Defend Truth

Opinionista

When self-censorship colours and then becomes the prevailing narrative in journalism

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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.

If we set aside state repression and explicit censorship, there are at least three other important things that guide writing for the popular media as opposed to academic writing. One is language, another is ‘morals’, and a third is prevailing orthodoxy. The second and third are often conflated.

There is a conventional belief that journalists, beat reporters, columnists, news photographers and editorial or opinion writers self-censor out of fear of state repression, and therefore remain within the laws that govern media and speech in democratic society. We should not dismiss that easily, but there are very many ways in which we self-censor.

Apart from state regulation, self-censorship is guided by silly and selective things like “good manners” or “politeness”, by perceived or actual sensibilities of readers, and also by the orthodoxy that will sell papers, that make the publication successful, and keep it in business.

It is often quite befuddling when, in some societies, you cannot use certain words and expressions in written text, or broadcast audio recordings of people using expletives or sacrilegious language, but you can spend litres of ink, or audio-visual material on military parades (it’s perfectly in order when it’s our military, but never when it’s theirs) or pageants that objectify women — which some have suggested were acts of “empowerment”.

It’s also fascinating when it is perfectly acceptable to record and promote violence sanctioned by religion, race, ethnicity or for some politically acceptable or “normal” reason. There are more people in the West, and among sycophants of the West who cringe at South Africa “losing the West” who would take great pride when, say, the US or France hosts military parades, but be petrified when it is hosted in Beijing. Personally, I find military parades and militarism, in general, quite offensive and dangerous.

If we set aside state repression and explicit censorship, there are at least three (other) important things that guide writing for the popular media as opposed to academic writing. One is language, another is “morals,” and a third is prevailing orthodoxy. The second and third are often conflated.

The language we use also has a moral basis. The act of writing is helped along by an expansive range of words and lexical instruments, and by evidence, or facts. We can dispense with the absolute certainty of facts, or at least make the point that facts do not “speak for themselves” and that we produce and arrange facts to tell particular stories we want to tell.

Nonetheless, on the ground (more like at the desks of journalists), if you want your work and ideas to be published and earn a living from it, it helps to abandon heresy and scepticism and accept that there has to be a line somewhere that cannot or should not be crossed.

Language and politeness

I recently watched a short video clip of Gayton McKenzie which I found shockingly offensive, dangerous and, well, not very polite. The difference between him and me, is that he can say things that are offensive, but I cannot.

I cannot, for instance, write down (and publish) my initial thoughts about McKenzie’s statements which I will not reproduce here. I cannot say he is “stupid” or “uneducated” or “illiterate” or “rude”. Besides it being impolite, I also have no evidence to support claims of stupidity, miseducation or illiteracy. I recall how everyone spoke or wrote about former president Jacob Zuma being illiterate and not very well-read, but I know of only two people who have, actually, experienced his illiteracy first-hand.

As for being “rude”, that is subjective. For instance, whenever I go on television or radio I sit in the green room and remind myself over and again to not use my favourite expletive on air.

McKenzie is like so many populists in the ranks of our political parties who pride themselves on being misunderstood. “It used to be thought a disadvantage to be misunderstood,” wrote Gilbert Chesterton so many decades ago.

Instead then of using words like “stupid”, we have to be polite and say McKenzie, or any politician for that matter, is making a mistake or “seems to be making a mistake”, and we have to explain what that mistake was — and why it was a mistake.

This, when all you want to do is call them names. That would be impolite. It’s just as well we have lexical options, choices and flexibility. A greater harm is when we simply fall in line out of fear and because of tradition.

When dominant beliefs and power shape opinion

To understand the way that opinion and orthodoxy is shaped, and how fear is generated, I often turn to a conversation I had in the cafeteria of the World Bank during the days before Nato bombed the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

I was sitting at a lunch table with US citizens. Everyone around the table supported the US thrust to drop bombs. I did not support the bombing campaign, but I was too intimidated and scared to object. You don’t get deeper into the belly of the beast than being in the bowels of one of the main exporters of “the American model” to the rest of the world than the World Bank (and International Monetary Fund, for that matter).

It is no different in newsrooms. Here too I have a go-to example of how editors and journalists simply “fall in line”. I have written about this before, so I will not go over that example again, suffice to repeat the thoughts of the late great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who wrote: “Consciously or unconsciously, people censor themselves, they don’t need to be called into line”.

If you’re not interested in the exposition of the place where theory and practice meet and the situatedness of it all, dear reader, you may stop reading… Two examples of conformity, and the reproduction of dominant ideas or orthodoxy come to mind.

The first is an exercise. Take a moment to search online for every instance in which South Africa was criticised by the US government, the US legislature or Britain, and you may find that most of it is written by more or less the same group of white men — one of whom stands out…

To be clear, South Africa is not exempt from criticism, the ANC is not exempt from criticism (insert the adolescent, “hell no!”) and our political economic future is grim. The point is that the choices we make as journalists and writers about the subjects we choose and the apparent salivation (the writers seem to sit around every day, waiting for whenever the West attacks its others) are risible and dangerous. I, personally, would never tell anyone what to write (as I would not curb anyone’s right to free speech), but I can disagree, or identify expedience, intellectual laziness and ideological biases and blinkers.

If it is true that the journalist is the person who writes that first rough draft of history, it is also true that whatever the journalist writes presents the world (and the world accepts as it is, sadly) through a set of filters and institutional norms and structures.

