Thought Leader publishes the occasional brain fart

Matthew Buckland, who co-founded Mail & Guardian Online’s blog aggregator, Amatomu, and group blog, Thought Leader (but who recently left the M&G to take up the position of General Manager for Publishing and Social Media at, wrote recently that the best model for citizen journalism was “user-generated content (UGC) with controls from a closed or select group of writers”.

“The key to harnessing user-generated content is combining it with a traditional media editorial model. It’s a way media can delve into the world of citizen media but still retain quality assurance. The creation of the Mail & Guardian Online’s Thought Leader blog platform ( has been an example of this very theory in practice.”

He also said that media “should not be ashamed at being ruthless about only publishing quality content”.

“For example, racist, sexist content in the form of articles or comments, or even comments considered “stupid” should be deleted with extreme prejudice.” [my emphasis]

However, it appears that the Editors at Thought Leader aren’t always ruthless and, occasionally, they publish a brain fart. My colleague, Gareth van Onselen, discusses an extreme example in the guest post that follows:

What happened to Thought Leader’s Quality Control?

By: Gareth van Onselen

How do you identify a poor piece of writing?

Well, there are several obvious signs and several more subtle indicators. The obvious ones are, well, obvious: a poor use of language, an over-reliance on clichés and platitudes, bad grammar, weak metaphors, shaky logic, feeble reasoning, and so on and so forth. The more complex signs are variants of these, and are best identified by examining the implications behind a given sentence or phrase, which might be bizarre or illogical. A particularly bad piece of writing will be both – poorly written and logically incoherent.

In the world of professional journalism, one might think such a combination a rare exception. Not so. They might not be in the majority; but unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find an example. What is truly exceptional, however, even in an environment where poor writing is rife, is that rare bit of prose that is so badly conceived – and its central thesis so completely confused – that it actually undermines its own purpose.

Such pieces should be treasured in my view; not simply as precedent – as a helpful reminder of how bad things can get – but just for the humour of it: inevitably they are written absolutely seriously and, as any comedian will tell you, people are at their funniest when they take themselves too seriously.

Here is a good example from Thought Leader. I would recommend reading it before proceeding.

The article was written by Sentletse Diakanyo, who has taken exception to Helen Zille’s response to the recent High Court ruling that the Erasmus Commission was illegal. The gist of the piece is that she over-reacted and that, in calling for heads to roll, she seems to be acting vengefully, whereas forgiveness is far more appealing (and appropriate).

It’s a stupid idea. If people break the law, there should be consequences. That’s how democracy works. But that is also the subject for another discussion. What’s really special about this particular piece is its conclusion, which stands in stark contrast to the nature of the piece itself. Let me explain:

In trying to generate the appropriate level of outrage at Zille’s response – and an appropriate description of it – Diakanyo employs a metaphor: that of the now famous scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where Samuel L. Jackson reads the riot act (quoting Ezekiel 25:17) to a pair of hapless victims, before gunning them down. Jackson’s speech and language is invoked throughout Diakanyo’s piece, with reference to Zille’s reaction, and supplemented with his own unique collection of adjectives. Here is a selection:

  • “Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille has come out swinging…”
  • “Like a mad woman after learning of indiscretions of her philandering husband…”
  • “…she unleashed her wrath and promised to strike upon Rasool, Vodacom and Judge Nathan Erasmus with great vengeance and furious anger…”
  • “Infuriated and gnashing her teeth (assuming they’re not false)…”
  • “Helen has demanded that the Minister in the Presidency, Kgalema Motlanthe, dismiss Ebrahim Rasool…”
  • “The fuming mayor further demands that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) probe Judge Erasmus…”
  • “She further demands that the Public Protector investigate whether the Erasmus Commission constituted an abuse of public funds.”
  • “By the time the mayor is finished with her campaign of vengeance…”
  • “…the angry mayor is considering legal action against the cellphone giant for assisting Rasool…”

“Mad women”, “wrath”, “vengeance”, “angry”, “infuriated”, “demanded”… you get the picture. By the time you have read the first half of Diakanyo’s piece – and if you didn’t know any better – you would be left with the distinct impression that Helen Zille was a woman completely consumed by revenge and rage.

