SO MUCH MATERIAL: TOO LITTLE TIME

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations” George Orwell.

Last weekend’s publication of a scandalous story which revealed that South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is alleged to have been nicknamed cupcake by one of his mistresses – has left the country’s journalists and editors accusing each other of taking sides in the current power struggles ravaging the ruling party ANC ahead of its  54th National elective conference in December.

“I must admit that I am terribly disappointed in Ramaphosa, just one affair? What kind of presidential contender has one affair? “Cyril Ramaphosa the story that couldn’t.”

“South Africans don’t care about their leader sexual lives” “No lethal blow to Ramaphosa’ Campaign Over sex scandal, yet” “Cyril’s sex ‘scandal’ a damp squib.” “Nobody Cares About The Ramaphosa Sex Scandal” Some accused the editor of being a drama queen lacking in journalistic ethics after he complained of receiving death threats following the stories’ publication.

With twitter having cooled off from posting cupcake memes the editor in question published an opinion piece midweek explaining his actions while also accusing his colleagues in the media of pressuring him to reveal his sources vowing to stand for truth. The Mail and Guardian which published his position warned journalists to manage their biases.

“Power is being contested here. And whenever power is being contested, it is ugly. It is therefore imperative that all of us who work in the media to remember what happened in the run-up to Polokwane. Journalists and publications chose sides, they were proxies for factional battles and they were betrayed.” The editorial concluded that “We are journalists. But we are not freedom fighters. Noble though our work is, we must abandon our self-righteous zeal. Truth, justice, puppies and rainbows are sure to follow if we’re able to report the news as we ought.”

In theory ethical journalism is supposed to be about constrained expression, not free expression. It is supposed to be about professionals who impose self-restraint based upon the respect for others and an attachment to ethical principles. But this can only be done in an environment free from pressure and intimidation – which is why journalists should have a vested interest in defending and promoting high standards of human rights, which includes, in this case, the right for the editor in question to publish the story instead of attacking him.

Make no mistake.

The current Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is a very powerful man. He not only has deep roots within the ANC and government, but he has amassed an immense amount of wealth and influence in the business sector since the advent of democracy.  He is a man well versed in almost all sectors of South African society.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of his character lies not in his alleged extra-marital affairs which he dismissed as “dirty-war-tricks” employed to damage his campaign for the presidency but his role leading up to the 2012 Marikana massacre in which 34 Lonmin mine workers were killed by South African police.  Ramaphosa who was the director of Lonmin at the time used his influence to order the police minister to deploy close to 800 policemen to the Koppie in Marikana and later persuaded them to end these “dastardly acts.”  He was calling striking mine workers cowards who lacked courage.

These are known public facts.  In May this year, the Deputy President apologised for his role in the Marikana Massacre saying it was an unfortunate use of language. Unfortunate words from someone who is a lawyer, a skilled negotiator, drafter of the country’s constitution, a businessman, a labour union specialist who at some point in his illustrious career represented the rights and aspirations of mine workers in South Africa. It’s his about turn from negotiating a peaceful settlement to putting pressure on government officials to do something which caused a huge blood stain on the very democracy he helped to build – which worries me.

He lacked restraint.

This image of Deputy President is more troubling to me.  I wonder about his motivations and whose’s interests he is serving or will serve once he becomes President. This alleged sex-scandal only serves to corroborate what we already know, Ramaphosa is a man, like President Zuma, who lacks restraint.  He just goes about it in a way which is more discreet and acceptable to the majority of South Africans. It is what he is capable of doing behind closed doors as illustrated in the Marikana massacre which makes this sordid story about his alleged sexual-exploits, ultimately relevant.

The attacks against the editor in question who was granted leave this week due to stress and trauma suffered as a result of publishing the story only serves to make us forget about history. To divert attention from what matters.

The failure by most South African journalists and editors to defend the editor in question’s right to publish the story without fear or intimidation is also troubling. This year has not been easy for the journalism fraternity and while journalists came out in full support for Journalists standing up against censorship at the SABC. Their silence on the rights for the editor in question to publish a story revealing the hidden character of a man who is in the running for the highest office in the land,  even after the editor has complained of harassment and death threats – is disturbing.

What is this story about?

