Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | October 25, 2009
Home : In Focus
What's a columnist for?

Ian Boyne

It's okay to boast about your art collection, your antiques, your athletic abilities, your musical skills, but not about your books. If you read widely, it is not polite, but insufferably arrogant and conceited to let on about it. That is something you hide to keep your reputation of humility intact.

Every now and then we hear people bemoan the decline in reading, especially among the young, but increasingly even among the educated classes. Sometimes public campaigns are mounted on the need to read more, even a few pages a week, as the aversion to reading reaches pandemic proportions. Take it from me: If you don't have a thick skin and can't withstand the most severe abuse and ridicule, if you do read, please treat that the way you would hidden treasure. It's not "cool" in our society to give the impression that you are well read. That's just anathema or, at best, in poor taste.

axe to grind

I have an axe to grind: I am a columnist who believes that I have no right taking up space in the leading newspaper in the region, or any newspaper at all, if my opinions are not informed and rigorously developed after solid intellectual work. I don't believe that I should be given a column just to sound off, just because in a democratic society people must freely express their views and I must exercise my democratic right. An editor should do more than toss coins to determine who should be given the opportunity to "sound off".

My overarching goal as a columnist is heuristic; I must expose my readers to the best scholarship and ideas which exist on a subject. I must bring them a quality of work not one whit below what one would find in the best scholarly journals and books on any particular subject I am addressing. It's a tall order I have set myself, but I will not be deterred from it.

I realise that in our Western, particularly Jamaican context, macho, Rambo journalism is the order of the day. It's the Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and O'Reilly type of angry, belligerent journalism that is prized. The louder you shout, the more acerbic, vitriolic and opinionated you are, the more you get ratings. People read you and say, "Pram! Pram!" for your "fearlessness" and "strength" in "speaking truth to power" or holding the politicians "feet to the fire".

There is a place for that type of columnist. I read and appreciate the best of that type, too. But that's not my role. I am far more interested in stimulating thought, in provoking further reading and reflection and in using the Socratic method of questioning rather than offering people settled, dogmatic positions. I am a 'on-the-other-hand type' of columnist.

I would never do well as call-in talk show host for I don't have the stomach for the trite, trenchant and tendentious kind of talk which gets you the ratings.

When people are calling in hot under the collar, they don't have either the time or patience for intellectual arguments, nuances and subtleties. Attack, attack, attack; cuss, cuss, cuss; accuse, accuse, accuse. Speak boldly, speak sharply, show your toughness and no-nonsense approach and people will love your show. If I go on and tell people to look on the other side and start to encourage them to reason, they would get impatient with me and listeners would get bored and switch to someone more exciting. That's why I have turned down offers to do call-in shows. I am not suited for that kind of game.

'i never respond to critics'

As a rule, I never respond to critics. You never see me taking on the many people writing in response to my columns. I totally ignore them. Most of them revel simply in personal attacks, insults, questioning of my motives, political bias, and crude anti-intellec-tualism. (Some are motivated by plain bad-mindedness and mean-spiritedness.)

People like Lloyd Cooke of Mandeville are not in that category. There are sincere, well-meaning people like Mr Cooke who genuinely want to see me take a firm stand on issues such as the atheism-theism debate. His letter in Tuesday's Gleaner (October 20) which the editor titled "Boyne falls short again" was balanced, reasoned and fair.

He commends me for my work in highlighting an important debate taking place in the metropolis; for my references to important sources of information on that debate, but challenges me to give my own point-by-point rebuttal. That's fair and reasonable. But there was another, insightful and poignant letter in Wednesday's Gleaner, buried at the bottom of the brief 'Noteworthy' section titled, "Read before you talk". It expresses some annoyance that "twice now I have seen individuals criticise Ian Boyne's In Focus pieces. Wouldn't it have been wiser to at least read the suggested literature so that an informed discussion can take place? I suggest some reading is in order."

These two letters, from opposite perspectives, avoid the personal attacks and insults and go to the issue, something many find hard to do. I never dignify those persons with responses.

wider dialogue

But these two letter writers raise important issues which call for a wider dialogue on the purposes of opinion journalism. Every year I read the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media Report; an extensive review of both traditional and new media in America. (I know it's impolite and egomaniacal to mention what I read, but please forgive me.) I also read The Columbia Journalism Review and The American Journalism Review, two of the leafing publications on American journalism.

I know what's happening in media and what the trends are. I know newspaper revenues and readers are declining rapidly. As the 2009 The State of the News Media Report says in its overview: "Newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23 per cent in the last two years. Some papers are in bankruptcy and others have lost three-quarters of their value. By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone and 2009 may be the worst year yet."

We are in the age of sound byte journalism. It's the dumbing down of standards everywhere. New media have only aggravated the problem of attention deficit disorder among populations. Never has there been such an information explosion - and so few people willing to access it.

I predict that as the Internet, the rise of citizen journalists and other new media phenomena increase, newspapers will increasingly become an anachronism. In the 'Twitter age', people are getting information minutely. If you thought cable television had radically changed the news cycle, well witness what Twitter and the social networks are doing. People don't need newspapers for news anymore. They get that in abundance from many sources.

What people need more of is a contextualising of the enormous amounts of information which exist. People will need analysis; people will need others to help them make the connections, to help them to make sense of all the information out there, to help them to weave a tapestry. I predict that columnists who give people facts and solid information and knowledge or who help them to analyse what they already know will be in demand.

People don't have to spend their hard-earned money to buy newspapers to hear columnists sound off. They can get that freely on the Internet, from talk shows - or from the bars. There is going to be a declining demand for what I call "bar room journalism".

If you want to be exposed to the best and most riveting ideas from the finest scholars and thinkers who have done their homework, and you yourself don't have the time or energy to do all the reading necessary, it would seem to me that you would appreciate someone who does that work and brings the information to you.

Years ago when Gleaner Editor-in-chief Dudley Stokes recruited me first to be a columnist, he took me one day in his office and said, "Ian, your value to me and to our readers is that you do all the reading that people don't have time for and tell us what the books and magazines say." But in this cuss-out, superficial society that is not praise-worthy. It is a mark of arrogance or perhaps thinly veiled insecurities.

do your own reading

When I wrote the series on the atheism-theism debate, I intended to incite people to do their own reading and reflections and to take the discussions farther. My own personal opinions are not the most crucial factor. I introduce the issues, delineate the various contours and nuances of the discussion and expose you to the best and brightest scholars and thinkers on both sides and let you run with the debate. Let Lloyd Cooke and the atheists now debate the issues. I have done my work by starting the discourse. I don't have to conclude it. The 'Noteworthy' writer got the point: "I suggest some reading is in order", so that "informed discussion can take place".

Whether I am writing about foreign policy, economics, politics, religion or public affairs broadly, my aim is to bring the best scholarship and thinking to bear on the issues. Scholarship should not be confined to recondite journals read by a few. My goal is to "democratise" it and make it accessible to the masses. My own opinions are not the most crucial aspect of my writing, though I regularly make them known as regular readers can attest.

As a reader, I would much prefer to know that the person I am reading has done the wide reading which qualifies him to write on a matter and that he has given me some refe-rences so I can do further work on my own, than to hear him sound off his own lazy, ill-conceived opinions. I can get that from any street corner. I would rather in one column hear many voices than just one. What about you?

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at ianboyne1@yahoo or columns@gleanerjm.com.

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