Dear Reader: Too much information

The torrent of Gupta emails that has rained down daily since 28 May, when the Sunday Times published the first Gupta leaks, has exposed us to a “fifth dimension” beyond anything previously known.

Self-contained storylines that once would have risen and fallen in distinct waves of public attention have given way to relentless information overload and endless confusion. Time blurs as new developments flash like strobe lights from all angles, 24/7. There is not enough time in a day, a week, a month, a year to unravel all the details of what Zuma and the Guptas have been, and still are, up to.

As David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), faced with a similar, seemingly endless deluge of information generated by the “Trump phenomenon”, puts it: “I often feel like I’m drinking from a firehose.”

South Africa’s traditional news cycle has been killed by the Guptas.

For the first few days of leaked emails, even the Guptas couldn’t believe what was happening. Their attorney Gert van der Merwe (one of the leaked revelations was that the Guptas don’t go for BEE when it comes to making appointments to top executive positions) recklessly still dared suggest the emails were “fake news”.

The CJR’s description of the impact of Trump’s collision with the media applies equally well to the current Gupta storm in our media: “Until then the news-time continuum still had a semblance of balance, even if the underlying factors priming it for carnage had already been set: a sensationalist social media with an insatiable appetite for content; massive distrust of the mainstream press; a fragmented social web that incentivises false information; rapidly growing uncertainty and confusion [here in the ANC], prompting impulsive action and self-contradiction.”

If you dump tens of thousands of sensational emails on an already strained news system, you go hurtling into the fifth dimension with no bottom, no top, no sides, no up, no down. A typical comment: That was the biggest news week since last week!

Chronic news overload prompts the question: can the public cope? The consensus view is that mere mortals can’t possibly keep this up. If Zuma and the Guptas don’t crack soon, everyone else will.

News overload undoubtedly induces stress. In the US, where the “Trump phenomenon” is causing similar media disruption and trauma, the head of the American Psychological Association called the potential effects “deeply concerning”.

But what about news comprehension, ostensibly the first goal of journalism?

To quote the CJR again: “What’s clear is that the digital hamster wheel that most journalists now inhabit will only continue its acceleration. Less so is whether the rest of the public, bereft of the news cycles that act as a sort of on-ramp by focusing attention, will be able to get back on track.”

Which is where Noseweek comes to the rescue with a measured once-a-month package of reason and sanity, to be read at your leisure and at your own thoughtful pace. The story will still be there if you pause to think and only look at it again in five minutes or even an hour’s time.

From Twitter and Facebook and all the marvelous online news services that serve up news bytes by the second, you and I have learnt with absolute certainty that Zuma, the Guptas and all their corrupted minions everywhere, must go – preferably to jail. But has anyone paused long enough to think: What then? What’s the plan? How do we mend what’s broken?

Eskom, undoubtedly a crucial state-owned enterprise, has featured prominently in the leaked emails, leaving us in no doubt that great damage has been done there by the President’s family and friends, at huge expense and risk to the nation. That established, we thought it a good idea to start with a calm analysis of what needs to be done at Eskom to set us on the road to a brighter future.

As it transpires, much of the work had already been done for us by two top, well-informed experts in the field: Chris Yelland, who has previously written for Noseweek on the subject, provides an introduction and explains just why the analysis by Piet van Staden in this issue is significant and deserves our considered attention.

The Editor

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