Agony of a Columnist

2010-06-03
THISDAY Newspaper- Chidi Amuta

Among self appointed messiahs, newspaper columnists here or anywhere else rank quite high.

From the privacy of our studies, we pontificate and adjudicate. Assured of the unnamed immunity of our media affiliation (fourth estate of no realm!), we condemn, prescribe and generally treat authority and our fellow citizens sometimes with patronising condescension. If the columnist in question is tolerably knowledgeable, we can put up with the arrogance.

The matter drifts towards comedy when the fellow is relatively unschooled, plainly ignorant or simply foolish. We are squarely in the territory of tragedy and professional travesty when we encounter a columnist whose attachment to the umbilical cord of the 'I' is rigid. Add frozen partisanship and unrelenting prejudice and the calamity is complete.

Somehow, society tends to take us seriously, perhaps more seriously than we take ourselves sometimes. People look forward to reading us every week or fortnight as the case may be. They invite us to countless dinners, cocktails, seminars, lectures and social gatherings. Somehow, there is this unstated feeling that if you can get some 'opinion moulders' to attend your event, your social esteem is enhanced. So, we get to enjoy the occasional free booze, receive stupid gifts at Christmas and get inundated with invitations to all manner of things by a motley crowd of social and political arrivistes.

On the part of the newspaper industry, the hope and expectation lurks somewhere that the significant and sensible columnist will somehow attract a followership of readers over time to boost or sustain the prestige and market share of the medium. I guess that proposition was tested to the limits in the early days of The Guardian when we were firing on all cylinders, fuelled by the idealism of relative youth and too many books sometimes read upside down as university teachers. We were journalistic Pentecostals.

One of the fulfilling and humbling aspects of this whole column writing business is the knowledge that somehow somewhere, you are helping people make sense or nonsense of the dizzying reality around them. We interpret, decode and generally give meaning to sometimes confusing developments in a world that changes by the second.

Sometimes also, you receive a mail, a text message or a phone call from someone whom your piece may have helped vent a secret concern. At other times, you receive messages that indicate that you may have fouled up someone's day by expressing views they may not agree with.

Either way, you feel a passing sense of some self worth, of some value for your labours. It is only human to harbour a secret feeling of power even if modesty dictates that you identify with the powerless. If we had our way, we journalists would rather side with the downtrodden while secretly wishing we could for once be the oppressors!

Even then, the understandable assault of feedback mail of all hues and varying levels of seriousness must remain the perennial nightmare of all columnists. They range from the very serious snap comment to the plainly silly jabs of perennial killjoys and habitual grumblers. There are also the numerous microwave judgments of the columnist's positions informed of course by the usual Nigerian penchant for name calling and unreasoned, sometimes nauseating, historical myth making. The latter comes often from people who may not have read, talk less understood a given piece.

In the world of new media and multi channel instant communication, the risk is multiplied manifold. If the spontaneous phone call does not get you, the text message will wait for you in the ubiquitous cell phones. Or, better still, countless e -mails will greet you once you innocently get onto that computer. If you survive these, the cell phone calls may persist.

If you pick up any of those calls, you may be lectured for many minutes on end or simply told you are a damn fool. After reading a piece I had done on the war of poisons between two Nigerian emergency oligarchs, one of them got so frustrated that he could not speak to me on my default phone line that he sent me a text message which simply said: 'Chidi, you are just a big fool..' That's nothing new. My late mother used to tell me precisely that every time she was told I had written another big book!

A few weeks ago, my piece on 'Jonathan and the Nonsense Orchestra' elicited some of the most memorable feedback mail I have received in recent times. A sampler: 'Sometimes, you sound like a clown...!'. Another was more morbid: 'God should have taken you and left your friend, Stanley Macebuh!'. Others were more pecuniary: 'You are blocking Jonathan in order to make way for your friend and ATM machine, IBB!'.

'How much did Ibori pay you for that piece..?' From my analysis of the over 300 e-mails and text message responses to that piece, I came to certain tragic conclusions about our newspaper audience. Ten percent of those who abuse you never read the piece. They are just allergic to your name and have drawn fixed conclusions. More than half of those who respond may not have understood the piece!

The ability to engage at a fairly serious level of discourse is declining fast among those who read newspapers. Maybe the NECO 80% failure rate deserves more serious official attention if we are to salvage future generations from an epidemic of ignorance and descent into plangent barbarism.

