Cosmetic Change

In Zulu Love Letter, director Ramadan Suleiman’s powerful and beautiful film about the complexities of the TRC and the unfinished business of apartheid, Pamela Nomvete plays Tandeka Khumalo, a journalist haunted by apartheid-era crimes. In a scene, near the outset of the film, Tandeka is unimpressed with all her colleagues, but her hardest rage is for the “affirmative action snot-noses who think that being black is a job description and that ‘the struggle’ refers to which cellular network they should subscribe to.”

The insult may appear harsh, but given the state of “black” journalism, it is hard not to sympathise with her frustration. Consider the Sowetan.
Recently, at a conference on media transformation in Limpopo, Lizeka Mda, formerly a reporter at The Star and now at Mafube publishing, referred to tabloid newspapers as “the peddlers of the tokoloshes,” adding her “disappointment is greatest with the Sowetan.” She added, “the Sowetan, I mean, which stood for something called nation-building, a very proud institution and all that soul is being bled ... to chase the tokoloshes and it’s really very sad.”

Around the same time, closer to my current neck of the woods, the respected black journalist George Curry was also unhappy with his colleagues: “I am proud to be a journalist but I am not proud of the behavior of my profession.”

Citing the by then widely acknowledged failings of the US media’s coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its general miscoverage of black people, Curry - who is also editor-in-chief of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, the professional group of 200 black-owned newspapers - said: “We had the white-owned media being obsessed by the livid number of victims who were looting, while ignoring the massive looting that was going on at the gas pump… We can’t rely on anyone else to tell our story. Black media like any other institution are under attack.”

But Curry’s sentiment, like Mda’s expectations of the Sowetan, relies on the assumption that black-owned or -run media will automatically offer better coverage of issues relating to the 40 million-strong African-American minority in the US, or ironically the majority of South Africans.

This is an old argument in US media and political circles. Many African-Americans and other minorities have given up on mainstream media, arguing that “race” media are the only hope for fair coverage of minority issues and lives.

So is ethnic media necessarily the answer? Take the case of the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company. The company was founded by the late John H Johnson, the founder of Ebony (since 1945 “the No. 1 African-American magazine in the world”) and Jet (also aimed at black audiences and appearing since 1951). On Johnson’s death, he was hailed as a major force for black media, and presumably the “cause” of African Americans.

But as critic Alex Walker pointed out recently on the website, much has changed since Johnson started his magazines: Ebony has been AWOL on “every big story in recent years” - job discrimination suits, the scrapping of welfare, vicious attacks against affirmative action, and the racist governmental response in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricane. In fact, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the magazine featured vapid interviews with leading black actors. A month later, it was the turn of singer Beyonce Knowles to grace the cover, with a small, buried story about the “evacuees”.

If the US model teaches us anything important, it is that while shaking up the racial make-up of South African journalism is crucial, it is definitely not enough.

As City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu (who was fired by the Sunday Times for not dumbing down the paper enough, amongst other things) told the same Limpopo conference that Mda was at: the change in media must not happen only at the control of the means of production, “it must [also] happen at the control of the production of knowledge.”

Sean Jacobs is The Media’s correspondent in the United States.

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs

Sean Jacobs is an Associate Professor of international affairs at the New School for Social Research and the founder and editor of Africa Is a Country.  Read more from Sean Jacobs

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