Once bitten, twice shy: SA journalism’s favour towards campus protesters
One doesn’t even need the benefit of hindsight to be able to point out how completely myopic that sentiment was. As we have already seen, the Fallists’ ‘revolution’ received the lion’s share of yesterday’s media attention, and will likely continue to do so in the coming days if things remain unchanged. In fact, they are now fighting over how much attention each of the Fallist groups at the various universities deserves to get and how the screen time has already been allocated.
Coupled with the fact that the protesters believe themselves to be the underdogs in their continual fight against society, all that one can say is that you simply can’t make this stuff up.
Of course, the contributors here at Rational Standard have already written about the Fallists at length. I’d like to turn your attention to something else.
Media renaming university buildings
For those with an eye for detail, the reporting on yesterday’s campus events (or lack thereof, in the case of Stellenbosch University) contained some strange anomalies.
Two of News24’s journalists were on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Upper Campus yesterday, relaying video, images, and descriptions of protest on the campus through the site’s live coverage. In their Tweets, one journalist noted the arrival of students “at the Jameson Hall, or Marikana Plaza,” while the other reported on a congregation of students “on steps outside the hall (Marikana or Jammie) on Upper Campus…”
A third News24 journalist, writing about the relatively peaceful state of Stellenbosch University in response to Minister Blade Nzimande’s fees announcement, drew particular attention to “a group of students who watched the livestream in the Lilian Ngoyi auditorium…”
What, then, are the anomalies?
UCT’s Jameson Hall, and the adjacent Jameson Plaza, do not go by any other name. While a process is underway to change the name of Jameson Hall, as things currently stand – officially and, I would note for those News24 journalists, factually – ‘Jameson’ is the only name associated with the Hall and the Plaza.
Similarly, the building referred to as ‘Lilian Ngoyi’ at Stellenbosch University is, in fact, the RW Wilcocks building.
These new or alternative names come solely from protesters at those universities. So why have these journalists been so quick to adopt fictional names for places in their reporting?
South African journalism’s desire to be ‘woke’
At this point, some may be questioning whether a mountain is being made out of a molehill here. Of course, let’s not forget that we are dealing with a movement whose primary concerns have included the ‘ownership’ and ‘appropriation’ of a hashtag. To these individuals, and those who share their worldview, words matter – massively. Such simple matters may not mean much to the rest of us, but it is certainly important to them, so we ought to pay attention.
The journalists adopting the protesters’ nomenclature reveal two things. Firstly, by using the names of buildings alongside (or in place of) those buildings’ actual names, these journalists are indicating that official names are interchangeable and on equal standing with those used by student protesters; that protesters’ names for buildings should be taken seriously. In doing so, they are trying to grant these protest movements credibility and legitimacy, even though, as has been argued, the protest movements lack both.
Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, it once again reveals the fact that a number of South African journalists are drawn towards the dominant campus Fallist narrative – and embrace it. This is not surprising, as the pressure amongst public intellectuals, ‘thought leaders’, and journalists to adopt such worldviews is greater than ever – lest these individuals remain ‘ignorant’ about their or other people’s ‘privileges’ and, in doing so, remain ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘homophobic’, and so on.
If you don’t believe that this is the case, a cursory glace over almost any publication will show, for example, the undue focus placed on individual instances of racism, or journalists lamenting the (apparently racist) convention of italicising non-English words in English reporting. There exists a plethora of articles in which South African journalists subtly or overtly point to their own ‘wokeness’.
Journalism is in a precarious state these days, whether in South Africa or abroad. The lines between factual reporting and conveying opinions have become significantly blurred, especially as the advent of online reporting has lead to a more casual writing style, and the integration of social media into that reporting.
As such, it seems that journalists now occupy a hybrid role. On the one hand, they contribute to the day-to-day recording of events in South Africa – essentially, they record history. On the other, they function (at times) like quasi-artists, playing a significant role culturally. It is in this latter role that many of them seem to embody the sentiment of the poet PB Shelley: that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Whether they intend to or not, journalists shape public opinion.
As meaningless as the casual renaming of buildings may seem, it may, in fact, betray the biases of these journalists. Moreover, it brings to mind the following quote by Bill Whittle:
I never learned, as professional journalists learn, that there is (in fact) the ‘larger truth’, in the service of which facts may be – in fact, must be – half-suppressed, half-told, or just plain invented.
Fortunately, one Rational Standard contributor has already given us some insight into what is being taught in at least one journalism school in South Africa.
In light of that, Bill Whittle’s quote seems equally applicable to the state of journalism in South Africa.