“One late September weekend in 2017, a local TV news anchor ‘switched gears’ to a packaged story about a central Trinidad resident, whose home had been ‘ravaged’ by flooding, never mind he and his family were still living in it. The camera showed scenes of damage as the voice of the homeowner blamed the government for not doing enough to help because, he said, the area was not a PNM constituency.
“By sheer coincidence, just at that moment, the UNC councillor for the area happened by that specific home, bearing a hefty food hamper for the owner…”
The following Letter to the Editor, which questions the conduct and impartiality of certain media houses and personalities, was submitted to Wired868 by an anonymous veteran newsman:
“Powers you think I have, I don’t.”
The tongue-in-cheek defence offered on March 15 by one half of a well-known talk show twosome during their weekday morning programme on “the most influential name in radio” station was, at best, disingenuous.
Several callers in succession had claimed that, by choosing the controversy surrounding the Chief Justice as the main topic of discussion almost every day over a period of weeks, he and his equally high-profile sidekick were promoting the agenda of a clearly recognisable group of legal experts, whose ethnicity, religion and political affiliation were not in doubt.
I leave full responsibility for that charge to those callers but the host’s blunt denial that he had no power of influence simply does not withstand scrutiny, certainly not by anyone with insight into the way the media work.
For starters, a significant chunk of the country’s mature voters tune their sets to talk radio, blissfully unaware and unsuspecting of the tools available to experienced media practitioners. Does anyone doubt that these voters—and, arguably, their non-listening families—can be so swayed as to see national issues and political figures the way people of influence wish them to be seen?
The radio station in question—one of almost 40 in a country of just 1.4 million potential listeners—still enjoys choc-a-block advertising despite the economic downturn and in the face of the all-consuming social media phenomenon. The annual periodic media surveys they once dominated have ceased but who can doubt the continuing reach and power of this media house?
In the USA, social media cannot really be targeted because lawmakers are still figuring out how to monitor and regulate it, whereas offenders in the traditional forms—print, radio and TV—are readily exposed and pay the price.
In Trinidad and Tobago, however, where existing systems may or may not function, vigilance is questionable, no more so than in the broadcast media. Even if there were no archives, don’t people keep whole old newspapers and clippings? They do but does anyone religiously record radio and TV? In a related matter, is the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) equipped and/or remotely interested in monitoring broadcast standards?
In a word, is there anybody guarding the guards? When the Fourth Estate, unlike the First, Second and Third which are expressly mentioned in the Constitution, fails to do its duty, who ritually calls them to account? TATT? When there is a calypso sung on Rowley Mudder, sure! But I dare you off the top of your head to name one other occasion…
What makes fair judgement of balance more difficult is the blurring of media roles. On CNN, moderators Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon DO NOT produce or anchor the newscasts. On the “station of superlatives,” as Earl Best so aptly dubbed it recently right here on Wired868, one half of the morning show duo is also both the Head of News and a news anchor.
In broadcast, a sound bite—also called an actuality because the speaker’s voice is actually heard uttering the words—is the equivalent of a quotation in print. Because of their potential impact, practitioners are trained to use sound bites wisely (for focus), sparingly (for emphasis) and evenly (for fairness).
One day last year, on the midday newscast, our superlative station of influence aired three successive sound bites separated only by the news anchor’s voice introducing each audio clip. The first “bite” was more than a minute-and-a-half long—it just went on and on—and number two was over 40 seconds. The speaker lambasted the Prime Minister, denouncing as harsh and punitive on the average citizen the austerity measures Dr Rowley had announced his Government would be taking.
All three clips were from the Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
The most alarming aspect of the report was the single sound bite that followed KPB’s three. “Balance,” necessary as every trained practitioner knows, was provided not by a live response from Dr Rowley but by a brief clip extracted from a statement the PM had made previously.
There’s more. Last year Dr Rowley announced that a state-funded company which planted hot peppers for export was to be shut down because, he said, its wage bill and its other expenses significantly exceeded its revenue and the country could no longer afford to support it. He gave figures. The next day, on the two major morning newscasts (7am and 8am), the station aired the PM’s sound bite about closure but completely neglected to include the reasons given.
At noon, the clip was aired for a third time, still without the PM’s justification. This time, however, the actuality was followed by a clip from Couva South MP Rudy Indarsingh condemning the decision to send home workers, which, he more than implied, would make them victims of politics.
But radio is not alone in its apparent partiality. One late September weekend in 2017, a local TV news anchor “switched gears” to a packaged story about a central Trinidad resident, whose home had been “ravaged” by flooding, never mind he and his family were still living in it. The camera showed scenes of damage as the voice of the homeowner blamed the government for not doing enough to help because, he said, the area was not a PNM constituency.
By sheer coincidence, just at that moment, the UNC councillor for the area happened by that specific home, bearing a hefty food hamper for the owner. Imagine the “lucky” councillor’s pleasure at his good fortune as he was not only able to present his gift on camera but also to give his unbiased—yeah, right!—take on the flooding situation.
Just to be clear, TV news is live but a “package” inside the news is a pre-recorded item: the video, sound bites and reporter’s voice tracks are all edited together back in the studio where the reporter tells the video editor what is to be included and what omitted.
Similarly, a skit promoting the same television channel’s 2017 year-end news review was planned, shot and edited. Since the promo was aired repeatedly from mid-December, it is a fair conclusion that those in authority—some of whom had roles in the skit—saw nothing wrong with its contents.
In the video, a senior reporter and news anchor bursts out of an editorial meeting, furious at being assigned the impossible task of producing a review in three days. Once out of earshot of her principals, she screams, with undisguised fury: “Why the FARIS AL-RAWI these (unintelligible) people have to pick me!”
The question citizens must ask themselves is this: is it any easier than it is for the radio talk-show-host-cum-news anchor/Head of News for the reporter who uses the AG’s name as an expletive to differentiate herself from the journalist whose nightly reporting viewers are being asked to trust? In the skit, remember, she is playing herself!
Perhaps we can find an answer in a 15 January exchange involving the three-in-one half of radio’s dynamic duo.
The topic was the controversial comments made by Tobago House of Assembly’s Agatha Carrington said to be aimed at a “Ms Israel,” a member of the minority in the House.
Sidekick: “Those words were meant to hurt.”
Three-in-one: “I think Agatha Carrington should resign. Those words were meant to hurt.”
Later, accused by callers of taking sides, he sought, à la Spoiler, to distance himself from himself, the talk show host from the newsman.
“(Station named) did not call on Carrington to resign,” said the Head of News, insisting that the call had come from him as an individual.
If that is your defence, sir, as Dr Rowley recently said to Roodal Moonilal, you have my sympathy. For more years than I can remember, the cultured voice on the station’s promo has been reminding listeners that it is the station’s policy to espouse views “with the objective of moving opinion in the direction we believe is best for the country.”
Laudably honest. And that really is the point of this piece.
Ordinary citizens may not understand the full range of tools available to broadcast practitioners but they certainly are quite familiar with the on-off switch and the buttons that change the dial. Media houses have a responsibility to be impartial or, failing that, to declare their political allegiance because their audience should be left in no doubt as to what to expect when they lock on to a station or a channel.
And if they fail to do either one or the other, one expects that, as the regulating body, the Telecommunications Authority will have the teeth—and the cojones—to take action.
But there is at least a 95.5% chance, I submit, that they will not.