Even in the apartheid years, when repression was rampant, there were journalists who excelled. Today it is rare to read, see or hear something that is really outstanding.
The skimpiness of political and economic analysis is matched only by the clothing worn by pin-ups in tabloids and some magazines. It’s not because we lack talented writers; they are there, but news judgement has become flaccid, with few exceptions.
Yes, there is a brief revival in political jousting, but it’s less because we’ve suddenly developed courage and more because there is an election looming and opposing sides are feeding journalists. As we approach April, more dirt will be pushed to the surface, but how long will it last after that? The way legislation is going, the ruling party seems singularly determined to limit the freedom of expression the constitution promises.
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning !_LT_EMLegacy of ashes:!_LT_/EM The history of the CIA, by New York Times writer Tim Weiner, carries a disturbing analysis of the United States’ inept but dangerous intelligence agency. Weiner carries a comment by Carl Bernstein of !_LT_EMWashington Post!_LT_/EM and Watergate fame who wrote about Second World War propaganda and the failures it created in post-war reporting. “The first post-war generation of journalists entered the profession; they shared the same political and professional values as their mentors. Ã¢Â€Â˜You had a gang of people who worked together during World War II and never got over it,’ said one CIA official.”
I read that and thought: Damn, he’s writing about us as a society, although journalists active during apartheid in reporting repression, or trendy lefties as some sneeringly referred to us, have responded differently to the journalists Bernstein writes of. Post-liberation journalists with strong struggle credentials are now among the harshest critics of failures in government.
Fourteen years after the first democratic election many in society and the media, however, speak and write as though PW Botha is still wagging his finger in Tuynhuys. For some, harping on past injustices is manipulative, it is a way to lever advantage; for others it is a way of sweeping blame under the apartheid carpet and avoiding responsibility for present failures.
And there is a generation of struggle wannabe’s Ã¢Â€Â“ those who weren’t involved, but want to pretend they were, or those who see the present as an opportunity; a way to buy false loyalties or benefits with those in power. They have not been journalists, they have been praise singers and accessories to power struggles; justifying unjustifiable failures in delivery.
Democracy and progress thrive on analysis and well-researched critiques. But with few exceptions, our media today is mealy-mouthed, trivial, lazy and non-interrogatory. In a disturbingly large proportion of that which claims to be journalism, we have failed readers and our duty to democracy. Too many are political lapdogs instead of society’s watchdog. The era of President Thabo Mbeki was brilliant at cowing the media with the full assistance of many editors and news management executives.
Former opposition leader Tony Leon said at a Gordon Institute of Business Science Forum in Johannesburg recently that, with AIDS denialism as an example, Mbeki “tried to break the truth on AIDS, he would issue reports culled from elsewhere and cut off the bits he disagreed with. There was considerable acquiescence in the media and the one or two who spoke out were persecuted.
“Too few journalists followed the example of Kelvin MacKenzie, then editor of the Sun newspaper (UK), who decided to support John Major in a British election, but when Major failed on a key promise, MacKenzie phoned Major who was then prime minister and said, Ã¢Â€Â˜I have a bucket of shit and I’m going to splatter it over your head in the !_LT_EMSun!_LT_/EM tomorrow’. And he did.”
According to Leon, those in journalism who were “stenographers for the National Party” have in many instances been replaced by “praise singers for the ANC”. He said, “The dogs of society were quiet, now there is a more rancorous uproar because there is going to be a change of president.” But for how long? And how possible will that be with the gags parliament is lining up for the media?
In an interview he observed that, with Zimbabwe, “South Africa was actively compliant in tyranny for eight years and when Zimbabwe’s policy failed to change, we did not change track. Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, when whites tyrannise blacks no amount of sanctions is enough, when blacks tyrannise blacks any amount of sanctions is too much.”
The question needs to be asked: Why did no South African journalist write that? And if a South African journalist wrote that, who would have published it? Or would such a journalist have to resort to unpaid blogging?
Carolyn Dempster, a veteran South African journalist who most often works for the BBC, says newspapers are “increasingly running stories they can’t provide adequate evidence for. They have entered the realm of smear, disinformation and bad journalism. I no longer know that what I am reading is credible; I go with journalists I trust and even they sometimes get it wrong or push an agenda.
“There are younger and younger people behind microphones who don’t know the right questions and have no experience. Opinion is more important than fact. Thabo Mbeki created a sycophantic media. When Fergal Keane (a BBC journalist) asked Jacob Zuma, Ã¢Â€Â˜Are you a crook?’ Mathatha Tsedu (then City Press editor) wrote: What has it come to when South African journalists are too afraid to ask that question because they and their families are threatened?”
However, Tsedu is a known Mbeki supporter. What a complex path we navigate when we tie our objectives to today’s political hero.
Veteran journalist Mothobi Mutloatse observes: “There is a paucity of talent in newsrooms. There is limited historical perspective. Politicians are taking advantage of these youngsters. They intimidate and co-opt them. Government is encouraging PR journalism.
“I would have expected youngsters to be far more radical but that has not happened. There is very little journalistic analysis any more. Editors use intellectuals and academics for analysis. Non-journalists dictate the pace of change; who is in and who is out Ã¢Â€Â“ it’s all opinion with very few facts gained by the footslogging of good journalism.”
Why has this happened? Because columnists are cheaper than journalists (many columnists will write for nothing or very cheap rates because having a column in a news publication gives them the status to charge steep consulting rates), especially journalists who go out and cover stories.
Too much of the media now rely on publishing press releases with journalist by-lines, or lifting stories from the internet or telephone interviewing.
The accountants who have ruled media houses for many years now have eroded press freedom by their persistent cost cutting.
Mutloatse continues: “What is sad is that some media houses have deliberately sought young, impressionable people who don’t ask questions. They accept authority and take advantage of the glamour of the position. They go to functions and gather freebies. Why should they read and do analysis?
“Too few travel to Zimbabwe to interrogate the challenges there. They have not unpacked the rumbles in the ruling party. People are not interpreting.
“Journalists are either supporters of the ruling alliance, sometimes neutral, but never critical. It’s all opinion and rumour.” Largely because too many editors won’t allow vigorous analysis.
Mutloatse believes a major problem is a “lack of diversity in media ownership; it changes from one regime to another but maintains a narrow focus. The current media is the most backward we have experienced.”
Part of the problem he suggests is a lack of older journalists to mentor the young intake. This is mostly a problem of low salaries, but too, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has constricted advancement for many fine journalists.
“All the factions in the ruling party have been using leaks to manipulate the news. At the weekend it is not journalistic endeavour but propaganda we read.
“The ruling party has said: Ã¢Â€Â˜Play the game guys, it is your patriotic duty.’ And because we lack strong activism in the media, more and more journalists become government PR spokespeople. In the end, when the range of new repressive bills against press freedom become law, there will be no-one left to question.”
Laws to watch
Ã¢Â€Â¢ The Regulation of Interception of Communication and Provision of Communication-related Information Amendment Bill allows for the tapping of landline and mobile phone calls on the orders of a judge.
Ã¢Â€Â¢ The Protection of Information Bill would limit access to details of criminal investigations and police and law enforcement methods as well as “economic, scientific or technological matters vital to the Republic’s stability, security, integrity and development”. Illegal disclosure carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. The bill applies to all organs of state, natural and juristic persons, and includes a facility or installation that has been declared a national key point. The declaration of a specific area as a national key point is left to the discretion of the Minister of Defence without public scrutiny of his decisions. It is an offence to disseminate information in respect of a national key point.
Charlene Smith is a journalist, author and consultant.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (October 2008).