Why media follow the fallen hero

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st p14oscar FILE PIC.JPG Independent Newspaper Limited Sombre: Paralympian Oscar Pistorius at the Pretoria Magistrates Court this week, where he is accused of fatally shooting his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Masi Losi

THERE is a picture of Oscar Pistorius standing in the dock, his jaw locked, eyes fixed in the distance, looking frazzled and puzzled and almost asking Why so much interest in this?

He would ask this, I suppose, because he knows that in our country, sadly, so many people are murdered, raped and abused each day without unleashing a scrum outside court.

It would be puzzling for him to be told that a reporter fainted, others unleashed a Twitter war and many were flying in from around the globe to listen to his bail application. In his world, he is a mere mortal who has worked hard, as many do, for his “modest achievements”.

Why so much interest in the circumstances, about which many know little, around the killing of the love of his life, Reeva Steenkamp?

Anti-abuse activists are up in arms, hoping this case will help us focus attention on the plight of women. As far as they are concerned, there is no two ways about it.

A beautiful young woman has fallen prey to a macho, rage-infused armed athlete in the still of the night. Poor Reeva is not here to speak for herself. Pistorius must not be allowed to get away with it.

And, in their puzzle, people wonder why the media, this amorphous, monolithic, behemoth, is not paying more attention to the plight of women like Steenkamp.

This case, in their eyes, ought to give fresh impetus to attempts started earlier, following the heart-wrenching case of Anene Booysen of Bredasdorp, Western Cape. Her body was mutilated after a gang rape that upset our sensibilities.

Even media-watchers, including the Commission on Gender Equality, are puzzled, asking, wrongly, why the media are displaying an obvious bias towards Pistorius and telling us little about Steenkamp.

On the day of her cremation, Pistorius started his bid to get out of jail on bail. The media contingent outside the crematorium in Port Elizabeth paled into insignificance in comparison to what happened at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court, where justice officials attempted to link proceedings to the overflow room.

Why so much attention on Pistorius? The Steenkamp family have lost their beloved daughter, and now it appears the media are star-struck by Pistorius, so the charge goes.

But the media watchers, anti-abuse activists and even Pistorius himself, who are perplexed at this fixation, miss the point. The Oscar Pistorius story is not on our front pages for seven days running because a crime has been committed. No. Crime, “normal” crime, gets committed every day.

We’ve become so inured to crimes like murder, it must scare us. The unfortunate killing of Steenkamp is not the silver bullet, excuse the pun, that will help anti-abuse activists solve the country’s major problem of abuse. No. This story is not about abuse, which, sadly, happens all over the world.

The media-watchers are never, in a case like this, going to get equal coverage between the suspect and the victim’s families. Disabuse yourselves of that expectation. This is why: The tale of Oscar Pistorius is a tale of unmet expectations; of a global icon disappointing and breaking too many hearts; of unneeded confirmation that the behaviour mostly associated with low-lifes can indeed transcend race and also manifest among the rich and famous in gated communities.

It is a tale of disbelief, of anger at Pistorius, of the fallibility of the high and mighty. Here is an athlete who, through sheer tenacity and dogged hard work, managed to accomplish what many of us with two legs can never. You’ve got to be envious, even if not to really lose your legs to prove a point! But envious nonetheless. The face on Pistorius’s picture suggests he still doesn’t get it.

When evidence of Pistorius turning from hero to villain surfaces, many around the globe will expectedly struggle to reconcile his alleged conduct with the image of a hero beyond reproach, firmly etched in their hearts. This is why some of his fans will make excuses for him. They will dig deeper to fight internal demons to find a rational explanation for his conduct.

For, in their eyes, an explanation there ought to be. Others, in caustic tones, will look at this and say it is unmitigated racism. When Jub Jub Maarohanye and Themba Tshabalala killed kids in Soweto, the lynch mob went into overdrive. We saw this when OJ Simpson, a much-loved football star, killed his white wife Nicole Brown-Simpson.

In Pistorius, a white poster boy surely can’t become the monster the police believe he is, right? There has to be an explanation.

Yet, there will be others, including white people, who bay for Pistorius’s blood; who will bring the placards to court. Either way, the conversation is about, as always, the hero-turned-villain – not the victim.

Even when there is no death, no murder, no rape – when a hero’s secret life comes to light, the media-watchers must just take a chill pill – the villain will, to their chagrin, hog the headlines. Mention Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton, former US president, and the point is made. Or, say, Tiger Woods?

Even where there is no woman in the middle, the fallout, as in the Pistorius case, is massive. Look at Lance Armstrong, the captivating fairytale of a cancer survivor who, against odds, won the Tour de France seven consecutive times – aided, we later learnt, by drugs.

Where there are victims, we try our damnedest. We will interview the brother, the uncle and send a team to cover the funeral of the victim. As a paper, one of these interviews was done by the deputy editor, Kevin Ritchie. But no matter how hard you try to give Steenkamp, Brown-Simpson, Anene or any other dead victim a voice, there’s only so much you can do.

The villain, meanwhile, must appear in court, make statements, appoint lawyers, make a bid for bail, appear on the Oprah show, appoint a family spokesperson to feed the beast or fend off the questions as they prepare for a marathon trial. And, of course, each of these generates hype about what they did or didn’t do. Not so for the victim, even with the best of attempts.

So, our heroes, especially those who overcame the greatest odds to occupy a special space in our hearts, must not be surprised when the searchlight – often in the form of camera shutters – is placed on them upon suspicion of foul play. They must not be found, to borrow US Senator John Randolph’s oft-quoted paradox on rotten mackerels in the moonlight, to “both shine and stink”. When this happens, it unleashes, as Pistorius discovered, a puzzling anachronism or a maelstrom that even justice officials can’t control outside court.


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