#COVID19Chronicles-98: July 21, 2020: Yellowish journalism or just journalists yelling?

The image running through my mind these past days is of a country poised to explode in a rash of escalating revelations as the pressure of impending elections—no date yet announced—starts to dictate how those who have brains wired for political shenanigans work. Thone with working brains may lead but they have a lot of sheep following. That image because very vivid on Sunday, when I thought about colors, notably green and orange make brown. Yes, we are in for a s**t storm it seemed as political flavour took hold of limited common sense.

Where the imagery got messed up was when it also became clear that the media was on sort of feeding frenzy and stories with wildish allegations started to hit the headlines and the front pages. Now, I think that most times, Jamaican ‘news’ media stays above a certain line of decency, though it toes it closely. At other times, someone steps a bit past the line. Last week, we saw and heard and read a few things that stepped over the line.

First, there was the “Did you cheat on your wife?” question to the health and wellness minister during a press briefing. I’ll let people use their own compasses to guide them on whether the question was appropriate in the sense of its going to the heart of matter of public interest—how contracts are awarded. Titillating though it may be to know about other people’s peccadilloes, it’s not really a matter for unsolicited public discussion. To my mind, if there were a one-on-one interview that was being recorded, not live, it would be appropriate to broach the question, giving the questioned a bit of space and time to reflect on how and if they wanted to respond. There’s always something a bit off with the ‘Gotcha!’ type of question, which catch people off-guard and then are answered in time and manner that’s easy to interpret in many wrong ways.

The fact that the question came from the principal of a sometime-TV News magazine show/online news outlet made it a bit more problematic. I often give some slack to a piece clearly authored by a journalist for the fact that some editorial influence has been used to craft the final article But, when the editor or principal speak, eg in an editorial, that slack goes away. To me, this is the face of the organization on full show.

Anyway, to my mind, that was the most yellow of journalism last week. Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as: ‘the use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation’. It’s called ‘tabloid journalism’ in the UK and has many organs that made it big by using it, eg the News of the World and The Sun. There’s always a market for sensationalism, especially if it comes at the expense of those in the public eye who often try to create ‘clean’ images of themselves.

Where I stumbled last week was on what was the purpose of the question. I had a brief exchange with some friends on Saturday morning about the incident, with one man saying he thought the question was on point as it touched on the appropriateness of a relationship that might have given extra favour. But, the point is that the question never took anyone remotely close to that legitimate concerns, even though it had been preceded by two questions that pointed there; the link was missing. My friend added that sensationalism sells. So, I asked him where the story had been ‘sold’. So far, I’ve seen various other media outlets make news of the journalist making news but nothing from the questioner. Now, having had her judgment questioned by the president of the Press Association of Jamaica, and her question deemed “inelegant”, could have offered an opportunity for several kinds of story on top of the story that was sought through the questions, but nothing. So, again, what was the question’s purpose even when the answer is incomplete or unsatisfying or whatever? It value to the media house is so far a tangible what? History will show nothing directly on its books, though there’s plenty of time to write some stories.This is just a simple take on the economics of the matter, nothing more. Where’s the value? How has the bottom line been affected?

Some say, listening to the exchange, that the question was unfinished. What’s that adage about getting the main point out first—the ‘hook’? The hook wasn’t about procurement, except in some salacious sense.

Some, have taken the salaciousness bait and dangled it in the water. The Gleaner did an interesting thing at the weekend when showing an image of principals in the contractual affair, choosing a cropped version of a picture taken on a private jet of them sitting beside one another. Interesting! Well, not really, given the real context of the picture, which they had published originally—of a boy being airlifted for emergency medical treatment. If a picture says a thousand words what does doctoring a picture say? The media house isn’t obliged to explain its choices, and know well that once a red herring has been dragged across the trail, its scent lasts a long time.

https://twitter.com/hoshingantwang/status/1284980226234159105?s=21

But, as with so many things in life, once something gets set in motion it’s not clear what will follow.

With the PAJ president laying down a marker about the principles of good journalistic behaviour, his stance soon became the focus and now the media profession has become the story, not just the journalist. How did we get there? Knit one, purl one.

Then, one of the profession’s outspoken young practitioners took exception to the PAJ’s president’s stance:

This has been followed by a lengthy reply:

Many will see the length of the PAJ reply as excessive, but it’s purpose was what? One can overthink it, but I detect more than an whiff of ‘damning with faint praise’. I noted especially the references to Sir Horace Heaps, used like a firm pillar in the original letter then kicked over by the PAJ president in a ‘do you really know what you’re talking about?’ manner. Anyway, just my brief interpretation.

