Front Porch | The critical role of the press in The Bahamas
The prestigious Pulitzer Prize, named after the renowned American newspaper publisher and magnate Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), is a prize “given annually to recognize and reward excellence in American journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music and drama”.
The prize, which is awarded in 21 categories and was established in 1917, is administered by the highly regarded Columbia School of Journalism, which was attended by Eileen Carron, the publisher/editor of The Tribune and the doyenne of journalism in The Bahamas.
Pulitzer founded the School of Journalism to encourage the training of journalists and journalistic excellence and rigor. It remains one of the leading schools of journalism in the world.
Pulitzer, a lifelong newspaperman with a deep understanding of both business and the journalistic craft, published the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is no longer owned by his family, and the defunct New York World.
An anti-colonialist, he railed against President Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialist stratagems over the Panama Canal. Pulitzer later regretted the role his papers played in stoking the Spanish American War (1898).
The war resulted in Spain relinquishing sovereignty over Cuba, which became a U.S. vassal state. The Philippine Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States for $20 million.
Of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry, Pulitzer fled Hungary escaping the untimely early death of his father, which resulted in the decline of the family’s fortunes. He also fled the restrictive politics of Hungary.
The young ambitious émigré marveled at and embraced the democratic ethos and capitalist spirit of his new American homeland. He is considered the father of modern American journalism and “a fierce defender of democracy”.
With a prodigious intellect and extraordinary business acumen, Pulitzer became a progressive force, using his newspapers to champion the needs of the common man. He crusaded against corruption and the concentration of economic power.
He ran for and briefly served in the U.S. Congress as a Democrat, resigning approximately a year into his term in the House of Representatives.
Pulitzer engaged in sensationalism and yellow journalism to sell papers. But he reveled in democracy and championed the role of the press in a free society. He insisted that the fourth estate was part of the lifeblood of a democracy.
In a brief review of a documentary on Pulitzer, Lisa Mullins notes: “He insisted on accuracy and that his reporters cover the lives of factory workers who had no rights, as well as the poor who lived in slums along streets of New York, lined with dung from horse-driven carriages.”
The quality of publishers, editors and other media leaders makes an enormous difference in the quality of journalism in a democracy. There must be a careful balance between what sells and the rights (and responsibilities) of a free press, which are constitutionally and legally protected.
With the announcement of the departure of Brent Dean, The Guardian’s general manager and editor, this journal and Bahamian journalism is losing another capable journalist, who has demonstrated steadiness and balanced editorial judgment.
Bahamian journalism is a mixed bag across the various houses. There is sometimes exceptional work, average work and very poor journalism. A perennial problem is the lack of context in stories and a lack of curiosity and general knowledge by quite a number of editors and reporters.
One of the easiest stories is to stick a microphone in front of a minister’s face and report on what he or she says. Sometimes there is a new policy pronouncement. Often, though, there is not.
There are many other stories to report. It takes more effort but it is worth it. It would be better for business, too, because readers and viewers will find novel stories more interesting.
Oren Rudavsky, the director of the PBS American Masters film “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People”, recalls Pulitzer’s approach to journalism: “He understood that a paper’s not just about reading it one day when something amazing happens – he knew how to tell stories over time, over several days.”
Understandably, travel has a cost. And Bahamian media companies are not cash cows. Still, the dailies and broadcast media could make a better effort to travel the islands and tell the fascinating stories of the people who live there.
If each media house would set a reporting budget and be strategic about capturing more stories throughout the archipelago, so much more reporting could come from beyond New Providence and Grand Bahama.
Media houses must be properly analyzed over time. Some Bahamian journalists produce much, especially given the limited resources of time and other journalists to help carry the load of a newsroom.
Moving forward, what will the leadership in the newsroom, especially at the middle management level look like in the next five years?
The question is even more urgent in the current age for newspapers worldwide. How will newspapers make money in the digital age to make up for the long-term decline in physical papers?
There is considerable experimentation globally. There is no one model for all. Still, print will remain at the heart of journalism. It will survive. But what forms will it take generally and in The Bahamas?
It is important in the wake of the technology-enabled proliferation of sources of information these days to note the distinction between professional or institutional media and the unprofessional and often reckless social media which is wide open to egregious abuse.
The society should expect that its institutional media – newspapers, television and radio – are populated by responsible, well-trained journalists and managers.
It is the responsibility of professional media to hold up an undistorted mirror to the society, to keep the people informed about what is happening in the country, about the functioning of its national institutions – especially its political institutions – and about the state of the society in general.
It is also the responsibility of professional media to lead the development of public opinion and attitudes by providing intelligent and vigorous commentary on every aspect of a nation’s life and to provide forums for the free expression of public opinion.
It is irresponsible and it harms our democracy when radio and television outlets inflict on the public ignorant and irresponsible commentators merely because they happen to be glib or entertaining.
It is good thing to see so many relatively young people being attracted to television journalism, but it is sometimes painfully obvious from their use of the language that some of them suffer from the lack of more mature oversight and mentoring.
Even our two venerable dailies sometimes fall quite short. It seems that the Fleet Street tabloid disease (complete with front page comic bubble) has infected one of them.
In addition to skill and judgment in gathering and reporting the news, command of the language is an absolute necessity for professional journalists.
It is the most important tool at their disposal and they ought to be better at language than the rest of us. In fact, the population should be able to look to the media for examples of proper English usage.
And those engaged in commentary need to expand their imaginations. There is more to The Bahamas than politics. There is a too narrow focus on politics in Bahamian commentary. It easily becomes trite and boring.
Write about the arts, culture, education, the failure of boys in schools, design, agriculture, climate change, the death penalty, prison reform, or any number of matters of interest that have nothing to do directly with Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis or Opposition Leader Philip Davis.
Those who wield power and influence in a democracy require tremendous oversight and accountability. This includes government and the fourth estate.
If journalists endured a relatively similar level of scrutiny as politicians, many of them would have a greater appreciation of what political figures endure.
Indeed, political leaders endure considerable oversight, including from the public, competing parties, accountability and disclosure legislation, various stakeholders and other observers, domestic and foreign.
Human beings, groups and institutions require external oversight. Media houses in The Bahamas have various levels of oversight. But they lack a deeper level of oversight than the media in other jurisdictions, such as ombudsmen, media watchdogs and even oversight by fellow journalists. The Press Club in The Bahamas does not provide the level of oversight as do similar associations in other jurisdictions.
A vibrant, well-informed, self-reflective press is vital to our democracy. Like other institutions it must evolve and become even better at its craft. As in the political arena, there are talented individuals in journalism who should be mentored as future leaders.
In both government and media, the country must foster and develop the quality of leadership and talent required for greater self-reflection and growth as our democracy evolves.