As with the recent saga of Bell Pottinger, we know that there are many ways to manipulate the media and or public opinion. One of them is complete censorship and suppressing of information. The other is releasing an avalanche of information some of which is misleading, false, true or useless aimed at keeping said target preoccupied with sifting the sheep from the goats. Perhaps the editor in question and his colleagues may have been the victims of a Phishing attack or suggestio falci – a case of having too much information with little time to make sense of it. Time is currency in Journalism and unfortunately, it may have worked against him this time around.  But he still has the editorial right to publish information without fear or intimidation even if we don’t agree with its contents or deem it to be a “good” story.  None of us are beyond reproach in this business.

If President Jacob Zuma and his supporters are capable of engaging in nefarious activities to hold on to power and influence – what makes us think that the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters are not when history tells us otherwise?

“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” 
― George Orwell

 

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IF WE DON’T TELL THE TRUTH WHO WILL? – ZOLA NTUTU

It’s difficult. I am at a loss for words and a piece of me is still hoping that it’s not true.  My former SABC Radio News Assignment editor and Veteran  Journalist  Zola “The General” Ntutu has passed away. Found dead, in bed, alone in his flat on Sunday the 20th August 2017. I was talking to him just the other day, about work. I wondered if what I was proposing was worth his time he said no, he doesn’t think it would be worth his time. I agreed with him and wished him well. Just a few days ago. How could he now be no more? Yes, my Facebook timeline was often filled with regular updates regarding his health. He was frequently in and out of the hospital, I would comment on his thread at times; “Strength to you Zola” or “Get well soon  General” (a name he got for his struggle days in Port Elizabeth). But lately he had been posting cheerful stuff, jokes about women, men and soccer fans being sore losers.  So I assumed all was well. After our conversation, I had no reason to believe that those would be the last and final words I would say to him. Stay well. You see I had a vested, selfish interest in his survival, in his life because I was hoping to eventually give him a copy of my book one day, a book inspired in part by him and journalists of his generation. I had hoped that he would open the book and read about himself, through my eyes.  Read about how he was such a strong and ever-present dependable influence and character in my tenure as a radio journalist at the SABC.  It was my way of thanking him for teaching me how to write, how to tell a story, a great radio story – more importantly he taught me how to think, how to defend, clarify, argue my positions when we debated stories in diary meetings or when he’d call me to sit by him while he edited my stories. Think Jedi…. What do you mean by this….  Nooo man Jedi but this does not make sense, what are you trying to say?  I can still hear his voice loudly in my head as I write this. What am I trying to say? Gosh it was meant to be a surprise.

To be honest there was something stinging about his last words to me.   When he replied that it wasn’t worth his time.  I mean I knew it wasn’t worth his time, I was surprised by his interest. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, I wanted to know what he was busy with instead.  I didn’t want to pry into his private life yet I  knew  I could trust him to be honest, to always tell me the truth even if I didn’t want to hear it. Like when I returned from my first international assignment. He didn’t mince his words, “You f***d up” and he was right. Or when I refused to get married “you must light other people’s candles, don’t be selfish” or when I was job hopping “You’re all over the place, you need to settle down”

Why didn’t I think to say thank you then while I still had his attention, why hadn’t I told him then that I thought he was one of the best editors/journalists I knew?

Why hadn’t I told him that despite everything, I respected him?

Because I thought I had time. I thought I would walk into the Johannesburg SABC radio news office, my second home for close to ten years and still find him sitting there, at the corner wearing his black leather jacket or an African print shirt, a black beret, or rolled up woollen hat on his head, editing radio scripts or asking yet another radio journalist what they meant by this sentence – place the book next to him on his desk and say thank you. Enkosi. Check.

Ours was a largely professional relationship. I met him when I was 20 while still an intern, lost and confused at the World Racism Conference in Durban, 2001. He was loud, boisterous, argumentative, playful, witty, dark, broody, moody, his laugh was lyrical, loud, and foreboding all at once. I didn’t know what to make of him. He put the fear of God in me and I was a born-again Christian. It took a very long time for me to warm to him and relax. Because I didn’t know how to deal with I treated him like a distant father figure, an elder, a strict, wayward but favourite uncle.

And yet Zola Ntutu was no respecter of titles, positions, hierarchy, social class, power structures he was, for the most part, the most irreverent person I knew. I was curious about him and found him simultaneously open and closed off to me. I stalked him in other ways, by listening to his archived radio stories, in particular, those he produced around the TRC, and I caught glimpses of him in Antjie Krog’s book of the on the TRC hearings, Country of my Skull.  He reported extensively on the pre-election violence in the early 1990’s in various townships, particularly on Johannesburg’s  East Rand. But for a large part he remained a mystery to me, a Pandora’s box I was afraid to open. I didn’t know about his background in photojournalism, though he liked my photojournalism after I had left. He seldom spoke of himself. And so for years, he remained to me an elder and boss but never a peer.

