Home / View Point / Letters to the Editor / Dear Editor: “Choko” was a genius, but the TNT Mirror was destroyed by tired, visionless leaders

Dear Editor: “Choko” was a genius, but the TNT Mirror was destroyed by tired, visionless leaders

“To be sure, the Mirror and other Choko newspapers had lost their impact more than a decade ago, because of the absence of leadership, which led to the lack of innovation and creativity even as the digital revolution became all-pervasive.

“[…] Choko’s successors—journalists included—did not appreciate that the TNT Mirror, in particular, was not just another newspaper, but a crusader, a dogged left-leaning campaigner on behalf of the downtrodden and dispossessed.”

Former TNT Mirror editor and CNMG CEO Ken Ali reflects on the legacy of late media pioneer Patrick “Choko” Chookingo, after last week’s closure of the TNT News Centre:

Photo: The TNT Mirror logo.

Patrick “Choko” Chookolingo was a hardy and revolutionary journalist and media proprietor who died a generation ago and who is now seldom mentioned in industry discussions. That changed briefly last week, when the remaining newspapers in Choko’s once dynamic and profitable stable, including the TNT Mirror, limped to an ignominious shutdown.

Some practitioners of his era invoked his name, mainly with respect and emotion.

I enter the discussion—as someone who edited four of his newspapers during a 25-year tenure at his organisation—largely to comment on the distress of his once-formidable and influential newspapers now arriving at their torturous end.

To be sure, the Mirror and other Choko newspapers had lost their impact more than a decade ago, because of the absence of leadership, which led to the lack of innovation and creativity even as the digital revolution became all-pervasive.

In the United States, newspapers have collectively lost 80 per cent of their advertising revenue over the past few years; in this country, the myopic bosses at the TNT Mirror failed to reinvent the paper.

Instead, the current operators—the large Choko brood was split down the middle—handed the papers to tired media journeymen at the end of their respective careers, who did not appreciate the fast-evolving sector and did not have the skill and energy to implement change.

Photo: A TNT Mirror front page.

The weekly press had become irrelevant and obsolete in the current social media crush where anyone with fingertips can be a publisher—and in real time, too. More than that, the TNT Mirror became a political poison pen while the PNM was in political opposition, and was edited by party loyalist Maxie Cuffie.

The fiercely independent Choko would have baulked at the misuse and squandering of his treasured brand.

Choko’s successors—journalists included—did not appreciate that the TNT Mirror, in particular, was not just another newspaper, but a crusader, a dogged left-leaning campaigner on behalf of the downtrodden and dispossessed.

The crafty publisher had an ideological bent and kept faith with the working masses. Choko carefully surrounded himself with journalists who had anti-establishment profiles and he picked up populist causes and called out society’s sacred cows.

It was a communal project and we all sang from the same hymn book, even as we were influenced by our peculiar social and cultural circumstances. Choko fostered teamwork and provided decisive leadership and vision.

It was not a publish-and-be-damned approach, although there were some critical—and costly—errors.

The establishment of the TNT Mirror in 1982 was itself Choko’s visionary response to the evolving media landscape.

Photo: Late media boss Patrick “Choko” Chookolingo.
(Copyright TT Guardian)

He had managed and edited The Bomb newspaper from 1970, at the invitation and with initial funding from Bhadase Sagan Maraj. He had insisted on editorial autonomy.

In the absence of a parliamentary opposition from 1971 to 1976, Choko represented the working class, producing a newspaper with unprecedented sales, one that was lapped up by the hoity-toity, even if they denied it.

He fearlessly targeted maximum leader Dr Eric Williams. Unable to tame Choko, Williams occasionally passed him notes in an effort to influence his editorial judgement.

But by 1982 (Williams had died the previous year), the wily Choko realised that an increasingly sophisticated society had outlived The Bomb. He called his bushy-tailed troops for the launch of the TNT Mirror, which was meant to be more measured and thoughtful, even as it held our leaders’ feet to the fire.

We wrote some of the finest investigative pieces of any generation, and certainly did more substantive work than much of the fare in today’s media.

At Raffique Shah’s prodding in 1983, the newspaper launched the annual Mirror Marathon, whose influence went way beyond the 26.2 mile-distance of the race and which bolstered the paper’s image.

Photo: A satirical take on the media.

When the thin-skinned NAR regime refused to release ample foreign exchange for the purchase of newsprint and spare parts, readers rallied to the newspaper’s side. Justice Anthony Lucky upheld the paper’s legal claim, citing the constitutional provision of freedom of the press.

