Someone has to pay for the news

It is true that the United States of America cares little for world news. International news accounts for less than 2% of its news market and countries that make the cut would rather not, as invariably it means they are being, or are about to be, invaded or bombed by the US.

This I learnt from the Americans I met during a three-week tour of the country as a guest of the US State Department. I was taking part in the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), joining another 20 journalists from 20 countries. The focus of the programme was investigative journalism.

I was with an eclectic group of investigative print, radio and online journalists, most of us from rogue nations on the periphery of global affairs – only ever known for war, coups, revolutions, terrorists, financial crisis, sex scandals, money laundering or a mixture of the lot.

At the induction meeting my Kurdistan colleague thanked the US State Department for killing Saddam Hussein. A precious awkward silence followed.

Everyone knew about apartheid and Nelson Mandela; some had heard of Julius Malema. A young American-born Somali teenager questioned me about “Hairgate”. She also thought Tunisia was in Europe.

Americans seldom concern themselves with the rest of the world – which they regard as a playground for travel, unless Disney has built a replica.

The attention to detail in the cities I visited – from the West Coast to the East – was remarkable. From the perfectly manicured gardens, elaborate city lights, sculptures and boulevards, it is clear that  average Americans live in a world only the wealthy in gated estates enjoy in South Africa. Garden fences exist to keep dogs in, not people out.

Their universities particularly interested me. Huge amounts of money are poured into these establishments by both state and private sectors. While I checked my Twitter feed at home and watched our universities burn, I saw cranes building more facilities at theirs. There is one similarity: student debt in the USA, sitting at about US$1 trillion, is believed to be its next sub-prime banking crisis in the making.

I was invited to join a Republican group in Reno, Nevada at the Atlantis Casino to watch the first US presidential candidates’ debate. Most were old white folk.  They donned Trump hats and shouted in southern drawl at Clinton on the big screen while eating mince-filled tacos.

Hurricane Matthew scuppered my chance of attending a Barack Obama rally in Miami, Florida, and because the hurricane then missed the city I was unable to post on to my Facebook page that I had survived a hurricane. Instead I was just another shmuck holed up in his hotel room on the day it was expected to strike, as the television news reminded me every minute of my impending doom. All shops were closed and palm trees were harnessed with ropes and pegs. 

Despite the catastrophe Hurricane Matthew caused in the Voodoo island of Haiti, next day the Sun Sentinel in Miami ran a bold headline that read “Matth-whew”.

During the election madness, Globe Magazine reported that aliens had been spotted mining minerals on the moon.

American newspapers focus almost exclusively on local issues. The Washington Times, owned and founded by the Unification Church, otherwise known as Moonies, is right-leaning and enjoys hammering the Democrats, while the Washington Post panned Trump daily. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis reported about the state of the Mississippi River in a five-part in-depth series.

In Nevada, the Reno Gazette Journal (another amalgamation) wrote about biker gang shootouts and that the don of legal brothels, Dennis Hof, was running for a seat in the state Assembly. It described the US as a “Reluctant Empire” and the election campaign as a “combination of Idols and an election”. Apparently more people vote for Idols than for a president.

American television news services embody the country’s capitalist system – they carry only news that sells and care little for promoting social cohesion. The more agro the news, the better for ratings, just ask the country’s biggest cable network, Fox News (and President Donald Trump!).

Cable news and radio broadcasters are unashamedly partisan, while studies reveal that newspaper staff are generally more liberal leaning. Nobody seems to trust CNN on either the left or the right, both sides believing the station leans the other way.

I had many off-the-record conversations with academics, non-profit media institutions, journalists, politicians and lobbyists to form an opinion about investigative journalism in the USA.

Much of it confirmed what we already knew; that journalism in general in the US – as elsewhere – is under severe pressure. Problems include lower wages, reduced newsroom numbers, less income, a hostile corporate world and more confrontational governments (There are technically 51 governments in the US: 50 state and one Federal).

But the financial pressure they are under appears less extreme than in South Africa. For instance the Star Tribune still sells over 200,000 copies daily and over 500,000 on a Sunday in a state with just five million people. In fact their sales have increased over the past five years. Notably, while actively growing their online subscription base, their online revenue still accounts for only 10-15% of overall income.

The Miami Herald has been less fortunate: between 2007 and 2014 its sales dropped by [only!] 7% to 97,694. Declining circulations have resulted in mass staff layoffs. But the city, with a population of just over two million, still supports at least three separately owned English dailies. (There are also Spanish titles.)

