Bread. October 2007
Newspapers should beware of being shunned by the intelligent
Recently, Lee Kuan Yew mused aloud: "the way the print media can
stay in the contest is not to be the first with the news because that's
not possible, but to be the first with the background and the analysis and
the ones with the high credibility will stay in
This may be a forlorn hope.
Within a day of the launch of the keep377a website, appealing for signatures to an open letter urging the retention of the anti-gay law, the Molly Meek blog came out with an incisive analysis. He wrote:
Read the post in full -- it's a very lucid analysis.
Till now, neither the Straits Times nor Today has published any analysis of the counter-campaign by the homophobes, though it's already quite remarkable that they have at least written up the events as news, and were pretty quick about it too.
In fact, contrary to what Lee thinks, it may be easier for our print media to try to hold on to their competitive advantage over news, rather than muscle in on analysis. There are a number of reasons for this, as the above example shows.
Gathering news requires enormous resources: a large database of contacts for information and verification, access to policymakers, and being reachable 24 hours a day. Large organisations have an advantage in this.
While news rides on speed and accuracy, analysis, on the other hand, relies on freedom of speech and the commentator's credibility, both being interrelated. There is no reason why the paid columnists of a media organisation should be more credible than experts outside the organisation; this being the case, it will be very hard for a media organisation to claim any advantage in providing analysis.
No doubt, a media organisation can host commentary by outside experts, and pay handsomely too, but seizing this advantage is contingent on the political climate and the freedom of expression allowed to the media organisation.
Our newspapers know that they are operating within tighter limits than the blogosphere. The public knows that too. The result is that the former are handicapped in attracting quality analyses. Good commentators will want to stay outside the ambit of these organisations to avoid complications to their freedom of expression.
Political sensitivities are less likely to impinge on news gathering. A decade ago, it might have been true that many kinds of news could not even be reported, but under pressure from digital media, the scope has been widening. Now, additional subjects can be reported upon, so long as there is "balance" – i.e. both sides of the issue are represented.
I would therefore argue that the trend is one where Singapore's state-affiliated media organisations will remain news organisations, but lose out to digital media for analysis.
Take the example of the debate over Section 377A of the Penal Code. Two law academics have written at length about it -- Yvonne Lee and Michael Hor. Yvonne Lee's embarrassment of an article  was accepted by the Straits Times for publication, though rumour also has it that the editors felt pressured by political higher-ups to decide the way they did.
Victor Ramraj, the Vice-Dean of the law faculty, was moved to do a bit of damage control for the law school's reputation, but according to a reliable source, his counter-piece  was not accepted by the Straits Times in its original form. As I wrote previously, I was told that
Michael Hor's analysis of the 377A issue -- an excellent one, I might add -- can be found on The Online Citizen. I asked him why it appeared there and not in a mainstream newspaper. He wrote in reply,
You can sense the dynamics at work. Few of us can recall any of the "quite a few things" that Today has published on 377A. It was more likely the directness of Hor's arguments rather than the reiteration of the topic in Today's pages that was the determining factor. My guess is that the newspaper was probably uncomfortable to be put in a position where they might be accused by their political masters of "crusading journalism", an accusation Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng has levelled before at newspapers that took a stand (that the government didn't like) on an issue.
Hor didn't expand on what he thought about the pros and cons of submitting it to the Straits Times, but in the end, he clearly chose an online site as his preferred medium.
Our media organisations are now at risk of slipping into a vicious cycle where overcautiousness leads to them being shunned by opinion writers, leaving them with second-rate commentary, leading to a further decline in reputation and circulation, and more shunning for various reasons.
The Straits Times, for example, will be remembered for carrying the very poor quality piece by Yvonne Lee, and nothing that balances that. Hor didn't even give them the opportunity when he had a piece ready.
More examples of shunning can be divined from the letters pages with respect to the same issue of 377A. There are very few letters in the press arguing for repeal. Instead, what debate there is in the letters pages is always initiated by an anti-gay letter, following which may be more anti-gay letters and an occasional rebuttal
Yet, lots of bloggers have written about their support for repeal, some with very cogent reasoning. It is striking that virtually all the leading bloggers have spoken up for repeal, and together with the celebrities putting up the rap video, it seems to suggest that among intellectuals in Singapore, opinion has shifted considerably to repeal. Why are such opinions not more reflected in the mainstream newspapers?
This can mean two things:
Firstly, conservatives are more likely to write in to our mainstream newspapers because they have more faith that their letters will be carried. Only when their letters are published do liberals feel the need to write in to rebut.
Or, liberals are writing in too, but the newspapers choose not to open the issue by publishing a pro-repeal letter, lest it be seen as adopting an editorial position the government might frown on.
My gut feel is that the second is not the case. It's more likely the first situation, where the letters editor really isn't getting pro-repeal letters. Few write unless provoked, because liberals have little faith in the mainstream media.
It may be argued that the reality is that there are more people out there with anti-gay views than pro-repeal, so probability-wise, the first letter that lands on an editor's desk is an anti-gay one. This might account for the fact that debate in the newspapers tend to lead off with an anti-gay letter.
Perhaps this is so, but there is also the question of quality. Invariably, the anti-gay letters contain very poor quality reasoning , and for a newspaper to be caught in a position where that's what they are getting, and what's available for printing, cannot but have an effect on the public's perception of editorial judgement.
A newspaper that features too many duds can't look brilliant. This is no way to build a brand and a future.
© Yawning Bread
Data from Straits Times, 20 Oct 2007