Tools

Hand feeding media stays unbitten

By Lennox Grant

By the time, last week, I had reached the end of these lines, my hasty purpose was to identify two related developments underway at the same time. One is the uncritical media boosterism against apprehended threats to free expression; the other is the decline in respect and sympathy for the media demonstrated by politicians, officials and by others.

Everybody, it seems, has firm views about what the media should and should not be doing, and how. Inside the media, however, the picture shows people unthinkingly going through the motions, that is, doing what they have to do to meet copy deadlines.

In the event, the media have become, willy-nilly, available for use and for abuse—without being able to tell the difference. Nothing better illustrates this proposition than the widespread adoption of press agentry, that is, the creation of news events, by anyone or any group gifted with a grievance or a cause.

The standard procedure entails placard protest, blocking of entrances, obstruction of passageways. Roadways receive the contents of rubbish bins, household discards, random rubble, tree trunks, and a jolly bonfire is set. 

Media cameras come, to re-capture familiar footage, and record the soundbites of media-ready spokespersons. All of this is guaranteed more emphatic coverage than the interrogation, if any, of ostensible grounds of the grievances.

Eventually, the real story is that the media aren't organised to be better informed than the audiences they serve. Going with what they are told is just about all the media can manage.

The open and unspoken secret is that the media are overwhelmed by "stories", more and more contrived for their coverage, and less and less subject to their questioning. Under terms of the "new normal", the media are fed stories, largely consisting of what people say the stories are; and the media's "responsibility", as assigned by the public and the politicians, is not to bite the hands that feed them.

Last month, the PNM claimed to have collected 25,000 signatures in 48 hours for its Section 34 petition. Assuming nobody involved had slept over those two days, that works out as more than five hundred signatures an hour, without a news camera recording the taking anywhere of eight signatories a minute.

Nobody checked; nobody needs to know for sure. In T&T, nobody cares. Well, the media should care, and should check as a matter of course. More on this later.

After the October 22 Presidential debate over foreign policy matters, the US media reported Mitt Romney had said "peace" 14 times. Were that T&T, I sighed,  expect the media to report he used the word "several" times, reflecting the general default to imprecision, and indifference to the counterfactual.

Letters to the editor used to be a facility for readers' responses to news or other content. Today, letters could just as soon consist of unverified "news" stories. One letter last month said that, at an east Trinidad school, "there seem to be more teachers than children enrolled at times."

Certain that so astonishing a claim would draw no reporter to check it out before or after publication of the letter, the writer added ominously: "We the parents are prepared to stage a demonstration in protest if necessary."

As less and less the media are reputed producers of original information, they accept the mission and the self-image of wholesalers and retailers of what people presumably in the know say is going on. That all such suppliers have agendas of their own is just taken as an inescapable occupational hazard of media practice.

We may get it wrong, but how are we always to know if and when we are being set up? Better, then, not to know; and in due course a spirit of curiosity is dulled, and zeal to discover discouraged.

Depressed public estimation of media capacity actually coexists alongside low self-esteem. This applies especially in those parts of the media where the impact of diminished resources is measured against an ambitious scope of work that remains to be done.

 

Securing press freedom, the enabling condition for the work to be done, highlighted the achievement of Ken Gordon as a decorated media hero. Only long after his retirement from the media, however, did Mr Gordon become identified with advances in training to produce more and better journalistic resources.

 Mini-protests here and there were part of the psychological build-up to Friday's march in Port of Spain. Moving through the crowd, as a better known face than that of today's newsroom "grunts", I had many bantering encounters with people admonishing me to "write about this."

"Yes, Boss," I eventually replied, acknowledging other injunctions to characterise the size of the turn-out. Positioned at Capital Plaza on Frederick Street south, I viewed the march from the start with the TTPS maxi and three police cars, to its end with seven officers on horseback.

My notes timed the start at 3.20 p.m., and the end at 3.44 p.m. In the crowd on the Lara Promenade near Chacon Street, I heard Philip Edward Alexander claim to have drawn 50,000 marchers. "I think people still coming down Frederick Street," he said at 4.05 p.m.

At once, I went back to check. Normal Friday afternoon traffic flowed.

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