Worse still, the license of democratic freedom is breeding an elite of tyrants and paper demagogues, the exact opposite of democracy should engender. Intolerance of opposing views, autocratic rhetoric and a basic unwillingness to give and take in matters of social and political discourse may be more dangerous than the derogations of democracy at the official level.

For the columnist, one of the worst experiences must be the tragedy of being either misunderstood or judged by prejudiced readers. Democratic decency requires that we grant the interlocutor their right of reply. The public danger of the newspaper column increases when the right of reply becomes a right to misinform or market ignorance and mischief packaged as rebuttal.

The trouble with passing round unreasoned judgements and pre conceptions is that it is like passing on second hand smoke in a public bus or train. The peddler may escape unhurt while those who end up with lung cancer and assorted chest infections, very long after the initial exposure, may be unintended and innocent wayfarers and hapless passengers.

But by far the biggest nightmare of being a newspaper columnist here and now has to do with the present state of our public discourse. There is a creeping culture of intellectual laziness, a certain lack of rigour in thought and a basic reluctance to engage with issues. People do not read. If they read, I am not sure some of them understand.

Where they understand, some find it more convenient to suspend belief and embrace disbelief. What is more fashionable is the tendency to read and ignore the substance of the substantive subject and instead launch a personal attack either on the columnist of his imaginary sponsors. Nigeria is perhaps the only country where the most effusive reviewers of a book are those who have not read it!

In my view, one of the most compelling strategic and patriotic roles of column writing in an unformed society such as ours is agenda setting and the agitation of received dogma and conventional wisdom.

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Very often, we are accused of being ever so ready to criticise policy and the officials who design or implement them without coming up with suggestions and solutions. Sometimes we do set out concrete perspectives that contain workable solutions. At other times, we try to help the national agenda by provoking debate and needful controversy. Sometimes, our more perceptive readers wish that our leaders find time to read some of the counsel we advance now and again.

The ordinary reader may not understand that by the nature of what we do, the truly serious columnist lives a life drenched in information. Sometimes, the booby traps we identify on the road ahead are informed by information at our disposal that is not necessarily available to the man in the street. Some of this information is not fit for public consumption. The greatest journalists, incidentally, are those who die carrying the burden of information they had but could not use in a life time.

As we head in the direction of the 2011 general elections, a concern which this reporter must vent is the reluctance of most of our columnists to engage with issues, to point politicians in the direction of the issues that define the lives of our people.

We are still mired with personalities and chained to the past as a zone of recurrent myths and unrelieved sadness. We appear frozen in time. But the world has moved on. So have our people become victims of novel worries and changing adversities. They wait for us for answers and clues. We offer them, week after week, worn prejudices and jaded assumptions.

In spite of our weaknesses, I guess we fill a role in society. Above all our shenanigans is the beauty of communication, of the free expression of ideas and exchange of information. Through these columns, we manage to create a community of feelings, ideas and solutions.

We bridge the gaps of understanding that would have kept our peoples divided. If a nation fails to develop into a community of feelings, of shared expectations, shared values and shared frustrations, it soon dies under the weight of fragmented beliefs. So, from Lagos to Maiduguri, from Brass to Birnin Kebbi and from Lagos to Lokoja, we awaken the injured pride of a people divided by contending greed but united by common circumstances.

The places from where we deliver judgment on Nigeria may be far apart. But the conclusions we reach and the results we yearn for in the public square are becoming more common by the day. We are witnessing the gradual emergence of a national community. The columnist as the modern equivalent of the town crier of old must be credited for contributing to this sea change.

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For the columnist, then, the satisfaction belongs somewhere untouchable. Nothing said remains the same. The magic of the word, spoken or written, remains one of the most important distinguishing features of our human civilisation. Words change people, alter reality and disturb the peace of those powers to who we must speak truth. The magical word repeatedly invoked, rises to the abode of the gods and alters reality. Nothing named remains the same.

We are the 'commentariat'. The unelected judges of public issues, the self appointed arbiters, judges, accusers, defenders and sentinels of the public space. We are the tribune of the common wrong, doomed by the common cause to dance on the pages so that the nakedness of kings and the fawning of their courtiers may be exposed.

The privilege of being heard by so many, of inflicting our ideas and thoughts on so many, of coercing those in authority and innocent others to read us and take us seriously is a rare privilege. A friend called me the other day and reminded me that: 'public commentary is not a popularity contest.' I guess he is right.


 

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