The conventional wisdom that the media should always be ‘within earshot’ of their audience is a recipe for confirmation bias and ignorance, said MAX DU PREEZ in PEN Afrikaans’ first lecture in its series on freedom of expression at the Stellenbosch Woordfees on 10 October. Here is a condensed version of his presentation.
LAST Saturday, I sat in front of my television trying to figure out exactly what was happening in Israel and Gaza. I had CNN, BBC World, Sky News and Al Jazeera at my disposal for live news from the conflict zone, so I could channel-hop.
The presenters and reporters are all slick and do their best to be “objective”. But here’s the problem: CNN, BBC and Sky ask American and European politicians, military experts and academics for their analysis, then connect to their reporters in Israel. The deputy mayor of Jewish Jerusalem gets 20 minutes because she is photogenic and speaks good English. The channels also interviewed ordinary Israelis via Zoom.
But you have to go to Al Jazeera for the opinions of politicians and experts from the Middle East, and its reporters are not only in Israel but also in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. When the channel does Zoom interviews, they’re with people trapped in Gaza, academics from the Arab world and dissidents inside Israel.
While Al Jazeera journalist Youmna ElSayed was broadcasting live, the Palestine Tower building right behind her was hit by an Israeli missile.
I mostly stuck with Al Jazeera, but I had to keep in mind that it is based in Qatar. Qatar is not a democracy; it’s an Arab monarchy. It also has historical ties to Hamas.
So, the question is not whether the presenters of CNN, BBC, Sky, and indeed Al Jazeera, with their nice hair and perfect teeth, are professional. The question is whether they can think outside their own bubble. They read well-structured sentences skilfully from the autocue, but who are the people whose opinions and analyses they expose me to?
This is not a strange phenomenon in the media, least of all here in South Africa. When something newsworthy happens, PowerFM, for example, or Newzroom Afrika or Sowetan will seek the opinions of ANC or EFF politicians and black academics. RSG or Afrikaans newspapers will immediately turn to Solidarity, AfriForum or the DA, or to Afrikaans-speaking experts and academics, mostly white.
This is confirmation bias in action.
Sometimes it’s about language, which reminds me of the British foreign correspondent Edward Behr’s story of a TV reporter in 1964 in the Congo who yelled at a group of abused Belgian nuns, “anyone here been raped and speaks English?”
But actually, it’s more about another phenomenon, something Afrikaans media colleagues have repeatedly served up to me over the years, and it’s still a doctrine, especially in Afrikaans media: you must stay within “earshot” of your readers, viewers and listeners.
In theory, it’s a good idea: don’t alienate your primary constituency; don’t present things to your audience that will make them turn away. It’s entirely understandable that an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper will provide week after week of ball-by-ball commentary on the love life and mental and physical health of former rugby player Derick Hougaard, and City Press will do the same with socialite Khanyi Mbau.
But away from celebrities, sports and entertainment, it’s a deadly doctrine. It’s the recipe for confirmation bias, for ignorance and misunderstanding.
Our task as journalists is not just to tell the public what they want to hear but what our work on the ground tells us they should know.
We are not just employees of media houses; we are activists for a healthy, informed public opinion, the heartbeat of democracy. If you don’t agree, become a corporate or government spokesperson or do PR — the pay’s better.
We mainstream journalists are more like doctors in the trauma unit of a public hospital than plastic surgeons or dermatologists in private practice.
A new voice is born
I started my journalistic career at Die Burger, and shortly thereafter I was a member of the founding editorial team of Beeld. It was a good basic school and initially a pleasant experience, but it soured quickly after I was sent to Parliament and later to Namibia with the arrival of the UN in our former colony.
I could endure for only eight years, and there was mutual relief when I resigned in 1982. I just couldn’t, I didn’t want to stay within earshot of “my people” and the National Party, the Broederbond and the NG Kerk.
My path then led from the Financial Mail and the Sunday Times to Business Day, but I wasn’t cured of my chronic illness: I just couldn’t, I didn’t want to stay within earshot of their readers — mostly English-speaking capitalists and quasi-liberals.
