Editors note: Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington, is in Ghana with the NBC News team following President Barack Obama and the first family.
By Albert Oetgen, Managing Editor NBC News Washington
ACCRA – President Obama wowed Ghana's Parliament today with an old-fashioned stemwinder, one part emotional homecoming and one part economic Sermon on the Mount. The White House message machinists billed it a "major speech," the Africa component of Obama foreign policy: Embrace democracy, build solid financial and social institutions and jettison corruption, he preached. The parliament's enthusiastic response: "Amen."
What is striking here is the apparent absence of cynicism, an institution embedded in American culture and one Mr. Obama would certainly discourage his African audiences from adopting. America's own overdeveloped brand of cynicism is largely fueled these days by increasingly tired and numbingly hackneyed media blathering. Today, one roomful of American journalists listened as Mr. Obama declared, "the 21st Century is going to be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well."
The parliament broke into enthusiastic applause. Somewhere in the press room a reporter muttered, "not so much Lagos." It was easy, and cynical, and an example of the deteriorating state of affairs in the gnarled institutions that have inherited the responsibility of preserving the Great American Republic.
The giant, heaving beast that encompasses American journalism's elite arrived here early this morning after a stop in Italy. A long look at Rome might do the beast some good – more time thinking about why the Forum is in ruins, less time perusing the wine lists and fueling the decline of our own Republic which, while far from ancient, looks substantially long in the tooth from the box seats in Accra.
Mara Schiavocampo has been in Ghana since Monday, preparing for, and covering Mr. Obama's trip for NBC News. She and a colleague, Anthony Galloway, are "digital journalists." What that means is they use cutting-edge equipment to turn stories on a dime. They file for the network and cable news programs, of course, but they live and breathe on the Internet. They are the new wave of journalism.
As the press corps descended on Accra today with backpacks full of preconceived notions, the striking thing about Mara's take on things was her utter lack of cynicism. Arguably, that freshness is grounded in her engagement with new institutions. She sees hope and possibility in 21st century American journalism, exactly the entrepreneurial spirit Obama endorsed today.
Mara had assembled a collection of the local papers, with headlines that suggested the media in Ghana are less aggressive – and implicitly less competent – than American reporters and editors, producers and correspondents.
"AKWAABA (Welcome), PRESIDENT OBAMA.....Help us stop cyber fraud," a headline shouted from one front page. Another simply said: "Our Day of Pride." But Mara had gone beyond the headlines this week. She said this should not be interpreted as evidence of a weak, compliant media culture. The reality is quite the opposite, she said.
Radio talk show hosts here engage listeners in intelligent debate. Serious public affairs programs are popular and lengthy. Commercial considerations don't drive the mediation of public discourse.
"It's not a sound bite culture like ours," Mara said. Informed reporters ask questions intent upon eliciting information. "Gotcha" journalism hasn't infected the press here to the extent it has in older cultures, where the old institutions are constantly transmitting perilous signals of serious weakness.