In the era of Trump and Malema, truth and journalism drift apart
Between yelling demagogues and rage-tweeting oligarchs, it’s increasingly hard for journos to wield their vital weapon
The media, says City Press politics editor Rapule Tabane, has let itself be bated into a personal confrontation with Julius Malema and the EFF, and needs to retreat into objectivity.
It is rare for SA journalists to rebuke their colleagues in public, but it’s been happening more and more, whether in the spat between Jacques Pauw and Chris Steyn, or the spat between Pauw and Noseweek editor Martin Weltz, or the spat between Pauw and everybody who condemned his decision to publish the address of Chez Juju. Wait, there’s a pattern here ...
Tabane’s editorial, published on Monday, might have saved its sternest telling-off for Pauw, but his point was a larger one. Journalists, he wrote, are revealing unacceptable bias in whom they cover, how they cover them, and, conversely, who gets a free pass.
Tabane’s accusations are complicated and not without contradictions. For starters, demands that the media be objective are naïve: The best the media can hope for is to be conscious of its biases and the myriad ways it alters and manipulates public perception. And here I’m not even talking about editorial slant or the amount of coverage given to a particular party or issue: Something as basic as a headline can contain distortions of reality.
Consider some of City Press’s own headlines in recent months, like “Minister at war with SABC board”, “Pouring billions into a black hole” and “VBS: ‘Cyril knew’”. If you want to talk objectively, you have to admit that nobody is at war with the SABC board, that SAA is not a vast hole in space (you can’t close black holes by privatising them). And why describe the president as ‘Cyril’ rather than ‘Ramaphosa’ or ‘the president’? By stripping him of his title and the dignity of his surname, are you trying to reduce him in stature, or make him more accessible? Each of these is a choice that has subtly manipulated the public’s perceptions.
I do, however, see his broader point. In theory, the sole reason for journalists to exist is to wield a mighty, vital weapon: The truth. In theory, this investigative light-sabre is a cold, clear, dispassionate thing, unsullied by messy bias or emotion. The moment it is blunted or dimmed by subjective interpretation or the passions of those wielding it, it stops being truth. And the moment the truth transforms into opinion and bias, journalists stop being journalists and start being columnists.
In a way, ideal journalism looks a little bit like an ideal justice system. Both should be coolly technical, refraining from personal attacks. Prosecutors do not win cases by yelling: “You’re a scumbag!” at the accused. They simply lay out the facts, as calmly as they can, and let the jury decide.
But here’s where the calm, rational idea of truth and journalism falls apart. Because we don’t have a jury. We have Twitter and Facebook and demagogues yelling into megaphones and billionaire oligarchs tweeting the algorithms to drip-feed us rage and lies. And I suspect that journalists have started to react to the fact that the playing field has titled nightmarishly against them.
For once, it’s not the rich and powerful who are the problem. The press has never feared power. If it was journalists versus presidents, the fight would be relatively fair.
No, the problem is the people who used to view the evidence and decide in favour of truth. The problem is the readers, the listeners and viewers. Because to hundreds of millions of them, perhaps even billions, truth no longer exists. Facts are no longer facts.
You can lay out evidence that a president has paid off a porn star and millions of evangelical Christians will rally to his side, believing him to be the victim of a liberal conspiracy.
You can show bank statements proving theft from the poor, and the foot soldiers of the revolution will believe that their leader is being persecuted by White Monopoly Capital.
In the post-fact era, you can display a photograph of Earth from space, described by the astronaut who took it, and the Flat Earth Society will tell you that science isn’t making a good enough argument that the planet is round. (I’m not making this up.)
If I were a journalist rather than a peddler of opinions, and I saw my clean, clear light-sabre suddenly turn into a soggy banana in my hand, I too might get emotional. I might start believing that facts were not enough; that assaults on democracy and justice needed to be countered not with quiet reportage but with anger and online activism. And once I did that, I’d have no more credibility than any other columnist, talking head or Twitter-shouter.
Luckily, I’m not a journalist so I can keep mouthing off without facts, and you can keep deciding whether to listen to me or to ignore me. But journalists don’t have that luxury.
I don’t know how they will find the balance between passion and precision. But I would urge our many excellent, determined journalists to remember one simple truth: That beyond the abuse on Twitter and behind the nasty, poisonous e-mails, there are many, many people who still believe that a fact is a fact and that the Earth is round.
They are listening. They are reading. And for them, truth still matters.