Mental floss for the discerning
28 April 2017 02:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jackson Mthembu

Media lose veneer of objectivity with #ZumaMustFall

  • Jackson Mthembu
    Jackson-Mthembu.jpg
    Jackson Mthembu

    Jackson Mthembu is head of the ANC Sub-Committee on Communications. Read his Wikipedia profile here.

An even casual perusal of local and (interestingly) international coverage of South Africa the past week – particularly on the so-called #ZumaMustFall campaign, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the mass media have tossed their ethics manuals out of the window.

A lie told often enough becomes the truth, goes a dictum attributed to both Lenin and Joseph Goebbels.

The very notion of truth is always highly subjective – and should be run through various filters, not least of all the biases of whoever is propagating this so-called truth.

An even casual perusal of local and (interestingly) international coverage of South Africa the past week – particularly on the so-called #ZumaMustFall campaign, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the mass media have tossed their ethics manuals out of the window.

The media have lost sight of their responsibility to run a filter through the ‘truths’ being presented to the public.

The reporting on the recent Cabinet reshuffle, and the subsequent #ZumaMustFall phenomenon has been instructive.

The African National Congress (ANC) notes with interest that whilst the publications and newscasts themselves attempt to maintain the veneer of objectivity; the journalists who report for these same media have let their colours slip on another, arguably more influential platform – namely social media.

As social media rapidly displaces traditional media sources as the go-to place for breaking news, journalists have joined the digital stampede to outdo their media competitors to be the first source of information to the public.

Theoretically, this should come with a hefty responsibility – and the need to be ever mindful that what they disseminate on social media platforms should be aligned with their commitment to objectivity and neutrality.

And the argument that social media platforms are personal outlets that are not reflective of the stance of that particular media, is a hollow one, especially if one considers that elected officials and political office bearers are almost never held up to the same standard.

It has long been commonplace for instance for certain local media to scour the social media accounts of government representatives or politicians, especially of the ANC, for ‘scandalous’ tidbits to hold up to the public as evidence of our political shortcomings.

Considering this, we should view in a dim light the claim by all the so-called serious journalists that ‘views expressed are personal’ on social media, and not reflective of their employers. And that retweets are not endorsements.

With their coverage of #ZumaMustFall, the mask has slipped. There is a double game being played, and it is there for all to see. The bogeyman and ruse of ‘looming media censorship’ should no longer fool anyone.

“President Zuma is now lame duck”.

“You can’t make a mistake this bad and this embarrassing and damaging and stay on as president. Next step is recalling him. I give it a week.”

“Bring Nene Back. Bring Nene Back.” “Jacob Zuma is bloody NUTS!...how do you announce a new Finance Minister at 10.00pm on a f**** Sunday! Man is running a clownshow”.

“I protest Zumania.”

“RT, Join the #ZumaMustFall gathering!”

“United Against Corruption – Join the March”

“I’d rather have a president that didn’t make such mind-blowingly stupid decisions in the first place.”

None of these comments, made on arguably the world’s most influential social media platform, Twitter, are not from irate members of the public. They are from at least two newspaper editors, several senior journalists and one commentator from an influential business publication.

There is a fine line between reporting on an issue of national importance, an event or a phenomenon, and being seen to be endorsing a position on it.

Which is why it is acceptable practice in many of the world’s most influential media to discourage journalists from venturing into opinion writing. The lines in such newsrooms are clearly delineated between editors, writers, op-ed (leader) writers and general newsroom staff.

When editors and journalists start expressing their personal opinions on issues, that this does not colour the stance of their respective publication or broadcast, becomes a harder position to defend.

The difference though is that it is commonplace in many parts of the world, including in the so-called advanced democracies, for print and broadcast media to nail their colours firmly to one or another political mast. The Sun newspaper in Britain, for instance, is in the Conservatives camp; the Daily Telegraph is even nicknamed as the ‘Daily Torygraph’ by other papers. In the US, the Fox news channel is unashamedly pro-Republican.

The South African media, however, like to assert that they are ‘above’ such pedestrian politicking – and that they report dispassionately and objectively. Any attempt by anyone to say that a local newspaper or broadcaster has taken a political position is met with the usual howls of outrage.

