A tale of two Mogadishus

A tale of two Mogadishus

In media, timing is key to breaking news and getting recognized for original journalism. But it can also sting you, as Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler learned during the Arab Spring after publishing, respectively, a glowing profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and a list of the “15 Best Places to See Right Now” that included Libya.

Today, the New York Times fell victim to the timing trap. The paper led its print edition with a story by Jeffrey Gettleman entitled “A Taste of Hope in Somalia’s Battered Capital,” only for a suicide bomber to attack a gathering of Somali officials this morning in Mogadishu’s National Theater, killing the heads of Somalia’s Olympic committee and soccer federation, among others.

Gettleman had even mentioned the National Theater in his piece (key lines in bold):

Outside, on Mogadishu’s streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere – new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially “Somali Idol.”

Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback. The Shabab, the fearsome insurgents who once controlled much of the country, withdrew from the city in August and have been besieged on multiple sides by troops from the African Union, Kenya, Ethiopia and an array of local militias.

Today the theater is a scene not of cultural renaissance but of carnage:

Yet only weeks ago, when the theater was reopened, the atmosphere at the Chinese-built complex very much matched Gettleman’s description:

On Twitter, some people are tweaking the Times for being a bit trigger-happy on the optimism (“NYT story on #Somalia illustrates the danger of proclaiming peace in such places; new violence was bound to happen,” argued the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin), while others are simply discouraged (“Wanted so badly to believe NYT’s article on Somalia today,” photographer Ed Suter wrote. “Guess it was a bit premature”).

The Times, for its part, has put the two stories into a dialogue of sorts on the World page.

And it’s worth pointing out that Gettleman tempered his report with the sober assessment that Mogadishu “and the rest of Somalia still have a long way to go,” citing a recent attack on the presidential palace in the capital as just one example.

“Who says it’s just bad news coming out of Somalia?” Gettleman tweeted early this morning. Indeed, any positive news out of war-torn Somalia is welcome. In the news business, sadly, you can never pick the right day to highlight a heartwarming story.