The Z-files

Little remains unsaid about the Jacob Zuma trials and his unsavoury media attacks. Rabid media coverage of his rape trial and political comeback is enough to last most people several lifetimes. What is probably still worth considering is the extent to which his (mis)fortunes remain staple food for the media.

From the outset, the Zuma tales - whether co-starring Shabir Schaik or “Kwezi” - were media creations. Bulelani Ngcuka’s “spy” accusations and the “off-the-record” meeting between Ngcuka and senior black journalists were all-media gigs. So were the contradictory weekend headlines on Zuma rape allegations in two leading Sunday papers in November last year, and the finger-pointing thereafter.

A quick review of the Zuma trials “so far” - using archival data from the massive Sabinet SA Media database managed by researchers at the University of the Free State - suggests this media show may be far from over. Nearly 880 articles were published in the mainstream press on some aspect of Zuma’s rape allegations and subsequent trial between November 13 last year - when the first stories were published - and his acquittal by Judge Willem van der Merwe on May 8. Over half of these (503 articles) were published just over the 23 days of the rape trial. The coverage climaxed the day after his acquittal, with a record 37 news stories across the country’s daily press. Of these, three were editorials and four were cartoons.

The Zuma coverage surpasses even the best of South African international news moments. The press published some 234 articles in the ten days between Princess Diana’s death and her funeral in September 1997. This coverage included nine cartoons and a record 43 editorial comments, mourning the shocking loss and lambasting the prurient paparazzi in hot pursuit when the fatal accident happened. Mother Teresa’s death, only five days after Princess Di, was captured in 48 articles and 13 editorials.

And consider this as well: Zuma was an unfamiliar face on editorial cartoon imagery before 2002. He featured only in nine cartoons that year, and none the year before. However, this was to change quickly as the National Prosecuting Authority intensified investigations into Zuma’s relationship with Schaik. In 2003 Zuma was in no fewer than 85 editorial cartoons, more than double his number of appearances in the previous three years combined.

Today, Zuma is one of the most frequently used caricatured figures in our print media, featuring in about 580 cartoons published in the mainstream media between the verdict day and January 2003. Indeed, in the political cartoons sub-genre, Zuma outperforms other caricature-friendly faces like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (340), health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (195) and US President George W. Bush (196).

Zuma’s appearances in editorial cartoons are only second to President Thabo Mbeki (682). Even with the president’s recurring images, it is still worth noting that Zuma appeared in 100 editorial cartoons between January 1 and May 13 (the verdict week) this year, compared to Mbeki’s 64 appearances.

This intense media coverage is best understood when viewed against other familiar contexts. For instance, after disgraced former African National Congress (ANC) chief whip Tony Yengeni was charged with corruption in February 2003, the mainstream press published 176 news items during the five-week trial. And in the recent rape trial of soccer star Benedict ‘Tso’ Vilakazi, 55 news items were published between February 2005 and May 2006 when he was found not guilty. In this instance, there was only one editorial comment and no cartoon (note: this count excludes the sister tabloids Daily Sun and Die Son which are not part of the Sabinet archive).

The Zuma stories dominated the broadcast media as well. Unfortunately, court covering is poorly suited to broadcast news especially when proceedings are not filmed or recorded. What stood out in much of the television coverage were the graphic representations of the main characters juxtaposed with the ‘real’ images of the mayhem by Zuma supporters outside the court premises. This fusion of ‘real’ and virtual images climaxed on May 8 with etv and numerous radio stations carrying live transmissions of the ruling. Stock brokers and market analysts were later to confirm that TV screens flickered with the live transmissions alongside their trading monitors, and couldn’t quite discount a Zuma factor in the day’s trading.

It would be naïve to explain away the Zuma media blitz as the mass media’s contribution to the gender rights and the Mbeki succession debate. No doubt, the media commitment to zealously deliver the Zuma story to their audiences must have also made sense to their bottom line.

With a second Zuma trial and a feisty Mbeki succession debate, is it inopportune to ask whether is it showtime from now until the 2007 ANC national conference? Can Zuma’s corruption trial maintain the high media salience set by the rape trial? Ultimately, will the mass media turn the current highly-charged political atmosphere into increased circulation and audiences?

The answers to these questions depend on several factors. The first is the extent to which media houses see Zuma and the ANC’s protracted woes as circulation and audience boosters. Media audiences may have little interest in protracted policy and procedure debates but will be easily pulled in by the ultimate prize in the succession debate, namely, the presidency. A growing research corpus, albeit still unequivocal, is reporting that audiences will be drawn into dissecting even mundane details so long the final prize has major national implications. Such an analysis may be the subject of another day.

The second factor is less intuitive. The above analysis of Zuma’s media coverage reveals a number of enduring news values: altruistic democracy, social order and national leadership. Altruistic democratic values demand that politicians and public officials be held to high standards of honesty, efficiency and performance. Perceptions of abuse of office and power or self-interest elicit intense interest.

We credit the insatiable mass media appetite for more JZ dossier to these two factors. Granted, media hoopla over Zuma may not die away so long as he holds a high political position and is the subject of a major legal investigation. However, we should not always look to conventional wisdom - all are equal under the law and estimated political costs of the Zuma fallout - to explain why this story continues to dominate our lives. Where there is smoke, there is fire; this robust media coverage is blazing.

Nixon Kariithi is associate professor of journalism and media studies at University of the Witwatersrand. He holds a masters degree in journalism studies from the University of Wales and a PhD in political science from the University of Houston. He held several editorial positions in his home country Kenya and co-founded The Economic Review in 1992. He also worked as a correspondent for the African Economic Digest and Environment Matters in London and the African Farmer in New York.

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