Journalists are accused of many things, from mis-hearing mumbled comments in an interview, to mis-estimating the size of a crowd in a stadium, to accepting bundles of cash and sleeping with politicians for a story.
(The former I can sort-of understand; the latter…are politicians really that desperate?)
But perhaps the most common accusation, or at least the one that confuses us the most, is this: “You’re just trying to sell newspapers.”
We get this whenever we front-page a sensational event, or shine a light on an unsavoury aspect of society, or run a picture of a semi-naked celebrity, or devote acres and acres of column-inches to loud-mouthed politicians with fine taste in wine, wristwatches, and ladies in spangled bikinis.
The truth is, most journalists have only the most basic understanding of the economics of newspaper publishing, and I have yet to hear a journalist return from an assignment and say, “I’m working on such a great story! We’re going to sell lots and lots of newspapers!”
We do appreciate that at some level there is a correlation between what we write and how many copies appear in the “ABCs”, but we don’t think about it too much, firstly because we’re not great at maths, and secondly because it is hard to see the correlation between how many copies are sold and how little we get paid.
We tend to act on more primal instincts. We are guided by our “nose” for news, our “gut-feel” for a story, and the “legwork” it takes to turn that first whiff of something happening into something you might want to read.
But more than the instinct to hunt down the story, we are driven by the gnawing fear that some other journalist will get to it first. This is why it is futile to ask any journalist not to hunt down and report a story that is in the public interest and in the public eye.
There may be rare occasions when we will grit our teeth and abide by such a request, for instance when the police are working on a very sensitive case, and publishing the lurid details may…you know. That, and when someone gives us a big bundle of cash.
But otherwise, asking a journalist not to report a story or an issue, would be like asking a journalist not to think of an elephant. Or in this case, not to think of Julius Malema.
It was the satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys who first made the call, some months back, for the media to actively ignore Malema, to starve him of the oxygen of publicity, to deny him a platform for his grandstanding. This was either a major admission of defeat by Uys, or an act of satire on its own.
But now the call has gone out once again. Let’s ignore Malema. Let’s starve him. Let’s deny him.
Well, I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying hard not to think about Julius Malema.
I’ve been trying not to read about him in the papers, or watch him on TV, or listen to him on the radio, or click on certain links, or scan certain tweets when his name leaps out from the page. But it’s not working, and it’s not going to work.
So let me rather, as a card-carrying member of “the media”, attempt to answer certain questions that are raised whenever people try their best to ignore Julius Malema.
4) Will he quietly fade away if the media as a whole were to ignore him for a day, a week, a year? This is a rhetorical question, but the answer, anyway, is: we would be the ignorant ones.
We may not like what Julius Malema has to say.
We may not like Julius Malema.
But I, for one, like living in a society where I can read all about him and what he thinks and says and does, and then decide myself whether he’s worth ignoring or not.
*Footnote: That’s the pop singer Chomee in the picture above, eyeing Julius Malema’s magnificent Breitling Navitimer wristwatch at a recent glittering social occasion.