Journalism that’s right and wrong at the same time


Journalism that’s right and wrong at the same time

Should the media provide a platform for dangerous ideas or people who threaten society, asks ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


JOURNALISTS and writers often face difficult decisions about self-censorship, the need to “chase the story” and an understanding of the role they play in an important and necessary part of society.

Having the privilege of being a columnist and essayist, I am pleased to say I have earned the right to decide on my own topics, and to write what I like in the way I choose to write it. This comes with the privilege of ignoring or refusing to platform ideas and people whom I find dangerous to society — a subjective conclusion, I  admit, though in most cases not without substance. It is this last point that I want to discuss, starting by taking a step back.

Many years ago, an editor arrived at Sowetan for a 12-month secondment. I had just been appointed as political correspondent and posted to the parliamentary press gallery. The editor was experienced and highly respected by the company that owned Sowetan at the time. He was an imposing fellow. He stood (probably) two metres tall and had a dominant presence. He was seconded to our newspaper to help our transition to becoming a best-selling title with the highest readership in the country. He was good at his job. It’s for someone else to decide whether we represented the best journalism.

Anyway, the worst piece of advice he once gave me was to “think about the banner… then write the story”. The banner — those posters you see along the road — and the headline, he explained, are what attract readers and sell newspapers. He was not wrong, but he was not right either.

While I was by no means an exceptional correspondent (I was middling, at best), I saw my task as getting as close to the truth as possible. Along the way I had to talk to politicians — anyone from Piet “Skiet" Rudolph, Magnus Malan, Adriaan Vlok and Tony Leon to Nelson Mandela, Tiaan van der Merwe and Thabo Mbeki. It was the early-to-mid-1990s and I was professionally obliged to listen to and report “all sides” of the story. I will leave to the reader to accept or reject that professional obligation.

Providing a platform

As journalists — especially those in broadcast media — we are faced with the question of whether we should provide a platform for the reproduction of dangerous ideas and for people who are a threat to society. This brings me to two TV interviews in the past few weeks: one with former US president Donald Trump on CNN, the other with Julius Malema, the man who would be president of South Africa, on the SABC. The interviewees were given an opportunity to explain themselves and the policies they represented.

The CNN interview was described as a triumph for Trump and a disaster for journalism. Trump’s advisers were well pleased that the former president received free airtime.

“They can’t believe he is getting an hour on CNN with an audience that cheers his every line and laughs at his every joke," said New York Times reporter Jonathan Swan in live coverage on  the newspaper's website.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said the network gave Trump “a platform” to spread the appeal of “a growing, violent, nativist, fascist-like movement”.

Chris McGreal wrote in The Guardian that CNN “treated Trump as an entertainer not a hostile politician by giving him hours of airtime to spout freely because he was good for ratings, and therefore profits”. The “ratings” and “profits” references are reminiscent of the advice I received to see the appeal of the headline and the banner, then write the story.

The Poynter Institute, an important source of Western European ideas about journalism, went to great lengths to defend the idea of objectivity and impartiality but concluded, nonetheless, that the CNN presentation of Trump’s townhall meeting “was about revenue”.

Turning to the platforming of Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has introduced to South Africa a brand of politics that is at once vengeful, nativist — what I consider to be an ethno-nationalism of a particular kind — and militarist, with constant threats of violence.

Following extended research, I have established distinct parallels and homologies between Malema and the various forms of fascism of the past 100 years or so. Some of the cornerstone ideas and actions of Malema and his militants are powerful reminders of proponents of inter-war fascism, notably Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and share tendencies with fascists who have come and gone over the past seven decades. If all goes well I should produce a manuscript for publication by the end of the year.

We can bicker and agree or disagree about the idea of fascism. We may also ask whether it is acceptable to provide a platform to someone who threatens “non-Africans”, speaks about genocide, embraces the idea of violence and bloodshed, and generally rattles off strings of logical fallacies and non-sequiturs without journalists breaking his stride by questioning what he says. Nobody, it seems, dares to question Malema directly about his threats and the biblical punishment he constantly suggests.

Stenographic reportage

The Trump interview may have been a general disaster for journalism in the US but it was conducted, also, by a dreadful and terribly weak interviewer. Kaitlan Collins of CNN “allowed Trump to repeatedly claim” falsehoods and “stuck doggedly to her comparatively procedural questions [and] a relatively bloodless line of questioning about his deadly, racist immigration policies”, the writer Joan Walsh explained.

Malema is rarely put under critical scrutiny beyond almost stenographic reportage. His SABC interview was conducted by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, son of the multimillionaire advocate Dali Mpofu, who is a high-ranking EFF official. Mpofu-Walsh was especially pliant, normalising a political leader whose thoughts are never far away from violence and revenge.

One of the findings of my research has been the way that Mussolini and Hitler were either treated with kid gloves, dismissed as inconsequential or ignored by prominent newspapers such as The New York Times. A good starting place for a sense of the way the newspaper behaved is the book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper.

Much of the media ignored Mussolini and Hitler until it was too late. So, should the media provide a platform for potentially dangerous political leaders as embodied, in my view, by Malema. An easy answer would be “yes”. There can and should be no censorship. Yet providing the likes of Malema with uncritical access to platforms serves to normalise and even valorise someone who may well turn out to be the greatest post-apartheid danger to South Africa.

Giving Malema airtime or newspaper space is sometimes considered to be driven by “objectivity” and “fairness”, but this is not our first rodeo. There are among us veteran journalists who have fought painful battles, who continue to battle away, and who have never quite sold their souls to publications for a large payday. There are times when it is impossible to be objective.  

Journalists and writers, public intellectuals or social critics, in general, rarely occupy a place in society that is value-free. The journalist is not an automaton whose responses are programmed or a technical entity unaffected by society and social relations. Everyone who writes starts from a position built on a range of subjectivities. We are human.

The discrimination loop

As individuals, journalists, writers, public intellectuals and social critics discriminate in a continuous loop. We take, at any one time, any one of a range of actions, and cannot escape the ways that changing circumstances alter our actual positions as well as our ideas. Under these elastic conditions, it becomes almost impossible to imagine objectivity, least of all when this demand or expectation is built on a system of subjective decision-making. We make subjective decisions about which stories to cover, which sources to consult and which to ignore. 

We come back, again, to the central question: should we give everyone the same hearing on the basis of “objectivity”, thereby giving moral equivalence to dangerous and violent people and ideas, and people who (we think or believe) are progressive, peaceable and committed to the common good and social justice? 

The biggest problem, I believe, is that in the mainstream media, heavily reliant on advertising, subscriptions, sales and “ratings”, we are forced to consider what sells (what’s on the banner or in the headline) long before we grapple with accuracy, truth, even objectivity, and conceptions of the role of journalists and journalism in social democratic societies.

We cannot turn to censorship and deny a voice to people with whom we disagree. We also cannot turn our backs on the conflict of the day, least of all when it comes with threats of violence based on ethnicity, religion, race, nativism and scapegoating of others. Somewhere in the midst of all this, we have to make decisions. We have to break from the impossibilities of either/or without destroying the truth. I’m not sure how we can do all of that.

♦ VWB ♦

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