The gaze is always already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its blind spot, that which is “in the object more than the object itself”, the point from which the object itself returns the gaze, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek theorised. “Sure, the picture is in my eye, but me, I am also in the picture.” This is so relevant today as we discuss media credibility and the future of journalism.
Enter ideology and riven politics: the media in South Africa is not one homogenous whole but is split and fractured, and so it should be. It should be multiple, but more and more mainstream media is resembling the politics of the day: in two binary oppositions with no nuance, a typical characteristic of social media too.
If you are confused about what is real, what is true, fact, propaganda or fiction, you are not alone; join the rest of the world. I come back to this point about my place, my gaze. Ideological dogma provides safe havens from truth, nuance and complexity. And so there is groupthink – you are either for the public protector or not, for gun control or not, are a feminist or not, believe in the bogus rogue unit at SARS or not, accept that climate change exists or not.
So my view is inscribed in my gaze and therefore I cannot see because I cannot afford to see – it blocks the ideology and it’s in the excess that the ideology resides. There is always some truth but it’s in the excess and surplus that we get the ideology.
Let us take some examples of the ideological excess: all tax revenue collection institutions in the world need an investigative unit – but if you are hiding something and you need to discredit an institution then you replace “investigative” with “rogue”. Then you label and hail all who seek the facts or put the facts forward as being part of a “cabal”. You need to build your story. For those on the side supporting the end to corruption, there is so much at stake politically in the country that they get caught up in the fights on social media, rather than sticking with the facts of which there are enough. But the ideological interpellators (those who label, hail and shame) provoke on a daily if not hourly basis, and so often journalists respond and provide the oxygen for the fire. Because journalism became embroiled in such excess and surplus, the credibility of the industry, the craft or profession is now at stake. But the facts have to be told and some journalists are doing this.
Journalism is not objective, nor are journalists neutral amorphous operators. Some think they are but they carry around all their biases and lived experiences, naturally. Hence I remind about the “blind spots” of ideology; and what we are seeing today are fantasmic operators who are not just creating fantasy but are operating in theoretical amnesia – conscious or unconscious – that they are ideological subjects doing the work of crooks.
The traditional model of journalism is dying or dead; Facebook and Google need regulation, but this won’t stop death. Job losses are phenomenal due to technological disruption/social media, and companies now make profits but only for the bosses, whose jobs they save. As newsrooms are shed of senior staff the quality of journalism has declined, especially with no subs’ desks and not even replaced by fact-checkers. This is the biggest threat to the credibility of news media – 50% of professional journalist jobs have been lost over the past decade, according to the SA Job Losses in Journalism survey of 2018, which is part of the international wing of the New Beats project.
We can’t easily change the times we live in the ideological chasms with two wide-apart rifts consisting of hard lines, or enemy lines. It’s quite the opposite of the legitimate adversaries we are supposed to be in a democracy. But news media can avoid being part of the hard enemy lines and instead be more nuanced to highlight the complexities. One of the ways to do this is for journalists to move out of the opinion space of toxic Twitter and deal with just the facts and analysis.
Credibility is also at stake if we do not have one big media ethics code, rather than different things applying to different aspects of media – because of convergence we have a radio newscast, going online, then getting tweeted and then redundantly in the newspaper the next day – so of course, we need one code. We definitely should be thinking of ways to strengthen the regulation of the online and social media space.
Then there are tax incentives that can be imagined to encourage organisations, civil societies, government entities and businesses to encourage philanthropic support for journalism; and then there are green shoots and non-profits that can be supported. If we don’t sort out this space, our democracy is at stake.
It’s going to be chaotic, vile and messy for a while. DM
This column was written in preparation for the panel discussion on the Future of Journalism series: Part 1 on media credibility, organised by Media Monitoring Africa and the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, 13 August 2019.
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