Unfit to Print

Jeremy Taylor on Breaking the News: Media and Culture in Trinidad, by Raymond Ramcharitar

Raymond Ramcharitar

Breaking the News: Media & Culture in Trinidad, by Raymond Ramcharitar (Lexicon Trinidad, ISBN 976-631-039-4, 301pp)

Raymond Ramcharitar is admirably blunt about his intentions. Breaking the News was born “out of a long-burning anger at the shameless greed and unrepentant stupidity of those responsible for the destruction the media have collectively wrought, and continue to wreak, on the society,” he explains in his preface. “The Press, talk radio, and the new television stations are now knowingly and gleefully stoking the fires that are consuming Trinidad.” He speaks of “deliberate subversion and perversion”, and the media’s “appropriation . . . by corporate and political interests.” For anyone who still doesn’t get the message, he adds that his preferred original title for the book was Pimps, Whores, and Johns, or at least Monkeys, Snakes, and Donkeys.

Quite a few media people in Trinidad will have nervously scanned the index of this book to see if it includes their names. Ramcharitar, a Trinidadian journalist turned lecturer, worked for many years with the Trinidad Guardian and Express, falling out with both; he is remembered as an abrasive and demanding arts and cultural critic who deconstructed his victims with relish, and not all have forgiven him.

Parts of the book are richly entertaining. Ramcharitar’s bêtes noirs, who are plentiful, get their come-uppance, sometimes deservedly. But at the same time, Ramcharitar has tried to write an academic treatise. The text is sometimes anecdotal, sometimes mired in academic jargon that seems designed to impress rather than enlighten. The resulting mixture of polemic and campus-speak makes for a rather heavy read, repetitive and inelegant. The tone is grumpy, exasperated, intolerant, and suspicious; judgements are handed down from a height, sometimes meticulously supported, sometimes in apparent rage. Despite the footnotes and bibliography (and an inadequate index), the argument depends heavily on assertion for its often meandering progress.

Ramcharitar does not really deliver on the lurid promises of his preface. But the central argument of the book is important and has to be addressed.

People rely on the mass media for their understanding of the world. If the media are not reliable, then our reading of the world is blurred and our ability to make informed choices is limited. The power to blur perception excites politicians, and gives power and importance to media owners and publishers.

Breaking the News is a study of Trinidad’s media ( Tobago is not addressed) and their social and political influence. Trinidad is wildly over-productive, with nearly 30 radio stations (and more in the pipeline), five local TV stations, over 60 cable TV channels, three daily newspapers, and (at last count) seven weeklies. You would think that this would provide enough news sources and opinion to satisfy a large metropolitan city. But the most striking thing about Trinidad’s media houses is their ideological sameness, and their low professional standards.

Ramcharitar argues that this is not accidental. The ruling party (the People’s National Movement, PNM) is built on an ideology he describes as “nationalism”. It is conservative, puritanical, anti-intellectual, and free-market capitalist; it stereotypes dissenters (eg as racists or non-patriots), and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Dissent is fine, so long as it does not constitute a genuine threat. Folk culture is central, and just as good as anybody’s “high art”.

But the most important component of PNM nationalism is ethnic division and conflict, and the privileging of “AfroCreole” culture (Carnival, pan, calypso) over “IndoCreole” culture. AfroCreole culture is the mainstream, national culture, and the AfroCreole community is the locus of political power.

The media are expected to reinforce this mind-set. That is where they betray their trust and their publics, Ramcharitar argues. Though the media are technically “free”, they actually function as “agents or extensions” of the government and the ruling party. Political and economic elites have sufficient influence over the media to ensure that they stay in line, usually via a process of self-censorship. This suits media owners, since it allows a high turnover of staff, minimal training, low qualifications, and the pursuit of profit unencumbered by public service obligations.

(Which in turn begins to explain the news readers who cannot read, the writers who cannot write; the “if it bleeds, it leads” school of editing; the absence of investigative skills or even thoughtful questioning, the ignorance and insularity, the acceptance of rumour and speculation as fact, the obligatory American radio accents, etc. Perhaps it starts to explain the weather forecast which reports “what the weather may have been like in your area today”, or the sports segment that lifts a “Play of the Day” off CNN and re-runs it without credit — sponsored by a local advertiser.)

Ramcharitar explains how he thinks this unspoken convergence between government and media works, and reviews its disastrous effects. Trinidad, he claims, becomes “a philistine society”, “a brutish contest between hapless peasants to profit a few brutes”. The public no longer cares about truth; all views are equal, facts do not matter (even when they are available), and “calypso truth”, which cannot distinguish between fact and rumour, is anyway far more interesting. A “merry, nihilist denial of wretchedness” comes to look like a form of redemption. Ramcharitar recalls how the “proles” are kept loyal in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four: “keep them in misery, controlling the information that reaches them, feeding them mindless amusements and maintaining an absolute control over historical consciousness”.

