During a farewell party hosted in her honour by her former newsroom colleagues at the Nation in a Nairobi restaurant in 2015, American journalist Susan Linnee delivered a short but memorable speech in which she challenged the conscience of Kenya’s media.
“I want you people to know that you have a beautiful country. Kenya is a special country in this region, and it has the potential to be great. I love this country. Do not let your leaders destroy it with corruption and tribal politics. Hold them to account. Be bold in your reporting and keep exposing the corruption scandals. Don’t let your country down,” she said, her voice flailing slightly.
Susan’s exhortation will resonate with many people in the media today faced with the daily challenges of covering another political crisis that threatens to consume the country’s institutions and further sour ethnic relations.
Two disputed presidential elections in two-and-a-half months have left the country badly polarised along its usual ethnic fault lines.
Caught in the crossfire are the media trying to accommodate the competing attentions of political elites in a society increasingly tolerating hate.
Can the media soak up the pressure, maintain their watchdog role and save the country from destruction by reckless political elites?
Well, in Susan’s journalism book, it didn’t even have to come to this. If the local media people hadn’t taken to feeding the monster over the years, they would have easily averted a situation where they and everyone else find themselves at the mercy of a few power-hungry control-freaks.
AP journalist Hrvoje Hranjski, who worked with Susan during her first tour of duty as the American news agency’s Nairobi bureau chief between 1996 and 2004, recalls observing her departed colleague’s fidelity to the credo that the role of journalism is to speak truth to power.
“She always focused on how a story impacted ordinary lives,” Hranjski, who now works on the AP’s Asia Desk, is quoted as saying in an AP obituary published in the New York Times on Monday when Susan succumbed to brain tumour at a Minneapolis hospice. “That was her. She really didn’t care about officialdom and government. She was really more about ordinary folks.”
She was 75 at the time of her death.
On her second and last stint in the newsroom as a consultant editor at the Nation for nine years until 2015, she was just as stubborn trying to nudge editors and reporters at Kenya’s biggest media house towards public interest journalism.
Susan was rabidly critical of a media culture that, in her view, tended to elevate politics above everything else in society and showed the politicians too much respect while relegating the more serious issues affecting the ordinary folks to the back burner.
She had a dim view of the editing stylebook that required reference to newsmakers with titles before their surnames and stories that went on and on mentioning every political operative at a fundraising event – down to the ruling party branch chairman.
But she would reserve her sharpest criticism in her regular review bulletins, where she highlighted editing errors in the newspapers, for front page headlines that more often than not featured the name of this or that prominent politician.
If she encountered a brief report about a family who had lost their child to malaria farther back in the book, for example, she would be livid at an opportunity missed to tell the bigger story of Kenya’s public health crisis, expose the mediocrity in public service and hold the country’s corrupt leadership to account.
My Sunday Nation column had everything to do with the more important role of mentoring she had taken on in the newsroom besides the routine dirty job of pointing out editing errors and exposing our professional flaws.
Some time in 2010 I took to critiquing our coverage of issues by posting one-liners on the office mailing list, just for the fun of it. But Susan somehow saw a journalistic talent in there.
“Jack, you are so contrarian. Your sarcasm should be developed. You should consider writing a regular column,” she told me one day.
When a new-look Sunday Nation was unveiled later that year, I took my chance and asked the then managing editor, Eric Obino, and chief sub-editor Enoch Wambua (now Kitui Senator) if they could run a blog I had written recently on the constitutional referendum in the small empty space next to the obituaries. The rest is history.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one privileged to have learnt at the feet of the matriarch who first came to Kenya as a young tourist in the 1960s.
Many more benefited from those long Tuesday lectures at the Sunday Nation review meetings.