Power of Media: Secular Challenge & A Christian Response [Full Text]
By Elna Boesak
Biographical note: Mrs. Elna Boesak is a South African TV journalist and documentarian with a career spanning 25 years. She is also a researcher with 15 years experience investigating the media and globalization.
I am very honored not only to be here and share in the deliberations but also to share some of my thoughts on the what I think is one of the most crucial questions not for our time, because in the United States and Europe this has been an issue that people have been battling with for a very, very long time.
Also in academic circles, in terms of journalism training and journalism theory, these are profound questions that are asked every day about the relationship between the media and civil society and the media’s impact on society. So thank you very much for the opportunity to speak…
I am speaking really today with three hats on, and I need to make this very clear.
First, I am speaking as a Christian believer who is convinced that we as Christian believers we should engage the issues around us, and a believer who has come to understand how complex and complicated it is to live and work and bear witness in the world we live in.
I am also speaking, secondly, as a journalist of 25 years. And for any of you who thought when I walked in, “I don’t know her,” good for you. For those when I walked in said “Oh, there goes Alan Boesak’s white wife,” now now. And then for those who do not know I’ve been a journalist and the work I’ve done, I do have copies of my CV, and I’ll tell you why because I think it’s interesting to see what I did over 25 years. And many of those issues I can go back to and produce again today — exactly on the same issues.
But (my third had is that of) a journalist who has come to understand over 25 years of working in the field and 15 years of intense research on the role of the globalized media everywhere and how incredibly crucial this question is that’s been placed on the agenda. And I came with that thought…and I am so very happy that we’ve created a stage where the church and academicians and practitioners understand that we need to not only talk once about this but we need to continue talking about this every way we can because this is a very important issue…
Allow me to start with a premise on which I hope to shed more light as I go along in my paper. And this is my premise…and it’s probably going to create a lovely dialog because I know that many of these issues are critical of the media but so also of the church and all of us. So I am not standing here as an aversion to anybody. I am standing here grappling with the issues with all these hats on.
My premise is the following: Today any battle for justice, every struggle towards full humanity, and every strategy focused on empowering the marginalized happen in a juxtaposition to a disturbing world order of global control. We live in an age with blatant economic imbalances. Violence and destructive abuse of the weak and the voiceless continue to hurt, oppress and kill millions.
The transnational mainstream media—and you need to decide where you fit into that because there is a difference between mainstream and alternative media—and its accompanying globalized information culture become vital guardians of the prevailing value system in the world and custodians that are to protect and promote the status quo.
The Church, theologians, journalism theorists, educators and practitioners need to recognize this reality as a new frontier for liberation struggle. And if I say “liberation struggle,” let’s not get all up in arms and think we need to put on our army gear and buy guns. As the Church, we are in a liberation struggle for the kingdom of God in this world.
We are working hard. And this reality of a globalized media and culture constitutes a new frontier for a liberation struggle — a struggle that should realize that there is a new locus, a new place, where we need to think about theories about journalists and journalism. And a new place where we begin to think about a new praxis, a new way of doing, as the media in order to challenge certain existing theories about why I’m a journalist, what journalists do, and what the media are (and) replace them with other theories and other praxis that will serve humanity and the earth we live on.
In a better way it will reflect an obedience to and respect for our Creator who placed us here and said “Be fruitful, increase in number, fill the earth, and have dominion.” So what are we doing with that?
So this is my premise. And I’m going to start with a theological departure point first because I feel as if I have to bridge the two worlds: the media and the Church and Christianity, and maybe a little bit of academics as well.
So let me start with a theological departure point: theological reflection…has a concrete and very specific source, which is the biblical witness of God’s presence and manifestation in the life of Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God and the founder of the Christian believer’s faith. For the purpose of this conference we focus on the fact that in Christ’s life on earth, we should find, therefore, a concrete and specific praxis, which should remain the departure point for the pivotal question that is being posed here today.
And that question being: Do the media, the Church and academia have a measure of responsibility for the well being, progress and prosperity of our society? That is, while we are asking this question, the theological departure point (should) be the witness of Jesus Christ.