Until he showed up one day after a group of us (women) journalists while off-duty had been robbed at gunpoint at   Johannesburg’s’ Zoolake, he drove out to the scene to make sure that we were all still breathing. I saw how unbelievably tender his heart was. I got a glimpse of what was hiding behind his loud, witty and brooding often hung-over face. He was a softie. Tender and kind. A man who cared deeply about life,  he was perhaps a closet idealist. I found a new fondness for him and in my heart, he became more than a comrade, more than an editor and more than my boss. He was a Kindred. He made a fuss. He cared. He was passionate, compassionate, loving.  Even when he barely grunted a hello on Monday or weekend mornings walking past my desk, or when shouted where’s your script or bellowed my name at the top of his voice from his office, even though at times I dreaded it when he was the editor on duty because he would (not) let things slide; he would interrogate you, send you to stories you didn’t want to cover or make you write about subjects you didn’t think were newsworthy because he had won the argument about why that story was important. He was intellectually rigorous.  Could debate you on any subject.  He was tough, stubborn, relentless and often difficult, he challenged me and sometimes this made him seem impossible. But despite all of that I knew that he was my comrade.

He was with us in the trenches. He defended us at Line talk. He was a journalists’ ally.

Before I finally left the SABC for the second time, post-Marikana we had a difficult conversation. About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst journalists an underlying theme of the book,  I’ve been working on. He said it was a huge problem in South African newsrooms. One which both editors and journalists neither dealt with or were prepared for.  I was trying not to lose my temper and argue with him.  Because he was not well.

It’s hard to describe a  journalists’ relationship with an editor. It’s personal, intimate, often vacillates from love to hate in a matter of milliseconds. Sometimes frustratingly hostile, bitter, competitive, tearful and at other times joyful, funny, sarcastic other times endearing, full of tension, admiration and mutual respect. It is also at the same time distant, detached. Alien, foreign, clinical.  More than that though the editor knows things about you. They know all the unedited parts of you. They see you every day, raw and unpolished and like a parent, they clean you up, show you how to do it, and hope you can one-day do it yourself and surprise them, in a good way.

It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with him and for all these reasons I couldn’t for the life of me ask him. I couldn’t get the question out of my mouth. What I wanted to know the most during our interview.

There was so much that was left unsaid.

What I know for sure though, is that Zola Ntutu always had time for me. He had time for me and my fellow (former) Johannesburg Radio News Journalists.  He fought with and for us, he forced us to grow. He pushed us even when he himself was weak and, barely breathing.  He made the time for each and everyone of us.  My words, our words mattered to him, not because he was paid to look at them, but because we shared the same belief about the reason many of us had become journalists.

“Our job is to tell the truth if we don’t who will?”

And for that, I will be forever grateful. I never thought I’d see these words so soon.

Zola Ntutu,51, has died. Checked.

Out and I am heartbroken.

GET OUT: YOU ARE NOT A ROCK

You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served”— Nina Simone.

A Facebook update from a friend of a friend posted on  National Women’s Day in South Africa got me thinking, deeply. She said;

Don’t call me a strong woman. I’m not your Mbokodo (Rock/Boulder) me. This thing of likening women to indestructible boulders is getting us killed”

At first glance, this statement seems to spit in the face of thousands of women who bravely marched to the Union Buildings  61 years ago in protest against the brutal and imperialistic  Apartheid government. The reason we celebrate Womans’ Day on the 9th August every year. It was an auspicious March, arguably the largest gathering of activists from around the country since the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1955.  The women covered every inch of the of the historic lawns united by one song, an anthem: Wathinta’abafazi Wathinti’mbokodo. You strike a woman, you strike a rock, you have dislodged a boulder which will roll down and crush you. This anthem galvanized the women. It gave them the strength to challenge the iron fisted Right Wing Hans Strydom, Verwoerd and co. It was a necessary coping/defiance mechanism against an arrogant racist, violent, and repressive government.

But between you and me, I agree with my friends’ friend.  I think this anthem, this slogan has served its purpose. This coping mechanism, this metaphor which once symbolised courage has now become a weapon used against women in South Africa. As if at the march, the women exchanged the dom-pas for a male fist. It has expired, it is outdated. It no longer works. In a country where one in three men admit that they have forced themselves (raped) on women at some point in their lives,  in a country with one of the highest rates of femicide in the world; it is abundantly clear that women are not rocks, we are not indestructible boulders. We hurt, we bleed, we feel pain, and we are ultimately mortal. We won’t rise like the Phoenix. It’s a myth.

