Sometimes you can see a car crash coming, as if in slow motion, but you just can't look away. Especially when you feel like you have been on a highway to hell for a while and you need something else to look at than the soul-crushing monotony of the road.
This is what many South Africans might feel like after 15 months of Covid-19, an excruciatingly slow vaccine rollout, a third wave of infections, in addition to all the other political, social and economic woes that characterise life in this country.
So, when we see a glimmer of good news in the distance, we are likely to fix our eyes on it. Like the one in the which informed us that "Gauteng woman gives birth to 10 children, breaks Guinness World Record".
There she sat on a couch next to her husband, with a beaming smile: "Gosiame Thamara Sithole who gave birth to 10 children, and her husband Tebogo Tsotetsi, from Tembisa Township in Ekurhuleni", just above a byline for a journalist called "Piet Mahasha Rampedi", also the editor of said newspaper.
Events stated as facts
The events were stated as facts (no sign of the journalistic caveats of "alleged" or "claimed") - a delivery by C-section, the gender of the babies, direct quotes from the elated mother ("I felt like one of God's chosen children") and even a professor Dini Mawela from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, who commented on the rarity of the pregnancy and the fact that the children would need to spend "the next few months" in an incubator because of the high risk involved.
We learnt a new word, "decuplets", international media started picking up on the story, and for a few days, we had something new to talk about.
But very soon, the warning lights started flashing at the roadside on the way to Feelgoodville.
As they say, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. When would we see pictures of the babies? Where are the statements by the doctors who performed this world-first operation and were looking after the frail newborns?
Why did no hospital dispatch their PR to set up a press conference to claim credit for the miracle? Why, in fact, did the opposite happen - every single hospital in the area denied having admitted the mother, and the Gauteng Health Department said it was unable to verify the birth in any of its hospitals. Rumours started flying.
The mother may or may not have gone missing. The father of the babies may or may not have been her husband. The babies may or may not have been in the care of social workers. And, if you listened closely, some sad notes became audible through the noise. Employees of the Esangweni clinic closest to Sithole's home, said: "She would often visit in the afternoon and sit outside. She would never come in for check-ups. She'd say she is waiting for her husband to fetch her."
Instead of celebrating the #Nationalbabyshower that briefly trended, South Africans were now collectively rubbernecking at what was becoming a journalistic fender-bender.
Readers familiar with the deterioration of the Independent Newspaper group in recent years might have put down the glaring gaps in the story to the hollowing out of the group's journalistic infrastructure.
This, they might have concluded, is what journalism looks like when reliable fact-checkers, sub-editors and editors have left the building. For others, the name Piet Rampedi would still be linked to his reports on an alleged "SARS Rogue Unit", which his erstwhile employer, the had to apologise for and retract. Once the controversial chairperson of Independent Media, Iqbal Surve, became involved by committing "at least R1 million to the family", the red lights were joined by howling sirens.
Then, finally, proof emerged that the Tembisa 10 were, in fact, the Tembisa Zero.
There were no babies. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, the family resolved that "there are no decuplets born between Tebogo Tsotetsi and Gosiame Sithole" and said Sithole's whereabouts were still unknown.
Many observers may choose to move past the scene of the accident, even while there are still some injured people trapped among the wreckage who deserve our empathy. But someone must take responsibility for the journalistic disaster scene.
Journalism ethics can be complex at times, but it can also be elementary. It could be summed up in four basic guidelines: maximise truth, minimise harm, act independently, and be accountable to the public. Rampedi failed dismally on each of these counts.
The facts were never corroborated, the fallout of the story will almost certainly harm a poor and marginalised family publicly as well as damage their interpersonal relationships, and as for acting independently, Rampedi was at once reporter, editor, fundraiser and spokesperson for the family (a role which he denied once the edifice started crumbling around him). But perhaps most jarring is the lack of accountability.
Only once the stalling and the lies finally ran out, Rampedi finally tweeted the questions he should have been asking in the first place (like "so where are the babies?"), published a series of video interviews on his timeline to frame Sithole and her family as scammers wanting to benefit financially from the story, insinuated that she was mentally unwell ("referral to a mental institution?") and claimed victimhood for himself: "We are dealing with something bigger here. A grand conspiracy. A cover up. Unprecedented stuff." Gone now were the concerns for the family whose privacy he previously claimed to protect "for safety and cultural reasons" not to divulge information when pressed to do so.
If Rampedi really previously subscribed to the ethical duty of care to vulnerable subjects or the value of ubuntu, it did not take him very long to throw those principles out the window. First, he sold the family, then he sold them out.
If Rampedi had any decency, he would have resigned. If there were any accountability left at the Independent group, he would have been fired. But we know that for Independent Media, accountability is an inconvenience in the way of photo-ops for its bosses and editors - otherwise, they would not have withdrawn from the Press Council, which certainly would have found Rampedi to again be in breach of its Press Code.
Sanef strongly condemned the "collapse of journalistic ethics at ". But much easier than accounting for your actions is to mobilise your Twitter groupies to cast aspersion on the "ThumaMina media" who dared asked critical questions of Rampedi - a clear indication of where Rampedi's allegiance is considered to lie in relation to the ANC's internecine battles.
In an era where disinformation is rampant, where an overwhelmed public craves clear, authoritative information, where trust in the media is low, where there are a myriad of serious issues in the country to be investigated, the type of journalism we saw in the is the opposite of what we need. Next time a populist politician dismisses a journalistic investigation by shouting "you are fake news", remember to thank Piet Rampedi.
Not that anything he did the past week suggests he would take such criticism seriously. Very much like the unscrupulous tow-truck "vultures", all that matters for gutter journalists is to get to the victims of a crash first, profit from their misfortune, and then to speed off into the sunset.
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