Now, each to his own. I attended the press conference where Zille delivered the statement on which Diakanyo bases his description, and she was calm, reasonable and deliberate – the very embodiment of rationality, in my opinion. But don’t take my word for it, read her statement yourself and make up your own mind.

That, however, is a fairly minor point when one considers Diakanyo’s conclusion, which follows soon after his description:

“Helen Zille is an angry woman and risks epitomising the stereotypes of women as spiteful and senselessly vengeful.”

I’m sorry?

Helen Zille risks epitomising the stereotypes of women as spiteful and senselessly vengeful?

Here we have a man who has systematically set about conjuring up every possible cliché one could attach to the idea of rage or revenge and deliberately and misleadingly applied them to Helen Zille, to the extent that his article reads like the emotional rantings of a person suffering from the very thing he warns against and yet, despite that, he suggests it is Zille who is running the risk of epitomising a stereotype.


I’m torn between admiring the sheer audacity of his conclusion and despairing at the complete idiocy of the suggestion it contains. Either way, the mind boggles.

(Oh, and by the way, “the stereotype of women as spiteful and senselessly vengeful”? Is that really a stereotype? Not in my neck of the woods it isn’t.)

A few other points, which serve to confirm the quality of thinking at work here:

First, Diakanyo describes Jackson’s speech as “one of the best-scripted lines in cinema history”. Um, no. Well not unless Ezekiel had that particular scene in mind when he first put pen to parchment.

Second, Diakanyo suggests that “The Holy Book requires of us to forgive one another”, but then ends off with the sage advice that “An eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind!”. Well, quite. The problem is, “an eye for an eye” is the strong advice of the Holy Book as well. See Leviticus 24:19-21 for more.

And, third, I have to say, forgiveness is one thing, but a pat on the back and a friendly hug when the Premier of a province and the provincial commissioner of police have broken the law just doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid. Forgiveness might well be a valuable part of our cultural heritage; but accountability, the rule of law, the separation of powers and transparency are all central pillars of our Constitution – perhaps the defining document with regards to the nature of our culture. I suggest Diakanyo give it a read some time – it is also “well-scripted”.

When Thought Leader was named blog of the year in April, editor Riaan Wolmarans said it was the words of their contributors that made Thought Leader so good. This particular piece, however, seems to have slipped through the net.


3 Responses to “Thought Leader publishes the occasional brain fart”

  1. 1 matt 10 September 2008 at 4:31 pm

    thanks for the post ant… you can always pull out brain farts from media. In fact, the ST had a rather audible one a few weeks ago as its lead, but surely we are talking about a situation of most instances here?

  2. 2 ahazell 10 September 2008 at 5:01 pm

    A fair point Matt, the ST has had a few (though, perhaps more subtle). But this post was an extreme caricature of political commentary. It’s up there with the best of ANC Youth League press releases, and they’ve had a few corkers.

  3. 3 Richard P 1 February 2009 at 11:30 am

    Sentletse Diakanyo has now inflicted on Thoughtleader more than just a brain fart.

    An article that would not be out of place on Stormfront or any other website where Holocaust denialists, neo Nazis and anti Semites gather. 70 years ago, it would have had pride of place in Der Stürmer.

    “Jews do wield immense power and influence” –

    I am absolutely gobsmacked that M&G Online allowed this piece of anti-semitic hate speech to be posted. Would it have allowed an Islamophobic piece entitled “All Muslims are terrorists”? I doubt it.

    I am also surprised that the moderators have not blocked many of the responses, which are unquestionably anti-semitic slurs.

    The Mail & Guardian brand has not been well served.

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