But, here we are: the media is now the sensation. Well, that is if you care to notice 🙂

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!E606E243-3265-49EE-8C69-FB69C6C87EF5

More tea with that, vicar?

“Hello, I’m Fiona Gibbons from The Times of London. You’ve probably never heard of me. I’m honored to meet you Mr. Bolt. So, tell me what it’s like sitting in this sorry excuse for summer weather, watching your team mates compete in Scotland.”
“You’re right. Pretty dull, isn’t it?”
“So, you think the Scottish people are boring?”
“Huh?” (Bolt looks up at sky and thinks of Jamaican north coast, where he’s from.)
“How does Glasgow compare to London?”
“No comparison,”
“So, you think Glasgow is horrible?”
“What?” (Looks at Nike timepiece on his wrist.)
“Earlier this week you were asked your views about the Gaza situation. Any further thought?”

“Look, Vybz got a fair trial and Jamaica’s justice system seems to be working,”
“Huh?”
“You don’t know where Gaza is?”
“Huh?”
“Are we done?”

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Read all about it! David floors Goliath!

During a week when I have been thinking more about Jamaica’s problems and solutions to them, an IMF staff visit occurs. Those of us who follow Jamaica’s economic misfortunes can point to this latest visit as another step towards solving a well-identified problem. We’re far from out of the deep, dark economic woods, but we’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel. Enough of the mixed metaphors.

An article in yesterday’s Gleaner, entitled “Tessanne-Mania Is A National Embarrassment” has put some of my people into a spin. (I digress immediately to acknowledge our Prime Minister celebrating 40 years of political representation. Hip, hip!) Two paragraphs from the piece struck me (my emphases):

We’re used to crumbling infrastructure and rampant crime, to heat and heartache and hurricanes. We’re used to being 83rd in transparency, behind Mongolia, and 145th in literacy, behind Micronesia, and 188th in economic growth, behind Montenegro. We are used, in short, to being irrelevant. Our sights are so low that one woman moving from modest to outright success is cause for mad celebration.

And that, clearer than anything else, is the sad revelation of Tessanne Chin’s fame. That, louder than anything else, is the embarrassing message we broadcast to the world with our irrational exuberance, punctuated by the prime minister’s congratulations.

First, I took the piece to be more tongue-in-cheek than a simple critique. Perhaps, I’m being generous in my reaction. Others took it literally and have begun the march on The Gleaner building to search for the author’s head. I’m not naming him because some argue that it was about his ego and search for quick fame as a new columnist that led him to write as he did about the latest hero that Jamaicans have seen. I’ve been searching for more signs of satire–‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues’. It fits the bill well. So, I moved on.

Next, I thought about the grains of truth. We have been ‘irrelevant’–though I think that term is wrong. Our low ranking in many areas that show human and social development could be interpreted as pushing us way out of the sight of those who only look at those who excel in those areas. But, then, I remembered somethings about economics and statistics. I recalled that it’s good to look at data that have not yet been counted and to test the hypotheses again. I saw the many areas where our ‘irrelevance’ was not apparent.

From our barely 3 million national population (many more if you count our migrants and their offspring)–world irrelevance writ large, in itself–we’ve produced the fastest man of all time AND the fastest woman of the present time. Of course, records are to be broken. They both came from the mire that is Jamaica’s broken social and economic mould–Bolt, from the inadequately served rural areas and Fraser-Pryce from Kingston’s ghettos. In her words (my emphases again): “I didn’t become just another Waterhouse statistic but someone who could uplift the community, who showed something good could come from anywhere in Jamaica. Even the ghetto.”

But Usain and Shelley-Ann (we are good friends :-), man) were not alone and isolated in their feats, because our relay teams showed we had the depth to go with the individual strength. That we could win all three medals in an event said a lot. 1-2-3 is historic, truly monumental.exuberance

They came from our limited ranks, and when they excelled we joined them with banging pot lids, blaring horns, excited screams, dancing in Half Way Tree, millions of phone, text, and email messages to whomever we knew as we let our ‘irrational exuberance’ flow. I remember the day Bolt won the 200 metres final in Beijing. I was just on the road from Mandeville to Kingston. A security man at a local bank had his rifle pointing in the air, yelling “Bolt win! Free money!” Shame on you, sir. I trust that he calmed down and got back to quietly guarding the cash of the customers. Yes, we’re really touched by the greatness that some of us can display against the world’s best, to an audience far bigger than we can imagine.

