Political scientist Bernard Cohen is famous for having observed that the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”.For the purposes of this article, let us substitute press for media. After all, all communication media is equally covered by Cohen’s observation.
Nearly 20 years into our political freedom, it is not a heresy to suggest that the dominant narrative in the mass commercial media is not one that reflects the views, fears, concerns and general stories of the majority of South Africans.
Other than the public broadcaster and a splattering of what one can call black newspapers and radio stations, the media is still largely white in composition and content. And this is reflected in what they tell their audiences to think about.
I know there will be protestations supported by statistics to weaken my case, but although the ownership has been diversified, the voices – or at least the ideological outlook of the general mass media – is not reflective of all.
Let me state quickly that I am not suggesting that the media is pro-white, but it is certainly reflects the views of whites more than those of black people. The only black people whose voices are reflected in the media are the upper class. Millions of voices are still not heard.
Whose fault is this? I think the blame lies squarely at the door of black business and the ruling ANC.
Let me start with the latter. For a party that led what primarily was a propaganda war against the apartheid rulers, for some reason when it assumed power, the ANC took its eyes off the ball and forgot the importance of propaganda.
Joined by the new black business class, the ANC focused on the other side of the economy. Let’s call it the tangible side. Everyone went out to acquire mining, construction, resources and other assets and the media was left to its own devices.
Yes the likes of the late Dr Nthato Motlana through NAIL and the unions’ investment companies invested in the likes of etv and Primedia. We know that NAIL finally failed and their media assets were sold to Times Media Group (then Avusa Media).
Not to cast aspersions on e.tv and Talk Radio 702, which is owned by Primedia, I still am not convinced that these media represent enough diversity of views and voices. And yes, this is a subjective view which I am willing to back.
To misquote a friend and an established media man of note, Mzimkhulu Malunga – CEO of Urban Brew – the media do not know anything “south of Auckland Park”.
If you know Johannesburg well, you will know that Malunga, ever the outspoken opinion leader, meant that the world starts getting darker the further south you go from Auckland Park.
And what happens today? You hear tons of black people complaining that the media is “racist” and still portrays black people in a poor fashion. The ANC or at least some of its leaders has been known to feel that the mass media is against it and transformation in general.
I do not believe that the media owners at least have an agenda against black people or even against transformation. It would be a very defeatist and bad business practice.
But expecting white journalists, editors and presenters to wake up post 1994 and generously change their own view of the world and to enthusiastically start seeking and entertaining “new” and differing views is simply naive and silly.
People’s view of the world is informed by their realities, which realities are formed by past, prejudices, upbringing and influences among others. Objectively, white people do not – and dare I say will never – know enough about black people.
Only the other day when President Jacob Zuma was visiting Eldorado Park, callers on 702 were asking where on earth Eldos was. Well, it is further “south of Auckland Park”.
When white people write or call newspaper to say “Cape Town is so beautiful” they do not mean the Cape Town metro, they mean the city. Because there is no way they would mean that Khayelitsha, Bishop’s Lavis and Imizamo Yethu, are beautiful. The narrative is different.
Therefore, we find ourselves still at a space in time where we still need a diverse media. We need more voices to give us more things to think about. Currently, the narrative is pretty narrow – corruption, crime, greed, poor governance etc.
This is not necessarily an untrue narrative. No, let me rephrase, it is true. But it is also equally true that the corporate world is still very white and male at the top, that these white bosses earn obscenely far more than their black employees, that poor domestics and farm workers still experience racist treatment from their bosses, white European immigrants that are committing untold and violent crimes and that more than 70% of government tenders still go to white businesses.
Somebody must lead us to think about these things too, not just crime, corruption and bad governance.
Black people must invest in media, firstly because it is a good business, but also because we need a diversity of voices. But we also need more black people criticising the ANC government when it messes up, so that they cannot hide behind racism or lack of transformation.
We need more voices beyond Auckland Park. We need black mass media that is not part of the public broadcaster. We also need independent media where diversity does not necessarily translate to government mouthpiece, an accusation that has been made against The New Age, and not without merit.
If we fail to do that, the transformation of the media is going to take long. Just like it is happening in rugby and cricket, where 20 years on, we are grudgingly celebrating 30% of the players being black.
If we don’t do this, we will continue to think about the same things that afflict only those north of Auckland Park.
Rams Mabote is a journalist, spin doctor, connector, author and MC. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote.
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