Any attempt by the ANC to critically dissect the issue of whose interests the South African mass media serve, as well as to raise real and substantive issues – and the specter of ‘regulation’ becomes the front page news. We as the ANC, and the public at large, should no longer be fooled by this diversionary tactic.

In the seminal work “Manufacturing Consent – the Political Economy of the Mass Media’, authors Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman analyze the performance of the mass media in the US, and the ways in which it serves to mobilize support for special interests through its choice of stories, of emphases, and importantly, of omissions.

In their coverage of the ANC over the years, the South African media have long lost the right to claim their editors and reporters are guardians of truth and objectivity. It is not without irony that social media has exposed the true motives and intentions of media whose reportage continues to serve narrow interests that remain far removed from the realities of South Africa.

If one considers just one day’s coverage of the lackluster so-called ‘campaign’ to unseat President Jacob Zuma you will find not cold hard facts and questions (like where are the thousands of disaffected South Africans predicted) but lots of hyperbole (“thousands gathered”) and tricky manipulation of imagery, like the compressed images and crash zooms on small crowds by television crews to bulk up crowd size.

However there may be far more worrying developments at play than mere exaggeration by the media of the extent of public disaffection.

Since the redeployment of Cde. Nhlanhla Nene from the Finance Ministry last week, in the tone of coverage, the framework of analysis in which certain ‘truths” have been presented- the media appear to be laying the groundwork for a bigger argument, namely that the ANC is losing the country.

The mass media, as noted in ‘Manufacturing Consent,’ serve as “a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace.”

As the historical record has shown, the dissemination of big enough lies through the media can serve the political interest, and as a form of psychological manipulation have the power to incite political action.

Nearly all studies into the subject of propaganda acknowledge that the most successful political propaganda is of the sustained, ‘slow release’ kind – that is carried in normal times, as well as in times of perceived national crisis.

The way in which #ZumaMustFall has been covered has followed the classic propaganda model. First a national event occurred that was received unfavourably by elements of the media. This was almost immediately followed by the voices of third parties including policy institutes, think tanks, and ‘independent economists’ – decrying the actions of the President.

The story was then rapidly picked up by international media, including esteemed publications like the Financial Times and Bloomberg, who actively sought sources who would be indicative of this ‘troubled international opinion.’

With this ‘new truth’ (SA is doomed) being rapidly circulated and disseminated by our journalists on social media – the next logical step would be a popular movement to add weight to the argument, to add some grassroots credibility.

The only problem is that the grassroots were pretty thin – and the expected enormous demonstrations did not materialize.

It appears then that the 11,436,921 South Africans who voted overwhelmingly for the African National Congress (ANC) to lead them in the last elections, and who have consistently affirmed their support for the ANC in successive elections since democracy – were either not tweeting enough, or, as we know, they were not fooled by the anti-ANC propaganda and its disseminators, our local media.

This was not for want of trying. In an almost textbook case illustrating the point made by the authors of ‘Manufacturing Consent’, the media lined up ‘right-thinking people’ and other sources in their coverage both in the days leading up to the failed marches, and during the marches – to give the impression the country was on the brink.

There was a convenient adjusting of coverage to suit a particular view. But when Armageddon did not arrive, there has been a convenient silence.

In a bittersweet irony, the very openness, reach and easy accessibility of social media platforms have served to expose elements of the media. They have been exposed by the very ‘disinfectant of sunlight’ they are so eager to catch the ANC on.

The media should therefore not be troubled when the ANC as the ruling party exercizes discretion in its dealings with them. Any right-minded South African will no longer buy the argument that we are trying to reign in the free press when we choose not to deal with particular publications or broadcasters because they have historically or continue to display blatant bias in their coverage of the ANC and its leadership. DM

Jackson Mthembu is head of the ANC Sub-Committee on Communications. Read his Wikipedia profile here.

  • Jackson Mthembu
    Jackson-Mthembu.jpg
    Jackson Mthembu

    Jackson Mthembu is head of the ANC Sub-Committee on Communications. Read his Wikipedia profile here.

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