Chris Roper ponders the National Press Club's decision to make the rhino Newsmaker of the Year 2012, and what this says about the media.
In the press club of the blind, the one-horned man is king. Except a rhino isn’t a man, even the ones who still have their horns. And making the rhino the newsmaker of 2012, in a year when 36 mineworkers were killed by their own government at Marikana, is worse than blind. It’s stupid.
I don’t really know what or who the National Press Club is. I’ve been working in media for a couple of decades, and they’ve never really impinged on my consciousness. I assume there’s some sort of secret handshake, and possibly a tastefully designed lapel pin. I really don’t know. I had to go to its website to do some research.
I find the "National" Press Club’s manifesto disturbingly revealing about its parochialism. Here is an extract:
“Founded as the Pretoria Press Club in 1975, the club has grown in leaps and bounds ... The membership profile is represented by role-players in the entire spectrum of the communications field – journalists, news photographers and communication practitioners from our country's diverse population groups – also from beyond Pretoria's geographic borders."
They claim diversity, but the final subclause, signalled by that awkward hyphen, celebrates that they’ve managed to get members that aren’t actually from Pretoria. If you’re starting from that narrow a presumptive, you’ve got a long, long way to go before you’re representative of a country.
The past three winners of the club’s journalist of the year are Joy Summers of Carte Blanche (2009), Graeme Hosken of Pretoria News (2010), and Barry Bateman of Eyewitness News (2011). Fine journalists all, I’m sure, and it’s hardly their fault if someone gives them an award, but the racial and geographical makeup is indicative. The club is about to announce the 2012 winner. We should take bets on whether it’s going to be another white journalist from Gauteng.
Sadly, if it is, that white journalist, no matter how accomplished, will be in the same invidious position as the rhino, whitewashed with the same brush. In the crude dialectics of our country, you’re either for or against. From now on, those dudes with the red plastic rhino horns on their cars are marked as lacking in compassion, privileging animals over their fellow humans, and dramatically out of touch with the real issues of our country. This isn’t necessarily true, of course. You can care about more than one issue at a time, but the National Press Club is forcing lazy thinkers to take sides now.
The rhino is in good company: 2007’s winner was also an animal, or rather a collective of animals, the Springboks. I can’t believe that a rugby team winning a competition that features a bunch of white people beating up black people, Asians and Eastern Europeans in the opening rounds, and then playing each other for the Super Aryan Mega Team title, can be the newsmaker of the year. Especially in a year that featured the Jackie Selebi saga.
In 2004, the club gave Charlize Theron the award for getting an Oscar. Seriously? You’re newsmaker of the year because you made a movie in America? Perhaps I’m being a little harsh in my criticism here. She was honoured for her media profile, to whit: “Apart from umpteen appearances on local television and radio shows and in the printed press, Beeld and Pretoria News, for example, published special editions to mark her Oscar Award.“ Ah. So you get a newsmaker of the year award because you appeared in a Pretoria newspaper and an Afrikaans daily. Again, if we were looking for material to make a simple case of being entirely out of touch, the National Press Club is making it easy for us.
Charlize is lucky she made it at all. According to the then National Press Club chairperson, the “Olympics swimming relay team and the 2010 Soccer World Cup bid were also strong contenders for the title". Eish. Forget governments – you get the readers you deserve too.
I’ve cherrypicked these examples. In fairness, the club has also granted newsmaker of the year awards to President Jacob Zuma (2009), plain Jacob Zuma (2005), Thuli Madonsela and Julius Malema (2011) – a joint award, oddly enough – Helen Zille (2006), and Cope and Eskom (2008).
But this is another consequence of the sheer stupidity of giving the rhino the award in 2012. The National Press Club might really have the best interests of South Africa in mind, although the awards do blatantly expose their class and race biases. But class and race biases are common to all of us. What should make us true South Africans is how we continually fight those biases, in ourselves and others. As an organisation that thinks its readers and viewers, and its putative colleagues, have proven themselves more interested in an animal than the terrible, poverty-stricken lives and deaths of their fellow citizens, the National Press Club has destroyed any credibility it might have painfully clawed from the unfortunate implications of its membership structure.
On the other hand, the Press Club doesn’t make this stuff up. At least, I don’t think they do. According to the chairperson, Antoinette Slabbert: “ ... the award is made on the grounds of impact, news value and media attention in electronic, print, online and social media". So if this award is justified, then it’s an inditement of the views of media in general, and the National Press Club are just scapegoats. Maybe the scapegoat will be Newsmaker of the Year 2013.
I remember a terrible bumper sticker that used to do the rounds, in the days when environmental concerns were considered the domain of hippies, lesbians and vegetarians. It read: “Save the whales. Harpoon a fat chick today.” The National Press Club might as well issue stickers reading: “Save the rhinos. Castrate a white dude today.” That’s the opening you’ve given to the myopic trolls of South Africa, who can now gleefully claim that caring about rhinos equates with not caring about people. It does the rhino a disservice, it does black environmentalists a disservice, and the only good thing might be that people stop putting those stupid plastic rhino horns that look like erect dog pizzles on their cars.
Chris Roper is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroper