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How to attack the media
The PNM’s Head On propaganda vehicle a few years ago was, in retrospect, pretty well done. Once you were OK with the fact that the lines between news, PR, and political propaganda were erased, and if you didn’t know better, you might even mistake it for journalism.
Media dog and pony shows like this abounded from 2001-2010. On the eve of the 2010 election (May 10), then King Patrick I took a few media workers in hand, on television, with the deftness of a lion-tamer walking poodles and put them through their side-splitting paces.
But even with those precedents, the PP’s televised lime (Democracy In Action) last week, which featured honourable ministers sitting round, ponging the PNM—without even the barest pretence at journalism—was macabre. Apropos, it’s official: the PP is so far down the rabbit-hole they’ve lost sight of the light at the end they entered, or the end through which they’ll be expelled. And in the darkness, blind shooting has started at the first and most obvious target: the media.
DIA ostensibly sought to correct what the Government sees as the failure of the media to represent its “side” of the national story. This means government achievements are killed for sensationalist reporting which transmits unsubstantiated accusation and Opposition paranoia alongside occasional on-target stories. Also in the Government’s litany are the arguments that the media are focused on Port-of-Spain, ignore the rest of the country, and are reliant on a few political and social sources for the majority of their stories.
There’s some confusion here, lumping at least two sets of arguments which don’t belong together: first, the media-government relationship (outlined above); and second, the media-society relationship, which has it that the media are creatures of narrow political, social and corporate interests to the detriment of the society as whole. On the first issue, the media “attacking” the government usually means the media doing their jobs.
“Bad news”, unfortunately, sells, and there will always be journalists and media owned by politicians—can the PP really have forgotten where much of its communications staff came from, or how many of its Cabinet members (Anil Roberts, the AG, Suruj Rambachan, and so on) were columnists or radio commentators?
However, the second issue, of the relation between society and media, where the media are aligned to a small group of interests, is a different animal, and not a local one. Many media in foreign declare their alignments, and sometimes, they make bias their brand, like Fox News, perhaps the most successful attempt at combining Orwell’s 1984 with comedy.
Virtually all major media criticism acknowledges this congenital defect of capitalist media. From Chomsky and Hermann’s Manufacturing Consent, to Project Censored, to Ben Bagdikian’s The New Media Monopoly, and Robert McChesney’s The Problem of the Media, the conclusions are the same: the best media are compromised, and unblinkingly steamroll ethics when it suits them.
And here Trini media prove their First Worldliness: in being so compromised. But they also adduce a special Third World incompetence—television and radio presenters who can’t speak English, print journalists who can’t write, and a spinelessness before money that would make Rupert Murdoch blush.
This isn’t a secret. The first study of the Trini media in Talking With Whom?, a Carimac collection edited by Roderick Sanatan and Aggrey Brown in 1987, La Guerre and Ryan’s study of ethnicity in the media, George John’s memoir Beyond the Front Page, Courteney Boxill’s study, Is There Racial Prejudice in the Press, and so on, have all come to fairly uncomplimentary and downright damning conclusions about Trini media.
My own book, Breaking the News (2005) (also known as The Amazing Invisible Book), synthesised all these points of view, and contained a fair bit of empirical qualitative and quantitative research on the many problems of the local media.
Of course, no one took on any of it. And here lies the main problem of attacking the media in Trinidad: a lack of data and evidence and even any systematic attempt to gather or use them. The problem begins at the UWI.
After the 2007 election, I got Selwyn Ryan to invite me to the SALISES forum to discuss the role of media in the election. The academics there had never heard of framing, institutional capture, and semiotics, and refused to believe a word of it—but maybe it was just me they disbelieved. Nonetheless one of those academics found itself reviewing a paper I sent to an academic journal, and concluded it was a “conspiracy theory.” But I digress.
Neither did the multi-trillion-dollar trough known as the UTT Academy of Art, Letters and Guffaws ever produce any study of the media. Hence, the media’s traditional response of hysteria, sanctimoniousness, and smugness to criticism has no counterfactual arguments. But if government or private citizen wished to attack the media, they might try to gather the following data over years:
• How many stories rely on official state sources (politicians, police, ministries) compared with journalists finding them?
• How many government stories are negative or positive?
• How many stories are based on unnamed sources rather than verifiable sources? How many are verifiably false?
• What percentage of stories is about events in Port-of-Spain, and out of Port-of-Spain?
• What is the general level of education of media workers? What is the average age, career length, and salary of a media worker?
If just these few questions were answered (and there are many more), the public and media would be much better off than they are now. But in the end, who has the time and money? Cussing and sanctimoniousness are cheaper and much more entertaining.
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