Defend Truth

Opinionista

The more things stay the same — a reflection on journalism and missed truths

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Journalism is of paramount importance during times of significant social change and transformation. It is also important that we understand the places where journalism intersects with culture, emotion, interpretation, contingency, crisis, and with memory, visuality and imagination.

Journalists are sat upon one of the horses of a carousel along with politicians, diplomats, business leaders, communities and individuals (and the church, broadly speaking), and ride around in circles each knowing well that holding onto their horse keeps them safe.

Though journalists may imagine they are free and independent, it’s hard to make the case that they (we) are independent of the forces that turn the carousel. It is difficult, but not impossible.

In the tradition I associate with, we refer to these forces as social and historical, and we understand that the power and influence of ideas (we refer to theories) rise onto the peaks and fall into the valleys of dominance.

If, dear reader, you’re not interested in theory or believe that there is a single source of evil in the world, you can now turn right over to the TV page. (As Crowded House sang all those years ago; In the paper today, tales of war and of waste, but you turn right over to the TV page).

So often when there is a conflict in western Asia the go-to position is to rely on the quite offensive orientalist work of journalists, scholars and writers like Robert Kaplan, Tom Friedman, Francis Fukuyama and the concealed Janissary-like thought and work of people like Christiane Amanpour or Fareed Zakaria.

Kaplan forced his forever “coming anarchy” (of course in Asia and Africa) on some of our journalists; Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis remains in vogue; and for Friedman the world is still flat… Kaplan’s worst contribution was echoed by Bill Clinton who would have us believe that conflict in the former Yugoslavia was based on “ancient hatreds”.

Kaplan has for the better part of the past seven or eight years been telling us about, “the coming chaos” and “looming crises… in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan” because of their “Brezhnev-era” inheritances. (See his essay in the March/April 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs). Here is the continuation of the Cold War paradigm that so influences senior journalists and commentators in South Africa.

Imaginaries of shaman-journalism

Barbie Zelizer of the University of Pennsylvania placed the ease and convenience (I think it’s more a case of ideological rigidity) within the “lifeline of the Anglo-American imaginary in news” which was certified, as it were, and consolidated “during the Cold War era,” and eventually gave primacy to “UK/US coverage of Brexit and Trump in 2016-2017”.

This imaginary has “prevailed [and] continues to shape contemporary coverage to the detriment of public understanding of current events,” she explained.

I agree that journalism is of paramount importance, especially during times of significant social change and transformation. It is also important, as Zelizer wrote elsewhere, to “reimagine the news by embracing a conceptual prism” to deal with contemporary social issues — by social I include political economy. We have to understand the places where journalism intersects with culture, emotion, interpretation, contingency, crisis, and two of my particular interests, with memory and visuality.

I should insert, here, the role of imagination. Michael Schudson of Columbia Journalism School wrote, sometime in the 1990s, that news reporting may not exactly be the spreading of lies or fakery, but it is impossible to do it “without play and imagination” which then slips into narrating the news and stories. The creation of news (not actual events) and decisions about what is or what is not news is done away from the public, who have to rely on their imagination.

The very essence of journalism is creating an imagined engagement with events beyond the public’s reach. How that is accomplished is also imagined because journalism operates largely out of the public eye. Journalists gather their information in ways and from domains that remain largely invisible.

Acting much like shamans who journey to inaccessible worlds and return with some critical insight, journalists act as “stabilising agents” who solidify consensus and reinstate social order on their return, Zelizer explained.

How often do we take it as authoritative that a journalist or a think-tank official produces texts with the footnote, so-and-so “was in” Liberia or Ukraine or China (or Afghanistan, for that matter)?

In most cases, I have found that these shamans take their cultural values along “to Liberia, Ukraine or China” (or Afghanistan) and evaluate those societies on the basis of their own cultural values.

In a recent exchange with a former journalist turned think-tank researcher, I noted the futility of travelling to an African country to observe elections and politics when he knew beforehand what he was going to write. As it goes, he did precisely that…. the late Welsh thinker, Raymond Williams would be smiling for the way our journalist qua think-tank intellectual reproduced keywords in what was presented as analysis of Africa’s civilisational failures.