Looking at their numbers and their drive to innovate, it makes us realise how dire our situation is: our best-selling newspaper, the Sunday Times, sells only about 291,000 a week – nationally.

In the US there has also been a slow, creeping clampdown by local, state and federal governments on the free flow of information. Realising that media businesses are cash-strapped, they know the chances of a news outlet going to court to challenge a government agency’s refusal to release information, via their Freedom of Information Act is much less a threat today than it was a decade ago. They simply can’t afford the legal costs.

Through the lobbying of special interest groups, laws have been passed extending what is deemed “classified information” at state and federal level. Some of these are quite bizarre. For instance if there is an outbreak of Avian flu in the poultry sector in Minnesota, this information is deemed classified and may not be published – to protect the poultry industry. Public health does not factor.

Most news outlets I visited pour some resources into investigative journalists, ranging from a fulltime post, to pooling resources, to simply allowing reporters extra time to pursue more in-depth pieces. Their journalists are multi-skilled, working between audio, visual, print and online.  Their reality is much like ours – except they have more money.

Increasingly significant is the growth of “non-profit” news gathering. The theory is that because they are non-profit they are non-partisan, objective news sources. Many of them carry the mantra of “Investigative journalism” such as the Arizona Institute for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity (which hosts the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism), the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the Global Investigative Journalism Network as well as ProPublica.

This model has thrown journalism as a career a lifeline for the telling of great stories, being a watchdog, and shining a light in a world lurching towards greater secrecy. But all is not bliss. On closer inspection it becomes clear that the non-profit news sector, like the commercial one, faces many of the same problems and risks.

The idea behind non-profit news is that people donate to the cause. In reality there are only a handful of serious global donors and most NPOs rely on at least one of them as a major funder. Some examples are the Rockefeller Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, Google, Ford Foundation or the Knight Foundation. Most are endowment funds created to circumvent taxes for the wealthy families that created the fortunes.  Occasionally this funding is more indirect, when a non-profit supported by one such foundation supports other non-profits.

The upside of the donor philosophy is that it has enabled the creation of a global network of investigative journalists. Given the means, these journalists can embark on long-term, in-depth projects; and take on secretive or dirty governments that have no financial leverage over the news outlet. Such governments have also learned that simply shutting them down is not a good option: it only attracts more unwanted attention. Non-profit news media tend to rally to one another’s defence when threatened, and are able to turn a local incident into an international one overnight.

It is important to realise that most of these journalists belonging to the NPO sector are professional and work on the principle of speaking truth to power and will not be bought off or knowingly be a proxy to another interest.

But with many of these donor models come some preconditions, often limiting the funding to a specific subject.

And just because they are non-profits does not necessarily mean they don’t take money from dubious sources. For instance, BP, with its highly publicised pollution of the Gulf of Mexico and equally dire clean-up operation, is a funder of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in Washington DC. The ICFJ’s collaboration with Tsinghua University, Beijing, to launch communist China’s first Global Business Journalism Program, is supported by Bloomberg. Bloomberg, has made no secret of its ambitions to capitalise on the Chinese market. The other ICFJ donors who drove this project were Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Deloitte. All have obvious vested corporate interests in China.

This is soft politics in the bare. Notably, the school is not allowed to teach any investigative journalism skills, which raises the point that, just like the commercial sector, the non-profit is equally susceptible to corporate-funder interest. The ICIJ name lends the Chinese course massive credibility in a country that persecutes free thinkers and journalists. It allows the Chinese government to brag that it is allowing greater transparency in its media.

But the reality is very different. Just last month the Washington Post reported that the Chinese government was working on software to give every citizen a social scorecard which would rate their online use, the places they visit and who they talk to.

When active, by 2020, the scorecard could predetermine which restaurants they are allowed to eat at, whether they are allowed to travel first class, where they can work and whether the Communist Party should give them membership.

Two colleagues of mine in Eastern Europe – neither of their countries part of the EU – confirmed that they had experienced pressure from their funders. One recounted how the EU, a donor, demanded seeing their stories before publication. The journalist refused – and won the battle – but the EU funding is coming under review and could be lost. Another told how a donor had specified they only use the money to investigate the energy sector in their region. The funder has large global energy interests.

The same goes for a host of “grant funding” or “fellowships” that stipulate the subject to be investigated. The Mail & Guardian is currently hosting a journalist on a Rainbow Fellowship, funded by the Other Foundation. The journalist must focus only on LGBTQ issues.