A personal departure point: I was born into a lost media generation of Apartheid South Africa, a generation deprived of the basic right to take on the responsibilities of being information agents that educate and inform in order to empower. We were operating in a schizophrenic society, a “pigmentocracy”, as a South African liberation theologian puts it, in which the color of your skin determined your position in the haves-and-have-nots world. A society in which a powerful minority was oppressing and abusing a powerless majority that lost political and economic control and resulted in socio-religious domination.
It gave birth to two-faced nation, one being the face of poverty and deprivation, the other the face of wealth, privilege and white capitalist supremacy. This political aberration was kept alive by a support system in which the security forces and the information system, the media, were vital instruments. The job of the journalist was not to witness and inform but to justify and to manipulate. And remember I’m talking about mainstream media. I’m not talking about alternative media.
Journalists were not serving democracy and therefore the interests of all of society, but serving the interests of those with power, both political and economic. For me studying the context in which South African media operates today, fifteen years later, is like looking into a two-way mirror. And it many ways it stirs up a deep sense of déjà vu. Over the past fifteen years, the media have undergone a revolution in structure, interactivity and reach. There has been greater freedom of expression and information, and this industry has indeed become dynamic, popular, creative and commercially very, very complex.
The liberation of the media, as was the liberation of the nation, particularly the broadcast media, has been partial, haphazard and evolutionary rather than revolutionary. There’s that word again “revolutionary”. We have won the battle on media-freedom legislation, but we are losing the war on democratic transformation within the media.
The new South African order is still split into a two-tiered structure. One tier has a full and expanding range of social and economic amenities, and the other with a declining share of both but also with a growing amount of “junk food” — junk entertainment and junk information. And, ladies and gentlemen, I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about tabloid press in communities that are already not empowered.
The tension between democracy and exploitative capitalism — and I say “exploitative capitalism” because I’m not one of those people who says we should just do away with capitalism, but if it exploits, I will challenge it – is becoming increasingly evident and communication, media in other words, so necessary to both can hardly serve two masters.
Now a secular departure point: in a very ironic way, the way theology and journalists operate, and I think this was said probably this morning while I was not here, eclipse in their communal, interactive analysis and their impact on society and the world. As far as those controlling global information are concerned, the agendas and activities of conferences and reflections such as these, if there is an awareness at all, do not even raise an eyebrow. As far as they are concerned, theological reflection on the plight of world’s oppressed and whether the media should play a role or not remain a non-threatening, low-impact, and very isolated academic exercise.
The opposite scenario is, however, far less rosy. Developments in the global information system, the global media, have dire consequences for the vision, strategy and aims of the Church and theologians and anybody concerned about social challenges in the world we live in.
Here is a force – referring back to a globalized media industry – here is a force that can and is overturning, in a very concrete fashion, the vision, strategy and aims of the Church of liberation, as it is embedded in the life and legacy of Jesus Christ, and an ethic that is related social responsibility – an ethic as it might become embodied in the world.
Fundamental methodological critique – how you do these things – and vital questions asked by the Church and theologians regarding their own discipline where they work should focus on the nature of the information that dominates the world’s view on the history and events. Who is telling the story? Who is identifying the facts? Who is responsible for the naming? Who gets to define what victory means?
The answer – and I really want you take time and not trust me on this one but to take trouble and go find out for yourself – the last time I checked, the people who are deciding on the truth and who are dominating the global media industry were, more or less, 50 white, capitalist, politically conservative males. The Turners of this world, the Murdochs of this world, go check it. And if you think that they live in Australia and America and it’s got nothing to do with you, please go check who this media belongs to here in South Africa.
The way in which information is owned and operated determines to a large degree its social, cultural, economic and political impact. Post-apartheid South Africa is not an exception. And this reality goes unrecognized and is, therefore, vastly underestimated despite its far-reaching consequences.
I listened to the issues we were grappling with this morning, and those are very important issues, very fundamental issues. But there is this huge, humongous tree standing there, and the leaves are dropping off it, and we are trying to gather up the leaves rather than asking why the tree is dying.
Global transformation in the last 65 years has impacted heavily on the status and role of information and the media. There has been a dramatic ascendance of corporate power and a corresponding decline in government authority over areas of economic, political and social life. The power of huge, private, economic enterprises is extended across national and international boundaries. Our own media companies in this country, post 1994, have, at the speed of a young tiger, sped into Africa and into China, influencing and directing economic-resource decisions, political choices and the production and dissemination of messages and images.
