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Today Show.

Zimbabwe's modern capital and magnificent scenery provided the backdrop. But America's values and national heritage set the agenda for an unprecedented effort by "Today Show" anchor Bryant Gumbel to bring African realities to American viewers.

Six "Today Show" broadcasts anchored from Africa, beginning Nov. 13, constituted a timely, deliberate, yet non-threatening assault on our misperception willful neglect of the continent to which one-eighth of our nation's people trace their ancestry.

Three years in the planning, "Todays" African journey is the product of a sustained by Gumbel -- the star of morning TV ratings -- to convince NBC to take a serious look at Africa's unparalleled diversity, cultural vitality and emerging democratic movements. Gumbel's goal, explicitly stated, was to help in "altering some misconceptions" and "developing some kind of a base constituency in things African, be they economic, social, political or whatever."

It is no coincidence that TV brought us this rare event the same week which brought a demythologized Malcolm X to mass-market film screens and a new president-elec to the black, inner-city streets of Washington. All three events are hopeful signposts toward a time when every strand of the American mosaic will finally receive fair treatment in public life and the mass media.

The opening image -- a panoramic view of Harare's modern skyline and bustling urban boulevards -- subtly but graphically challenged America's view of Africa as the continent of "famine, animals, jungle and discord." This image provided a wedge for a broad challenge to the mental baggage Americans bring to their rare moments of thinking about Africa.

Two segments in the first program -- on mass-media neglect and Hollywood distortion of African realities -- should be required viewing for TV and film studio bosses.

A visit to the slave houses of Goree Island in Senegal brought viewers face-to-face with the "savage crime against humanity" through which the ancestors of millions of Americans began the trauma of their unwilling journey to an enslaving New World.

A brief vignette on British colonialist John Cecil Rhodes discarded the white world's heroic myths about African explorers, explaining instead how Rhodes took African land by "force and deception," fighting a decade-long war to suppress fierce African resistance. After telling viewers that Rhodes saw himself as a nation-builder whose heroism would live throughout history, Gumbel starkly concluded, "In reality, he's dead -- and he was wrong."

From African history, "Today" moved to modern American reality, as our only honorable living ex-president, Jimmy Carter, movingly explained why he has devoted so much time in the past dozen years to African development and peace initiatives.

Carter exposed the nasty secret of American policy toward Africa: "We have much less interest in people who happen to be black or brown than we do in Europeans who are white. And we become obsessed when a few dozen people are killed in Bosnia, but we ignore tens of thousands of people that might be killed at the same time in, say, Mozambique or in Sudan or, increasingly now, in Liberia."

As American innocents abroad, Gumbel and cohost Katie Couric often got details wrong. One could quibble over silly factual mistakes -- such as their placement of the west African nation Cote D'Ivore "east " of Zimbabwe -- and some significant flaws and oversimplifications economic and political analysis. And there was the inevitable pandering to Americans' tendency to care more about wildlife and lush scenery than about Africa's 700 million human beings.

A focus on errors, however, would miss the significance of network television's most serious and sustained attempt to bring honest and diverse American images to a mass American audience.
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Author:Askin, Steve
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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