Signs of division appeared in Jacob Zuma’s camp this week when the ANC president disagreed publicly with one of his staunchest supporters over media effects.

While SACP leader Blade Nzimande accused City Press of sowing division and confusion within ANC ranks, Zuma has come to the conclusion that nobody much bothers about what they read in newspapers.

For media scholars, that is old hat. The once-popular “hypodermic needle” theories of media effects — which postulate that the mass media are so powerful that they can “inject” messages into their passive audiences — have long gone out the window. Empirical studies by political scientists have found time and again that mass media have very little effect on people’s political beliefs or choices. Media-effects theories these days have much more nuanced explanations of the interactions between the media and audiences.

Nzimande, though, clearly hasn’t kept abreast of the literature. In an open letter addressed to Media24’s managers, he accused City Press of taking sides in the ANC leadership battle, and “promoting division” in the ruling party. He was particularly incensed about a report, quoting three unnamed sources within the ANC’s NEC, which said Zuma had accused some NEC members of plotting against him.

Now, leaving aside the question whether reports such as these actually have any measurable effect, has Nzimande stopped to ask himself who is really sowing divisions here: the unidentified NEC members, or the newspaper that reported their words?

Zuma, in the meantime, has dropped his R63-million mass defamation case against various news media after concluding that their negative reporting had no effect on his political career. The cases were based on articles and cartoons during his rape trial, which, he argued, had seriously impaired his good name. It turned out, he said this week, that his reputation had escaped from the media onslaught largely intact.

“The propaganda mounted against him by his detractors was not as successful as they had hoped,” his lawyer, Liesl Gottert, told News24. “Obviously his image was not as damaged as he initially thought because he won [in Polokwane].”

Zuma has discovered what media scholars and political scientists have known for decades: the media can’t tell us what to think. And to ascribe to one newspaper the power to threaten a very powerful political party in a democratic system is, frankly, absurd. In his letter, Nzimande says that the City Press editorial leadership team “is so embedded in factionalist battles” that it cannot rise above them. That sounds to me exactly like the conundrum the ANC leadership finds itself in; and the media are not to blame.

Since ascending to the ANC presidency, Zuma has shown himself a shrewder politician, more attuned to the responsibilities of power, shall we say, than many expected. As a result, he received rather good press from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he soothed fears about future economic policy and impressed journalists with his serious image. Perhaps that is why he has decided, in Gottert’s words, “to give the media a break”.

He is still suing the local news media for injury to his personal dignity due to the hurtful reporting about his rape trial. Perhaps he should just develop a thicker skin. He is a politician, after all.


Robert Brand

Robert Brand

Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.

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