Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Pink Tongue blues

The Pink Tongue blues
Author: Mbuyisi Mgibisa

Publish: 21 April 2010

Mbuyisi Mgibisa's pitch to TheMediaOnline about a free-sheet community paper that challenges homophobia and prides itself of being an informed read for the 'colourful and diverse gay communities' of the Western Cape goes sour and reveals how self-censorship by the media can suppress press freedom.
Two weeks ago I pitched a story idea to Shelagh Foster, the editor of TheMediaOnline. She was interested in the idea and I began lining up the interviews.
I then sent a set of different questions to Gary de Klerk, the editor of The Pink Tongue, Kevin Light, a journalist working at the paper, and Russell Shapiro, a reader who also happen to advertise in the newspaper.

The response from De Klerk was prompt despite that he indicated that he was on deadline with the May issue of The Pink Tongue.

Mid-way through in the story, I received an email from De Klerk demanding that he needs to see the final copy before the story gets published. I wrote back to him outlining that I was uncomfortable with this arrangement since I view it as tantamount to self-censorship. He wrote back and made it clear to me is he doesn't get to see the final copy then he doesn't give me his permission to publish the story.

I asked myself, whose permission?

Then a flurry of emails popped in my inbox. De Klerk argued that in my original emails I stated that the feature was on The Pink Tongue and that some of my questions to him were irrelevant.
The questions concerned included one question soliciting the editor's views regarding the attitudes of South African society towards the gay and lesbian communities. There was also a question which wanted to know what stance The Pink Tongue would take against anti-gay statements such as the one made by President Jacob Zuma against gays a few years ago.

I had explained that though the questions may seem irrelevant, they were not meant to introduce controversy in the feature but to introduce some topicality so that it does not appear like an advertising claptrap. I also made it clear to him that he was at liberty to ignore some of the questions he thought were irrelevant.

"It is a standard policy of many organisations, including Independent Newspapers, to check such write-ups to make sure they are factually correct. That is why I chose to ignore some of your irrelevant questions because they have nothing to do with The Pink Tongue in the context of the suggested article," he wrote in an email.

I guess that the questions I later sent to Light on whether he has ever dealt with a story that contained anti-gay sentiments in tone and taste and how he would have dealt with such a story would also be deemed irrelevant. More so this one on whether he thinks the paper would publish such a story.

I then decided to seek advice from Foster on how to handle this situation. She said I could show De Klerk the final copy. But she added that we will go ahead with the story only if I'm convinced that the final version is good, unbiased, and with no manipulation by the editor/publisher of The Pink Tongue.

I sent the final copy to De Klerk. Within a short while, the edited version was emailed back to me.

De Klerk made it clear that this was the edited version of the article "that Independent Newspapers approves" and instructed me that I should "please make sure that this is the version that is submitted" to TheMediaOnline. Who approves the final copy? Is it the Independent Newspapers or TheMediaOnline?

A few minor changes had been made to the original piece. But then what was strange was that my byline was removed and another journalist name, Boyish Gibes, was stuck into my blurb.

I know that journalists like to see their names in the paper despite that you're only good as your last byline since only a handful of readers actually bother to read who wrote the story.
I wanted to let the situation lie down as I'm no longer that first time young journalist who got published in the Daily Dispatch 10 years ago, even though in a smallest possible byline, but still rushed to his friends to show them the copy of the paper despite his byline being deeply buried inside the newspaper.

But I then I was worried that an editor of a newspaper could remove my byline in a story that I conceptualised, pitched and wrote. Not that this Gibes had done any sort of a straight rewrite to my copy or swung into action and done the story himself. There is nothing in the edited version of the story that points to any semblance of original reporting by Gibes to the story. As a writer,

I felt deposed in my own turf.

I noticed another disturbing factor. A paragraph containing information about the newspaper's website had been removed. De Klerk explained that all references to the newspaper's website were removed because the website is currently outdated and "not really something that we want to show off".

As a freelance writer who operates on a shoestring budget, my initial impulse was to submit the story for publication, but then I decided not to submit the story and instead proposed a comment piece to Foster that will focus on the behind-the-scenes so to speak.
I view some of De Klerk's actions as an attempt to constrict me to write about The Pink Tongue in a positive light and to remove all those elements that will portray the newspaper in a bad light.

His actions made me feel cheated as a writer.

I have never felt cheated like this before even when a sectional editor of a weekend newspaper wrote a story on my behalf and put my byline after I had refused to write a story which paraded unfounded allegations against a government parastatal.

Even the second incident when an editor of a national newspaper tweaked a pure news analysis piece, which I and a colleague had penned, into headline-grabbing front page lead does not come close to this. The said editor threw a 450 word into the first part of our 800-word article but tagged her name onto the bottom of the story as an additional reporter. We were eaten alive by our sources and she didn't. Why? She was a ‘contributor-by'.

How many young journalists out there who keep quiet when faced with this sort of treatment and pay dumb loyalty to the editors in return for job security and promotion?

I am disappointed with the way the newspaper treated my story. I thought the newspaper would be more publicly aware about the need to safeguard freedom of expression and media freedom. In this instance, I felt that I was confronted by self-censorship by a media to another media.

How free is the South African media? It made me ponder.

I'm still waiting for an answer from De Klerk. Why did you remove my byline and put that of Boyish Gibes?

Mbuyisi Mgibisa is a Cape Town-based freelance writer (


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, Mbuyisi. A few years ago I found myself working as a novice reporter for a newspaper. One day I was sent to cover a meeting.I wrote a longish article (about 450-500 words). The next day the story was chopped in the middle of the last paragraph (I was convinced that this was done to make way for an advert that appeared below the story). The following week I was sent to cover another big event. This time I deliberately wrote a shorter story (not more than 150 words). The editor summoned me to his office. He told me that the story was too short for publication. I asked him: “This is all the information I could gather, or you want me to make up the rest?” He told me that he was disappointed in me, because it was my job to gather as much information as possible. I also asked him about the paper’s policy on the maximum length of news stories (only a week back, I wrote a longer article and they decided to cut it, now I wrote a shorter one and, again, there was a problem). He got angry and sent me back to my desk to “improve” the story. I simply packed my bags and left. The following day I was back in the newsroom and all he could say was to generalise about people who leave the newsroom before it was time. What I’ve noticed is that some editors can be hypocrites … saying one thing in their editorials and doing another in reality!


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