For the most part, readers are oblivious to pundits who are generally swinging public views in various strategic directions. Glenda Nevill questions their role in the media.
Pundits are the people who unpack the news behind the news – the ones who explain the deep background behind the stories, and who analyse the reasons people in the news do and say the things they do.
We agree with them, or disagree; often vocally on talk radio or via online forums or letters to the editor. We rely on their expertise to clarify complex issues and, from there, hopefully draw our own informed conclusions. These pundits –analysts or commentators – have become a part of the news process.
Pundits often come under attack – especially by political parties, which accuse them of supporting their opposition. The ANC, though, is loudly vocal about perceived loyalties and have tried to draw parallels between ‘partisan’ pundits and the need for a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).
“Pundits are increasingly becoming an integral part of the media’s news gathering business and, indeed, how they are used and the value they bring to news reports require serious reflection,” writes Molotho Mothapo, the ANC Caucus’s head of communications in Parliament, in an opinion piece published in The Times.
“The punditocracy also has among its members suspicious pundits who seem to utilise media space to advance partisan viewpoints under the guise of the so-called objective intellectual commentary.”
“What exactly is a pundit?” asks Robbie Stammers, editor of Leadership. “According to the dictionary, it’s ‘a person who makes comments or judgments, especially in an authoritative manner; critic or commentator’. There’s certainly no shortage of that in the media these days.
“I personally don’t like to consider the people who write for Leadership as pundits, as I think it is used too often in a derogatory fashion. I would be slightly naive in saying that the definition is not correct in some ways. Each writer who is commissioned has his/her own take on a certain situation or individual. It is the role of the editor to make sure the end product is as ‘balanced’ and as completely factual as possible.”
James Myburgh, editor of Politicsweb, says editors should publish ideologically divergent viewpoints. “But they should make some sense and have a basic intellectual integrity to them. I also believe that analysts whose views accord with my own give completely objective analyses, while those who don’t are terribly partisan. Where I may differ with the ANC is on which are which.”
Editor of City Press Ferial Haffajee, on the other hand, prefers not to use pundits if she can possibly help it.
“There’s a tendency, due to the fact that newsrooms are smaller and political staff skeletal, to replace journalism with punditry,” she says. “Something I learnt from William Gumede, when I worked with him, is that we can be our own analysts. We can form our own views and unpack them for readers.
“If I do use pundits, I’ll use people who are right at the heart of the political machinery. Then I know their views or research is fresh. I don’t like to use ‘dial-a-quote’ pundits.”
Anton Harber, professor of journalism and media studies and director of the Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, believes commentators are often abused and misused by journalists, particularly in a lazy attempt to avoid proper reporting on a story. “When properly used, commentators play an important and valuable role. They can enhance thorough reporting, but they cannot substitute for it.”
Prince Mashele, head of the Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies and a pundit often quoted by the media to give insights in our political world, says: “The tendency to project prejudices as objective reality is more typical of political parties, and the ANC is not immune. The burden should be on the ANC to support its strange claims.”
Harber argues: “The ANC’s view on who is or is not objective is entirely partisan, so it is not to be taken too seriously. They have provided a list of those commentators who get furthest up their collective noses, so we know that these have a particular value. But this is not to say that others who are less critical of the government are not important for the value of what they say as well.”
On the subject of the ANC’s concerns about lopsided editors, the ANC has many pundits who push their own “partisan agenda”, says Stammers.
“In my opinion, South Africa has a far more ‘balanced’ reporting style and journalistic integrity than Europe and the States. Opinions are good, and debate is even better. This is what gets people talking, thinking, acting and doing.”
Eric Alterman, author of Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, says pundits are “people anointed by the media to give their opinions on things. Whether these people bring any special expertise to their subject is wholly at the discretion of those doing the anointing.”
“Of course, they are anointed by the media at their full discretion and I don’t see how it can be any other way. I do think, though, that the media should more often give us clarity on why they have quoted someone: is it because they are involved in the story, or are expert, or have done research or published in the area, or are just interesting citizens? It remains up to us as readers to judge their views and to judge the media for selecting them. Any media which consistently uses poor commentators or pundits makes a fool of itself and loses credibility,” says Harber.
Chris Whitfield, editor in chief of Independent Newspapers, which includes The Argus and the Cape Times, says: “Hopefully those doing the anointing do so in the best journalistic traditions, including those of balance, the requisite expertise and bringing fresh perspectives to issues. A lot of the people we use, for example, have already emerged as experts in other arenas (the academic one, for example).”
