Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post. File picture: AP
Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post. File picture: AP

Media can lead the way

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 21, 2020

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Keyan Tomaselli

The release of Anton Harber’s new book, So, for the Record, about state capture, immediately released a hornet’s nest, so to speak. The trigger was his description of a well-known self-styled hack, David Bullard as “right-wing”, picked up from the book by Jeremy Gordin in his review published in Politicsweb.

The alleged hack responded also in Politicsweb with a satirical unpicking of Harber’s alleged category error. He mischievously titled his riposte as “Harbouring a grudge”.

The common understanding by lay folks of media freedom is that it confers a licence to say anything. Not so. Media freedom confers upon journalists the right to report facts, events and stories supported with evidence, and for columnists to draw inferences from these in terms of prevailing – even competing – frames of reference.

Much of the rest is “fake news”, peddled by fake presidents and the purveyors of disinformation. But readers cannot always tell the difference. For example, there are those in the USA who, despite media freedom, refuse to believe that Covid-19 is not a Democratic Party conspiracy, sourced from the Chinese, and designed to promote mask-wearing as an anti-Trump (US President Donald) fashion item.

As a result, the whole society is now paying the price in infections and deaths. In fact, there is no real difference between fake news, Fox News and Russia Today. They are all geared to promote vested interests whether or not they are true. The real media try to debate different perspectives, and that is why DStv is such a wonderful facility. Surfing the same breaking stories between CNN, BBC, Sky, Euronews, CGTN, NDTV, Russia Today, CNBC, Al Jazeera, and locally between eNCA, SABC, Newzroom Africa, Business Day, Africanews, etc. exposes different ways of making sense.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, are now among many breaking the Trump scandal as he and his cronies try to break America. This is the big moment of exposé reporting and the return of investigative journalism. Previously, bottom lines and social media disrupted this crucial beat, expensive, time-consuming and exhausting as it is.

It took The New York Times 10 years to research and write the story that revealed that the billionaire Trump proudly pays hardly any income taxes at all. The rest of us do, so why not him? Journalists and the media have led the way in such exposés.

In the background is the academic sector that offers the usual bird’s-eye theoretically-led studies of media as institutions and their associated professional practices. Theory – as an explanation – tends to mute the personalities and textured examples on which the much more grounded and embattled journalists cut their teeth.

The former are explanatory and evidentiary based, while the journalism work is of-the-moment, descriptive and fact-based. The one kind of reporting (explanation) interacts with the other (the breaking story). They are both needed. Journalists can change the world. Newspapers can suggest alternatives, with editorials and commentators debating the possibilities. Democracies cannot exist, let alone survive, without a free media.

When the media are under threat, so is society, and that affects every one of us. Black Wednesday, when the apartheid government banned black newspapers on October 19, 1977, outraged the world.

We came pretty close to this condition again when rogue elements seized control of the public broadcaster, set up new media outlets, and closed down public debate. The seeing off of the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Tribunal by both the media and civil society organisations saved the day.

Journalists themselves exposed these attempts, and many of them published books based on their reporting. Newspaper cartoonists in 2007 banded together on October 19 with their own Black Wednesday protest cartoons against threatened censorship.

They put themselves at physical risk in doing so, and some international correspondents died, were incarcerated, and were assassinated, as they tried to do their jobs and bring us, readers, news.

Make no mistake, journalists are on the front lines. They are our defensive ramparts against tyranny. They are the last bastion against corruption. When senior detectives are so brazenly assassinated in full public view, those who report on such events are often next in the firing line. And, once the assassins have eliminated the decent cops, the investigative journalists and the honest lawyers and incorruptible judges, they are going to come for me, you, our families and anyone who gets in their way.

Achieving democracy is one thing. But sustaining it requires a free press and accountable institutions. Allies of the media are the commissions, the whistle blowers, and the media sources. All commentators, including the hacks, should operate like hornets, exposing defects, and proposing solutions, and watching those who watch us, the ordinary citizens.

The next Black Wednesday may well be just around the corner. As citizens, we should never let journalists and the media down. That is our collective responsibility.

* Keyan Tomaselli is a Professor Emeritus and Fellow the at University of KwaZulu-Natal and Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg. He was a previous director of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society at UKZN.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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