It’s simple, in some ways — a communist newspaper would probably not write much that is positive about capitalism. The opposite is also true. One of the apparent guiding posts of reportage of South Africa in the world is the idea that the country is in a crisis and heading for disaster only because the country was “losing the West”. And so, whenever “the West” has anything to say about the country, our diplomatic correspondents and foreign policy specialists reach for their handbook. What is useful is to start with the selection of topics, then move on to what they actually write.

Another example is what I have referred to as the Amanpour Conditionality of Journalism. Christiane Amanpour of CNN was the first journalist I found — there have been subsequent iterations of this conditionality, mainly from the West (Britain and the US) — who starts all discussions of the war in Gaza with the question: “Do you condemn Hamas?”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis hub

It is as if no conversation can proceed without condemning the acts of 7 October 2023, as if that was the day when the universe was created. The same sense prevailed when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001. It is as if neither of the horrendous acts of those two days have/had any history or context.

It’s like our best theories of the Big Bang: we just don’t know, for sure (and cannot scientifically prove) what happened before that. The problem is, of course, that the social world is significantly different from the natural world (never mind the physics envy so loved by orthodox economists and rationalists) and it is possible to understand, and explain and situate what happened before 7 October 2023 and before 11 September 2001.

It just depends on who has the power to foreground a particular story, or who most cleverly arranges selected facts to tell the stories they want to propagate.

As a parting shot, if you are, say, a professor of journalism and believe that The New York Times represents the cynosure of journalistic excellence, would you teach your students to avoid using the term “genocide” (when writing about the war in Gaza) which, by some reports, is the diktat from New York Times bosses.

The diktat, a “memo”, was reported by The Intercept in the following way: “The memo also instructs reporters not to use the word Palestine ‘except in very rare cases’ and to steer clear of the term ‘refugee camps’ to describe areas of Gaza historically settled by displaced Palestinians expelled from other parts of Palestine during previous Israeli–Arab wars.

“The areas are recognised by the United Nations as refugee camps and house hundreds of thousands of registered refugees. The memo — written by Times standards editor Susan Wessling, international editor Philip Pan, and their deputies — ‘offers guidance about some terms and other issues we have grappled with since the start of the conflict in October’.”

In sum, we choose topics we feel strongly about, frame them in particular ways, arrange selected facts — and in this way we self-censor and become, all of us, propagandists. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Imagine being Jewish and having reached a high position at the UN after 25 years of hard work and long hours, like a friend of mine, and having to self censor his reaction to the virus of anti semitism that runs through that organizing from top to bottom, even and especially amongst his over educated peers, amongst whom he once felt comfortable.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    What pseudo-academic nonsense. Is this a justification for one’s own ideologically biased journalism, hung up on a negative example, of course from the “West”? Wouldn’t professional journalists be expected to put aside their own biases when tackling a topic? That they compare the facts provided from different perspectives? That they analyze the arguments of opponents using the same journalistic questioning technique? That they help the reader expand his horizons? But no, I overlooked it, it’s a so-called “opinion piece”! So we continue to join the agitation spiral of opponents and increase populism, that sells better, after all we all have to live as small capitalists or as recipients of social benefits.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Nicely crafted iro of opinions of Zuma and Mackenzie…. I stopped reading at that stage as you get political

  • Denise Smit says:

    Unfotunately you are also very selective. What you say about Amanpour is not true and is unfair. I read and listen a lot and this is not what it heard. You say it as though it is a crime to ask about what happened on the 7 th of October. So even if you are pro Hamas. I your eyes is it not a crime? It is wrong to get to the conclusion that only anti West stances of our government is causing the demise of the country. This is a side show presented by you and it draws the attention away from the corrupt and devious way SA is run by the ANC. What do you think would the word be that Russian and Chinese journalists may use in their articles. Are their any journalists in these country who can publish their own words and opinions? Be fair and balanced please

  • Anton Kannemeyer says:

    I agree more or less with what you say in this article. That’s why I don’t believe any news anymore, whether it comes from NYT, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, Fox News, etc – since Trump became president all the mainstream channels have become so ideologically divided, that it’s impossible to trust any so-called facts. In fact, any newspaper that insist that they represent the “true facts” (and warns the reader against fake news) should be regarded with the utmost suspicion. Nietzsche said it best: “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power, and not of truth.”

  • Anton Kannemeyer says:

    I agree more or less with what you say in this article. That’s why I don’t believe any news anymore, whether it comes from NYT, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, Fox News, etc – since Trump became president all the mainstream channels have become so ideologically divided, that it’s impossible to trust any so-called facts. In fact, any newspaper that insist that they represent the “true facts” (and warns the reader against fake news) should be regarded with the utmost suspicion. Nietzsche said it best: “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power, and not of truth.”

    • dexter m says:

      i agree, used to consider NY Times the gold standard, alas how the mighty have fallen. I now take any report from any publication with a grain of salt . Also do bios on the reporters ,editors , board and ownership of the publication to see what the spin is .

  • Michael Morris says:

    Good piece, measured and challenging at the same time. It brings to mind the gem a recent DM newsletter brought us in Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s chastening promise that … “If you’re going to say what you want to say, you’re going to hear what you don’t want to hear.” I don’t think any of us can be reminded often enough of Lagardien’s closing thought: ‘In sum, we choose topics we feel strongly about, frame them in particular ways, arrange selected facts — and in this way we self-censor and become, all of us, propagandists.’

    • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

      Agreed, Michael, and thanks to Lagardien for a carefully worded article. All knowledge is subject to selection, whether in an academic or laboratory situation (what do we study this week?) let alone a fast-moving news cycle. But awareness of confirmation bias, or just plain bias, should be at the forefront of any thoughtful writing. What is so depressing is the knee-jerk reaction of the responses above, the whataboutism that angrily ignores the complexities of knowledge production and selection.

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