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Thursday, February 11, 2010

COMMENT: Blogging in Barbados, or Making It Up As You Go Along

When Samuel Morse perfected the electric telegraph in 1844, he sent a message using his brand new code of dots and dashes: "What God Hath Wrought". So began the whirlwind of modern telecommunications that has swept continent and island so remorselessly ever since.

Too often in these heady days of technological change and complexity I am left staggering with the same plaintive cry, "what God hath wrought". I am not in awe but in woe.

I cannot know precisely what Morse's motives were in sending those words. He did not attach a footnote. We can surmise somewhat safely that it was the humble oblation of a God-fearing man to his original inventor, the Man Upstairs.

I do wonder, though, if Morse, finger ready at the single key, became at once struck by the likely implications and impact of his machines and the wires that connected them. Just maybe, he peered into the crystal ball and saw an abyss - more messages to stir up a phony war than those to catch a murderer? Did he envisage instant communication to global audiences from the mind of a brilliant scholar or a deranged ideologue? What, ultimately, did he, or Bell or Marconi or DeForest or Baird some day expect? High theatre or hardcore porn?

A recent 'encounter' with a blogger in which a precis of a 30-second soundbite on television is used to make even longer attacks with such elegant turns of language as "spin", "bullshit" and "rubbish", has left me wondering again, "What God hath wrought?"

Now, I know that I am treading on dangerous ground here already. For in today's hypercritical, hyperbolic, hyper-hype world of instant communication, the thoughtless carries no less cache than the thoughtful. And like politicians, journalists are the last people to curse The People - they are both your cook and your driver. But just as we ought to be so discerning about the various flavours of mass media (books, magazines, television, radio, cinema), ought we not to cast a critical eye on the new forms of the so-called New Media, some of which are now keen to call themselves "social media"?

Too much of what I have come across from bloggers is derivative, carping, sniping, cheap, illogical, and fast. Too fast. It takes me so long to compose a piece, to agonise over splitting infinitives, to anchor my logic in facts and ideas that are themselves the product of thought, research and yes, checking! The story of Morse was embedded long ago in my brain during my kid-scientist phase but I still had to check, lest I fool myself and attempt to fool others.

In Barbados especially, at least two blogs have emerged with a self-proclaimed mission to do a better job of being the free press than the Press. But surely, do they really expect to do a better job at anything by not actually doing the legwork?

One blogger recently seared me on plans by Caribbean media workers (not media owners and managers) to assist in post-earthquake Haiti by doing some important reporting while actually helping our colleagues there with what they really need. Within days, a brief item on the television news was blogged, and bludgeoned by one author, as "spin", "bullshit", "rubbish". Not a quest for fact, not even a transcript of what was actually said to buttress the specious argument.

Sure, much of the smug self-satisfaction of a few bloggers is all the media's fault. We are a long way away from turning our local rags into the New York Times and our hometown tube into CNN and the BBC and... wait for it... we may never do so. It really is - to quote the former Barbadian journalist and Canadian public intellectual, Professor Cecil Foster - very hard to practice journalism in a small place. And indeed, the critique of the Caribbean media as being absent from the creation of our nation state can be much longer than the many stories of success and achievement, however modest. Yes, a pox on all our houses.

Yet, for all our warts, our media have not descended into the anarchic hate-machines that talk radio was in Rwanda or partisan media are to America's political inertia. Yes, there is now more commercial media than perhaps we need, media that see themselves less as sacred trusts and more as sacred cash cows; that criticism is more than valid.

But now, in today's catch-all, catch-nothing blogosphere, everyone is hunted down, has motives questioned and is summarily executed. It is harder to quarrel with a man who trots out text from a bottomless electronic pit than with the man who imports ink by the barrel.

So far, there is way too little in the way of original information, insight (do not read knee-jerk reaction) and investigation beyond the chirpy ranting of a few who might do modestly better with a pneumatic that they do with a keyboard.

When I read some of the great debates played out in the newspapers of the 1930s between the great Barbadian journalist Clennel Wickham and Grantley Adams on Socialism or even between the same Adams and the Jesuit priest Father Besant on Divorce, I am staggered by the incredibly high art of argument between a product of the Great War and elementary school and the Oxford graduate. Then, I am so easily deflated when I imagine how that argument would have been distorted, contorted and confused by appending a 'comments' space to the bottom, or, indeed, if left to some latter-day bloggers.

And bloggers are cannibals. Not only do they regurgitate someone else's intellectual effort (usually a journalist's) but as they jockey for preeminence in the blogging food chain, they pick off their own, especially the few bloggers who actually put their real names and their credentials in the public domain. Too many hide behind the keyboard and make pronouncements without first talking, I mean, really talking, to another living soul, let alone gather actual facts. Why should readers attach greater credence to a blogger, largely anonymous, whose only credentials are a familiarity with HTML?

It is our duty as citizens to demand more, much more from the media we pay for. It is our solemn duty as journalists to do more. Yet increasingly the media's work is often ripped off and ripped up by bloggers who offer nothing but pablum and platitude in return. It is time bloggers put out or shut up.

What we need, then, perhaps is not so much "social media" but more honest citizen journalism. That form of communication, despite what the new elite of the chattering classes of cyberspace may say, has not yet been wrought in the Caribbean.

Julius Gittens is a Caribbean journalist and broadcaster.