The expansion of public power has relied heavily on three determining changes in the institutional structure of the media: the deregulation of economic activity, the privatization of functions once public, and the commercialization of activities once social.
The main players in the information game mean business, and I mean mean business. In 1996, Time Warner — Turner — earned more than US$18.7 billion in combined annual revenue. Disney, Capitol Cities, ABC: US$16.5 billion; and Viacom, US$8.26 billion. Where does the money come from?
I have tried to get South African media owners to disclose their assets and income, and they are very, very reluctant to do that. But I’ll keep on trying.
Transnational communication corporations, among the greatest beneficiaries of globalization, had set their sights on dominating world communication and information. Research is showing that public-sector broadcasts and communication across the globe is being dismantled and being replaced by commercially driven initiatives.
We see now how even our own public-service broadcasting system is required to adopt commercial principles in order to survive in the global marketplace.
Those who control information set the tone for the voice that speaks in the world. They identify the priorities and interests that “deserve” attention. In a very real sense, the voice of God has been silenced by the gatekeepers of the media. They decide who will speak about whom, about what, when and for how long. They allow the insiders in and keep the outsiders out. They create the illusion of providing all the facts, while in reality they cast people in selected molds of “good” and “worthy” or “bad” and “undeserving.”
They determine the national priorities, set the world’s agenda and eliminate political resistance and ethical queries. They provide a stage for the insiders to discuss and contextualize the outsiders: us and them.
Examples of this in South Africa. Please take some time to check, in terms of media coverage of mainstream newspapers in this country, how much effort, time and print, and even broadcasting, is given to celebrities on front pages, or issues affecting the middle class. Compare that to how many times you hear the voice or see the face of the marginalized Makhulu of the hinterland battling to survive.
News is an affliction of the world seen through the eyes of the powerful mainstream and journalists and the custodians of the status quo. In contrast with popular notions, it is the media that are most instrumental in creating new forms of social division in society lacking context and analysis and fostering tensions and conflicts between sections of communities, gender, classes and countries.
We just need to look at them and really see what’s happening there. Do we really know what’s going on? Or do we just check CNN to know what’s going on?
The new world economic order with two distinct characteristics: the information revolution, and the global hyper-consumerism. Both are detrimental to the health of democracy and are ultimately destructive to those living in a developing-world scenario like ours and our continent.
The production cycle of information has become a major source of profit-making. What has been in large measure a social good has been transformed into a commodity. As a result, what has been discovered and presented as facts and the truth are now for sale to the highest bidder for amounts to kill for.
The right to free speech has been transferred from individuals to billion-dollar companies, which in effect, monopolizes public communication. Even before the corporate tour de force in America where we saw these mergers, massive mergers happening, only 20 companies control most of the United States’ information outputs.
Recently I was at a conference in St. Bosch University where we had to focus specifically on the media and Africa and what’s happening in Africa. It was a very interesting conference. And what I did was to look at the people, in terms of media agencies, that moved into Africa. And you wouldn’t believe how quickly these big guys moved into Africa. Very quickly, and we’re not aware of that, buying up and establishing new information outfits.
With every merger, staff is reduced and the very source of creativity and diversity is shrinking. And I do not believe I am a prophet, but watch the space in South Africa. I think we are going to see very soon a shrinking of diversity at home.
Overloaded airwaves and oceans of ink constitutes a veritable barrage of information, but in effect the information glut serves to divert attention from the very real but largely invisible deficit of socially necessary information. Information on why the poor is the poor. Where did it all start? Why is it not changing? How should it be changing? Who should be changing it? Who is not doing what they should have done to change it?
We do not see that on our front pages despite the fact that the poor, in terms of a democracy, constitute the biggest part of this democracy.
Another example: Why do we not get – if we do work with the truth and serving the public interest – information on why there is violence in South Africa instead of having very tragic, but very sensational, versions of another victim on the front page of the paper? This stirs up emotion and often polarization. Why not ask where does it all come from? What are the roots? What is fueling it? Who is doing it?