The break came when I was part of my old friend Van Zyl Slabbert’s initiative in 1987 to arrange a symbolic meeting in Dakar between the ANC leadership in exile and Afrikaans opinion leaders as an attempt to create a climate for a negotiated settlement.
It was the sharp negative reaction of South African newspapers, especially the Afrikaans ones, to the initiative that led to Slabbert and Beyers Naudé challenging me by the pool of our hotel in scorching hot Ouagadougou to start an independent Afrikaans newspaper.
And so, Vrye Weekblad was born in 1988, with no money but a lot of enthusiasm and commitment. We declared, “The New Voice for a New South Africa” long before “the New South Africa” was a thing. Our motto was “Ons steeks niks weg nie” — we hide nothing.
Looking back on the six years Vrye Weekblad survived as a print newspaper, I believe the contribution we made in culture, art and language was greater than in politics. With people like the late Andrea Vinassa, the late Ryk Hattingh, the late Ivor Powell and the still very much alive Chris du Plessis at the helm, we published world-class copy on film, art, music and cultural trends, Afrikaans and South African but also international. In the stuffy 1980s and early 1990s, it was a somewhat strange concept that Afrikaners could also be global citizens.
Our revolutionary cover and page design and use of more conversational Afrikaans were groundbreaking.
But yes, it was a political newspaper with a political mission. Our role models were Don Quixote, gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson and Che Guevara, with Boer martyr Jopie Fourie on the side.
Our politics were unabashedly anti-apartheid, pro-liberation, pro-democracy and pro-human rights — not exactly how I would describe the prevailing spirit at the time, especially among white Afrikaans speakers.
A leading enlightened Afrikaans figure who became close to the ANC inner circle after 1994 came to see me. You scare people with your radicalism, was the message. You’ll go much further if you sugarcoat the pill, if you instead mobilise around the Democratic Party (forerunner of the DA). The Afrikaners are not ready for your message. You are not within earshot of your people.
My old colleague Tinus Horn made a painting that depicts it well: I stand there naked under the Vrye Weekblad masthead with only a big pen in my hands covering my shame next to the words , “Death Squad Episode 396″. Week after week, our front pages were dominated by stories of political murders, poisonings, abductions, torture, dirty tricks and detention without trial. Not pleasant reading with your Post Toasties.
Our choice was to make peace with a smaller readership and constant cashflow crises rather than further conceal or sugarcoat the truth. It was a critical moment in our history, a time when the full reality of apartheid had to be exposed and its evils placed on record. It was our job to point out what was happening in the country so no one could later say, “we didn’t know”.
Spoiler alert: they said it anyway. But when FW de Klerk, after his appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), once again declared at an international press conference that he did not know about Vlakplaas and the Civil Cooperation Bureau, I could stand up and say to him in front of all the cameras: Sir, we sent you all the information and sworn statements personally; Van Zyl Slabbert and I came to your office to tell you about Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock, Lothar Neethling, Ferdi Barnard, Eddie Webb, Wouter Basson, Calla Botha, Staal Burger, Joe Mamasela and others.
Dr Mengele and the court case
For those who do not know: our end was brought about by apartheid’s own Dr Mengele, Gen Lothar Neethling, head of the police forensic department. We revealed that he prepared toxins and poisons to kill or sedate anti-apartheid activists.
He sued us for defamation and Judge Johann Kriegler ruled in our favour. But the old boys of the appeal court, then the highest court in the land, decided they didn’t know who to believe and overturned Kriegler’s decision. We then owed Neethling R90,000, and the state millions in legal costs, and had to close our doors in February 1994.
Everyone now knows, after all the testimony before the TRC, that our reporting was 100% accurate.
There is something poetic about the fact that Afrikaans journalists exposed the worst sins and crimes of the apartheid state in Afrikaans. Perhaps it was worth the price we had to pay.
In 2018, Arena Holdings asked me to revive an online version of Vrye Weekblad as part of its stable. I was reluctant because I had a quiet, creative life, and my bank manager had become a good friend for a change. But the old Calvinism gnawed at me and the idea was appealing: 24 years after liberation, there were few progressive voices in Afrikaans; the Afrikaans media’s mood was that the country was becoming a failed state and that only the Solidarity movement and the DA could save it. And Media24’s news monopoly was unhealthy, I felt.
