Is another Gleaner 180 possible?
Garnett Roper, GUEST COLUMNIST
I offer heartiest congratulations to The Gleaner for 180 years of service to Jamaica. The Gleaner has been a critical input in shaping and defining the history of Jamaica.
At 180 years of age, The Gleaner, as with the mass media everywhere, is at a crossroads because many of the things it could have taken for granted in the past have changed profoundly. These changes relate to the ways that the expansion of access to information by the domestication of digital technology has created a more diverse information landscape. This has meant a decline in market share and the size of audiences variously for both the print and electronic media.
It is also clear that the masses have, for some time, been more aware of what is in its interest and have been prepared to use their capacity for mass action. This has eroded the notion of a protected aristocracy and their manifest destiny to rule.
As the masses have become less docile, with a sense of the international community, and audiences and market shares have declined, the new reality in which media operate has become one in which the power bases have shifted, as sources of information has proliferated.
What are the choices that media organisations need to make in order to remain viable as businesses and sources of influence for the next 20 to 50 years? To begin with, I think that The Gleaner has correctly taken a soul-searching approach: In a recent editorial, The Gleaner stated that it finds resonance with prophetic insight offered to media by Anglican Lord Bishop of Jamaica, Howard Gregory, in use of Isaiah's image of the 'watchman'. In this way, The Gleaner would seek further to position itself with the reform agenda and a vanguard of the common good and the national interest.
However, that self-examination has to be deep and thoroughgoing. In this regard, it is important to do the self-critique in the light of the observations made by the secular prophet of the late 20th century, Noam Chomsky, in his work, Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. In that very influential work, published in 1988 and put to film in 1991, Chomsky argues that media "are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalised assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion".
He argues that media are aimed at controlling how people think but are themselves controlled by dominant economic and financial interests, and those interests determine what is published and what is not; the questions that are raised and the others that are suppressed; those individuals or movements that are lionised and those that are demonised. The primary targets of the media are not so much audiences as advertisers.
Chomsky further argues that there is reticence to criticise the action of fellow elite elsewhere and the media divide the people into two classes. One class, which is about 20 per cent of the people, comprises those that are educated and reasonably articulate. This includes managers, cultural managers, owners of business, teachers, writers and, generally, decision makers. These are indoctrinated and it is their consent that the media seek to manufacture.
The other class is the remaining 80 per cent of the people who are, in the main, to follow orders, not to think or to pay attention to anything. It is this class that pays the real cost for everything. This is the class that, according to Chomsky, the media provide with distractions. The approach to this class of people is to seek to direct them away from thinking too much about their reality and things as they are. Instead, there is light entertainment such as astrology, sports, comic relief and inducing them to get involved in some sort of fundamentalism, religious or political.
The emerging social landscape, not the least of which is seen through the rise of social media, has demonstrated that the people have a narrative of their own. They may be gullible, but in a real way are quite savvy and represent raw and untapped resources for development and hope.
The first task, therefore, of a forward-looking media is to take the common people into its confidence. It is a task that will lead to genuine attempts to raise the consciousness of the people as creators of the future, not merely gullible consumers. In this respect, the Jamaica brand ought not merely to be exotic products to be marketed and exploited, but also enormous archival resources to shape a narrative of hope and justice.
In the past, there have been glimpses in The Gleaner of the rich potential to tell the story of Jamaica and the Caribbean people. More of this is needed for the future. However, it requires that the narrative be framed in ways that deepen the consciousness of the people and their confidence in themselves and not merely to confirm other people's myth about them. It is fair to say that we have a lot to say to the world; it is also the case that Europe, Asia and Africa have rich and growing interest in Jamaica.
Greater discipline required
The proliferation of sources of information will require a greater discipline on the part of media practitioners to be standard-bearers for integrity, quality research and attention to the truth as it bears on the common good and the national interest. The information presented in the media must be reliable, verifiable and must have resonance with our highest ideals.
The media must preserve their adversarial role against the trite, mediocre and corrupt, but must simultaneously remain a space where all ideas contend. In this respect, it must guard against insularity, xenophobia and jingoism, as it seeks to expand the horizon of its audiences so that they become increasingly at home in a global space.
Finally, in an age of mergers and marriages between print and electronic media, as well as acquisitions, closures and insolvencies because of economic and financial matters, the idea of user pay should be re-examined. I believe advertisers should pay, and audiences should have access for free. This is the experience in many metropolitan centres, certainly where print media are concerned.
There are huge opportunities to 'message' in the consumption-gone-mad society that we have. Use the presentation of the truth and the promotion of the people to gain access to their minds and pockets and so ensure the viability and influence of the media.