On February 2, 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk made a speech before Parliament announcing “a stunning array of political reforms”  that acted as a major step in the eventual dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. The African National Congress, the country’s main black opposition group to the ruling National Party, along with 33 other political groups was no longer considered illegal after de Klerk’s speech. Other major concessions were made, most notably the unconditional release from prison of black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela. “The time for talking has arrived,” de Klerk said. “And whoever still makes excuses does not really wish to talk.”
According to both the New York Times and the Washington Post, this event was a heavy blow against apartheid. But the way the two papers covered the story leaves the reader with two separate impressions. The respective headlines illustrate this point. The Times declared “In The Streets, Praise and Joy, and Also More Blood” . The Times story goes on to give a reaction piece to de Klerk’s speech. “Opponents of apartheid reacted enthusiastically,” and “The mood was one of celebration.” The words of de Klerk himself are never quoted in the Times’ story. We hear from the Johannesburg Star, a leader from one of the newly legalized political organizations, a former Member of Parliament and a business leader. All we are told about the actual speech is that de Klerk announced “the relaxation of restrictions.” The reader is not even informed of the announcement that Nelson Mandela will be released from prison until the fifth paragraph. Then the story underscores the fact that all is not well in South Africa by detailing the harsh police response to some celebrations. The reader is left feeling that social and political progress is being made in South Africa but it still has a ways to go.
The Washington Post told a different story, beginning with its headline: “South Africa Lifts Ban on Anti-Apartheid Groups; Nelson Mandela to be Freed, ANC Legalized, de Klerk Says” . The Post goes on to quote de Klerk in its lead while it details the major concessions in the next nine paragraphs. It waits until the 11th paragraph to make any mention of a response to these announcements. The Post’s story then goes back to de Klerk’s speech. By doing so it gets into the spirit in which the concessions were made. De Klerk is quoted as saying, “Every inhabitant will enjoy equal rights, treatment and opportunity.” When the president of a county that outlawed black opposition parties for the past 30 years and treated the vast majority of its citizens as inferior beings makes a statement declaring equal rights for everyone, you should probably quote him when he does. By focusing on de Klerk’s words in the Post’s story, the reader is left with the impression that this is truly a momentous occasion and the details need to be savored. The Times perhaps treated de Klerk’s speech as just that: words without action. And because of that they left his words out.
1. Washington Post, February 3, 1990, David B. Ottaway
2. New York Times, February 3, 1990, John F. Burns