Opinionista Wessel Van Rensburg 26 February 2014

The media vs. Helen Zille: Cowboys don’t cry

Journalists are hunting in packs armed with self-righteous rage, trying to silence Helen Zille. But why would they do that?

South African journalists are incensed at Helen Zille, the opposition politician, who accused a journalist, Carien du Plessis, of bias on Twitter. On top of that, Zille had the temerity to claim that this bias was influenced by racial politics . And then, to add insult to injury, these journalists are outraged that she has not apologised and that she keeps defending her position.

Race matters. Especially in a country with South Africa’s history. Race is often the key to understanding how power operates in society. There should not be a general rule that says race is not allowed to be a part of a debate. On that I’m sure we all can agree.

There has, however, been a subtler accusation against Zille. That Zille is “playing the race card”. In other words: appealing to race in a superficial, gratuitous, and unjustified way to win an argument. A diversion, if you will. Is that really the case here?

Zille claimed that Du Plessis felt she had to curry favour, because she is white. There was also the suggestion that Du Plessis was ashamed of being Afrikaans, although Zille never actually used the word “Afrikaans” or “Afrikaner”. The conclusion was that, because of this shame, Du Plessis’ reporting is biased. It is hard to prove definitively whether Zille is correct or not. Is her argument demonstrably superficial, gratuitous or unjustified? No. Is it a valid argument for Zille?—?or anybody else for that matter— to make? I think so.

Is it offensive? Yes, she is accusing a journalist?—?at best— of being biased, at worst of having no principles. Who is this offensive to? Journalists that think they are objective, and an establishment press that thinks it writes without fear of favour about any topic.

What to do with this offensive statement if you are a journalist? Argue with her. Refute her. But don’t try to shut her up. Carien du Plessis has been mum, but other journalists have been imploring Zille to shut up and repent. How very odd.

Ask yourself, would journalist du jour, Glen Greenwald?—?the man behind the Snowden revelations— have kept quiet if a politician attacked him? Would he have called for them to be silent or for their phone to be taken away? No. Quite the opposite; he would have relished it. Bring it on.

South African journalists, however, do not seem to want to argue with politicians, because they are still wedded to the old-fashioned view from nowhere. This way of thinking about media is closely linked to the idea that they are somehow special; that journalism is a professional calling. It’s not; it’s something you do. If you get paid for doing it, you are one of the lucky few.

Jeff Rozen defines it well:

“What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned– like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, “Madam, I have a PhD.” In journalism, real authority starts with reporting… If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

Is it prudent for a politician to be speak her mind like this? Most spin-doctors?—?especially traditional ones—would certainly advise against it. There are so many risks, so many ways you can lose control of “the message”. Social media gurus, on the other hand, preach the gospel of authenticity. The public might for once like a straight-talking politician. Both sides are right. Being real helps heaps —if a person does not say stupid things.

But journalists? They should welcome it with open arms! Is this not what we want, a unfiltered view into the dark heart —or not— of a politician? If nothing else, it makes for great copy. DM

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