Press muse – The lamentables

I wasn’t too charitable with The New Paper last week for its front page faux pas (see: More bad news). I jumped on a simple confusion of subject and object in the sub-heading of the front page splash, and gleefully rubbed their negligence in their face. A cheap thrill, that was.

What I didn’t know, however, is that this inability to comprehend the subject-verb-object sentence structure runs deeper than a superficial headline mishap.

Nothing is all that much out of the ordinary with Wednesday’s paper at first sight. It’s customary daily hyperbole is a relatively mild “HER 3 SHOCKS IN 5 HOURS“. So a young woman has had a terrible night out. Okay there’s a bit more to it than that, as is revealed in three bullet points – her boyfriend rings her up at three in the morning, reveals to her that he had been badly hurt in an assault, shows up at her place but refuses to seek hospital treatment, and later collapses in her home.

The more discerning ones amongst you might already be working on the dumbfounded look, wondering what it is that you are missing. Just who is the real news here?

If you could be bothered to turn to page 3, which was fully dedicated to this story, you will find that all you can learn about the woman – clearly set up to be the central subject of this story – is Thai and would like to be known only as Apple. Instead, it is her boyfriend’s full name that we are able to learn (which I won’t state it here, as it’s superfluous to the illustration of my point).

Then TNP reporter Benson Ang goes on to earn his chops, narrating the progression of Apple’s terrifying night, blow by blow. Oops, I apologise for the unfortunate double entendre. My bad. But say, what did the guy himself have to say about the whole thing?

Who knows. The New Paper didn’t care enough to find out. Instead, Benson tells us he doesn’t know why Apple’s boyfriend was attacked, since Apple herself doesn’t know anything about it. Benson also tells us he doesn’t know how the boyfriend escaped his assailants or got home, because Apple was none the wiser.

Not that it really matters does it? I mean, look at all the gore! The bedsheets stained crimson, the staircase splotched with blood. Blimey! That was some serious shit that went down.

There you have it. A front page splash relating third-hand information about the a victim of assault. Rather, it was a horror news story (pun intended) about a woman having her boyfriend battered senseless and the emotional trauma she was so unnecessarily subjected to.

I’ve seen reporters strain sinews to finesse a story with paltry fragments of information under unfavourable circumstances. But this inexplicable contrivance, produced by swapping the subject of the news story for the object, really takes the cake, saturated fat et al. I would venture to suggest that poor Benson tried and failed to get the actual victim to speak, after which he went with the next best alternative, and spun a new yarn altogether. What his news editors were thinking when they put his tortured spiel on the front page remain known only unto them.

The Straits Times in contrast had perhaps too much content to deal with, summoning all hands on deck to churn out a deluge of Parliamentary chatter. Whether by circumstance or by design (I hedge my bets on the latter, and I suspect we all know why), the Straits Times‘ Parliament coverage is distinctly passive.

Dutifully, each reporter picks up the key quotes on each specific noteworthy topic and chains them into coherent prose – Tuesday’s paper essentially carried simple summaries of Monday’s proceedings. Some analysis and comment would have been useful – but as we know, such is unfashionable behaviour in the Straits Times when it comes to covering parliamentary politics. That politicians are required by profession to spout grand, self-congratulatory declarations and issue plausibly deniable barnum statements doesn’t seem to bother them too much.

As it were, only the citizenship test issue was deemed topically weighty enough to warrant a follow-up story in Wednesday’s paper. Interestingly, all hullabaloo over a possible test came from a short exchange, probably no longer than a minute (I was there), between MP Halima Yacob, who suggested the test, and Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan, who replied that it was an “interesting and quite sensible suggestion” which his ministry would study. Immigration stories are instant winners everywhere these days.

In any case, there is a problem with such passivity in Parliamentary coverage. The American press in the Vietnam era were notables victims to this. Their news agenda was, understandably and inevitably, driven by events. But this in and of itself was not that problematic, save for the fact that many newsmen conflated their misguided perception of professionalised objectivity with an unquestioning deference to official sources.

Nixon caught on. To pre-empt potential bad press on unfolding events from Indochina, his administration would proactively feed the beast – calling press conferences, issuing statements, making speeches. The press, directed by their notion of events-driven and deferential journalistic objectivity, oblige with headlines and lead stories covering the pseudo-news events engineered by the government. Consciously or not, they were often press-ganged into adhering the administration’s news agenda.

Watching this happen in person without the comforting historical and psychological distance, however, has a different ring to it.


~ by spiegel2071 on November 25, 2009.

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