Choko died on Father’s Day weekend in 1986, with the nation in the throes of fast-moving social and political changes; months later, the PNM was kicked out of office for the first time in the 30 years of self-government.

With his foresight and expertise, Choko would surely have re-made his media empire and avoided its wretched demise. Under his tutelage, his journalists were imbued with social consciousness and an acute awareness of the reader’s right to know.

I was galled, therefore, when a High Court judge, presiding in the sensational murder trials of Dole Chadee and his gang, censored the media.

In a couple of articles, the next edition of the TNT Mirror hinted at the media gag. I was summarily hauled before the selfsame judge, and in the most dramatic example of a kangaroo court, I was hastily tried and dumped in jail. I was later vindicated by the Appeal Court and the Privy Council.

Law students in several jurisdictions study the historic case of the Trinidad and Tobago newspaper editor who was jailed for contempt of court.

Photo: Convicted killer Dole Chadee was one of nine criminals executed in 1999 for a series of murders in 1994, one year after the Privy Council’s landmark 1993 Pratt and Morgan decision. (Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

Choko had been jailed years before for an article headlined “The Judge’s Wife” in The Bomb.

In the absence of leadership, most dyed-in-the-wool TNT Mirror scribes fled over the years, each soaring to other industry successes, even as we acknowledged the life-long impact of Choko’s pioneering brand and his personal guidance.

The closure of his newspapers marks the passing of a remarkable media era, even if the colourful, daredevil and inventive leader was never decorated with a national honour and still does not enjoy in death the general respect he deserves.

Warts and all, Choko’s fascinating career and life’s work deserves critical academic and media analyses.

The old Choko would have loved that.

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29 comments

  1. Newspaper people are interesting people .They hold the power of the people to preserve the nation. They are the gatekeepers of our Democracy.

  2. Sounds fascinating. The print industry people are some of the most interesting people on the planet and they get more sharf than artists or other creative people. They’re about as equally honest in social commentary as some artists. They have equally false people (and prophets) among them.

    I find it interesting having ‘Mirror’ as a name. Mirror world of T&T, ironic how it died and I hope that doesn’t actually reflect where our society has reached.

    Thanks for posting. This was a time I wasn’t in the country and had no clue was politics was all about anyway.

  3. The quality of Leadership plagues our organisation in T&T.Mr.Patrick Chookingo was my first employer when I returned from the USA on Scholarship in 1963.I was hired as a Sub-Editor . I was in the company of ervyn Welles,Keith Smith ,Ratcliffe Joe ,Keith Sheppard, Chester Morron ,Gust, He was very nuturing of me and I appreciate it even up to today. I was sorry to leave them to pickup my appointment with the government to teach Science at Tunapuna Government Secondary.”Choco” was very patient with me teaching about 3 wide ,8 deep etc.

  4. “I was galled, therefore, when a High Court judge, presiding in the sensational murder trials of Dole Chadee and his gang, censored the media.

    In a couple of articles, the next edition of the TNT Mirror hinted at the media gag. I was summarily hauled before the selfsame judge, and in the most dramatic example of a kangaroo court, I was hastily tried and dumped in jail. I was later vindicated by the Appeal Court and the Privy Council.”

    • Ken is deliberately vague here. He did not write a line in a story neither did he have the final say on that day of the story going on the front page: the story that led to the contempt of court charges, written by Raffique Shah (the front page) and the back page piece written by me. I covered the matter from day one. He made a jail for writing nothing and in true “unjournalist” style has omitted me- I was charged along with him- but was fined and not sent to jail- from every account he has written about that incident. This is skewed. so skewed. There is truth out there Lasana Liburd….. begging to be told.

    • Sharmain thanks. We would publish if you considered doing your own piece.

    • Lasana Liburd I have just a piece… even though I was at the very first meeting Choko held after he busted away from Sat at the Bomb and was given the first woman’s column at the T&T Mirror.. after I left to work at Radio 610, Choko called me back and told me that radio would not fulfill my writing talent.. I CANNOT write the story of Choko’s legacy. Many people have to pool their resources to do that for the full story to be told. Ken has a way with words, yes, but he abandoned that legacy. He never once mentioned Keith Shepherd who took the baton and ran the race to the very end. He warned of the 1990 coup on two occasions; one when he got info about an unprecedented amount of guns coming into the country and wrote a story about it and then one day a photographer came back with a group shot of a whole set of men at the Jamaat. Sheppy- a man around town- knew all their faces and was disturbed that they would gather in the same place, wondered what was amiss. He published the photo on the front page. Naturally he was threatened afterwards. He deliberately chose to walk the ground which gave him an insight into TT life which none of the other editors had.

