Strange as it may seem, I agree with certain MPs' complaint this week (the week of November 18, 2001) that the newspapers often misreport them. What is not true is that "malice" is what drives our misrepresentation.
Malice is a subjective activity, whereas we wrong them only objectively. For journalism - being a "fine" art - can never exactly represent whatever it describes. Always discrepant are the vision splendide and the objet d'art.
Maxim Gorky's "socialistrealism" demanded that, before we can judge legitimately, we must record faithfully what we experience with our senses. Yet, because of the natural limitations of our senses, our reports can never be facsimiles of the objects they describe. They can never be absolutely objective.
A report is objective, not because it is a camera reproduction of its object, but only because it is a verisimilitude of it. Thus science textbooks are the most objective reports. But even they cannot be facsimiles of reality. They are only approximate truths. In Africa, this difficulty is confounded by the backward nature of our tools for observing reality. Most Kenyan publications still' have to use 19th-century pre-press technology and presses akin to Caxton's.
Until very recently, we depended on reporters who were barely literate. University education became a requirement only the other day.
Since we do not read, our self-knowledge is inchoate. Few of us do any homework or brush up in the library before dashing off to an assignment.
We don't have the techniques for forcing information out of the newsmakers. We do not ask them shrewd questions whenever they beg the question. We do not call their bluffs by demanding evidence whenever they utter such balderdash as: "My life is in danger."
English, our verbal tool, is as slipshod as quicksilver. We easily plunge into its millions of grammatical and syntactical pitfalls. A misused proposition will completely alter the meaning of an MP's sentence. Even when we claim to be speaking English, our thought constructions are always Bantu or Nilotic. Unless a reporter is conscientious enough to confirm from the MP that he means exactly what he has just said, he is likely to misreport him.
Many speak mainly in Kiswahili or vernacular. In the process of translation, it is easy to misconstrue them. Because of a hundred such objective difficulties, how can our reports be fully objective?
Malice comes in only through subjectivism, a word we usually confuse With subjectivity, The first is deliberate falsification.
The other is relative awareness of oneself and one's surroundings. Thus, a report will approach full objectivity - full resemblance to its object – only when the reporter (the subject) is approaching full subjectivity. That's why it is false to claim that an opinion cannot. Be objective. Science is objective precisely because scientists approach full subjectivity. The subject, after all, is only a special case of the object, that aspect of it (the human mmd) which has become self-conscious.
This belies the skewed liberal idea that to achieve objectivity we must give a "fair hearing" to all parties to an issue. Thus whenever an MP accuses another, we try to get the other's comment before we publish the accusation.
True, it "balances" the situation, but it does not objectify it. If you put a truth and an untruth in the same pot, you clearly smother the truth by making it far more difficult to identify. A journalist who studies will thus write a perfectly objective opinion. Mao Tsetung once ruled that if you do not study, you forfeit your freedom of speech.
Yet it is true that subjectivism pervades our media. Many of us, epitomised by the gutter press, falsify facts and figures. Yet the gutter press is funded by the politicians themselves precisely to denigrate their rivals. Even in the upmarket press, the guilty journalists are hirelings. Politicians and businessmen pay them to ensure a good press. If it is malice, then, it is the politicians who sponsor it. They are the ones who nurture corruption in journalism and thus blunt our ethical senses.
Yet many MPs vow to vote for Amos Wako's media proposals just because we misrepresent them as individuals. They can't see that the Bill's chief aim is to prevent the politicians' own words from reaching the voter through the press. So if they vote for Wako, they will have voted to gag their own mouths.
This article— first published on November 18, 2001 — is part of the “Fifth Columnist Files” series that republishes Philip Ochieng’s long-running Sunday Nation column