A friend of mine who works as a domestic worker in the suburbs of Johannesburg once put this into sharp perspective for me. She said, you know Jedi I’m tired. Every day as I clean and rub the floor, it’s not the concrete that disappears, it’s me. The rock stays the same, but you don’t, it wears you down after a while.

So, knowing that you are not a rock, that you do bruise and you will die if you stay with a man or woman who treats your body like a rock will save you. It will help you to get out.  Today you must be soft and walk away, don’t look back. I know that the other women paved the way for your freedom, but they didn’t  bravely march to the Union Buildings to confront imperialists so that you can die at the hands of your comrades in the revolution. They marched so you can be free to leave, free to move, free to love and be loved by someone who would not even consider laying a hand on your beautiful face to solve a problem. They did not march so you can be beaten, raped or murdered in the name of a political party or the liberation movement.

Listen even the ANC’s women’s league president Bathabile Dlamini made this clear in an interview given to the Sunday papers.  She said that the Deputy Director of  Higher Education Mduduzi Mananas’ recent assault of a young woman was negligible compared to what other senior political figures in government have done or are currently doing to women. Implying that Manana is not the only nor the worst sexual offender in government.  In fact,  gender based violence has become just a political game for Dlamini. “I don’t want to be part of those games…. Even in other parties, there is sexual harassment and it’s not treated the way it’s treated in the ANC. And I refuse that this issue is made a political tool. It’s not a political tool”

Between you and me. We know that sex and violence are political tools often used between the sheets or between the pages shuffled in government so Dlamini’s statement is vacuous. It is empty, there’s nothing to it.  Nada. Dololo. Don’t stay. Get out.

The ruling political party’s  ideals are limited by an attachment to a status quo that keeps them the dominant class. Even well-intentioned individuals within the liberation movement can’t resist the rewards of an unequal society that favours them. Their true and primary allegiance is to their class and the privileges they are Happy to enjoy.

One of my more erudite friends on Facebook commenting on a controversial American film said something which I think  can be applied to our current situation: “There can be a fine line between the portrayal of racial violence as a critical and necessary record of the long history of white supremacy and the portrayal of racial violence such that it repeats white supremacy’s very terms. Katheryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” about the 1967 riots and a particularly vicious night of police brutality at the Algiers Hotel, in my opinion, doesn’t fall clearly on the right side of that line.”

I would like you to replace white supremacy with patriarchy and racial violence with misogyny. And see that there can be a fine line between standing up for women’s rights (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) as a critical and necessary resistance against patriarchy and standing up for women’s rights in such a way that it repeats and perpetuates violence against women.

In this context, the slogan, Wathinti’Abafazi, You strike a Rock,  no longer falls on the right side of that line. In my 14 years as a journalist observing and speaking to female politicians, I noticed a disturbing trend with women politicians admitting that they will consciously tow the party line at the expense of women’s rights.  Progressive, intelligent, nice, sweet, stylish beautiful and friendly women and men with bright smiles will vote in favour of your abuser in order to stay in power and keep their positions. It’s the nature of politics. Why? Because they have been rocks, they have been sexually harassed, abused and assaulted as a result they expect you to do the same. They expect you to be strong. Be a Rock. Take one for the team. Take it. For the liberation movement. They have become numb to pain. Don’t be like the ANC Women’s league or a Rock. they are the veteran survivors or even current victims of abuse.

Do not exchange toxic masculinity for toxic femininity. Both are bad for you.

Don’t feel bad for leaving. You are saving your own life and his or hers mind you.  If you need scientific evidence, a recent study by psychologists at the University of UC Berkeley found that feeling bad about feeling bad only serves to make things worse. Don’t attempt to feel upbeat about a bad situation. Don’t feel bad about leaving.  It’s bad enough that you’re in an abusive relationship or that you have been violated in some way – accept that it’s bad and that as much as you love the revolution, you can’t change anyone or that man. Your man needs help. But you are not his saviour. You can’t change him, heal him or save him. The only way to help him is to show him that you are not a rock. You are soft. Let him see and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he is doing is killing you, walk away. Get the restraining order. Call POWA. Even the police. Make a detailed record of events. File a case. Move out.  Call a friend.