    • Sharmain Baboolal thanks! You really need to write that story, girl

    • Fascinating stuff. Who knew what, when and what did they do..a sad time in our recent history

    • Savitri MaharaRamesh Deosaran write a book about the matter and not once did Deosaran call me or interviewed me and I covered the case, wrote the story and gave Shah the information for the story which Ken made a jail for. I took to the witness stand in court- SHah and I. Ken sat next to me in the docks . It was only after the book was published that Deosaran met me in the Red House during a Christmas Luncheon when Barry Sinanan was the Speaker and told me he wrote a book. He got me real mad. That was petty “Unjournalism” on Ken’s part. Petty, petty. Choko was fearless. Sheppy refined it to FAIR and Fearless. No matter what, give everyone an ear,. It’s about TRUTH.

    • Sharmain Baboolal I agree give everyone an ear. His “recollection” is certainly different to yours. I can see how/why they all sold out to their respective “parties”

    • Savitri Maharaj yes, him and Irene Medina. And even so , for all the money that he may have raked in, he did not do a good job at communications for the UNC. He was as bad as Andy Johnson.

    • I am not joining any emotive discussion but only writing to state I have never seen the book written by Dr. Deosaran. He interviewed me. It was not my project. It was his academic work. As far as I am aware, it is not yet published. Dr. Deosaran wrote in Newsday a couple years ago that he has to have it published. I did not contribute a written line to the book.
      Its fascinating that my character could be so badly assailed on an altar of fair journalism and when I was the one who lost my freedom.
      I have nothing more to contribute here, partly because my initial intervention was to pay tribute to my journalistic mentor.
      I expect to continue to lap up more libellous attacks against me.
      Great journalism indeed!

    • Sharmain Baboolal i used to read alot of yours and keith sheppard articles in the mirror.i remember that article about the coup written by sheppard. my question is there going to be an archive of the mirror newspaper someone should curate it…. there is a lot of articles which can provide alot of what has been going on in trinidad during the existance of the newspaper

    • Jay AI That is the first thing that came to mind when I read that the newspaper had shut down. Sadly , as I know, the archives were in a mess even before. The photographic archives, I had suggested they digitise it, I would have helped for free, just to record our history.. In the end Choko’s children helped to destroy their father’s legacy.

    • Jay AI I believe the national archives may have copies as I was looking for an article in one. Very helpful ppl there, you can message them.

    • Nerisha Mohammed this is different the mirror will have all their published photos and articles in archive maybe microfiche or some other media which is more than what the national archives would have. TTT archive from 1962 to 1990 was destroyed by fire during the coup some of the tapes were also overwritten due to bad cataloging. A very large % of our recorded history lost.

    • Jay AI and the TTT story includes invaluable tapes..recorded material of the actual negotiations between the army and the red house insurgents.they were recorded at radio 610’s master control. I worked a couple nights at 610 during the six day seige. All that would have been critical to the COI on the coup which ended up being a farce. Louis Lee Sing merged 610 with TTT and never gave regard to our archives 😢

    • Sharmain Baboolal maybe these things should be handed over to our national archives, or at least copies!
      Maybe message them and see if they might be able to request copies at least?

  5. and wah about the free spending and peltin money wild wild behind heaux?

    • Sharmain Baboolal last ten years have not been defined by judicious spending or thoughtful investment, have they?

    • im not implying that Choko did

    • I dont know. Dawn Chookolingo, fronting for her husband Ashton Forde assumed the position of Chairman but declared to all and sundry that she was just a housewife and then ordered the production department to send all the pages to her before sending it to print. She censored work- including one piece I had written– and there is a background of political interference that I can write- I decided to withdraw, rather than allow myself and my independence be compromised. It was a painful decision; they knew how much I loved the original mission of the paper. They did not respect their father’s work. Instead they thought I was writing for the paper cos I had nowhere else to go. When it was always by choice. I pulled away. While it was painful at first, I thankfully put the energy into my beloved daughter. And I watched them play games over Choko and Sheppy’s dead body. Sheppy’s answer to every problem was “Jah is the boss.” And that helped me. He was a man of immeasurable faith, simple and kind and honest, hardworking and punctual. This I passed on to my daughter!

    • what did they do with all that money??? Weys sah!