Front Porch | Need for more enlightened commentary
The late conservative public intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. repeatedly noted that his often barbed print and broadcast commentary were spurred and driven by the nonsense (a euphemism for an expletive) he read in the daily papers.
A libertarian, Buckley often employed an irreverent, sharp, incisive, witty, contrarian point of view, with witticisms such as, “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.”
He was not a doctrinaire conservative. With prescience and libertarian zeal, Buckley, the Brahmin-accented scion of a wealthy New England family, declared in an April, 1983, National Review commentary: “The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents.”
Buckley, like other magazine or newspaper print commentators, understood that good commentary involved informed insight and/or information for readers.
He founded the magazine National Review in 1955, a journal dedicated to advancing conservative principles, especially as related to government, politics and economics.
Buckley was instrumental in promoting conservative ideas, many of which led to the success of the Republican Party in the United States of America and the rise of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency.
Even his ideological rivals admired his intellect, encyclopedic mind and artful use of the language, even if they were horrified by his ideas and conclusions. He famously sparred with famed liberal thinkers and authors like the brilliant James Baldwin and Gore Vidal.
Whatever a commentator’s ideological leanings or points of view, one should offer readers and viewers context, insight, thoughtful views, historical perspective, logical analysis and other qualities that will help others to think and to reflect beyond the drivel, shallow thinking and pseudo-thoughtfulness in daily life.
Sadly, there is a dearth of intelligent commentary in the country today. Much of the commentary in the print and broadcast media is unimaginative, uninformed, rote and tedious, failing to enthuse, inform, amuse or enlighten readers.
There is a category error made by some editors and many readers. This error is the misguided belief that because a reporter can do basic reportage and write a story, such an individual has the capacity or ability to offer good commentary.
A National Review commentary in this journal last week, written by Assistant News Editor Travis Cartwright-Carroll, under the headline “Boot Lickers”, is emblematic of the poor quality of commentary in the print media.
The writer mimicked a certain style of political commentary too often found at home and abroad that prioritizes the sensational and superficial over in-depth and compelling analysis.
The writer should have ploughed through Finance Minister Peter Turnquest’s recent budget communication, which included detailed analysis of government finances, including how the government was seeking to reduce deficits and debt and move the country forward through a number of projects.
Instead, the writer opted for the typical low-hanging fruit of empty criticism of a group of politicians.
The writer stated: “There was little talk of the Minnis administration’s plans for the way forward. Two years into office and it is unclear what the FNM has planned to grow the Bahamian economy, increase employment and help the ‘small man.’”
This was stunningly, disappointingly, depressingly and charitably, intellectually disingenuous. The writer appears to have been sleepwalking through the past two years as well as the budget debate.
For guidance on the details of the budget, the writer may have gained insight and inspiration from the editorial pages of his own newspaper, which offered critical reflections on the budget, including the government’s “plans for the way forward”.
If the commentator had a critique of those plans, that would have been fair commentary. But to glibly say there was little talk is malarkey or another word that cannot be written in this space.
The Minister of National Security Marvin Dames, on whose capable and determined watch crime is trending down, spoke at length about plans in his ministry.
For further reference, the writer might review the prime minister’s budget contribution from yesterday which noted plans for: universal free access to education from primary school to university; renewable energy and energy reform; the redevelopment of a part of the Nassau waterfront; access to land and land reform; training through the Small Business Center for Over-the-Hill residents and other initiatives.
In an editorial on June 4, The Nassau Guardian opined and critiqued that the government should prioritize growth over revenue enhancement: “The simple reality is that the more money government collects in taxes from the economy the less money remains for businesses to reinvest, create jobs and hence economic growth.
“Likewise, an increase in money collected in taxes from the people means there is less disposable income for people to spend resulting in a negative impact on economic activity and thereby growth.
There is always a fine balance to be had between taxation policy and economic growth policy.
“Growth and taxes are antagonistic to each other. The best fiscal policy is the one that errs on the side of growth.”
It is a legitimate debate. But it is a debate over policy substance instead of the silly notion of who is supposedly “bootlicking” and “butt kissing”.
On June 13, this journal opined: “Peter Turnquest, member of Parliament for East Grand Bahama, deputy prime minister and minister of finance, inherited a difficult situation in 2017, including unsustainable deficits, credit downgrades and general economic malaise.
“Notwithstanding these challenges, Turnquest has been single-minded in his determination to bring the government’s finances to good order… This year’s budget contains a number of positives that should be applauded.”
The editorial continued: “First, the restoration of the public finances to a fiscally sustainable path is bearing good fruits; the galloping trajectory of the fiscal deficit has been halted – nay reversed. As a result The Bahamas government has a smaller deficit and there is now slower growth in the increase of the national debt.
“Second, the fiscal situation as reported in the budget is the most transparent ever, providing a clear picture of the government’s financial position.
“We suggest that the government follow through and produce and table in Parliament supplementary and final appropriation bills, Treasury accounts and audited accounts commencing with the accounts for 2017/2018.”
The editorial further noted: “Tourism is buoyant and GDP growth is improving. The government is presiding over a growing economy. We applaud the budget’s financial support for the small and medium-sized business center.
“The plan to address arrears left behind from the tenure of the former administration is another positive aspect of the budget, as is the amortized approach to paying off those arrears.”
The paper advised: “Similarly, the follow-through on fiscal reform measures is applauded. These reforms will undoubtedly improve fiscal responsibility, accountability and revenue administration.
“The decision to amend the Stamp Act to permit the transfer of real property to immediate family members without attracting stamp duty (now VAT) is to be commended.”
There was enough in these editorials for extensive review and commentary. Sadly, instead, we were treated to an overwhelmingly banal piece lacking in depth or substance.
The National Review writer offered: “The few Cabinet ministers who spoke detailed the work they have accomplished in their ministries.”
The writer might have helpfully discussed these details which may serve as a rejoinder to his claim that, “There was little talk of the Minnis administration’s plans for the way forward.”
The journalist cum commentator continued: “But there was little originality in the budget. There were no exciting initiatives outlined by the government.”
Perhaps if he studied more ministerial presentations as well as the prime minister’s contribution, he would discover crime reduction strategies, tourism and economic proposals, job creation plans, Family Island initiatives, access to land, capital works, land reform, universal free access to education, tax incentives, removal of taxes for passing land on to immediate family members, small business development, renewable energy proposals and other strategies.
Many of these will prove “exciting” and “original” for the many thousands who will benefit from such policies, even if the writer remains bored at policies that will improve many lives.
The writer continued: “By and large, the debate has been a snooze fest.” This is a sadly immature perspective. The budget is not a source of titillation for cubs.
The national budget is not meant to be a source of entertainment, like an episode of Game of Thrones or an Avengers film. A budget is a serious and often dense complex of policy statements. Public policy is not always sexy or sensational.
It is time for some reporters to grow up, to put on their big boy and big girl pants and to do the hard work of wading through material and doing serious analysis, instead of the triteness that attempts to pass for commentary.
A former retired senior public official who served for a part of his career as a journalist and news editor recalls sitting in the House and carefully taking notes for stories.
Another former news editor and journalist noted that she sat with budget experts after the initial budget presentation in order to better understand the numbers and the policy.
In lieu of such study and analysis today, we are too often treated to public pandering and headline-grabbing commentary that are big on personalities and political sparring, and weak, terribly weak, on substance and informed insight.
• More next week: Good commentary needed in a democracy.