The advantage that Vrye Weekblad 2.0 had was that we didn’t have the baggage of apartheid. We could build on the reputation and prestige of the original newspaper, fight for clean and effective governance, and make the case for the Afrikaans language with greater freedom and legitimacy.
The marriage with Arena was not harmonious. The company thought it would make money from the Boers, while we were focused on stretching the minds of our Afrikaans readers a bit; on practising quality journalism rather than pursuing profits; on tempering the paralysing gloom; on underpinning constitutionalism.
Exactly a year ago this week, we found South African businessmen with deep pockets to finance us and Vrye Weekblad began to flourish: Vrye Weekblad 3.0. Today, it is a viable enterprise with an influential presence and a loyal and growing readership. We will soon put up a paywall, and hope to break even within two years. We are now also fully available in English, and our English-speaking readership is growing rapidly.
Of course, there is a place for Media24’s Afrikaans publications, even for Solidarity’s Maroela Media. But there is also definitely a place for a progressive title for more discerning Afrikaans readers; for a publication that does not write about celebrities and yesterday’s shocking crime or social scandals; one that can entertain and intellectually stimulate; that does not focus only on the Afrikaans world of experience.
There is a rich crop of such publications in the West that coexist with tabloids and daily newspapers — The New Yorker, Vrij Nederland, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Groene Amsterdammer, Politico, Rolling Stone, The Spectator, De Correspondent, The New Statesman — and there is no reason South Africa and Afrikaans should not have them as well.
I don’t expect Die Burger, Beeld, Rapport or Maroela Media to post profiles of mbaqanga musicians or restaurant reviews about the shisa nyama in Kayamandi, but they should at least make sure their readers know what mbaqanga and shisa nyama are.
They can certainly follow the adventures of pop singers Steve Hofmeyr and Karlien van Jaarsveld, but white Afrikaans readers should also know about Cassper Nyovest and Black Coffee. And for every Kallie Kriel, Helen Zille and Flip Buys, there is an Mcebisi Ndletyana, Njabulo Ndebele and Songezo Zibi who can be asked for an opinion or analysis.
You can stay within “earshot of your people” and at the same time ensure your readers and listeners truly know what is happening in the country and its communities.
An editor can certainly stay within “earshot of your people” in their editorial comment, but the reporting must focus on the facts, all the facts. And critically, the media must reflect voices and opinions from outside the language or ideological circle.
Once a week, I punish myself and read the comments below articles on Netwerk24, News24 and Maroela, as well as Daily Maverick and Politicsweb. The ignorance, pettiness and bigotry are absolutely astonishing.
Are these the kind of people we should stay within “earshot” of?
Another question: how is it that this kind of dumb, reactionary nonsense does not also appear in Vrye Weekblad’s comments section?
Give the brain enough oxygen
We in South Africa have the freest media on the continent, and in terms of our constitution and legislation we are among the freest in the world. Alongside our independent judiciary, it is the strongest pillar of our democracy and open society.
Our journalists are the red blood cells of the national body. We must ensure the brain gets enough oxygen and we must fight infections.
I have to add that I do not believe we fully use that freedom. Our small corps of investigative journalists in South Africa is among the best in the world, but the rest of us do not dig deep enough, we are not energetic and exploratory enough, the mirrors we hold up for our audience to see themselves and their environment are not large and bright enough.
We must all do much more than just stay within “earshot of our own people”.
Too many of us think we have done our job when we daily point out how rotten the ANC and the government are and how our country is becoming a failed state. Rotten government = rotten country = rotten nation.
We do far too little to reflect the incredible, vibrant energy in civil society, the many acts of resistance against abuse, corruption and poverty, the mobilisation of communities and towns, getting your hands dirty, helping each other.
We live in an extremely exciting time but we in the media prefer to focus on telling our audience how decayed everything is.
Media academic Lizette Rabie rightly calls on South African media to focus more on “constructive journalism”.
We at Vrye Weekblad intend to be much more constructive in the next 10 years than just documenting the negative.
We believe in hope.
This article is also available on Vrye Weekblad: