Pistorius: Get ready for your close-up, South Africa
"American sport stars just cheat on their lovers. Clearly in your country they shoot them," a 19-year-old Columbia University undergrad student tells me.
We were both back on campus after a long weekend, haven't seen each other since "the incident" but we have both been bombarded with the American media's obsession with Oscar Pistorius. My friend simply refers to "that Blade guy", which is not a bad nickname given that New York's Daily News now uses "legless Olympian" and "Blade Gunner" as synonyms for Pistorius in their daily reporting from South Africa.
For the past week, every sliver of possible fresh information on Oscar's unfolding drama commanded American tabloid front pages, as it has in Britain. For the owner of the biggest tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic, Rupert Murdoch, a boost in sales of the Sun and New York Post would do wonders to his struggling company that just a week before announced plans to split his newspapers from the rest of his company due to falling circulation. Being the shameless newspapers these two tabloids have come to be known as, it was therefore no surprise that the Sun and the Post would try its utmost to tell the Pistorius saga in the sleaziest way possible.
The Post's front-page coverage started on Friday with the headline "Blade Slays Blonde" stretching to "Blade's Bloody Bat" – their way of talking about the blood-covered cricket bat found at Pistorius's home. Its tabloid competitor, Daily News, included a picture of some random bat.
When the story received this much coverage in America, strangers express sadness, even empathy, to South Africans. While in Miami this weekend, a 70-year-old man overheard where I'm from and just wanted to share in the gossip: "I must say, it was a pretty good excuse," he says, referring to initial reports that Pistorius attempted to shoot an intruder. "I've often heard it's so unsafe."
When initial reports surfaced that Pistorius shot his girlfriend because he mistook her for an intruder, the American media latched on to it, gave it horns and tried to make it fly. They framed it as a gun control issue, not a fall from grace, as CNN's Johannesburg correspondent Robyn Curnow tried so hard to do. Following the mass school shooting in December last year, when 26 children were fatally shot by a 20-year-old in Connecticut, US President Barack Obama last week visited Chicago in his continuing effort to ban assault weapons. For the right-leaning Fox News Channel, Obama's visit a day after the Pistorius incident acted as the ideal news hook to link the two narratives.
"It's not just Chicago that has strict gun laws," a brunette on the Murdoch-owned news channel reports. "South Africa has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. We saw this week the Olympic superstar Oscar Pistorius, he had a gun, he allegedly shot his girlfriend, now South Africa is having its own gun control debate," she said, while the question "Is South Africa's strict gun control working" flashes on screen. Her blonde co-anchor takes over, "The violence in South Africa is such that a lot of people feel they need to have guns to protect themselves. Whether or not the runner in the story [anchor fumbles as she forgets Oscar's name], if he had not had a weapon what would have happened? Domestic violence is a worldwide problem. I'm just sad for his girlfriend who is not getting as much attention," she says staring down at at least two New York newspapers in front of her carrying larger than life bikini-clad images of Reeva Steenkamp.
Over the course of the weekend, Pistorius's mugshot disappeared from tabloid front pages as readers obviously started to know who "Blade" was. In the process these tabloids made more room for larger Steenkamp images from the photo agency Murdoch paid the most money to in an attempt, like they've always done, to get people buying a newspaper with a girl on its cover.
It was not only Fox News's female anchors that felt the need to weigh-in on what South African realities have been brought to light by the shooting incident at the Silver Woods Estate, east of Pretoria. Two male anchors got into a heated debate on the topic, showing off just how much they know about Mzansi: "We need to point out in South Africa four out of five households are concerned about break-ins," the younger guy says. "So when you make it harder for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, you instill fear and by that way you make it more dangerous," thereby arguing that Pistorius never would have fired a shot had it not been for South Africa's strict gun laws.
His older co-anchor tries to play devil's advocate: "Most people are not killed with guns in South Africa," he says bragging about his age and by implication understanding of South African history. "You know they have a long history of putting tyres around their necks so […] during Apartheid only the good guys had guns and all them other people didn't have guns, and I think it's like the NRA, the NRA would love to have an apartheid system. You want a gun culture of apartheid where only white people have guns, and you can't have that."
It could be that the pressure managers and editors face due to the underperformance of several businesses inside Murdoch's News Corporation (including Fox News and the Post) are to blame for this type of journalism, who knows. But as the court drama surrounding Pistorius's property on Valentine's Day is only just kicking off, Americans are in for weeks of cricket bat stock images on tabloid front pages while Fox News producers furiously seek more South African crime numbers to fill up a TV screen over heads babbling on about an Olympian whose name they cannot remember.
In other words: get ready for your close-up, South Africa.
André-Pierre du Plessis studies business journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Before moving to the US he worked as a TV reporter for eNuus and the eNews Channel in Cape Town.