That the piece focuses on Gourevitch’s work is a function of his position as the most high-profile journalistic voice on the subject in New York, where both this magazine and his main outlet, The New Yorker, are published. He may not like the public position, centrality to the Rwanda debate, or scrutiny of his work that his success brings, but it is his to bear.
Of course, journalists were not taking “dictation” from Gourevitch. Rather his writing captured an image of Kagame that existed at the time. He didn’t create or invent it; he just described it better than most, and in a magazine that carries more influence than most, and in a book (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families) that sold more copies than most.
The Rwanda narrative with Kagame at its heart captured by Gourevitch (and others) was powerful and so it held sway. But as that story has been assaulted by more recent events and revelations, this shift has not been reflected in his reported work.
I would point readers who want to draw their own conclusions to two of Gourevitch’s New Yorker articles that bookend his Rwanda reporting thus far: “After The Genocide” (1995) and “The Life After” (2009). The latter is analyzed in some detail in my article and clearly illustrates my argument that Gourevitch’s narrative does not reflect recent events and revelations.
Contrary to Gourevitch’s claims, “The Vanishing” (1997) contains plenty of kind words about Laurent Kabila, including the description of Congolese liberation hero Patrice Lumumba as his “mentor.”
I know that Gourevitch has not written about Meles Zenawi (a basic search on the New Yorker website reveals this), but what I wrote is that, at the time, he fell for the then-popular concept of the “New African leadership” which included Zenawi.
Gourevitch’s complaint that my piece wasn’t sufficiently fact-checked is nothing more than rhetoric and wishful thinking. Nor is this article a lone voice; rather, it makes explicit what many discuss in private, surely one of the aims of worthwhile journalism.
I spoke to leading Africanist professors such as David Anderson at Oxford and Rene Lemarchand at Florida to explore the intriguing distance between media and academic views of Kagame and his regime. For the same reason, I interviewed human-rights advocates and experts on Congo.
Although Chris McGreal of The Guardian was one of the only journalists whose quotes made the final edit, I interviewed others who had reported the Congo massacres at the time. The difference is that in Gourevitch’s writing, there is something akin to an acceptance of these atrocities because of the weight of the earlier ones committed during the genocide.
Howard French was another interviewee and I would not presume to defend his position myself. He was not an “overseer” of any kind. My connection to CJR is simply as a commissioned writer and my connection to French was interviewer to interviewee.
I included his comments about the Holocaust because it was interesting that Lemarchand had made the same point.
The article is largely based on what Gourevitch has written about Rwanda. What was striking was how much more measured he was in talking when I asked him to respond to his critics, as reported at length in the article.
Clearly Gourevitch takes a critical assessment of his work very personally. But the thesis of the article is that there are varied views of Kagame, that they are shifting, that we as journalists should try to represent those changes as they occur, that none of this is monolithic, that there is a debate to be had.
This article and Gourevitch’s response are a contribution to that wider, and I believe valuable, discussion.
Howard French responds: The best evidence, ironically, of Philip Gourevitch’s outsized influence on the issue of Central Africa (or at least of his belief in it) comes in his unmeasured response to this very measured and at all times respectful criticism of his work. At this late date, it seems to come as a surprise to Gourevitch that informed people could disagree with him, except perhaps as the result of an unholy cabal.
On that subject, let me just say that I had never heard of Tristan McConnell when he called me to request an interview for his CJR article, whose preparation I had known nothing whatsoever about. Moreover, I initially resisted granting an interview because I have never thought it useful to personalize the discussion of the fates of millions of people, and to encourage a me-versus-him debate might do just that.