In all cases there is an argument to be made for walking this road. The ICFJ maintains that at least they are bringing critical thinking skills to China and, through business reporting, allowing for some transparency in the markets.

The M&G argues that LGBTQ issues have long been under-reported and this allows them to conclusively tell the story of the group. As for my Eastern European colleague, he knows energy is an important issue to his region and realises tuned focus in the sector can only help achieve greater transparency.

The loss of a funder is as damaging as losing an advertiser but, unlike commercial news enterprises that potentially have many advertisers, because of the small number of  serious donors, the loss of a donor can pose a more dramatic threat to the existence of a non-profit news publication.

One thing is certain: serious investigative reporting is costly in time, skills and money. And the one who pays the piper calls the tune.

The non-profit sector is always asking for donations, while commercial outlets are looking for subscribers. In the end, to have completely independent fearless and uncompromising news, the only win-win model is through mass participation by the public in funding news gathering. Buy or subscribe to the magazine, donate to the NPO.

The NPOs call it “crowd-funding” – we call it sales. But it is difficult to mobilise a public that has become lethargic and unmotivated. We need to change that.

If you want more of what you read in Noseweek for decades to come, rally every person you know to take out a subscription. Buy at least two or three subscriptions as Christmas gifts for friends. Think of introducing Noseweek to a new generation. With more subscribers we can grow and serve our readership even better with more investigative reporting – no strings attached.

I will happily declare my assets: one awesome wife, one middle-class home, one seven-year-old bakkie, a pitiful private pension, in-laws, three dogs, one cat and a few US Dollars that I managed to bring back home.

The onus is really on the reader. Unless you want the media always to be beholden to large corporate interests, you need to become modestly – but actively – involved with your wallet. Simple. That’s assuming you want to live in a democracy where the rights of all citizens are respected. And constantly defended.

Jonathan Erasmus

Assistant Editor

...the more things stay the same

In his monumental work, The State of Africa (2005, Simon & Schuster), Martin Meredith describes the period in the 1980s when a number of African countries were in dire economic straits and looked to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to bail them out.

The IMF/World Bank agreed to assist, but laid down conditions, the basic thrust of which, as Meredith notes, was “to get governments to shift from consumption, so favoured by elites, to investment”.

Immediately, notes Meredith, this “aroused strong opposition in many quarters”.

 “The IMF/World Bank insistence on economic efficiency as the criterion for their aid threatened the system of patronage and patrimonialism that underpinned the rule of most African leaders,” he explained.

Sound familiar?

Meredith goes on: “Africa’s bloated bureaucracies and systems of regulation were crucial political assets, the means by which the ruling elite provided jobs, contracts and other opportunities for kinsmen and political supporters.”

Sounds more and more familiar: It brings to mind our own dysfunctional cabinet of 35 ministers and 38 deputies, not to mention thousands of “advisers” and, spokespersons, secretaries, drivers, security guards, pilots, vast homes in Pretoria and Cape Town, domestic staff and so on and on.

The UK has a cabinet of 20. Their GDP is almost $3 trillion while ours is $312billion, about 10% of theirs. By the way, our GDP has declined from $416bn in 2011 as our currency collapsed under the weight of ANC corruption and incompetence

Of course, our giggling, dancing, philandering, innumerate president flits about the world on his private jet like some brilliant statesman from an important country. Important? Our GDP is 0.5% of the world’s total. If we disappeared overnight no one would notice.

One suspects that Zuma is quite happy to part with a trillion rands of our money for a Russian nuclear plant because he actually has no idea whatever how much a trillion is.

Meredith quotes Douglas Rimmer, an economist at Birmingham University who specialises in African affairs, and has written that Africa’s political leaders have never been primarily concerned with economic growth but rather with the maintenance of political power and the distribution of wealth to themselves and their supporters.

“They were unaccustomed to restraint. African elites faced losing the perks and privileges that economic control of the state had given them.”

Rimmer adds that these elites “regarded public enterprises as a symbol of national sovereignty, however badly they performed; for years, they had treated private-sector entrepreneurs with disdain and discrimination”.

Think SABC. SAA. Eskom…

So, for Christmas, I thought I might present Zuma with a copy of  The State of Africa. He would surely enjoy it more than he does The State of Capture by Thuli Madonsela.

Stephen Mulholland
in Politicsweb


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