So let me say it again: Overloaded airwaves and oceans of ink constitutes a veritable barrage of information, but in effect the information glut serves to divert attention from the very real but largely invisible deficit of socially necessary information.
I am not interested anymore in what this or that famous person does or doesn’t do. Why must I be confronted with their lives on the front page of the newspaper – or the middle pages or any page, for that matter?
What all that amounts to is sneak entertainment. Facts do not matter. Global marketing streamlines content and sweeps away alternative perspectives. When you page again through the newspaper, ask yourself ‘Whose perspective am I reading?’ Is it everybody’s perspective? Or is it from a specific angle?
They will tell you, “We are providing it to an audience.” But that is not true. That audience is in a context where there are many perspectives. You might be writing it and packaging it in a way that suits your audience, but that doesn’t mean you exclude perspectives that are also a part of this whole picture.
So these perspectives are often swept under the carpet of mainstream media, and it moves cultural policies further beyond democratic and even national reach.
A question we all should be grappling with: Is the media in South Africa serving democracy? And vice versa? That means you need to know what a democracy is, at least have read your constitution.
And you need to know who the media are because this is the complexity, that we cannot oversimplify these discussions as the media. Everybody in the audience put up your hands if you consider yourself “the media”. Who is the media here today? One of you? Two?
The point I’m trying to make is that this is not a very simple challenge that ‘let’s talk about the media.’ It is a complex situation. The question is that the media is impacting on all levels. They get information, give information and analysis, and give you perspectives. How are they serving our democracy? And how is our democracy serving the media, or not?
The more a society is genuinely democratic, the more that society’s policy debates concerning the application and development of important communication technologies will be open, informed, thoughtful and passionate. When legislation is passed which has a tremendous impact on the availability and quality of information — and in the future, and the debate is restricted to elites and those who have serious financial interests in the outcomes — I don’t think we should let only the owners of media conglomerates or editors in this discussion when policy is discussed.
We need to get civil society in this discussion when we decide whether we want to open up our media or not. When government gives priority to the needs of the corporations and the public interest, the people’s interests, are pushed to the margins, democracy will go downhill.
When politicians invoke creative incentives for communication firms instead of monitoring how public interest is served, when the regulation of the information system is not on the agenda, then democracy becomes a mockery.
When communication firms, media firms, and industry and communication lobbies are the most feared and well-financed sources influencing politicians actions – or lack thereof – then democracy has become a slogan.
Do you think with all these exciting things happening in our democracy – and there are many exciting things happening with our democracy – that these leaders, old and new, worry more about what will be on the front page of the newspaper, or are they more worried about what the people are thinking? I think they are worried about what the editor is going to do.
“We need our own paper,” because that is how it was in Apartheid. Some leaders of the African Congress at a certain point wanted to buy the Sunday Times.
So they do not make policies because they really care what people think in the hinterland and really want to please those guys. This is an ethical clash that we have not been paying attention to.
It is my premise that the nature of the global media industry and the indications of this have become a new, tangible and challenging locus, to come back to our question, for contextual and liberation theology.
The mainstream media must be recognized for what it is. It is not – in a country like South Africa, at least, and some other places in the world, and from what I heard from my colleagues from Africa – always serving the interests of the broader public and democracy.
This is the reality which the Church, theologians and academics should recognize urgently. The very concepts and indicators with which the Church is grappling are the concepts and indicators which the media manipulates: the Truth.
Serving public interest. Being socially responsible. On truth telling, can I just give you one or two thoughts of my own on this and having discussed this with colleagues before? Ethical codes and editorial policies in media systems across the globe underline the challenge of finding and reflecting the truth about the world we live in.
Truth telling opens the door to the ethical heart of the media, but is also the essence of the methodology of the Church and theology, especially liberation theology. The responsibility to mirror the state of our society places the media in a position of a watchdog, over and above any political or social institution. But while the media are accepted in an idealistic fashion to be the guardians and servants of these interests, my question is – and this is the question that we as concerned journalists and theologians and believers and academicians should be dealing with – who will be guarding the guardians?
The church needs to ask, “What is the truth?” And “Who defines and interprets the truth?” Is it the truth according to the Sunday Times & Report? Or is it the truth through the perspective of the Gospel where Jesus is standing on the side of those with no voice?