Not all men cheat, not all men rape or abuse women. Not all men are trash I promise you. You’ll meet someone who knows that love does not equal violence or pain. Dare to leave.

Being a rock may have worked in 1956 but it’s not working today. So, exchange that fist for a piece of paper and walk out.  I know it’s been said before that “Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka mo bogaleng” A Sesotho idiom which means a woman holds the sharp end of the knife. Yes, she does but only if she has to, only if her children are under siege. Don’t let it get there. Walk out.

While you still can. You’re not a rock, you’re woman. Soft and human. Apartheid is over, and while this freedom may exist only on paper for most women, this paper is still a valid ticket for you to get out of there. Apply it. Use that App. Make it speak for you.  You have a right to live a full and happy life. This is how you honour the women who marched in 1956.

Take your freedom and Leave. Run if you have to.  Let them know that you strike a woman, she leaves. Period.

“Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality, to improve the concrete situation of the masses of our country.” ― Thomas Sankara

ON THE CLOCK: THE FUTURE OF (SELFIE) JOURNALISM

I have been thinking about my chosen profession recently. In fact for the past 14 years. Each day I have asked myself if this is something I want or wish to do for the rest of my life. I have asked myself this question on every occasion I have returned from the heat of the field, still half listening to the interviews in my head, still getting accustomed to the characters in the play let alone sorting out the facts from the truth. I have asked myself this question while still trying to find the words to describe the mood, the cadences of ordinary scenes pregnant with nuances beyond logical description.  The scars in someone’s soul.  Hours after the interview(s) I would still be listening, trying to find the best way to include into my script all the silences between words in the interviews, to find the words that could describe feelings that were never expressed, thoughts that were never uttered, the hopes and fears that were caught somewhere in someone’s throat or which silently gathered behind brave round eyes or spilled over in a moment of weakness onto curled eyelashes and leaked without a sound on firm cheeks. Spreading across someone’s face in a distant smile.

I would still be thinking, wondering if there is a way to write about the sound of a silent tear drop, the weight behind each one, and how each tastes different to the other. Some are as light as mist while others heavy and thick like a pound of dead flesh, drop loudly on quivering cheeks like a thunderstorm. Other tears flow slowly as fluid as crimson lava from a raptured volcano etching pigments of memory on tired faces long after the eyes have dried up. Each tear contains a story. A story which seconds on the clock could never contain.  In order to write I tell myself, I can do it.  I close my eyes to the silent tick of the clock, each red dot marking a second, a minute, an hour before the show is over. I close my eyes and in the darkness tell myself that somehow I can do it. I can make them hear the sound of falling a tear drop.

The pressure is sometimes so strong I need a song that can help me silence the critic inside. I need music to initiate movement. To silence the white noise. In all honesty I cannot remember a day when I didn’t ask myself if this is truly what I have chosen to do with my life. Because in many ways I didn’t fully believe or accept that journalism and I are well suited.  The pressure to file a story every hour was both a wondrous thrill and a heavy burden. It was superb when the story pumped like the inaudible flow of blood in your veins, when you knew all the elements of the story as well as you know your own name, when you knew the subject inside-out, when it was a subject you believed in, when love took over and you found yourself floating on water like a surfer who has just caught the largest wave, the highest tide, flying. In those moments time would be irrelevant, in fact, when you reached the point of equilibrium between yourself and a story it felt as though time herself was bowing to you, waiting for you.  It stood as if in an eternal salute to a master creating a timeless experience balancing the past and future fully in the present moment.  Everything would be in sync, synergized and you would never ever want time to start its relentless drill again. Tick Tock. In fact you didn’t even think about it.  But those days and moments were rare, because you were not a specialist you had to learn a story from scratch every day, like cramming for an exam every single time you go to work.  Most days putting a story on air would be as hard and tedious as trying to squeeze milk from an old-cow whose udders have lost their youthful lustre.  In those moments time would always be against you, either too fast or too slow.  In my early days as a journalist, I  found myself quite perplexed, both at myself and the nature of what I was attempting to do every day,  to write down stories I was never told.  I would have to shut my eyes tight. Forget about time, write what was not said with varying degrees of success. At times I thought I put too much pressure on myself,  which is why at least once or twice a week, I would find myself  immobile unable to move, because I was still waiting to hear the splashing sound of  a falling tear drop as it hits the floor. It never has.

Today, I would like to believe that I can look at what I do with a certain level of professional dispassion.  Perhaps I am mature enough to capture a tear-drop and tell a timely story.

