A friend of mine mystified me the other day when he told me that there suddenly was an increasing number of people – especially black – with PhDs in this country, and this saddened him.
But he is an academic, and academic types can sometimes be a study in subterfuge and obfuscation, so I had to patiently wait for his explanation of this contradictory statement.
He then explained that, while there was an increased number of those certified to use the letters PhD after their names, there was no corresponding increase in knowledge generation. The new PhDs can’t articulate themselves, especially in writing.
This resulted in the media using the usual suspects – a handful of commentators on contemporary socio-political debates – as the dial-a-quote sounding-board in the ongoing debate about our nation-building project.
His point is that having acquired a piece of paper, many of these people do very little to learn to write well and thus generate and document knowledge. An academic with no writing skills is like a soldier whose fighting skills are limited to learning manuals.
My friend’s analogy got me thinking about a slightly related subject in journalism – the oftmentioned juniorisation of our newsrooms, which is being blamed for the somewhat parlous state of our journalism today. Juniorisation might be a factor, but I think the problem is more complex than that; more insidious.
It’s not just a problem of technical skills. Our new young corps of journalists is more academically trained than the previous generation – but they are coming into a field in the grips of a new philosophical affliction.
Every time those newspapers with a strong tradition of investigative journalism break a huge story, the natural reflex of the competitors has been to run a straight-faced denial of that particular story. Impressionable young journalists have been led to believe this is the essence of journalism.
Under normal circumstances, journalists finding themselves beaten by opposition on a story always work hard on an even better followup, adding value to a particular tributary of a great debate.
In a country driven by political strife these schisms only give politicians ammunition: Citing the oft-repeated denials as an indication of a lack of credibility of our press, the politicians can, as we have seen, easily insinuate themselves into the hearts of the electorate as innocent people being used as punching bags by a press with its own nefarious agendas. Put the proposed media tribunals into the equation, then you have a potentially compromised press.
When the Sunday Times first broke the story of Tony Yengeni’s discounted Mercedes Benz, daily papers were quick to run denials, citing Yengeni and his sympathisers as sources. There were no independent investigations to add value to the story.
It is now history that Yengeni, based on that initial exposÃƒÂ©, was finally sentenced to a jail term. Again, when the same newspaper reported on the fact that police were going to charge Jacob Zuma with rape, an opposition paper was quick to run a denial the same day the Sunday Times published.
Zuma was ultimately charged with rape – the basis of the paper’s story; he was acquitted of the crime.
Yes, the Sunday Times was careless in its handling of the now famous Transnet story – and it did concede the fact on its front page of September 7. But I am raising these examples to illustrate this philosophical challenge facing us.
While academia is battling with certified PhDs who are failing to produce knowledge, which is their raison d’ÃƒÂªtre, the print media on the other hand is battling with an insidious disease of a lack of critical thinking and independent investigation. We seem to be getting content with knee-jerk denials.
The media is a watchdog for the public, and not a theatre for sibling bashing. We should be the sentinels guarding the town (good governance) from the encroachment of the enemy (general wrongdoing, especially bad governance). If we expend all our energies on petty in-fighting among ourselves, we will lose focus.
And we will have only ourselves to blame when our detractors erode the vestiges of independence we have.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist.
This article first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (October 2008)