As the world watched TV screens monitoring the results of the United States presidential election three weeks ago, a key decision that viewers had to make was exactly which source of news to follow.
Two of the main broadcasters — CNN and Fox News — are known for their preferences for particular candidates. This phenomenon of media houses backing a particular horse is unfamiliar to most of us and we expect impartial news coverage of elections.
In countries such as the United Kingdom and the US, the practice of sections of the media championing the cause of one party over another is well-entrenched. In the US, the news outlets generally back the same party in every election cycle regardless of the candidates and ideas the party puts forward.
In light of the changes in voter dynamics and evolutions in issues and electoral objectives, the insistence on backing the same horse leaves one wondering whether the press is influenced by current issues or ideologically beholden to its past practices.
The relevance of that question is simply that, if a newspaper backs a candidate only because its history dictates so, it runs the risk of failing to reflect on the issues of the day and making recommendations responsive to the concerns that matter most to voters.
In nascent democracies such as South Africa, access to information is an important key to unlocking and facilitating democratic participation. To this end, a public broadcaster and independent media are significant players in the dissemination of information.
The sense of independence associated with a public broadcaster means it is regarded as a legitimate conduit of information.
The only variable a voter needs to consider in evaluating political parties is the content rather than the conduit of the message. Additionally, independent media houses — even when driven by a profit motive — serve to amplify the reach and diversity of the media. A loss of independence, either through the capture of public broadcasters by governments or corporate interests taking over independent media houses, rapidly diminishes the role of the media in fostering and facilitating democracy.
In the US, where the role of the media remains central to the political process, the outcomes of 2016 and 2020 make for interesting reading.
From the moment Donald Trump descended a staircase at Trump Towers in July 2015 and announced that he was running for the White House, the rules of engagement were upended. So unorthodox was Trump’s approach to the pursuit of high office that he forced the major papers to abandon traditions dating back more than 40 years.
In 2016, the top 20 newspapers by circulation refused to endorse Trump. Notable in this list are The Arizona Republic, The Dallas Morning News and the New York Post, which had not backed a non-Republican candidate since 1980. After he trumped all expectations and won the presidency, Donald went on a crusade aimed at demonising and discrediting the media, which he branded as purveyors of “fake news”.
The one exception was cable news television channel Fox News, which had — in contrast to all other established media houses — backed Trump from the moment he descended that staircase.
That was to be expected because Roger Ailes, the now-deceased boss of Fox News, was a Republican fixer before anything else. His alliance with giant media owner Rupert Murdoch provided fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon.
This toxic polarisation of the media during the Trump administration has left media houses with a credibility conundrum. During the wait for the election results, the credibility crisis was exemplified by viewers watching both Fox and CNN with a sense of scepticism fuelled by the practices of the preceding four years.
The dilemma for Fox, which turned out to be on the side of the losing candidate this time, was best captured by the anger of the Trump camp when it predicted a Biden victory in a major swing state. That Fox called it before CNN is extraordinary and would not have happened under Ailes.
In South Africa, the recent history of the media being swept into the hysteria of political storms offers important lessons. Independent Media, having been subjected to a buyout by a proprietor with more than a fleeting interest in the affairs of the newsroom, is caught in a credibility fix. And the Sunday Times went through turbulent times over the past decade that eroded its credibility.
The SABC, as the public broadcaster, is permanently at risk of interference. The age of Snuki Zikalala, ushered in a history of interference in the broadcaster that many had hoped died with the apartheid regime but keeps resurfacing.
The major political parties have taken turns at expressing hostility towards the media. In his farewell address as ANC president in December 2017, Jacob Zuma dedicated a portion of his speech to what he regarded as his enemies and detractors in the media. Two years later, as the Economic Freedom Fighters congregated in Nasrec, Johannesburg, for its own elective conference, the online Daily Maverick was banned and television news broadcaster eNCA staged a walkout in solidarity.
When John Steenhuisen delivered his address at the 2020 Democratic Alliance congress, he expressed his frustration with the media. The fact that some players in the major political parties believe there’s a basis for accusing the media of bias towards competitors may indicate that independence still prevails. Regardless of the occasional clashes with politicians, the need to be balanced in coverage across the political spectrum is important in a polarised society.
The benefits of independence and credibility — and its associated impartiality — for any media house are substantial. If nothing else, the ability to retain a core base of readers and viewers is linked to the question of trust in the media house.
The undesired effect of the media getting trapped in a credibility vortex is that its primary problems — declining advertising revenues and stagnant circulation — are unlikely to be resolved when readers and viewers don’t trust them.
Advertising revenue as well as subscriptions and sales kept the publications sustainable. But that source of income has declined rapidly over the past decade. In 2008, global advertising revenue peaked at $103-billion. By 2019, it had plateaued to $49-billion.
The effect of this pressure on incomes and profitability is limited investment in human and infrastructure capital. When investment in journalism declines, younger, less costly journalists are hired, opening up space for the decline in quality that doesn’t go unnoticed by readers.
For those few media houses sustained by the benevolence of philanthropists, the risk of corporate media capture looms large. From the moment Murdoch acquired The Times (of London) and engaged in a brutal civil war with the editor, Harold Evans, the question of the intentions of media barons has been an important consideration. As his empire and influence grew, so did criticism of him. Earlier this month, two former prime ministers of Australia championed a petition that already has more than 500 000 signatures calling for an official inquiry into the influence of Murdoch on Australian media.
The one thing he cannot be faulted for is his transparency in where he stands in relation to the political posture of the media titles he owns. The partnership with Ailes — aimed at tapping into the anxieties and prejudices of middle America — became profitable for both men. And as the power of Fox became stronger and its voice louder, the pressure to respond for the competitors who may have regarded themselves as moderates was amplified. And by the time we all woke up, those seeking to counter the messages of Fox, the far-right Breitbart News Network and the New York Post had become entangled in partisanship.
Ultimately the only difference is a question of political and ideological persuasion. Fixing the media and debunking the Trump theory that it is a conduit of fake news is the new challenge for the fourth estate.
Khaya Sithole is a chartered accountant and academic who writes regularly for the M&G and discusses the issues raised in his Kaya FM show, On The Agenda, on Mondays from 8pm to 9pm