Technology is ever-changing the way we consume and understand news and current affairs. To a large extent, the tools we use, the technology itself has become news.  What makes the headlines today would probably have never made it onto a national news bulletin when I started working with words and silences over ten years ago. What would make headlines ten years ago, is not even considered news today.  Reporting/Journalism has never been as fast as it is today, it has never been so easy nor so convenient for any journalist, reporter or ordinary person with the right tools to break a story and make headlines.  There are a multiple ways in which stories can be told and often new reporters and journalists are expected to have an ability to use all of them with equal competence. From filing radio hard copy, voice reports from the field, capturing video footage,  taking photographs, getting the interviews, tweeting about it, posting (selfies) with news makers on Instagram, Facebook, liveblogs and podcasts while simultaneously conducting live television reports with a selfie stick for a camera operator. Then there are infographics, photo snacks and hashtags, meant to compress everything to 70 characters and 30 second videos.  Your value as journalist is embedded in your ability to do all these successfully, and by success we mean your tweets must go viral, your story must be shared by millions, reposted by a hundred thousand more, tagged, favoured, and retweeted, liked, by your followers around the world. That has become the bottom line. Any errors made we can apologize for later.

There’s no time to pause before we report what we see.   The story of the sound of a tear drop is out of sync with the times, it is old news. What  we are asking journalists to do today, is like asking someone who was trained as a  General Practitioner, to start doing brain surgery, be a  vet, an obstetrician , an ophthalmologist among other things all in the course of one day. Any self-respecting medical professional would refuse such an assignment not only because it is impractical but simply because such an assignment is a recipe for failure and the worst case scenario would result in one of the patients suffering from lack of attention and or expertise advice. Whatever the outcome we can all expect the results of this to be average at best.

While it sounds very impressive to say you can and have been able to do all of those things, it is ultimately not sustainable. Perhaps not so much for the corporation itself as it operates on the belief that it can just as easily “replace” you with someone younger and more eager to not only do all of the above, but to also run and build a website from scratch and do marketing and publicity while you’re still trying to figure out how Twitter works.  The question is not whether one person can  perform all those functions, it is whether doing so would be in the best interest of the profession and the bottom line.

I understand. I was trained in all the imaginable methods of reporting from what we called desk top publishing (DTP) at the time, to photojournalism, TV, radio journalism, online journalism. I’ve learnt how to edit words, moving and still pictures, design websites, edit documentaries, write scripts, shoot video footage, and produce essays, learn history, politics, and a few foreign languages in three years.  I know how it feels like to be turned into an octopus with suctions on every imaginable aspect of journalism, a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is wonderful to have a working knowledge of these tools of telling stories, but ultimately what matters most is the story. You can have the best and most technologically advanced story telling tools – but they will never tell a story like a human being can.

So in the past four years as freelance journalist I have seen how amazing it can be to be a one man show on the rare occasion that it works, and how devastating it can be when everything comes falling apart like a deck of cards. Because in the end we only have two hands, two eyes, two ears and two feet.

I have enjoyed working in solitude as a radio reporter for eight years. Yet nothing is sweeter and is more wonderful and fulfilling that embarking on a creative project with like-minded people. I have tasted the undeniable high of working with others. Nothing surpasses a High Five with another hand at the end of a long day.  No technology can replace another human being. The Technology we use is just a tool, it will never replace another human’s eye, another person’s perspective. It is a delicate balance between being independent, versatile and being unreasonably narcissistic.  An inanimate object, no matter how technologically advanced and innovative it is, can never replace a human mind heart or soul. And if one day we wake up and think  it does, then we will do so at our own peril.

The bottom line is,  life is better when we’re doing it two-gether.

 WHAT’S NEWS TO YOU?  LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST

 

Keeping notes
Keeping notes

This month on September 11 I marked 13 years as a journalist. So I thought I should dedicate this week’s blog post to an activity that has dominated my life for the past 13 years. Of course, it’s a long story.

IN THE BEGINNING: WHAT AM I?

I had many dreams and aspirations before I decided on a path to become a journalist. In fact I wanted to be a great many things. I had dreams of becoming a cartoonist: working as an animator for Walt Disney, I also dreamed of being a dancer, a singer, maybe even an actress. Everyone in my family had at some point stood silently near the bathroom watching me talk to myself on the mirror while trying out different facial expressions. They would watch me practice over and over at the mirror, talking in a language even I didn’t  understand until I mastered the art of crying and laughing on the spot.  During those times I took on different characters, a broken-hearted lover, maybe some kind of a star, a teacher, maybe a university professor at an academic institution of high repute, a writer, a mother and so on. At some point I tried competing for the Miss South Africa Title. Alas.