I mentioned that, and we all have said, that there is no such thing as objectivity. I think there is not any journalist who will engage on that issue anymore because it is a subjective process. You choose what you are going to cover. You choose the angles of what you are going to cover. And you choose how you are going to put the facts together. Whether it’s you the journalist or you the editor, there is a selective process, a subjective process, that happens. That is the truth. There is no objectivity.
But you need to be ethical, though. How do you do this? I have said it many times, and if you look at my CV and the almost 35 documentaries I have done in my life, I have always declared a bias. I have a bias toward those who do not have a platform. As a journalist, I have always said, I hear those in power speaking. They are on the front pages. They each already own a newspaper or a radio station.
But I choose and I declared my bias with my employers: I will bring you the perspective of the ones who are not heard. In this country then and now, those are the people whose interests should be served. And in taking that stance and saying, “I shall bring you the voices and perspectives that you’re not hearing,” you will come into conflict, and we have, many of us.
If you do not know, you need to find out who the ombudsman is. He is an icon for concerned journalists. On Black Wednesday in 1977, he was one of the people that were tortured and punished because he was a good journalist.
When you choose to be the one bringing the perspective that people do not want to hear, then you will walk out and face an unpleasant response.
This industry is without an ethical compass and moral vision. And I’m not arguing with good journalists, like (another participant) because he is a good journalist, and he has a moral compass. And he needs to tell me how he untangles all this in his daily practice at the newspaper where he is.
The problem is that the mainstream media globally, rather than promoting global democracy, it has become a vessel for promoting existing social, political and economic imbalances internationally.
They are not writing about and for the poor. They are not writing about and for the disabled. They are not writing about and for children that are being abused and abandoned. They are not writing about and for women who are continuing to be the victims of all sorts of oppression because that does not sell.
Do you know why that does not sell? Because the advertisers are not selling the newspapers to the poor or to the theologians. They are selling it to the middle class that wants to buy a 4X4. And who wants to hear, between this page and that page, about the poor and another person that would make me feel uncomfortable.
The greater the information industry’s technological genius has become, the greater journalists’ indifference to social responsibility. I’m not against individual journalists. I think there’s a general concern about this, even in journalism schools across the globe and across this continent, definitely.
In being the handmaiden of a new world order that idolizes the ideology of capitalism, we are in trouble. There are known voices in the media who are trying to give progressives in society – now, “progressives”, I don’t know who they are, but at least I know the leadership and those who take it seriously – a wakeup call regarding the pressing issue of media ethics.
New global media trends and challenges demand a new stance. We plead - concerned journalists like myself, concerned Christians like myself – we plead that we need to develop a strategy and long-term vision for how ethics can be re-introduced and enforced in the media. Starting in our own country.
Communication concerns should be linked to and integrated with larger efforts to be introduced and interpreted by segments of society in the political and economic arena, thereby reducing the power of business and listening in quietly. We need to hear the voices of those without power.
There can be no denying any longer that the Church and academicians and concerned leaders, that involvement in media ethics is imperative. Organized religion should turn to Liberation Theology – and this is just my view – to find the answer to this question: What should our role be as Christians in a process of social action regarding the media?
When faced with the challenges to transform an unjust and imbalanced society, which we still have today, we are in real terms forced to face ethical deliberation about the impact and role of the media.
These are not easy issues. And I have a great friend that taught me a very valuable lesson once. This is a lesson that I teach my children, my daughters, and that I try to teach where I have a platform no matter how small with women of South Africa. And I try and teach the children that have been left behind because of HIV and AIDS.
I try and teach them: How do you eat an elephant? How do you tackle an issue that is so big and so complex we realize that we haven’t even started thinking about it? How do you eat an elephant? Bit by bit. There is no easy way.
And it should be starting – and that’s why I want to congratulate TEASA for organizing this – with this course of discussions like this all the time everywhere. And wherever you are going from here, please look at the next newspaper, listen to the next bulletin, watch the next talk show, and ask yourself: How is this serving democracy? And how is this serving public interest on a continent and in a country where the majority of the public don’t even have water or electricity?