Palesa Morudu Columnist
Picture: 123RF/olegdudko
Picture: 123RF/olegdudko

Thousands of US journalists who have been living and breathing Covid-19 woke up to a juicy media war on Monday. It was a diversion, at least.

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith lobbed a sensational grenade critiquing celebrated journalist Ronan Farrow into the camp of the competing New Yorker, which Farrow calls home. The piece was titled “Is Ronan Farrow too good to be true?” — a question that has crossed more than a few minds.

Smith took particular issue with two Farrow stories on Michael Cohen and Harvey Weinstein. Cohen, previously Trump’s personal lawyer and vice-president of The Trump Organisation, has been serving time for tax evasion and fraud. Weinstein, the former Hollywood boss and Democratic Party financier, is in jail for rape and sexual abuse. These pieces were marked by a notable lack of rigour, Smith writes, and the Cohen piece fails to hold up two years later.

For the details, please do read the column. Smith argues essentially that while Farrow is a talented journalist who speaks truth to power, his investigative reporting falls short. His work, which adopts a conspiratorial mindset, has often been hyped without extensive vetting. “Because if you scratch at Mr Farrow’s reporting ... you start to see some shakiness at its foundation. He delivers narratives that are irresistibly cinematic — with unmistakable heroes and villains — and often omits the complicating facts and inconvenient details that may make them less dramatic. At times … he suggests conspiracies that are tantalising but he cannot prove.”

Farrow, Smith writes, is not a fabulist. Yet his work “reveals the weakness of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump: that if reporters swim ably along with the tides of social media and produce damaging reporting about public figures most disliked by the loudest voices, the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives. That can be a dangerous approach, particularly in a moment when the idea of truth and a shared set of facts is under assault.”

For all its real and urgent problems, US journalism is still the City on a Hill. The fading of its light will be disastrous not just for Americans, but for all of us
Nic Dawes, former Mail & Guardian editor 

A tub of ink has been spilt since Smith’s piece appeared, accompanied by the expected Twitter shouting match. Whatever the merits of the arguments, it is interesting to examine these questions through the SA lens. Shortly after Trump’s election in November 2016, former Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes wrote a seminal piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. He addressed US journalists about “the battle that is closing around you” in the context of a  president who castigates the purveyors of “fake news”. 

Dawes warned that “in the countries where I’ve spent my working life, the press still matters, but there is less of it, and the whole accountability ecosystem has become unbalanced. For all its real and urgent problems, US journalism is still the City on a Hill. The fading of its light will be disastrous not just for Americans, but for all of us.”

A lot of good journalism is still done in the US, but Americans’ deep distrust of the media is not merely a partisan aberration: much reportage is flawed, and driven by political affinity or animus.

In observing the Smith-Farrow dispute, I have come to appreciate how the best SA investigative reporting, led by amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick’s Scorpio, has managed to avoid the pitfalls of “resistance journalism” even during the fraught relationship with former president Jacob Zuma. Of course, this was not universal: the Sunday Times aided and abetted the Zuma project through false reporting. But there is enough independent accountability built into the ecosystem for self-correction.

Good investigative reporting requires hard work, an investment of time and money, and a commitment to report the facts, even when they complicate the “story”. And reporters who keep their feet on the ground rather than fly too close to the sun.

• Morudu is a writer and director at Clarity Global Strategic Communications (Cape Town and Washington DC).

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