill, Jackie MacMullan, Gabriele Marcotti, Johnette Howard, Scoop Jackson, Kevin Powell, Bonnie Ford, Wright Thompson, ESPN: Nelson Mandela's impact


Kate Myers, NPR: Mandela Is Remembered On Social Media

Richard Stengel, NBC News: Mandela: a pragmatic politician, '‘the last pure hero on the planet'


Armstrong Williams, Juan Williams Wrote Mandela's Letters (June 24)

Brian Williams, NBC News: Nelson Mandela, former South African president, dies

Juan Williams, Fox News: The Mandela I knew—capacity to forgive made South African leader extraordinary


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Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education ( Reprinted on The Root by permission.

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