 A  WHOLE WORLD IN MY HEAD

The list was (still is) endless. One of the options I considered to my mother’s chagrin, was joining the army. I thought then than it would be the easiest way for me to acquire a driver’s licence at no cost to my parents. I wanted to learn how to be disciplined because I had a short attention span and would find myself wondering to foreign lands in the middle of tasks, while washing dishes  for example, studying or trying to pay attention during Math class. I was intrigued by the story of numbers .  By suggesting I join the army  I hoped I would reign in the dreamer in me, and become more like my father who is disciplined, hardworking and always on time. As my mother and I poured over alternatives for my future career while lying on her bed, looking dreamily into the ceiling like lovers planning a future together, the word journalism surfaced. My mother acted as my career guide and told me:” you like to talk; to write, you are very curious, you enjoy reading, finding information and you want to travel, so journalism would be perfect for you. Plus you enjoy asking questions and you can be on TV  too if you want to”. It had never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I was more than a  little overwhelmed with the number of things I could do or be for rest of my life, and at 17 the world seemed to contain an infinite amount of possibilities. But when my mother mentioned journalism I thought this would be a good career choice. It seemed the best way to contain all my aspirations. So I enrolled at the best institution for practical journalism at the time and here I am today.

WHAT IS JOURNALISM ABOUT?: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

An online definition of a journalist reads as follows:
A person who writes for newspaper or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio and television. Synonyms include: a reporter, correspondent, newsman, newswoman, newspaperman, columnist, writer, commentator, reviewer, blogger, investigative journalist, photojournalist, war correspondent, lobby correspondent, editor, sub-editor, copy editor, paparazzo, pressman, legman, wireman and the list continues.” 

I think that’s the  best definition. Even journalism professors  struggle to define who or what is a  journalist. So to keep it simple we will go with the above description. My entry into journalism was a very frightening event for me. I was never sure of myself at all. I was always scared and intimidated by fellow students and later colleagues who always seemed more intelligent, knowledgeable and more  experienced  than I was. My favourite subjects included History, Business Economics and Politics. History because it was fascinating,  it put current events into context, Business  Economics because it made sense to me (I understood the basic principle of supply and demand.) Politics because our third year Politics lecturer Ashwin Desai was so passionate about his subject he brought the world into our lecture room and made what we were studying real and tangible. Writing essays, however, was my worst fear. I really could not imagine how I ended up studying journalism after all. A profession which at its core involved copious amounts of writing. I remember I once broke out in hives while writing an essay during an exam because I was so nervous. It took me 13 years to gain control over my nervous condition. Even today I have to work up the courage to start writing or  even to speak  when I am live on Television and or  Radio. Each time  I write, it feels as though I am writing for the first time.

 TOO MANY QUESTIONS…

While studying journalism I learnt that the point of being a journalist, at least as far as I understood it was to ask questions. Who (did) What, Where, When, How and Why. And after you have answered all those questions ask the most important one of all: why should anyone care?
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered years into the profession that: asking questions, the very reason for my existence as a journalist was the worst thing one could do in this profession! I finally discovered that while I was taught/learned to be a journalist, someone who asks questions, in order to give context to current affairs. No one cared about the history of why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. In the real world journalists were merely reporters. People who merely presented you with the most basic answers to the five questions. A reporter for me was similar to a minute-taker at meeting,  someone who takes minutes of a meeting. It’s a great skills to take great notes, but it’s not journalism. The more you questioned the status quo the more you were ignored, or became less popular with the officials. To get ahead in the profession you had to choose sides and not the middle ground as I was taught. Journalism had become a cross between public relations and reportage. More over in many cases as a general reporter even if you wanted to give context to your work there was never the time to. Newsroom were so that you had to jump from one story to another, and sometimes even do multiple stories a day. Which were ultimately identical to your competitors. Journalists or reporters were often recruited into high level communication positions in government and business so that, journalist often just  copied and pasted  text from  press-releases without question as if it were their own original writing. Spokespeople who were once journalist were even harder nuts to crack.

