One key characteristic of public debate in South Africa is how unfiltered it has become. Social media is key in this transformation, but it is television that is decisive.
Most of South Africa’s political leaders, without exception, are active on social media—including ones we thought were retired, such as Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma. But recently, it is television that has made a decisive comeback. And, in the latest iteration of the endless struggles for power and control in the ruling ANC, and by extension the state, it is all about television news.
At a recent rally outside the Pretoria High Court, during one of the countless cases where a Judge rebuked embattled Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane over her handling of yet another case, the EFF leader Julius Malema, who supports Mkhwebane (especially in her pursuit of Cabinet Minister Pravin Gordhan), warmed to this theme. Malema told his supporters that channels “404, 405 and 403” are shaping how South Africans make sense of political developments. Those are the channels that are, respectively: SABC News, Newzroom Afrika and eNCA.
Malema knows full well that his rambling speech (he continued with his usual anti-Indian conspiracy theories and screeds against Gordhan, while repeating Zuma’s wild claims of ANC spies) was being carried live on the very same channels that he warned his audience about. Few viewers—seeing no one on those channels fact checking Malema, or offering a counterpoint through sober analysis—could be faulted for believing everything Malema said. He was also exploiting the tendency of South African television news to mimic US counterparts and their overuse of analysts, and colorful commentary by reporters during “live” crossings. Little actual reporting gets done.
News channels in South Africa now regularly cross live to political rallies, press conferences, and especially funerals. During election cycles this is not unusual, but it is also now common practice outside of election cycles. South Africans or those interested in South African politics can on any random morning tune in to the likes of Malema, Zuma, Ace Magashule, or Supra Mahumapelo (the latter two are Zuma acolytes) giving their spin on current events. At the Zondo Commission (which is conducting public hearings into “state capture” i.e. state corruption), along with Zuma’s wild claims of spies and suicide bombers sent to murder him, he admitted to his role in the establishment of news channel ANN7 and The New Age newspaper. Both media organizations are owned by the infamous Gupta family (allies of Zuma) and both contributed to the break-down of boundaries between truth and fiction in South Africa. Those two channels made it difficult for journalists, and for South Africans generally, to easily demarcate between reporting and propaganda. It has been horrifying to watch and read elements in South Africa’s mainstream media entertain the wild claims Zuma made during his bizarre State Capture Commission “testimony.”
Now, it is the EFF that appears to benefit most from this practice. That it is done on a news program gives it added legitimacy. Because it is live, it absolves the channels of any fact checking duties. The EFF, formed in 2013, happens to be product of the social media age, unlike other older parties, and is also representative of what is generally decried as the post-factual era in South Africa. When he was still a member of the ANC, Malema was a firm supporter of Zuma, and he played a major role in delegitimizing the country’s news media. One of Malema’s deputies, Floyd Shivambu, punched a journalist outside Parliament. South Africans are so plagued by amnesia they forget this. The result is clear: live broadcasts of rallies and press conferences, with little context or challenges to the claims of politicians like Malema and Zuma, have made things worse.
In the United States, ground zero for these kinds of changes in the media and politics, the endgame is depressing. It contributed to the election of Donald Trump and the sullying of American political discourse (already damaged by only representing the ideological views of the two main political parties). For all the Russia talk (especially on MSNBC), cable news played as decisive a role in Trump’s victory as anything else. According to CNN, Trump received around $5.6 billion of free “earned media” in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. This amounted to hours and hours of free airtime before the elections. As the New York Times reported in March 2016, Trump earned $400 million of free media in just one month (February 2016), “about the same amount late Republican Senator John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.” Once Trump became the Republican nominee, networks like CNN, MSNBC would cross over live to Trump rallies. These were carried without any commentary.
The New York Times again:
Mr. Trump is hardly absent from the airwaves. Like all candidates, he benefits from what is known as earned media: news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media. Earned media typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate—maybe than any candidate ever—at earning media.
Later some networks tuned away, and some channels promised to cut live coverage of Trump political rallies, but the damage had been done. (In one case, CNN, in March 2019, only cut unmediated coverage of a Trump rally after Trump compared the massive rally to the Oscars ceremony and led chants of “CNN sucks.”)
One reason cited for crossing to live campaign rallies of political leaders in the US is ratings. A second is that news channels, subjected to cuts in personnel, can’t afford to do actual reporting anymore. Live crossings present a cheaper option. The long-term effect, however, is that it normalizes a practice that is detrimental to journalism and democratic debate. It is made worse by the decline of the quality of analysis and opinion in print media, the shrinkage of news rooms, and the mass retrenchments of journalists by media houses.