I don’t think I need to go far down the road to get to other times that we have shown our irrelevance. Today, February 6, is the birthday of Bob Marley (born 1945). It’s also the birthday of ‘Bunny Rugs’ (born 1948 as William Clarke), who died this week. As life’s little twists go, we have two of reggae music’s greatest icons and ambassadors born on the same day. Two more diamonds in the rough. Jamaica went into another bout of ‘irrational exuberance’ when Marley tried to fix what politicians had helped break and unite a deeply divided country, that was on the verge of wrecking itself in a civil war-like manner. ‘Bunny’ put fabulous new meaning to the term ‘Third World’. His fellow band member, Richie Daley, said “It’s the little things that he would do every day”, when talking about the legacy Bunny left. What an apt phrase. Jamaica can easily be seen as an irrelevance, but can change with lots of little things done every day.

When I think back to my life, taken from Jamaica, raised in England, moving to America, and now back to Jamaica, I cannot think about the irrelevance of the country of my birth. I cannot see how people react to the successes we manage to achieve as irrational exuberance.

In London, I lived next door to a small football team, in England’s lower divisions. They did what many ‘minnows’ dream of doing: they got to perform on the big stage and wowed the crowd. In the case of Queens Park Rangers (QPR; third division), they got to a national cup final, the 1967 League Cup final, at Wembley. They were against West Bromwich Albion (first division, and the cup holders from 1966). David versus Goliath. Minnow versus shark. QPR went behind 0-2 by half-time. They came back to win 3-2.

But, QPR became a ‘national embarrassment’. As noted on Wikipedia, ‘QPR’s victory caused a problem for the Football Association as typically the League Cup winner would qualify for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, but one of the criteria for that competition was that the team must come from the highest tier of that country’s league system. QPR was replaced in the following season’s European competition by a First Division side.’

I was not yet a teenager at the time. I was growing up in England supporting this little team, whom most of London derided for its lowly status, compared to Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham or Arsenal. I cried when we won (we!). I was not in the stadium, BUT I WAS THERE! We won. The world took notice. But, soon, I cried when I learned of what would happen to our chance to play in European competition. Kicked in the teeth again, for being uppity and killing the hero? Too small to fight back.

David had downed Goliath, but now needed to get back into his little hole and forget about what had happened. Get back to irrelevance, varlet! But, it did not happen. QPR won promotion the same year, and won promotion again the following year to rise themselves to the top flight of English football, for the first time in their history. They had scaled the highest mountains they had faced. Greatness, bigness and richness are not the same, and they showed that.

A true fan is nothing if not full of irrational exuberance. Tell those teams who feed off the support they get from the home crowd that the crowd is full of irrelevance. Some places you do not want to go and face that rabid fervour. The Jamaican diaspora became that kind of crowd. Happy to cheer wildly, madly, irreverently, especially when they thought that they had to do that to even stand a chance against the cheerleaders-in-chief, the USA. Three million versus 360 million? Jamaicans said they liked those odds.

Let me stop before I bring myself to tears. Jamaica’s story is all about how ‘we little but we tallawah’. I’m not going to rail against the newspaper columnist for his approach to something that I find symbolically very positive–how a country that appears to have so much dysfunction can produce so much that is great, not just by our estimation but by the better gauge of world opinion. Jamaica has been nothing if it’s not about hope against adversity.

Remember how we were irrelevant and full of irrational exuberance when our political leaders decided to stand up against Apartheid. REMEMBER! The first in the western world and second in the world to officially ban travel and trade with the South African regime. REMEMBER!

I think the columnist chose the wrong target for his arguments, but it’s a free country and good for him and his career (he’s also a playright, apparently) if he can use the springboard on which he now stands. Ironically, he wrote about Tessanne Chin. The idiom, ‘taking it on the chin’ (meaning to accept misfortune courageously or stoically) seems so fitting, sometimes for the life that we have to live in Jamaica.

To quote Claude McKay’s poem, If We Must Die:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Mock us, but do not forget our nobility.

Prime minister’s question time.

I like reading the Jamaican newspapers; they often do what I expect from journalists. Many of their reports are about real problems facing the country. They tend to latch onto stories that should concern a good number of us, and often hang onto them until a good amount of clarity and resolution occurs. I’m glad to say that I usually try to follow the local news first, rather than revert to foreign news, eg by reading the Washington Post, New York Times, or The London Times. Jamaican newspapers do not usually curry favour with politicians and hold them to account quite well, even riduculing them, if that seems appropriate. Some Ministers are the butt of much fun-making, for instance, Minister of Agriculture, Roger Clarke. But, in recent times, the main focus for attention and criticism has been Jamaica’s prime minister.