Harber believes that “commentators should be chosen only because they have something interesting to say and add to or clarify a story.”
But Mashele says that, in the same way that it is “unacceptable for anyone without a law degree to declare themselves a lawyer, so should it be repugnant for anybody to declare themselves a political analyst without a postgraduate degree in political science”.
“I think there is a need to widen the pool from which opinions are drawn. I think excellence and expertise should be sought out again,” says Myburgh. “At the moment, a pundit can be consistently wrong over a long period and they will still be regularly tapped for comment.”
Whitfield is constantly on the lookout for new commentators. “It is vital that we introduce new voices,” he says. “Younger ones and people from our different communities. Any newspaper worth its salt should be engaged in this search.”
Mothapo says that the media don’t use the services of “highly regarded intellectuals” such as Sipho Seepe, Xolelwa Mangcu and Ronald Suresh Roberts due to their perceived closeness to the ANC leaders or government, “and yet (Rhoda) Kadalie and company continue to enjoy space in the media”.
Does he have a point?
“No!” says Myburgh. “For instance, the last time I looked, Sipho Seepe was a special advisor to Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. That relationship precludes him from being an independent political analyst.”
Myburgh adds that problems arise when “you have ‘pundits’ writing about issues without declaring that a certain politician has sourced huge sums of money for them, or has promised them some lucrative position in the new future”.
“Political parties tend to see people who agree with them as objective and those who don’t as partisan,” says Whitfield. “There are, however, obviously commentators in this country who will routinely see things in a different light to the ANC – or, for that matter, the DA or any other political party. And there are one or two who might fail the objectivity test.”
Haffajee says she took a lot of flack from her liberal friends when, as editor of the Mail & Guardian, she used Ronald Suresh Roberts. “He gets up people’s noses,” she laughs. “Newspapers can’t be uniform, otherwise they’re colourless.” Then again, she says, editors have to be careful not to use a single “agent provocateur” to prod and poke simply for the sake of it.
City Press recently had the press ombud rule against it for an opinion piece by Andile Mngxitama, in which he implied that Ventersdorp mayor Kabelo Mashi was murdered by right-wing extremists. The article was challenged on the basis that Mngxitama got his facts wrong because a black man, Johannes Monatle, was convicted of the mayor’s murder in 2000, and that it propagated racial hatred.
Deputy ombudsman Johan Retief found that City Press published a one-sided story that ignored known facts about the case.
“I often differ with Andile, but his views yield much debate,” says Haffajee. “I disagreed vociferously with the ombud’s ruling, but what it did was ensure that we now check facts ourselves and don’t rely on columnists, especially when it comes to race and identity.”
Mashele says he understands his role as a pundit as being “to use my training and knowledge of politics to assist the uninitiated to make sense of the actions, decisions and lies of politicians – even as it is sometimes unpopular. Ultimately, I derive satisfaction from the hope that I’m helping strengthen democracy.”
Mothapo, in his piece in The Times, argues that guidelines are necessary for ensuring that the public is protected from analysts who manipulate media platforms for partisan ends.
Harber responds: “This is a view based on a deep misunderstanding of how news media works in a free and open society. The last criteria anyone would use for choosing commentators would be that they should make the ruling party happy or unhappy. That would be silly. It is valuable to debate how commentators are chosen and how they are used and presented, but ridiculous to think that the authorities could have a useful hand in making such decisions.”
Whitfield says he does have certain criteria by which commentators are selected. “The writer has to be well informed and able to write well. I have generally tried to get a balance of perspectives – across the political spectrum or, for example, pro and anti nuclear power.”
Stammers uses a pool of senior writers that “I depend upon and use in almost every edition. These writers follow a Leadership style guide that sets out the criteria concerning ‘balanced’ and non-biased reporting. However, I will admit to throwing the style guide out the window if a certain piece appeals to me from our readers’ point of view. In the same breath, though, it is important to differentiate between an opinion piece and commissioned editorial.”
But sometimes editors choose to print extreme views that seriously get the “consumer commentators” going. So it was when Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian, published a piece by Andile Mngxitama, who accused 5fm DJ Gareth Cliff of being a “white supremacist” for his widely publicised letter to government.
Harber is firm on the subject. “There is a very important place for extreme views, as long as they do not incite or cause harm. Imagine how boring media would be – and how poor our national debate would be – if our media only published the bland views of the centre, and we only read views we agree with. It would be like an intellectual placebo.”
This story was first published in The Media magazine.