I always refused to be called a reporter, always thinking in my heart that I was a journalist not a parrot. But the industry dictated otherwise. Each Media house has an agenda, is politically affiliated to a number of people in powerful positions and the merit of the story was always weighed on these factors. The higher up you go – the more compromises you had to make. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, even if the chain of command is as far as the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa and Timbuktu, Mali.

BEYOND THE QUESTIONS: ETHICAL JOURNALISM

So when I finally decided to work independently as a journalist I discovered an even darker side of journalism which I would not have believed existed,  had it not  happen to me. I was on more than one occasion offered an exclusive story that could potentially put me in the league of award-winning journalists. “All you need to do is just put your by-line (name) to the story. You don’t have to do anything I will write the story for you” He said. I was incredulous, and looked at him laughing because I seriously thought he was joking. “How do you think journalists get leaked documents? Do you think all those famous investigative journalist you read about, write their own stories? “he continued realizing that I had no clue. “ Do you think they just stumble on documents?” This is how they do it he said. You just let me write the story and all you have to do is add your name to it.” He pleaded. I refused his offer and suddenly felt relieved. Until that moment I had never doubted the integrity of journalists – I being one them of  course.   I understood that some days are better than others, as some stories are better than others, but never had it occurred to me that journalists or reporters could participate in ghost writing, pass –off articles or stories they had no hand in writing and pretend it was their own hard work.

I always admired journalists who won awards, because I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a great story. It has been my daily struggle for the past 13 years and each year I hope to write better than the last. I had up until that moment no idea what’s so ever, that journalists were capable of that, more  people I had looked up to. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself – proud that even though I had never won an award or been acknowledged for my work by any organization or editor in the country, all the work I had done as a journalist had been my own original work. I was not winning someone’ else’  award. And if I were to ever win anything, it would be  based on my own original work. The man in question  eventually refused to grant me an interview, but in the end, I was able to write the story without his help, I had to think of other ways of finding information, I had to depend on my own eyes and ears, and finally I had to trust myself. I finally had to ask myself how much do I want to win anything, and is it worth it and is that why I was a  journalist in the first place. There is a cost to everything.

A THIN LINE: OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN:

Perhaps I was inspired by the movie starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts called the Pelican Brief. Where the journalist (Denzel Washington) worked in collaboration with an economics student – an informant (Julia Roberts) to write a story which uncovered corruption within the american judicial system. It was  dangerous but it’s the story that caught me, the potential power in being a journalist, that you can change history, or someone’s life.  Perhaps I thought I could travel around the world, go places I would not otherwise have access to and meet people who would pass me by the next day. A word of caution: not everyone who says they are journalist is actually a journalist. Perhaps I got into this profession for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones. I believed in justice, in the right to know, in providing people with information that could change their lives, help people tell their own stories, uncover the hidden side of things – how they work or don’t work. In fact truth be told, I approached this profession naively, thinking that everyone had the best intentions at heart. So what have I learnt? That all those years spent in the mirror have helped me to keep a straight face in the face of danger – even when I  was shaking inside.  Words are numbers. And numbers are words. So If I love words it means I love numbers too!!! The more I write the more I realize that it’s a mathematical equation. It is ultimate all about numbers which are words.  I could tap into any career imaginable just by writing about it. I am in the right profession. But here’s a fun list of things I learnt in the past 13 years of being *flinch * a reporter – journalist:

 

13 LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST:
1. Information is key: read money.
2. Spokespeople/Media liaisons/ Public relations personnel are information gatekeepers. In other words they are trained to manage information: their purpose in life is to feed you only the information they want you to know. They are trained to stop you from asking probing questions or from finding out information they want to hide.
3. Politicians are trained to be creative with the truth – and only tell the truth (leak information) when it serves their interests
4. There’s an infinitive number of ways to obtaining information. Officials ideally should be the last the last point of contact.
5. It’s the “invisible” people, that you don’t pay attention to who can give you amazing stories – which are true – family and friends, the homeless, etc.
6. Everyone has an agenda. Including your editor, your organization, you, every one.
7. Ultimately journalism – is about storytelling – the stuff that Novelists do without having to back it up with proof.
8. Asking (critical/simple) questions can be a career limiting exercise ( Choose carefully who you work for)
9. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. The truth is not always convenient. So your great expose can be conveniently ignored.
10. There are many truths.
11. Journalism is fun ( choose wisely who you work for)
12. You can go to most things   and places for free. ( if you don’t mind doing PR read marketing and public relations)
13. Acting is a great skill to have as a journalist (use at own risk)

 

A sneak preview to my upcoming project…