I’m an inarticulate mess, and no one should invite me to speak at their anything. A face for radio and voice for print equipped me for success as a composer of prose.
That said, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to discuss the “Crisis in Thailand’s Fourth Estate.” That’s a self-important term news people use to refer to themselves, by the way. I happily accepted the invitation from the fine folks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand because the topic consumes my waking hours, sapping my health and robbing me of meaningful human contact.
The following is adapted from what I attempted to say.
The crisis of Thailand’s traditional media is due to self-inflicted wounds. We are failing to serve readers on the fundamentals.
A lot of think pieces about the post-truth era have been written by people much smarter than I. Trust in institutions including journalism has been under assault for decades by those inconvenienced by a truth-based consensus.
But while those global currents are relevant in Thailand, they’re not really to blame.
The crisis in Thailand’s fourth estate isn’t due to bots, Russian trolls or a sustained ideological assault. My pitiable print friends can only blame in part changing technology, behaviors and business models (And now that I’ve heard their solutions, I’m sorry to say they haven’t a clue about what’s happening).
Journalism is about helping people make sense of the world (that consensus thing) and holding the humans who hold the power accountable. Achieving the latter goal flows from successfully executing the former.
Making sense of the world is a powerful thing. Faith and religion did this until supplanted by other human creations, culminating in the mass media. Consider: Why are weather stories so popular? Why would the rained-upon want to read that it’s raining? When Bangkok gets hit with a fuck-you-class monsoon, we rush out photos of wet people and wet cars and wet streets. Every soul slogging through the wet to work slaps their thumb against the headline on their smartphone, and in that moment, they’re not alone. “I’m experiencing this fuck-you rain, and so is everyone else.”
When it’s not raining, we in the Thai media are failing to deliver this. People look at what we’re putting out, and they’re not buying it. We fail to help make sense of the world because we don’t make sense.
Every time we fail to challenge some great wet whopper of a lie, whenever we lose interest in following up on the latest slow-walked “diligent investigation” and nod along to the same tired lies, we drive people away.
Whenever we surrender simple truth-telling for whatever acrobatic reasoning, every time we try to have it both ways, every time we contort or stretch or prevaricate or overgeneralize – we dig our own graves.
Yet the audience is still out there, as is their need.
But they’re not going to endure tortured logic that’s inconsistent with reality. They know a lie when they hear one. When we pretend that we don’t, they begin to believe we are not sincere or useful.
So they’re going to Drama-addict and Queen of Spades and E Jan and Pantip because, whatever those things are are, they’re honest and resemble reality and make sense.
What has been the greatest force of justice in Thailand? Whose scrutiny has forced the hand of justice time and again? Whose investigative effort has brought the second-most powerful junta member to his knees? Not Khaosod English. Not Voice TV. Not Bangkok Post. Not The Nation. (Though NotTheNation is sorely missed).
It’s social media. It’s CSI LA. That’s where the crowd is doing it for themselves.
Sound dire and hopeless?
It shouldn’t be. There’s good news. As a profession, journalism is still something we’re equipped to do better. Would you really trust a Citizen Doctor or Citizen Lawyer?
That means re-embracing the fundamentals. It doesn’t matter whether we’re staining wood pulp with ink or Facebook Live-ing or podcasting or creating virtual reality experiences, the fundamentals have never changed.
Ethics are not passe, ethics are the only future.
The age of automatic trust is gone, but we can work hard to win respect. There are things we can do right now – keep reading.
I get there are cultural complications to professional newsgathering. I know my reporters aren’t going to tell a pushy PR flack who wants us to change something in a story to go to hell. They’re going to translate it, but to the same effect. They’re not going to tell the mendacious public servant they are full of shit. They don’t need to; there are many (more culturally effective) ways to skin a cat.
As with other universal human values such as justice and freedom, Thailand is not such an exceptional place that the truth is unwelcome here. Thailand doesn’t need Thai-style journalism.
Don’t believe the lecturey, pedantic farang editor? You don’t have to. This has nothing to do with comparing Thailand to other countries (nice try!).
Excellent journalism has been practiced before by fine reporters right here in the kingdom.
I started reading the Bangkok Post 18 years ago, before Thaksin Shinawatra’s legacy of weaponized defamation neutered it. Go back into its past and find a bold paper on a mission. I think of what Ajarn Chang founded at Matichon and then Khaosod 20-something years ago as the thread we’re picking up at Khaosod English. I see flashes of brilliance from Voice TV, which is at its best when living up to its name as a voice for the people and not a partisan vehicle. It’s hard to believe, but look at what The Nation was long before its cult of fragile personalities became a cringey mess, when it was young and awesome.
Thai Media will never be what it was. The big buildings will be sold. Most print will fold, the presses auctioned off or melted down. But it can remain relevant and viable in the formats of the future by rediscovering the purpose of its past.
I’ve got great hope for the future. Over the past decade, I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with young Thais whose hearts and courage and desire to do right are unimpeachable. They just need the chance to do it.
I’d ask my colleagues and counterparts everywhere, if you can’t be the change, please get out of their way and let them do it.
So what can we do right now? There’s a lot! Especially if we do it together.
In true 21st century form, it comes in the form of a list.
Top 10 Ways to Make Thai Media Great Again
- Stop rewriting press releases and passing them off as stories. Just stop. This is bad for business. Make them buy an ad.
- Stop accepting gifts: No junkets, no entertainment, no services, no swag, no paid travel and no VIP access beyond what is necessary to report a story.
- Get over yourselves. Stop assuming we are important. We are not special. We are regular folks who are paid to get answers for other regular people.
- Be the transparency. When you get things wrong, fix it and write a note to readers explaining what happened. It’s not embarrassing, and they will respect this. When you change things under pressure of a higher power, as happens, tell readers what was changed and why. When you remove things entirely, tell readers what was removed and why. You may not be able to go into every detail, but people aren’t stupid and will understand.
- Stop doing favors for your friends or anyone. That’s what corruption is: favors for friends. Don’t make exceptions to principle or cut corners, even for people the people you think are the good guys. As soon as you make exceptions in one case, they will be expected in all others.
- Stop letting public relations bully you. We all know the real force censorship comes not from the big bad junta, but from the commercial interests who we let call the shots. This fundamentally betrays our readers and is totally upside down! Remember: We have the power and should be bullying them! The next time some flack wants to see your questions in advance for an interview, tell them to go to hell. And let’s band together in solidarity to to deny coverage unless everyone is granted fair access.
- Make more sense. Don’t leave gaping holes in stories. Adequately explain context and background. Identify people and the relationships they have with each other.
- Stop producing single-source stories about what the Permanent Secretary of Whatever said today. If you do, remind readers of the entirely different thing he or she said last week and include other voices challenging what he said. Better yet, skip the Permsec of Whatevs and find the people affected by the issue.
- Minimize harm: Remember that adage of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” A lot to list here, but a handy example: Stop publishing names and photos of victims of sexual assault. We can have salacious stories and tabloid fun without hurting people.
- Be more human. Stop talking down to people. Have a laugh at what there is to laugh about, even ourselves. Consult dictionaries and don’t be tricked into adopting euphemisms spun to confuse you and the public. If it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, don’t call it thai niyom.