Wed | Jun 23, 2021

Tony Deyal | Tony and the free press

Published:Saturday | May 8, 2021 | 12:06 AM

About 70 years ago when I was a little boy in a Trinidad country village, there was nothing I begged for, enjoyed more or loved as much as a free press. This is before ‘snow cone’ and it was the name we gave to ice shaved with a silver-coloured, metal object like a carpenter’s plane, and then saturated with milk, sugar and flavoured colouring. Even though it was many years before American journalist A.J. Liebling pointed out that freedom of the press is limited to those who own one, I was already aware of that fact and clung to it regardless.

My father and relatives were generally kind to me and, whenever the vendor passed on his bicycle announcing he was selling “press”, I got a free one. Knowing my cousins and their voracious appetites, as well as their tendency to tease me, I held on to my free press tightly and for dear life, took a quick suck so the others would not be tempted to grab it from me, and sometimes ran as far away from them as I could, my watchful eyes peeled to detect any movement in my direction. One day, having got a press from my friend Hanzie as we left the elementary school we both attended, a tall and thick girl named Naomi tried to grab my press from me as she passed at speed. She missed but I didn’t. Like most of our dealings with today’s media, she got the press behind her head, above her neck and all over her.

“Lampost Journalism”

Perhaps this is the syndrome that is now affecting and infecting the press in Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean. One journalist with many years in the media, Sita Bridgemohan, referred to the present one-sidedness and myopic behaviour of her colleagues as “Lampost Journalism”. The term comes from a story about a drunk man who, late one night, was crawling on his hands and knees under a street lamp. A policeman saw him and enquired about the reason for his weird behaviour. The drunk stuttered that he was looking for his wallet. The policeman asked, “Is this where you dropped it?” The man replied, “No officer, I think I most likely dropped it across the road,” The flabbergasted cop then asked, “But if you know it is over the road, why are you looking for it here?” The man then said what for him was a simple truth, “Because the light’s better here!” Investigative journalist, Sharmain Baboolal, referred to the present state of the media as “data entry journalism” or the myopia that causes them to deal only with what is out in front of their faces. She called this phenomenon “regurgitation of press releases”.

I thought about the many different types of furniture we had in the old days like the ‘safe’ which had its feet in water-filled milk tins to keep the ants from climbing up to the wire mesh and passing through to the food that was “put aside” for later or the next day. Then there were the ‘presses’, one a cupboard to hold the clothes and another, called a ‘heater’ or ‘flat iron’ to smooth them out. This press was placed for a while on a hot coal pot before it could become heated and ready for use by its owners. Some of the ladies, and even a few men, especially those who were lucky enough to get work in the bank or, even harder, the only newspaper at the time, the Trinidad Guardian, or what in those days was seen by many of us as “The Champion of the Overdog”, used it on their hair to ‘straighten’ it. This process made them more acceptable to their employers and others whose opinions they valued. Those people using that hot press had to be careful since it could just as easily burn the hands that held it as the hair that supposedly needed it.

PRESS GANGED

As a voracious reader of books by Robert Lewis Stevenson and others, especially stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I encountered the term ‘press ganged’. It was not like now where many people complain about the press ganging up on them to fulfil the vendettas of the media owners, but taking men into a military organisation by compulsion. There was also the ‘press’ which squeezed or ‘compressed’ sugar cane until it was forced by the unbearable and unceasing ‘pressure’ to release its juice. In fact, the whole thing is enough to make any of us who is concerned about freedom ‘depressed’ or, as happened to one media house, shift its reputation from “Express” to “Ex-press”.

My best comparison is what my mother, who supplemented my father’s generally missing financial contribution by sewing, called a ‘presser-foot’. It was an attachment on her machine which had two toes that held the fabric flat. It used what were called ‘feed dogs’, in the bed of the machine to provide traction and move the fabric through the machine. This is what, in essence, many people believe today’s journalists have become in what is a buyer’s market for labour. It is an unenviable situation since those who don’t like the terms, conditions, work, biases, lack of opportunities and commands from their owners, can lump it. I heard from a journalist that the paper she worked for in 1986 made it clear to all its journalists that it stood for change and, if they did not agree with the stance of the owners, they should leave the job. As far as I know, nobody left.

The concern about media ownership and journalism goes back a long time. Humourist and Irish politician, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who wrote The School For Scandal, said angrily, “The newspapers! Sir, they are the most villainous- licentious – abominable – infernal – Not that I ever read them – No- I make it a rule never to look into a newspaper.” Mark Twain, who at various times was a reporter and newspaper editor, pointed out, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” It was Rudyard Kipling who, retaliating to a comment by media mogul Lord Beaverbrook in December 1971, made perhaps the most damning indictment of the media. Beaverbrook had told Kipling, “What I want is power. Kiss ‘em one day and kick ‘em the next.” Kipling’s response to Beaverbrook’s boast was, “Power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” And if that does not say it all for the owners, this is what Gore Vidal, the American writer, said of them, “The aim of so much journalism is to exploit the moral prejudice of the reader, to say nothing of those of the proprietor.”

This leads to the question, is what we call the ‘press’ another name for a cupboard, wardrobe, or even a cabinet? Is it a mere receptacle for the prejudices and ambitions of its owners? My view is that you can use any noun, verb, adjective, preposition or even proposition you want, but never describe any media house or its press as ‘safe’.

Tony Deyal was last seen repeating that journalists should be watchdogs not lapdogs. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com