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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Commentary comments

On Tuesday morning, the day after the bomb went off in Port-of-Spain injuring 15 persons, talkshow host Ricardo "Gladiator" Welch was on the radio loudly insisting that the Jamaat al Muslimeen had nothing to do with the incident. His "logic" was that in 1990 the Jamaat didn’t attack citizens but Parliament and TTT. Ergo, the bombing had to be a "political act" aimed at getting the PNM out of office — Welch’s "proof" being the by-election coming up in Siparia.

Of all public commentators, Welch is inarguably the most foolish, and irresponsible. But he is only the most obvious example of bad commentary in the media. There are many others who are also uninformed, irrational, or biased, but who are just more subtle about it. It is this middle level of mediocrity that provides the ground for people like Welch to stand on.

Thomas Jefferson once described newspapers as "a nation talking to itself," which would mean that the low standard of our commentators helps keep our society in its dread state. A particular peeve with me, as a newspaper columnist and writer, is the number of commentators who express opinions without doing any research or without even bothering to logically think through their views. This is true even of senior journalists.

Last month in the Express, for example, Morning Edition host Andy Johnson wrote, "Is crime in Trinidad and Tobago as bad as many of us are making it out to be, or is it because of the coverage we give to it? Does every murder or kidnapping or attempted kidnapping deserve national prominence... I have begun to develop serious doubts." To support his argument, Johnson quoted a book titled The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz which notes that media coverage skews people’s estimates of the causes of death. Although this phenomenon is concrete, to blame the media is somewhat misleading — the fact is, human beings’ estimates of everything get skewed by living in cities, because our brain’s evolved probability modules are geared to groups not larger than 150 persons. But, even if this weren’t so, Johnson’s argument would still be foolish, since a murder inevitably grabs people’s attention more than natural deaths, although the latter are far more common. In any case, the murder and kidnapping rates in Trinidad are indeed very high. So why is Johnson suddenly making this an issue?

The answer may be found in his contention that "...it is also entirely possible to find new meaning in the Prime Minister’s declaration a month ago that the current crime situation is temporary. It is temporary because all of us accept that it cannot go on this way." Johnson’s stretched interpretation of the PNM leader’s dotish remark lends credence to the argument offered by culture critic Raymond Ramcharitar. In his book Breaking the News, Ramcharitar contends that the media is "complicit with PNM nationalism parading as the national interest. The consequences of this bias, and the deficiencies in basic journalistic skills, lead to the irresistible conclusion that the Press might well be the greatest factor hindering the development of the country and indeed hastening its descent into destruction."

I think Ramcharitar’s thesis is greatly exaggerated, but I do agree that most commentators do not help combat the general ignorance of the society. Such deficiency was this week displayed by another senior journalist, writing about "restorative justice" — a fancy term for reparations. Setting an historical foundation, radio news manager and Guardian columnist Tony Fraser wrote, "The Atlantic slave trade and slavery resulted in the barbaric transportation and humiliation of tens of millions of Africans; but it constructed the platform for the Industrial Revolution in Britain."

In point of fact, historical analysis of the available statistics show that just over 11 million persons — not "tens of millions" — were brought from Africa to the New World over the 300 years of the Middle Passage. Nor does Dr Eric Williams thesis have much currency any more. As economic historian David S Landes notes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, "...historians have tried to calculate the gains from slaving and find it far from a bonanza... these gains were simply not enough in total, let alone that part that went back into trade and industry, to alter the path of British development." It seems, however, that Fraser has not read any history since Walter Rodney — nor much else that would lay a solid foundation for understanding the modern world.

Space doesn’t allow me to delineate the nonsense written by other professional journalists about capital punishment, sex education, or suicide. Such deficiency, however, is not confined to journalists but also infects academics who are media commentators. A recent Sunday Express commentary by political analyst Kirk Meighoo illustrates this perfectly. "Unfortunately, in so many ways our media fail us," he says. "It is embarrassing that our national newscasts headline chopping, road accidents, and primary school examinations, while historic events like the first-ever regional summit, the trial of the Grenada 17, or even developments further afield — say the Middle East or African debt — are relegated to the back ...We have little sense of what is really important..."

But Meighoo reveals here his own skewed perspective. Death and children are important to most people. This is human nature, and it is mere intellectual snobbery for Meighoo to dismiss these primal drives of survival and reproduction. But, except for Denis Solomon and Lloyd Best, all Trinidadian political commentators are ignorant of the basic tenets of social psychology, which is a major reason why their opinions are so often boringly trite, merely clerical, or simply wrong.

Despite what Meighoo thinks, the media do a reasonably good job of providing facts to the public. It is in making sense of those facts that we fall short. This is the commentator’s job, but being an effective commentator requires persistent curiosity, ethical reasoning, and commitment to the writing craft.

Had we a sufficient cadre of such commentators, then maybe Welch would be merely a clown instead of a talkshow host who even Government Ministers listen to.




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Scary Mas

It seemed to have materialised out of the dark shadows of the silk cotton tree