7 January 2013

Kenya: In a World of Frenemies, the Voter Loses


In September 2012, as the US presidential elections got under way, I remember seeing an article about the "no whining rule". The Mitt Romney campaign had a "no whining rule" about media coverage.

The senior adviser to the Romney campaign, Ed Gillespie, was quoted as saying "we have a no whining rule in Boston about coverage in the media. We just deal with the facts."

Obviously that changed barely a week later when Paul Ryan had a good whine about the press. "It goes without saying that there is definitely media bias," Ryan said. "I think most people in the mainstream media are left of centre and, therefore, they want a very left-of-centre president versus a conservative president like Mitt Romney."

Ryan was likely unaware that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Romney campaign surrogate, would be on another television network the same morning arguing that such complaining was the surefire sign of a struggling campaign. "I'm not going to sit here and complain about coverage of the campaign," Christie said. "As a candidate, if you do that, you're losing."

I'm bringing this up because it has been brought up and it's one of those issues we all want to avoid - media and politicians alike. On Saturday evening while kicking back with a book, I saw a rather long text message from Prof Kiyiapi. It read as follows - word for word:

"Hallo Mr Levi Obonyo, Chairman Media Council! Am (sic) protesting in the strongest terms possible, the bias, unpatriotic and very unjust manner in which the Kenya Media is handling my presidential campaigns. Are we saying money is what will decide quality and character of leaders in Kenya? Are we saying the message I gave to Kenyans yesterday on national unity, youth unemployment, Vision 2030, national security, food security, environment etc are noth worth analysing? Are we saying RBK delegates who met to nominate me the party's presidential candidate are NOT Kenyans? I want an audience to present my complaints against blatant bias by the media. Since I resigned on April 16, never once have I hit headline news - all these other guys do so all the time. Just check today's dailies and see how much more space my party got in comparison. We appreciate live coverage by K24 free of charge - a great service to people of Kenya. In news time, I got about 30-60 seconds and my worthy opponent took all the time. Is this what we voted in the new constitution? Very unfair and unacceptable for a progressive African nation in the 21st Century. I am running to be President of the Republic of Kenya not Governor of Narok for God's sake! Please get in touch."

Before anyone decides to run for office, it is important to understand or at least try and understand the deeply insidious, unhealthy, almost toxic, relationship between politicians and the media, especially in Africa. We like to deny anything of the sort exists. In fact the politicians deny it and the press denies, but the fact is we are best friends and enemies at the same time. Hence the lovely Hollywood term "frenemies".

Much of what we know or assume to know about our political leaders comes from the media especially television, radio and newspapers - social media may add to the conversation or debate the issues, but traditional media is still the force to reckon with; if we don't mention it, it didn't happen. Twitter will be offended but it's the truth - scream all you want.

Television and radio producers, newsroom editors across the board decide which stories make the headlines, which get buried on page 34, and which receive no mention whatsoever. There are some we ignore outright. Politicians desperately court media support, recognising our ability to promote or destroy political reputations. Yes, we are frenemies.

Throughout American history, the most successful politicians were those who could manipulate the dominant news medium of their time. Franklin Roosevelt successfully used the radio in his series of Fireside Chats. Dubbed "The Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan made his political career with his television image.

This continues to this very day, heck look at Obama's election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012. The American press has asserted itself as a major player in shaping political outcomes. This cuts across everything from late night shows with Jay Leno to Fox News, to CNN to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to meet the people shows like The View. Let's be honest - Mitt didn't have a hope in hell - mainstream media loved Obama.

I can still hear someone yelling about social media. Give it a rest. Newspapers and radio remain a major source of news for the majority. Despite brutal competition from newer forms of mass media, radio and the daily paper remain king.

The real new kid on the block is television. It has the power to make or break political careers. Somewhere between Bull's Eyes and a split-screen of a politician's sound-bites, television has greatly influenced how politicians are perceived. Social media feeds off radio, newspapers and television, however the source is still the media that starts and shapes the conversation.

Let me go back to Obama - his television appearances weren't just limited to political debates and serious political interviews, he made frequent appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman, The View and Oprah.

This is Kenya and even with the Internet growing as it is, blogs, Twitter, Facebook et al are yet to eclipse the influence of newspapers, radio or television.

Do politicians really understand how to use social media? They don't come even close. So yes, Prof Kiyiapi has a valid point and I believe the point isn't necessarily how much coverage he's getting, it's whether the issues he is highlighting are getting coverage. The question is: are they important? Should they be discussed at all, or what are we basing this election on? I've often said that this election will set the stage for 2017.

Kibaki has snookered all these fellows in ways we can't begin to imagine. He has also set the bar a little too high in some areas. If we continue having the conversations we are having, then the next guy we elect is a joker either way.

The next occupant of State House based on the circus we have before us will have a tough time keeping up with Kibaki's legacy and then we will finally have a rational conversation about the person who should be in State House in 2017. I hope it won't be too late.

Media has a duty to cover more than Cord and Jubilee; we must cover the issues as well. Kenyans and voters in particular only know what they know and media is the source of that knowledge - right or wrong.

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