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(Mis)understanding Media

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, December 03, 2013    

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I heard a real scientist speak recently. He is Charles McMillan, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of two facilities in the United States performing classified work on the design of nuclear weapons.

I made note of two statements from his address: 1) service of the highest level requires education of the best quality, and 2) education is not just about the acquisition of knowledge, it is about asking the right questions and how to know if the answers make sense.

I believe this is true cross-culturally, and found both statements useful in framing my thoughts about Prime Minister Portia Simpson's encounter with a reporter recently, and how responses about protocol or media management misrepresent the situation.

In the wake of the incident, where Television Jamaica's Vashan Brown, sought to question the prime minister and was shoved by one of her bodyguards, information minister Sandrea Falconer called for resumption of talks with the media about protocols governing interactions with the prime minister.

But the situation, as it unfolded, did not turn ugly because of a lack of protocol.

The tape clearly shows the prime minister talking to the reporter, quiet pleasantly, about the sewage project she was dedicating in Rose Town. Then he tossed her a bouncer — a question about her rationale for reinstating Richard Azan, the junior minister of transport and works who circumvented protocols to have stalls constructed in the Spalding market and stepped down under public pressure.

She went from flustered to combative. The reporter hung on, recognising that what he was getting a whole other story.

For any kind of protocol to have worked in that situation, they would either have to bar journalists from interviewing the prime minister entirely, allow them to ask only pre-determined questions, or agree to ask her only about what she wants to talk about.

No journalist worth their pay cheque would agree to these terms.

This, incidentally, does not contradict my belief that there is need for order and mutual respect in the interaction between the prime minister and the media, if not at the level of individuals, at that of the office or institution.

Even in democratic societies, heads of government generally talk to the media in highly managed contexts, for several reasons: 1) the political risk of going off-message and publicly contradicting one's policies/positions; 2) to minimise "stage-fright" and the corresponding risk of revealing one's deepest inadequacies in unscripted moments, and knowing that it will be amplified millions of times and, 3) to protect the leader from physical harm.

In the case of one and two, it is not the journalists' responsibility to be helpful or cooperative. In fact, many stories come straight out of this nexus. The safety of the prime minister, however, and that of the journalists, should be everyone's concern.

Historically, we have not gone after our political leaders in a violent way, but we are a violent people and politics set our blood on fire. Otherwise, we are undisciplined, over-enthusiastic, or pay too little respect to social or personal space. This can lead to unsafe situations for political leaders.

Notably, in the Rose Town incident, the prime minister was not at risk from anything except her own responses. The reporter, however, was at risk. His actions could have triggered negative reactions from people less restrained than the security guards. It helps to be mindful of one's motive and whether potential consequences are worth the heroics.

Outside of managed situations, political leaders talk to the press as an obligation of the office and a test of their abilities to spontaneously defend policies or react to unfolding events. It's not too much to ask of someone holding virtually the highest office in the land.

At the same time, there should not be any expectation on the part of the media that a prime minister should always be available to respond to questions. This is not only unreasonable and impractical, but it also puts the media in charge — and we are not. Governments, generally, are elected by the people; journalists are workers paid by corporations.

In the case of Mrs Simpson Miller, there is added tension born out of the derision that some have expressed about her lack of education or schooling, in a broad sense. She, meanwhile, is wary and defensive.

It is worthwhile to note that she holds a bachelor's degree in public administration from Union Institute and University in Florida, an institution that caters to non-traditional students. Most programmes can be pursued through distance learning.

These kinds of institutions are the fastest growing in the United States, as the workplace changes and higher education modifies itself.

She also completed the executive programme for leaders in development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, according to the website www.caribbeanelections.com. These are typically short intensive courses for senior executives.

So, unlike Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, Prime Minister Simpson Miller is a college graduate.

Furthermore, education, as described earlier, is not exclusively the result of formal training or how, when and where it is acquired. It is also about something deeply intrinsic.

This seems to be the prime minister's larger problem — an inability to add value, and the sense of nothingness that one gets from any analysis of who she is, beyond a superficial level. There are no deep philosophical positions that we know of; no compelling ethical positions, not even the ability to take a vexed question without losing control.

The Azan case, for example, is a missed opportunity to demonstrate where her moral compass is; where she wants to take a country begging for direction. We got the finger instead.

Asking why is a fair question. Pressing for an answer that makes sense is a journalist's obligation.

One would think that providing such an answer is an obligation for the prime minister and one she understands.

gvirtue@usa.net

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