Culture matters

The issue of culture is especially important. There are journalists of the “old school” who remain what Alain Badiou described as “indifferent to difference”, to which I would add wilful resistance to social and historical change, and remaining loyal to their cultural and traditional beliefs.

One possible problem is that expecting journalists to think beyond the immediate takes too much effort. I had a friend who had a Kindle reader in her bathroom, beside her bed, in her living room, in her car “for when I’m stuck in traffic” and at the office.

It took me a while to understand that focusing on here, now (reading fiction constantly is not a bad thing in and of itself) frees the person from thinking about the world around you, and dealing with the abundance of reality that surrounds you — and everyone else. It is a type of philistinism. The type marked by an anti-intellectual social attitude dismissive of everything that cannot be observed by the senses or measured, or that sits outside your own culture.

Journalists invariably are intellectuals who are “specialist workers” who produce the knowledge we have of things or states of affairs extant, and that this production is determined as much by ideology as it is by customary practice and corporate expectations.

This was best explained by Jean-Paul Sartre when he moved, by 1968, from being a left-wing journalist in the 1940s to a leftist journalist, an intellectual who accepts that he has to give up his position of privilege, and that he is open to criticism and exempted from nothing.

“It is similar,” he told an interviewer in about 1970, “to what in the US you would call white‐skin privileges. A white leftist intellectual in America, I presume, understands that because he is white he has certain privileges which he must smash through direct action…”. 

Parenthetically, GroundUp and community journalism are positive signs of the increasingly important elements (of Daily Maverick, and journalism, in general) and that conventional reporting may be necessary, but it is insufficient. The “conventional,” in this context, is serious.

When knowledge and learning ended

A fatal fascination among a cadre of established journalists and thinkers is the permanence of the presence, that everything that has been, and that is, will always be. This stretches into everything that has been learned remains eternally valid.

Imagine a journalist who learned 40 years ago, through a newspaper cadet programme or any introductory process, the basic tenets of journalism that were acceptable at the time, and then, over the next four decades does exactly the same things that he was taught four decades earlier.

Besides anything, it renders “experience” invaluable and probably meaningless, unless he is one of your own… Cue backslapping, and raising a glass.

The fact is, if you did 10 things every day, and repeated those 10 things (daily) over 10 years, you have made no progress, you have no actual experience (beyond the 10 things) and you’re wasting everyone’s time.

One blind spot of day-to-day journalism, and among many of us commentators, opinion writers and columnists, is temporality, a singularly important aspect that is necessary, but has to be approached with caution and honesty. I am not a situationist, but social and historical contexts matter enormously.

Temporality tends to be ignored when “being first” and “immediacy” is all that matters. Even the more serious “backgrounders” rely more on what sources said behind closed doors, or they reveal facts, which are arranged expediently to tell particular stories, and that the public has to trust.

We then present what we have learned behind closed doors in a particular vocabulary, a shared body of words and meanings that reproduce the practices and uphold the institutions that underpin culture and society.

We have to acknowledge that the news media, and journalists in particular, are agents that promote specific kinds of ideas and ideologies. A journalist on, say, the Wall Street Journal may not wish to work for a communist newspaper, or one that is “on the side of” workers. They are an important social group that emerges from particular states of affairs and transitions, serious introspection is required in both instances.

Again, as always, I should point out that this does not come exclusively from the wild imagination of a left-wing political economist.

Within a few years after the end of the Cold War, Henry Grunwald, former editor-in-chief of Time magazine said “journalists have often neglected the study of history; they have much remedial work to do… If making and conducting foreign policy in today’s turbulent environment is difficult, so is practising journalism”.

In South Africa, the ideological posturing has not ended. The same journalists, the most senior and influential among us, have held on to “the-West-is-best” (recall that white South Africa always considered itself as an outgrowth of Europe) and that the future of history will necessarily go “through the West”.

The same journalists who went weak at the knees in the presence of George HW Bush (I remember them so well) remain sycophantic, especially about Washington. To them, “objectivity” meets “free and fair”, where Democrats and Republicans represent the book-ends of all discussions on state, society, world affairs, and of state and society.

