Politics and Commentary
SA News Media's Sally Field Moment
“Oscar fatigue” is starting to set in. Following the 400-metre sprint of the Pistorius bail application, we can expect an appreciable change of pace; after all, it will be a long wait until June, when the slow marathon of the actual trial begins.
To switch from a sporting to a sexual metaphor, you might say that – once bail was posted and the weekend coverage seemed to exhaust every angle on the story – South Africa’s purveyors of news media paused for the customary post-coital cigarette after their ten-day orgy of self-congratulation and mutual masturbation.
Still, when Monday morning dawned, the general libidinal gratification continued: Oscar was due to report to the Brooklyn police station in Pretoria, Oscar reported to Correctional Services elsewhere, Oscar went back to his uncle’s house in Waterkloof. There were further revelations about the State’s case, about police bungling, about the sordid history of the greater Pistorius clan.
On Tuesday we heard more of the same, but it was no longer the lead story. And so began its gradual (albeit temporary) disappearance from the headlines and news bulletins.
There is no doubt that the killing of Reeva Steenkamp is newsworthy. There is no doubt that the story has highlighted some of the quirky protocols of reportage in the South African context, both inside and outside our courtrooms (a Google search under “twitter” and “sub judice” would confirm as much). And there is no doubt that this has been a media phenomenon of global proportions. But we have cause for wariness on each of these scores.
Firstly, the narcissistic enthusiasm of South Africa’s media houses for reminding consumers not only of the criteria for newsworthiness but also of the commercial benefit brought by this newsworthiness has been, at times, repugnant – and has undermined the good work done by individual journalists in covering the story.
City Press, for instance, impressed many with its investigation and analysis in the early days following the shooting. But parent company Media24 couldn’t help boasting over “a milestone victory in South Africa’s internet history ... attracting over 1.2 million unique browsers in one day”. Likewise, Eyewitness News had an impressive team covering each twist and turn. Primedia’s response? Regular radio adverts smugly reminding us of each revelation for which they were responsible.
This pattern was repeated again and again as news emerged from the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court – the mediascape became a hall of mirrors in which the dominant voices were those crowing about media coverage of the phenomenon. It wasn’t analysis so much as an exercise in numeracy: so many reporters, so many website hits, so many new listeners or viewers and, of course, Twitter followings growing at Lady Gaga-esque rates.
Names and faces previously unknown north of the Limpopo began to appear on CNN, BBC and Sky News. International publications were clamouring for comment from South African sources. Make no mistake – our best reporters and news analysts deserve a stint in the international spotlight. Yet the barely concealed delight of many local journalists at the captivation of their audiences has in fact exposed deep-seated insecurities.
In retrospect, since M-Net first launched its ill-fated campaign linking “Oscar” and “The Oscars”, the coincidence of the Pistorius case and the 85th Academy Awards seems ineluctable. Certainly, it has provided plenty of material for satirists. Sardonic humour aside, however, the Oscars provide us with a paradigm for understanding all the media coverage of the media coverage of the tragedy of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.
Cast your mind back to 1985. Sally Field, having received the Academy Award for Best Actress five years previously for her role in Norma Rae, won a second Oscar for Places in the Heart. Accepting her statuette and self-mockingly misquoting her character, Field declared: “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect ... this time I feel it – and I can't deny the fact – you like me, right now, you like me!”
The speech has become iconic and is frequently invoked by comedians to send up fragile actors’ egos. The “you” in Field’s speech was not only her film-making peers, nor the Academy per se, nor just cinema audiences of the 1980s, but movie history (call it posterity). If taken earnestly, she was asserting her place in the Hollywood pantheon – telling people that they liked her and needed her, just as she evidently needed them.
This last fortnight has been a Sally Field moment for South African news media. Here, unbidden, spontaneous, is an international obsession with a story that has grown more bizarre by the day. And our journalists – or, more specifically, the media houses that employ them – have found themselves the darlings of the local and global news-consuming publics.
South Africa’s news media producers face ongoing and none-too-idle threats of state censorship and pressure to endorse corporate agendas. They have to tackle the very real prospect of corruption-and-crime headline saturation (and thus media consumer indifference). Their revenue-generation models require constant adaptation to changing technologies and habits of consumption. Profit margins are slim; working conditions and salaries are less than dazzling.
Perhaps it’s only natural that individual journalists and media companies alike should take the chance to remind their respective audiences, “You like me; you really like me!” In doing so, however, they risk losing sight of their role in South African (and global) civil society. They also risk losing their readers, viewers and listeners.
While most attention has been focused on the contested details of the Pistorius-Steenkamp shooting, relatively few commentators have linked the case to broader patterns of violence against women. Pistorius and Steenkamp, glamorous and sexy, by turns portrayed as “innocent” and as having a “dark side”, have been presented as exceptional. In fact, their situation is all too common.
Let’s set aside the global fascination with Pistorius, which follows a familiar fall-from-grace pattern. The South African response to the event, both from those who sympathise with the shooter and from those who demonise him, can be understood on two levels. The conscious explanation hinges around his celebrity: the false confidence invested in him and the consequent disillusionment, the cynical told-you-so glee, the simple pleasure of gossip.
Subliminally, however, our collective fascination with the shooting represents a recognition that it is an everyday (dare one say “mundane”?) event. We are all, in the deep recesses of our consciousness, afraid that we may kill or be killed in an irrational moment of anger or neurosis. We feel guilty that we don’t do enough to oppose the violent tenor of our society; that, in ways mostly unacknowledged, we not only tolerate but aggravate it.
Those responsible for South Africa’s news content, from the Twitter timeline to the broadcast bulletin, have misdiagnosed their compatriots’ interest in the case. Like bad psychologists, they have dealt only with the surface phenomenon (and, indeed, exploited it). The substance that sits beneath that surface does not make for exciting, easy-to-sell news and analysis – but it is the real, important, necessary national story.
South Africa’s news consumers will gradually lose their appetite for self-serving, approval-seeking media coverage of the Pistorius-Steenkamp narrative. When the case returns to court in June, the real question South Africa’s journalists should be asking is: What would we make of this tragedy if the protagonists weren’t famous?