The media files: Covering Obama's Kenya visit leaves many gasping for breath—and some red-eyed

It is not everyday the president of the United States comes to Kenya. It can be unnerving sometimes.

US president Barack Obama’s five-day visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, the first of any sitting leader to those two countries, generated lots of dust.

Due to his familial links to Kenya, it is that country where most of the action centred—many Ethiopians will have been forgiven for being largely unaware of the historic visit, the deep-tentacled security services having made sure there would be little debate about security.

As such the global media lens focused on Kenya, and it was an ever-shifting, and sometimes elusive, narrative.

The focus before Air Force One landed in Nairobi had been on the security of Obama’s destination, which has been the target of attacks by Al-Shabaab militants, following Kenyan troops crossing over into Somalia in 2011.

The Somali extremists would have loved nothing more than to make a statement to their tormentor-in-chief, the US. As it were, the security blanket thrown over Nairobi meant not a squeak was heard from them, but just to make sure, AU forces kept them busy back in Somalia.

CNN a hate figure

Dazzled, Kenya’s media marvelled a bit too much at the empty streets, while African media focused on what the message on gay rights would be. There was however widespread furore when CNN ran a story and used a chyron on its television news breathlessly labelling Kenya a “hotbed of terror”.

The network has become a hate-figure of sorts among many Kenyans, and some Africans growingly disenchanted with its African narrative. In an indicator of how news has been democratised, social media users put in a shift in “schooling” the rather chastened Atlanta-headquartered broadcaster with the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN.

As would be expected, the American right wing was out in force, with their totem head Fox News going into a tizzy over the disclosure of Obama’s travel plans by Kenyan aviation officials. Some of its anchors did not miss a beat while putting out questions over whether the trip was necessary, or if it was just self-indulgence on American taxpayer money.

Obama would later troll them, many who have struggled to keep the birther movement that counts wrecking-ball candidates like Donald Trump alive, rather masterfully, with a wisecrack about the quest for his birth certificate.  

But for Kenyan media, the admittedly-novel experience of covering the world’s most powerful man was almost too much. One anchor on a national television network almost burst into tears when Obama’s plane was espied taxiing down the tarmac. “I can’t believe it, history is being made as we watch,” she gushed, her voice nearly choking.

Many others took to selfies with the plane and his fortified vehicle, “The Beast”. The love-in was to set the tone for the coverage over the next two days, even if some bravely tried to retain focus. But for the majority, every minute detail to the president’s trip was scrutinised almost to self-destruction, giving rise to big strapping headlines like ”Where Air Force One spent the night”.

The usual suspects

The lack of policy analysis on the visit left foreign media grasping at straws, including through bloating. A good-spirited exchange on gay rights between Obama and his host, Uhuru Kenyatta attracted CNN to again trill:  “Obama lectures Kenya on gay rights”, further drawing the ire of Kenyans. Meanwhile, one of its correspondents was prowling hundreds of miles north on the Kenya-Somalia border, looking for border loopholes.

The liberal leaning and sometimes more sober The Guardian of the UK was enthralled by the rights stories, narrowing down on Obama’s comments on homosexuals and women rights.

The UK’s Daily Mail tabloid, or Daily Fail to some, tried to take up the gauntlet in its usual way, screaming: “The charm offensive is over! Obama gambles his rock star status in Kenya by blasting its barbaric treatment of homosexuals and women and calling out the country’s ‘cancer of corruption.”

You know it is bad when even when your fellow journalists call you out, as Politico, an otherwise decent publication which can’t make up its mind if it is rightist or leftist, found out when its travelling senior reporter penned an off-centre piece on Obama visiting “the most dangerous” and “treacherous” place in the world, even more so than Afghanistan. A second piece chose to see the visit through a tribal prism, but struggled to get even the names of the communities right.

“Who’s the idiot reporting for @politico from Nairobi?”, posed an editor on Twitter.

It was left to less excitable publishers like The New York Times to attempt to cut through the haze for the foreign media, many of whom had painted doomsday narratives and seemed disappointed to have to abandon their terror “we-told-you-so” templates.

Done with batting back the parachute and armchair journalists, Kenyans then turned the heat on their own outlets. Where was the round-the-clock reporting on the big-name and inspirational entrepreneurs in town for the Global Entrepreneurs Summit, and about the great stories being told about African small businesses? More so at an event being held in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time and which has the major potential to change economic fortunes?

Local media belatedly scrambled to catch up and unpack the economic consequences of the visit, but by then Obama was in Ethiopia, and the entrepreneurs half out the door. The fall out continues.

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