In the last few weeks, I have read multiple impassioned and tendentious comparisons of Channels TV’s Seun Okinbaloye and Arise TV’s Rufai Oseni on social media. While Peter Obi’s supporters describe Oseni as Nigeria’s best broadcast journalist alive, Bola Tinubu’s supporters say Oseni isn’t worthy of being called a journalist because he not only isn’t a trained journalist, he’s also an unabashed trafficker in partisan, dogmatically self-opinionated advocacy on behalf of and against certain political points of view.
Partisan arguments over the quality of Oseni’s journalism, for some reason, often degenerate into odious comparisons of Oseni and Okinbaloye. People who are critical of Peter Obi’s politics, which they say Oseni supports and magnifies, tend to invoke Okinbaloye as the exemplar of journalistic integrity and neutrality in contrast to Oseni whom they said has thrown away all pretences to political detachment.
It quickly became apparent that people who sing Oseni’s praises are overt or covert Obi supporters and those who are censorious of his journalism are overt or covert Tinubu supporters. Okinbaloye is a little more complex to situate because although Channels TV has traditionally been stereotyped as an “APC” station, Okinbaloye’s interview with Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed has invited a precipitate, unearned N5 million penalty from the National Broadcasting Commission. Plus, Okinbaloye has had some pretty no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle interviews with APC apparatchiks.
By the way, punishing Channels TV for what a guest said in its live news show doesn’t show that the NBC understands the changes that have taken place in the broadcast industry. In preplanned news packages, news is a product, but in live broadcasts, news becomes a process. Products can be controlled. Processes can’t. They are fluid, unpredictable, and exert pressures on editors, producers, and other media gatekeepers. In news as a process, information is often only partly formed, fragmentary, and tentative. It’s problematic, but it’s the spirit of the time.
Plus, Okinbaloye challenged Baba-Ahmed and tried in vain to steer him away from what he was saying. What more could he have done in a live show?
Well, I don’t watch a lot of television, even here in the United States, so I confess that I am not as familiar with Channels TV and Arise TV as I should be. But I watch occasional clips of Nigerian television when they are shared on social media.
My intervention, however, is intended only to contextualise the debate. People who say Oseni isn’t a journalist because he didn’t earn a degree in communication or because he evinces partisanship in the service of an entrenched point of view betray an ahistorical understanding of journalism.
There are broadly three traditions of journalism. The first and oldest tradition of journalism is called the advocacy tradition. In this tradition, journalists didn’t pretend to be “objective” or ideologically unaffiliated. News in the sense in which we understand it today was scarce. Opinion, partisan opinion I might add, was the stuff of journalism. Note, though, that the word “journalism” didn’t exist in English at the time.
The advocacy tradition got a rival in the 1830s in the United States with the advent of what was called the penny press, which inaugurated the reporting tradition we recognise as the only form of legitimate journalism in most parts of the world today.
Incidentally, it was in 1833 that the word “journalism” emerged in English for the first time after a reviewer of a book about journalism in French titled Du journalisme translated the French journalisme to “journalism” and remarked that such “a word was sorely wanted” in the English language. The review appeared in the Westminster Review.
The reporting tradition prioritises documenting facts, describing the world as reporters see it, ferreting out the “best obtainable version of the truth” incrementally through constant reportage, and recording the thoughts and perspectives of people other than us. That was the time the notion of “objectivity” in journalism was born. It was coterminous with the growth and reification of the scientific method, called positivism in social science scholarship.
Positivism is the idea that it is possible to develop a “science” of society using the methods of physical sciences like physics and chemistry. Positivists like August Comte thought society was like a biological organism and that even abstract phenomena like thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, etc., can be measured objectively, like a physicist measures the strength of an electric field.
Journalists in the reporting tradition “professionalised” journalism by embracing the “scientific” hype of the nineteenth century, which manifested in the notion of “objective journalism,” an unrealisable ideal that journalists have now abandoned in place of fairness, balance, and accuracy.
By the late 1800s, journalism began to be offered as a degree in U.S. universities in furtherance of the professionalisation of the field. But not having formal training in journalism has never been disqualifying in the history of journalism, not only because journalism education itself is relatively recent but also because such an attitude will violate the intrinsic openness of journalism.
The third tradition of journalism is the exposé tradition, which today is known as investigative journalism, whose goal is to reform, not merely to inform, society. Like advocacy journalism, it doesn’t pretend to be neutral or “objective.” Like Sunday Dare said of the guerrilla journalism he and his colleagues practised in the 1990s, it is animated by “partisan objectivity in defence of the truth.”
Over the years, these traditions have meshed and overlapped. In many traditional news organisations, views are separated from news. Views are represented by columns and editorials and news by reportage of facts. In other words, peddlers of opinions, even biased opinions, are journalists in the advocacy tradition.
There has never been any expectation in the history of journalism that opinions should be “objective.” In fact, “objective opinion” is a silly oxymoron. If it’s objective, that is, undistorted by personal dispositions, emotions, bias, etc., then it’s not an opinion. Opinions can never be objective. Only facts can. Opinions are by nature subjective and idiosyncratic. Being opinionated doesn’t delegitimise people from being journalists. That’s the first kind of journalism the world knew before the reporting tradition came less than 200 years ago.
In broadcast journalism, moreover, a different tradition emerged in the United States, which has been exported globally, and that tradition is the popularisation and lionisation of news anchors and leveraging the star power of news anchors to sell the news.
When CNN started on June 1, 1980, in Atlanta as the world’s first 24-hour news station, its owner, Ted Turner (nicknamed the “Mouth of the South” because he’s an impulsive, tough-talking loudmouth from the American South), chose to depart from this model of television journalism. At CNN, he said, the news would be the star.
A few decades later, he lost the battle. Now, like other broadcasters, CNN anchors and talk show hosts build brands around themselves. In the era of social media and virality, news hosts are becoming just as central as the news they read, leading some scholars to opine that what we are seeing now in television is more “influencism” than journalism. But it’s actually journalism returning to its roots in different formats.
From the perspective of the reportorial tradition of journalism, neither Okinbaloye nor Oseni would be regarded as journalists now. The requirements to be a journalist in this tradition, as I pointed out before, is to do original reporting, to go out in the wild to ferret out information, verify facts, capture images and soundbites, freeze moving images and quotations for archiving in the storehouse of “history in a hurry” that journalism is.
But from the perspective of advocacy journalism, which preceded reportorial journalism by centuries, they are. Journalism is now a continuum that stretches from views to news and from facts to opinions.
The partisan leanings of Arise TV and Channels TV are also consistent with the early history of journalism, which has recrudesced in full force in the past few decades, even in the United States, where “objective journalism” was birthed. Journals of opinion, opinion shows, television talk shows, the daytime TV talk format, on-air commentariat, etc., are now more popular than straight news. That’s the reality of our time.