The curious case of City Press

2013-11-19 10:00

This might be a bit like being invited to someone’s birthday party then having a go at them in front of their guests for growing older. But this paper’s editor knew what she was in for when she commissioned a fortnightly column from me.

I’ve criticised City Press’ reporting before for being indicative of the extent to which the commercial-news media in South Africa is untransformed.

Last November, for example, when this paper reported on President Jacob Zuma’s criticism of those he described as Africans who have become “too clever”, I wrote elsewhere that the president’s message had been lost in media translation.

This because City Press presented the remark as a slight to intelligent black people, which wasn’t at all what he was saying.

I doubted that a “distinctly African” newspaper, a paper for the people, as this one once was, would have misinterpreted this particular message from the president so badly.

The way the story was framed presented an opportunity for a long-overdue, African-owned discussion on the tensions that exist between tradition, reclaiming our humanity after the dehumanising practices to which we were subjected and the values expressed in the Constitution.

That’s the power of the media. It shapes and filters public understanding, which is why control over it is contested.

Contrary to claims of neutrality and aspirations to a duty to inform, the news media operates within a political ideology.

Commercial newspapers, especially, are as vested in the political economy as the names and faces splashed across their front pages every week.

Some are explicit about the philosophy that underpins how they editorialise news, while others reveal themselves through the editorial imperatives they pursue.

In the curious case of City Press, which in terms of how its content is editorialised, moving the paper “up-market” from its traditional readership of mainly working and middle class blacks had less to do with journalistic ideals and more to do with commercial considerations.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but it’s telling that the paper’s content and tone changed without a change in the underlying events that it reports on or the information needs of its “new” readership.

This alone illustrates that even hard news comes under a fair degree of subjective interpretation.

And it is this interpretation that in large part precipitated last month’s blowout in the paper’s newsroom.

I imagine many of the paper’s black staff members, as I did, grew up in households where City Press was a Sunday staple.

This was the only Sunday paper in which our folk saw their reality, values and world-view reflected.

It must be unrecognisable to them now, which is why I understand the sense of disillusionment some of its current and former black journalists must feel.

City Press had a unique history and place in the country’s media landscape, but it repositioned itself away in a bid to boost profit and in pursuit of nebulous “rainbow nation” goals, framed within a literal interpretation of nonracialism.

This country’s history has interwoven race, socioeconomic circumstance and culture to the extent that “black” doesn’t only describe an aggregate of human phenotypes, nor does “African” denote geographic origin only.

They also describe sets of related and lived realities and cultural perspectives that are under-represented and misrepresented in the media.

So it has become a constitutional priority to promote diversity and broad freedom of expression, to have publications reflect more of these views and to do so accurately.

That said, I’m not convinced that among the English-language weeklies, one or two papers alone can or should be expected to do this, especially because the lived realities that inform underrepresented and misrepresented perspectives are the experiences of most South Africans.

The problem is industrywide, as eruditely documented in Rhodes University Professor Jane Duncan’s body of work on the frequency with which the news media in South Africa peddles elite perspectives.

The industry, especially editors and journalists, have yet to examine collectively and critically how and why commercial considerations often run counter to and trump transformation and diversity, as the curious case of City Press demonstrates.

» Talk to us: What should City Press do differently?

» Molefe is a writer and media commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @TOMolefe publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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