For Ramcharitar, this subtle “information management” explains the Trinidadian media, with their shared “field of values” and their “gatekeepers” controlling the transmission of information and knowledge. Media houses develop procedures for selecting, presenting, and placing facts, opinions, and images so that an approved version of reality appears natural and normal.

Ramcharitar examines how the impression of “balance” is achieved, and the ways in which media houses compromise themselves through their relationships with business interests; he shows how editorial space is packed with cheap or free imported copy to support the advertising, and how the border between editorial and advertorial is distorted. He inspects cases of misreporting, the miserable arts coverage, the types of columnists deployed, the ethical conflicts and internal politics. He provides examples of the urban AfroCreole bias, and the tolerance of anti-Indian racism, which he claims are rampant.

This is Ramcharitar’s real grudge: the way the mainstream media instinctively align themselves with the AfroCreole “side”, marginalising the IndoCreole community and propagating the worldview that the ruling party requires. This thesis occupies the central sections of the book.

Here, Ramcharitar makes a good case, supported by extensive quotation and analysis of the 1996–97 furore over Prime Minister Basdeo Panday’s feud with the Guardian and Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj’s green paper on the media. He recalls the sense of panic as the nation’s first “Indian government” took offence at what it perceived as media bias, and the AfroCreoles, discerning a “threat to democracy” and to “press freedom”, felt the Indian worldview to be incomprehensible, sinister, and threatening. He exposes the patronising, exotic, or blatantly racist approach to IndoCreolism in the writing of even the better journalists, and how often “Indian” and “Trinidadian” are unthinkingly used as separate categories. Although he doesn’t deal with this at the level of personal interaction (where the situation is different), and tends to treat it as a unique situation, he does establish that media houses need to undertake some serious self-examination.

Sometimes Ramcharitar’s anger leads him astray, for example into the sort of contemptuous language he rightly condemns elsewhere (“Cudjoe and his coethnics”), or into ripening a remark from Wayne Brown (“The top echelon of the UNC cabinet is comprised of barbarians”, page 189) into “the Indians were barbarians” (page 200).

And sometimes Ramcharitar is really disappointing. He sees newspaper design, for example, as representing the “structure of the social mind of the society it serves”, an interesting thought — but then he backs off, saying crossly there is “no evidence of any purpose or design anywhere”. He hardly discusses the weekly press (“slowly fading into insignificance”), or radio (broadcasters are strangers to “intellectual rigour or clarity”), except to savage talk radio as encouraging criminal activity and politicising a “barely literate public”. The steady down-market march of the press is not closely examined (it’s just that the papers imagine a “garish, tasteless public with a short attention span, low expectations, and no critical sensibility”), and the advertising agencies who exert such significant influence are simply places run by white folks who view the public as “mindless ethnic primitives”.

The sudden growth of local TV channels since early 2004 is not examined either, despite its obvious significance. Ramcharitar is especially hard on Gayelle, the small TV station which has made no secret of its creole agenda, and which goes out of its way to avoid ethnic bias: he describes it as a “group of poorly dressed people assaulting and battering the English language amidst some boxes or cheap-looking furniture”. While Ramcharitar is at his most entertaining with his sweeping dismissals, they also allow him to evade the issue.

There are production disappointments in this book too, which is unfortunate in the context of a polemic against poor quality and lack of professionalism: embarrassing typos (“Buju Bantan”), tortuous syntax, wild punctuation, and incomprehensible sentences. Chris Frost is confused with David Frost. Layout, design, and cover art (by Ramcharitar’s artist wife) are unimpressive.

Most disappointing, however, is the way Ramcharitar has allowed his personal feeling about anti-Indian bias to take over his analysis of media deficiency. His relentless repetition of the basic thesis, the resentful stories about his articles being rejected by editors, his growing impatience and irritation, the lack of a conclusion — emotionalism sits uneasily with sober exposition. Ramcharitar is a conspiracy theorist with little time for the cock-up explanation of the world; and conspiracy, easy to suggest, is hard to prove.

But there is certainly a case here to be answered. Ramcharitar’s view that the Trinidad media are failing to provide “information to those who need it to make informed choices, far less forcing government to do its job” is persuasive. He substantiates his claim that anti-Indian bias demeans both the media and the nation, however convenient it may be for the governing elites. His claim that the state tolerates “underclass masses who, with the continuous encouragement of their leaders, are utterly determined to resist any non-conforming knowledge, and to make the logic of ethnicity the central principle of their lives” has quite enough substance to require a response.

In a world of cause and effect, here are some solid reasons for Trinidad and Tobago’s current bewilderment, its inability to understand what is happening to it in 2005, the apparently unstoppable tide of violence, crime, corruption, and sense of decay. For if vision is blurred, how can understanding follow?

There is certainly a case here to be answered. Ramcharitar’s view that the Trinidad media are failing to provide “information to those who need it to make informed choices, far less forcing government to do its job” is persuasive. He substantiates his claim that anti-Indian bias demeans both the media and the nation, however convenient it may be for the governing elites.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.