Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Tony Deyal: Among the disbelievers

Published:Saturday | March 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM

A car was involved in an accident on a city street close to the offices of the daily newspapers. A large crowd gathered. Realising that it might make a good story, an investigative journalist tried to push through the crowd but could not get near the scene. Being a very clever person, one who ran rings around all politicians, she started shouting loudly, "Let me through! Let me through! I am the victim's daughter." The crowd made way for her. Lying in front of the car was a donkey.

This did not happen, but in a way it is symbolic of the decreasing credibility of journalism and the declining image of journalists, not just in the Caribbean, but in the US and Britain as well.

One of the issues is perceived bias. In the US, 72 per cent of the people polled on whether the media are impartial agreed that "most news sources today are biased in their coverage". In Britain, 16 per cent of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, compared with 22 per cent trusting journalists and estate agents and 31 per cent who trust bankers. Doctors remain the most trusted profession of all.

An American Gallup poll found that Americans' confidence in the media has slowly eroded from a high of 55 per cent in 1998 to 40 per cent in 2015. Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that among adults aged 18-29, just 12 per cent believe the media "do the right thing". Eighty-eight per cent said they "sometimes" or "never" trust the media and just two per cent of 18-29-year-olds said they trust the media to do the right thing "all of the time". Thirty-nine per cent said the media "never" do the right thing. Put it this way, when it comes to media credibility, not just the writing but the right thing is on the wall and falling.

There was a time when only the intellectual and political elites distrusted the media. Oscar Wilde said, "By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community." American journalist Hunter Thompson (Gonzo Journalism) was more brutal, "As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity." Ronald Reagan simply said, "Sons of bitches." Is this why media credibility is plummeting?

One of the reasons is the prevalence of double standards within the media. With the presidential hopefuls in the US engaged in debates and primaries, now is a good time to look at a classic example, Gary Hart. On May 8, 1987, Hart, the Democratic frontrunner in the presidential nomination, dropped out because a stakeout team from the Miami Herald reported on May 3 that they had seen Hart and a Miami model, Dona Rice, enter his Washington town house together and nobody left during the night.

Hart claimed Ms Rice had left through a back door but the constant pressure made him shut down his campaign and he was unable to kick-start it again. Hart commented, "We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders, for it reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted."

In the final press conference before he dropped out, Hart was asked by Washington Post journalist Paul Taylor whether he believed adultery to be immoral. Hart said he did. When asked if he, Hart, had ever committed adultery, he stammered for a moment and then insisted, "I don't have to answer that." However, a few weeks later, People magazine turned the tables by asking the same questions of several journalists. According to IF NO NEWS, SEND RUMORS (Stephen Bates), People went to Taylor first. He said he did consider adultery immoral but his reply to whether he had ever committed adultery was, "The answer to the second question is 'None of your business,' which is the answer to that question except in the most extraordinary circumstances."

Mike Wallace of 6o Minutes said, "Oh, Jesus, I'll get back to you," and later responded, "I just turned 69, and I'm very flattered by the question." Ted Koppel of ABC's Nightline answered, "Not only will I not answer that question, I won't even tell you how I vote."

Hot-shot journalist Connie Chung quipped, "If this is a shoe on the other foot question, I think I have a run in my stocking." Everybody ducked the question. Nobody gave a straight answer but expected other people to. I wonder how many journalists in our regional media houses will give a straight answer to the second question.

In 1974, I graduated with a first-class honours degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa and returned to Trinidad believing that I would get into the news business and make a difference. I could not get a job. The newspaper editors told me that I was "overqualified", meaning that they could get someone with maybe English and shorthand, and since this is how they started, investing in a journalism graduate was neither profitable nor comfortable.

Recently, in stories concerning me, one journalist wrote that she had tried to contact me several times. It was a lie. There was one call from the newspaper's switchboard and no message. Other journalists wrote about my role in a project but never spoke to me or got my side of the story. I know that we are 42 years beyond 1974, but there are some things that should still matter - balance, fairness, all sides of the story, and, most of all, truth.

But if you complain, according to Donald Jones of the Kansas City Star and Times, this is what happens. "You get a quart of sour milk at your local grocery store ... . Take it back to the checkout counter and say the milk is sour and the guy will say to you either 'get a new quart' or 'here's your money back'. The equivalent of taking a quart of sour milk back to a newspaper is you're lucky if they don't pour it on your head ... ."

- Tony Deyal was last seen advising all new government leaders in Jamaica and elsewhere that if you revealed your best moments and innermost thoughts to journalists, don't be surprised when they are interested in your worst misfortunes and darkest deeds.