I am not making an argument for the axe-to-grind approach to newspaper publication of the Independent group. The owner of that group, Dr Iqbal Survé is “systematically destroying what used to be a serious, credible set of newspapers… at a time when the industry is already in deep financial pain, and struggling to rebuild its standing. He is fuelling a popular cynicism towards the media, creating a situation — as we have seen elsewhere — ripe for malicious misinformation and dangerous populism”. 

Actually, what I am alluding to is something which is way beyond Surve’s intellectual horizon.

We cannot limit ourselves to horizons. More importantly, we cannot insist that everything we know, now (and what we learned 40 years ago, as junior journalists), is eternally valid. It’s easy to refer to Antonio Gramsci or Raymond Williams, as I am wont, but some folk will take a classical economist more seriously.

Alfred Marshall, one of the go-to thinkers of classical economics reminded us, more than 100 years ago, that each new generation, faced with new circumstances and new ideas would be wise to come up with their own (unique) concepts and methods.

Personally, I wish our journalists, the nattering class in particular, would be more considered and less cocksure (I too, am not without flaws). I would paraphrase Carl Sagan on astronomy and spread the word that journalism, too, can be “a humbling and character-building” profession, but Isaac Asimov reminded us: “They won’t listen.… because they have certain fixed notions about the past [when they controlled knowledge production]. Any change would be blasphemy in their eyes, even if it were the truth. They don’t want the truth; they want their traditions.”

These are the traditions that sustained their dominance during the previous era, for which they are so nostalgic, and which makes them especially indifferent to difference. DM

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  • Denise Smit says:

    One would hope that a journalist will always stay true to the scientific body of knowledge principles and rules gained during academic training no matter how you as a person has changed. All of us interpret, experience and act on things through our Johari window formed by our own unique body of experience, culture , religeon , place in the world, etc. That is what has made you a leftist but fairly objective journalist. Amanpour has a whole lifetime of journalism and this has been achieved through objectivity, fairness, no falseness and principled journalism from my point of view

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      Thanks Denise. I have followed Amanpour’s work closely for decades. She stays perfectly within the bounds of what is acceptable in her society. Also, if don’t believe there that journalism is “scientific”. I am especially opposed to scientism. I do believe, notwithstanding all that, there was a way that slave work on plantations was reported as “normal” and that journalism had to change after abolition. I guess all I’m saying is that the world changes around us. For what it’s worth my leftism is formed around non-violence, protection, kindness and humanity, treating everyone like an end in themselves, and ethics – even if it leaves you “the loser”. Part of his is a belief that everything that do in life must be for the common good, to protect common pool resources (waterbodies etc), and constantly finding ways to get as close to the truth as possible. It’s an error-strewn path. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Con Tester says:

    Ismail, in case you’re unaware of it, there’s a feeble rebuttal piece over at IOL by Iqbal Survé’s perpetual ankle-biter lapdog, Adri Senekal de Wet, titled “Ismail Lagardien’s carousel of bias: A critical examination of journalism’s role in the world of journalism.” Her main bone of contention with your article here is ostensibly that you have over-generalised and slanted your critique, but the truth motivating her response is almost certainly somewhat more seedy.

    At one point, she speaks of “sticking to the facts, reporting without opinion, and providing a broad overview of the news at hand” never going out of fashion (as if, somehow, IOL consistently flew high that standard), whereafter she quite predictably comes out, guns blazing and swords flashing, in defence of Iqbal “You *MUST* call me ‘Doctor’” Survé because you dared mention him in a less-than-glowing light.

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      Oyi Con. thanks for the heads up. I will be first in line to say that I am a middling columnist and never ever was a better than average reporter. I think I made it clear in the book I published last year, my god I yay get things wrong or struggle or write, but those people are a whole different level of smarmy self-righteousness. This piece might be “opinion” or “commentary” but Adri Senekal/Surve make me feel stupid every time I read anything by them. They are robbers of intellect. One feels poorer for reading them. Thanks again.

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