Clovis cartoon in Jamaica Observer lampoons the PM's frequent travel
Clovis cartoon in Jamaica Observer lampoons the PM’s frequent travel

Putting it briefly, she’s not giving the nation much in prime time. She’s taken a stance with public engagement of less is more and hardly speaks to her people on any matter. That’s rankled many, naturally: those who voted for her did not want her to be mute–she’s normally very voluble on a political stage; those who voted against her want to hear her trip herself up, so don’t want to be denied more opportunities for that.

Her relatively aloof attitude stands badly at a time when many people feel the need for guidance on where their leader feels the country is headed. The annoyance is raised because when she travels–and it’s frequently–she seems ready to speak to foreign audiences quite freely, albeit often bashing her opponents at home. The press have now taken the PM to task about her travel, its costs, and maybe some attempt to assess its benefits. The new year has been greeted by The Gleaner reporting on information it obtained from government ministers under freedom of information legislation. Not all ministries have reported so far–and I expect that to change quickly before the naming and shaming starts. Amongst those reporting has been the Office of the Prime Minister. We learned that the PM’s travels in 2013 cost the nation about J$50 million (US$500,000); her recent 5-day trip to China alone cost J$20million. This compares with earlier disclosures that seven government ministers had J$25 million (on 43 overseas visits) in overseas travel expenses in the first six months of last year. The Finance Minister’s trips cost J$8 million, and many will see this as good value for money after his negotiations with the IMF (for a 48-month, US$932 million Extended Arrangement) and other creditors is set to bring in a few billion US dollars to help finance Jamaica over the next few years. But, let the audience decide if it’s value for money: the travellers chanting that sounds tinny. When the PM talks about “knowing” the pain of her people, they will just see the $$ signs of the travel expense accounts and say “I want to know about that”.

The newspaper’s pit bull approach to the topic of the PM’s travel brought forward some lame defences from civil servants and some MPs and Senators talking about the need for official travel, as if most people could not understand that their leader has justifiable reasons for going abroad. They seemed to misunderstand the desire for accountability and openness, especially from a leader who’s saying precious little to her electorate. That set of responses tended to suggest that something was amiss. The more recent ‘defence’ by some ministers arguing that travel is arduous and not just a jolly struck me as silly, missing the point that ordinary people think that those who live off the public purse are all freeloaders.

But, now that the gross figure is out, what next? The analysis of the travel should follow: the details of where, when, who, why for the visits, and the “what should we expect as benefits?” While that is being prepared–and, I understand the information will go to Parliament in response to questions from the Leader of the Opposition–the public have their say.

Jamaicans (as far as many newspaper readers go) love to voice their opinions, and the letters pages and comments are very informative about public concerns. Online articles and comments are now a standard feature in Jamaican papers, and the reactions are good reading. I took a look this morning at some that surfaced on the travel topic. Constructive comments included:

  • Choose cheaper hotels and suites
  • Fly the PM and her delegation commercially (the fact) not by private jet (the myth) unless the host-country sends one for her
  • Capping how many persons travel with the PM overseas

Many ‘unconstructive’ comments rained down, mostly of the “What do you expect from the PNP?” variety.

All views are valid and nteresting, not least because of what they suggest about concern for possible abuse of position or waste of public money. Remember the context of Jamaica’s high public debt and an economy that shows the many signs of insufficient public spending on things to better the lives of the majority who do not travel abroad. What is practical, though?

I wont try to be an apologist, but just try to think about what people are wishing.

The PM could stay at the equivalent of Howard Johnson instead of Hilton, if the choice really existed. But, would the electorate then be concerned that the HoJo may be in ‘unsafe’ areas and require extra security for the PM, and at whose cost? Doing things on the cheap may save money in one sense but be costly in others. Yes, suites are very expensive, but they are roomy enough to double as meeting rooms. Would people want the PM or other officials to have their meetings in the hotel lobby or at the nearby coffee bar? I suspect not. Sure, in some countries, meetings could be held at a country’s diplomatic residence or office.

It’s public knowledge that the PM flies commercially, but the image of official travel is glamour, so it must be on a private jet, right. If not a private jet, then business class at least and possibly first class–clinking champagne bottles trump images of meetings and rewriting of documents and little sleep once on the ground. Foreign travel is seen as–and may sometimes be, for some–a boondoggle, so limit the freeloading is the cry of many people.

I’m glad that the fire is being put to the feet of politicians in this way. In between elections only a few means exist to get them to take notice of what concerns the electorate. Do I expect quick change? No. But, I hope that approaches will be different.