Press fairness and fearlessness
Ian Boyne, Columnist
I knew that last week's column would have reopened old sores and provoked painful memories. The 1970s always does that. And the partisanship and battle lines which characterised that era always resurface.
In his respectful, measured but critical review of my column, John Reader took issue with my "incomplete analysis of media fare" in his guest column in last Wednesday's Gleaner. Reader complains that I neglected The Gleaner's investigative reporting of the 1970s, concentrating only on its columnists who had an anti-Manley bias.
"[Boyne] has centred his analysis on the commentary section of the publication, failing to point out that The Gleaner also stood tall for its exemplary and courageous news reporting, especially on matters to deal with the security forces ... ." He cited some examples of investigative reporting by The Gleaner. And, indeed, he was right.
But they all happened to have been reports which put the People's National Party (PNP) in a not-too-favourable light: The Claudie Massop murder, the Green Bay killings, the Rema evictions and the Roy McGann killing! Fine reporting - some even by columnists - but nothing to confound my thesis of an anti-Manley bias of that period. That the bias happened to have coincided with the public interest on occasion does not erase the bias. Reader, interestingly, did not contest my view that the columnists cited - Wilmot Perkins, Morris Cargill, John Hearne, David DaCosta - the then Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - along with Cedric Lindo - were all partisans who exhibited unfairness and unjustifiable bias in their commentary.
We can go back and do a content analysis of their work. There is a place for advocacy journalism. There is a place to take a stand, and columnists are allowed to do that. To be opinionated, biased crusaders, etc, that is one model of commentary writing. It is not mine, but I am prepared to grant a place to it. (And there are enough takers for that space anyway!) Indeed, in the minds of many, that is the only form of commentary that is worth the space it takes up: Commentary that is biting, bitter, angry, cynical, cantankerous and caustic. The Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews type of commentary.
It does not matter how fair and impartial a newspaper is in its reportage, if its commentary box is filled with hot air against any one side, that paper has failed in its public responsibilities and in its obligation to be fair and balanced. A newspaper's columns must not be monolithic. The Gleaner today is more representative of the ideas and tendencies in the society than it was in the 1970s. This is an undeniable, incontestable fact. We can go back in the archives and that will become abundantly patent.
I am happy that Reader acknowledged that I did not fall prey to the same kind of unfairness and imbalance that I protested in my column, his conceding that I "also acknowledged that the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) and the Jamaica Daily News to a lesser extent were firm allies of the PNP and the Workers' Party of Jamaica (WJP) in the 1970s. That was not a point so easily conceded years ago." And I am sure that even today, many of those who worked at those two media houses would vehemently deny my claim.
I know that my good friend and respected senior colleague, former news editor Ewart Walters, would strongly disagree with my characterisation of the Daily News at that time. So would my friends who worked at the JBC back then. They are probably very upset with me for making that acknowledgement of a PNP-WPJ bias. But again, a look back at the archives would leave no doubt that was, indeed, so.
I feel strongly about this issue of fairness, impartiality, balance and dispassionateness. I am well aware of the view that no one is objective, and as someone who reads philosophy, especially epistemology, I know our epistemic limitations. I do understand both the philosophical and scientific misgivings on this issue.
But it is precisely because humans are so error-prone, subjective, context-driven, culture-bound and epistemically fickle why we have to deliberately set up controls for our natural biases, prejudices and unconscious influences. Journalists and commentators have a particularly awesome responsibility to do so. Column writing is more than a means to sound off.
If column writing is just a means of self-expression - a way to get things off our chest - on what basis does an editor decide which citizen to open up limited column space to? Just by random selection - or should be there be criteria for determining the fittest? Just find someone who can turn a phrase?
While investigative and general reporting will remain important to the newspaper business, I suggest that increasingly it will be the commentary, the opinions - research-based and information-packed which will be demanded. People get news from a variety of sources. They also get a lot of people just sounding off, just letting off steam. Just getting mad, cross and angry, cussing this person and cussing that institution. That's cheap and easily available. It's on every street corner and in every bar.
What people need in a newspaper is informed, fact-based, rigorously researched information that will help them to sort through much of what they hear and read. Information that will give them context and meaning. With the increase in online journalism, where space is not as much a constraint, content will be king. Those who are known for their rigour and research and for their balance, fairness and passion for impartiality will always have a place, no matter the threats to newspaper journalism.
I find it interesting that the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), not known for pushing 'sophistry' and with a leadership not intellectually stuffy, says in its criteria for awarding its Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism that "emphasis should be on quality, with focus on research and presentation of facts". Significantly, it goes on to say that the columnist's "work must have credibility and reliability and not just be loose opinions". Now that's interesting! So the PAJ recognises — at least in rhetoric — that column writing is not just to sound off and to frivolously attack and lambaste. What are "loose" opinions? Why this stress on "focus on research" and "presentation of facts"? But couldn't that, God forbid, invite "intellectualism"? But (surprise, surprise!), I agree with the PAJ: Opinions must be informed, not cavalier. Media must be concerned not just with fearlessness, but with fairness.
You can be fearless
but not fair. And fair but not fearless. They are two sides of one
whole. Any part that is missing in a journalist's or columnist's work
represents a serious deficiency. And make no mistake about it: As Lloyd
D'Aguilar pointed out in his Gleaner piece last
Monday on the press and corruption, it is not just Government that we
must fear. It is not just politicians who wield power. Many who are not
afraid of politicians cower under pressure of the Almighty
There are media people who have to be careful
not to offend certain commercial interests. Some journalists are
sycophants to their media bosses. Some of them are waiting for that
cushy corporate public-relations job and others are dependent on
corporate sponsorships and goodwill. Don't fool yourselves, readers,
that it's only Government that has power to cajole or threaten media
people. Fearlessness must extend to powerful private-sector
Our press today, thankfully, in both
reporting staff and the commentariat, has many who are professional,
independent, impartial and fair. Thankfully, unlike the 1970s, press
commentary is not dominated by partisanship. The Government is getting
the licks it deserves for its failures, and columnists and journalists
don't fear its power. Those with political power must continue to be
held accountable. No spin that comes out of the PNP conference today
must get a safe pass, but must be exposed by a vigilant and fearless
press. Thank God we don't have a '70s press!