Some snippets this week from the world of journalism unleashed a storm of accusations, lamentation on declining standards, and in a surprising twist, admiration for Helen Zille from previously implacable enemies.

I like to joke (and probably provoke) that it’s all the fault of Ted Turner and the 24-hour news cycle he kicked off in earnest with his launch of Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980.

Launching CNN, Turner said he hoped it “would bring together in brotherhood and kindness and friendship and in peace the people of this nation and this world”.

It clearly hasn’t come near to achieving that impossible dream and it won’t. But journalism, simply by pursuing its core purpose – telling people what is happening – can help improve our world in many smaller ways.

Kevin D Williamson in his Tuesday column for the National Review last week set out what he thought news media should be doing.

“Newspapers exist to tell people about what is happening. If newspapers are sometimes instruments of justice and enlightenment, it is because facts — and the vigorous if necessarily imperfect pursuit of them — sometimes are instruments of justice and enlightenment.”

He went on to quote US president Thomas Jefferson who said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

But, Williamson noted, that assumes “that newspapers are doing what they are supposed to do”.

For me that boils down to journalists finding and telling stories based on facts and doing both of those things fairly and honourably, not for some great cause or to boost circulation or to promote themselves, but for their reader or viewer.

It is even better if they also give a voice to the voiceless, and uncover things the powerful would like hidden and the public should know about. But not everyone can be excellent or a specialist, or can get to do the great and noble stuff. 

Still there’s a minimum standard that is needed. 

Martha Gellhorn was quoted in the New York Times in 1998 as saying: 

“Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honourable behavior involving the reporter and the reader.”

Which of course brings me to journalist Piet Rampedi and the confusing tale of the Tembisa decuplets.

Which is a story which should never have been published because it simply wasn’t complete and raised more questions than answers. 

But boy, did it get traction – at least on Twitter. I don’t know if the Pretoria News, with its princely total of 2000 readers, benefited with a spike in newspaper sales. It did give rise to laments on the decline of journalism standards, and the loss of journalism’s credibility in South Africa, produced a conspiracy theory or two and gave support to the ‘journalists on the take’ side of the ANC factional battle. Most remarkably it also brought Helen Zille a stream of admirers.

Our own little South African Twitter world is all in a state – and hurling condemnations and criticism at one another because of a story that should never have been published  (at least in what purports to be a serious paper) simply because it wasn’t a complete story. It didn’t have all the ingredients necessary to make it good journalism.

Of course it was a bit of fun and I’ve never been opposed to a bit of tabloid journalism. Whether the 10 little Tembisans (or as a Twitter wag suggested: the Tenbisans) exist or not is beside the point. 

Piet Rampedi’s story should never have gone into the public arena as journalism unless he’d got a few more details into it. 

But what do you expect of a newspaper that’s part of a group that long ago jettisoned its credibility and cast off so many decent journalists.  

One could argue that Rampedi stories, and much of the content put out by IOL, shouldn’t be published at all, ever – but that would be rather ‘cancel culture’-ish of us – and presumably you, dear reader, are not of that ilk.

Better they publish what they want, we laugh it off, and they run out of money. They’re only still going because of our taxpayers’ money and because some people are still willing, for some reason, to consume what Iqbal Survé is selling.

[Picture: Matthews Baloyi/African News Agency (ANA)]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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