Freedom From The Press reviewed in TOC



August 13th, 2012

One of the biggest challenges I set myself in writing Freedom From The Press was to ensure that an essentially academic monograph would also be accessible by the lay public. To get published by a university press requires a certain theoretical weight that the general audience often finds intolerable. NUS Press was satisfied that I had met its rigorous criteria for scholarship. But, would the book end up as yet another turgid text read only by researchers and reluctant graduate students? I’m happy to note TOC’s reviewerdescribing it as a “largely journalistic narrative”.

In fact, I may have disguised the academic stuffing too well. Vernon Chan, apparently one of those who believes that a scholarly book must shout its theoretical pretensions in polysyllabic prose, seems to feel cheated that it is not analytical enough. Fortunately for me, NUS Press – one of Asia’s top academic publishers – applied less lofty standards than Chan.

His review makes a number of other curious claims. One of them is that my account of the PAP’s taming of the press is “mostly sourced from Mary Turnbull’s pro-establishment account of press history”. I make no apologies for drawing on Turnbull, since she is probably the only historian who has had access to newspaper publishers’ files and interviews with their senior management. But Chan’s claim that I’ve relied mostly on her work is demonstrably false. He just had to check the footnotes and count them: five from Turnbull vs. eight from Francis Seow – not exactly a pro-establishment source. I’ve also relied heavily on the accounts of other dissenting Singaporeans from the past (like Said Zahari) and present (like Martyn See and James Gomez), alongside the establishment voices such as S. R. Nathan and of course Lee Kuan Yew.

Chan also suggests that the book is a “rehash” of existing literature. I’m glad that I have made my debts to past work so clear, for there is a lot to be learnt from previous work. But TOC’s reviewer seems to have missed the fact that my book includes the only published compilation of the use of the Internal Security Act against journalists and writers, the result of painstaking original research by my assistant; and findings from the most representative survey ever done of Singapore journalists, carried out together with my colleague Hao Xiaoming.

Chan ends by pointing out that “social framing analysis”* is entirely missing from my book. As every experienced hack knows, this is the easiest, laziest way to write a critical review of anything: just attack what the work doesn’t do. (Example: “The Dark Knight’s box office success notwithstanding, it is sorely lacking in catchy musical numbers and original dance routines.”) Framing analysis is one of innumerable approaches to studying media; and it is applied mainly in media effects research – something that my book never claims to be engaged in, any more than Christopher Nolan was targeting Broadway. Freedom From The Press, as the back cover states, studies how the government has tamed the press. I leave what Chan correctly identifies as “pertinent” questions about media effects to other scholars to pursue.

Chan’s odd interpretation of my research extends to my past work. In his introduction, he claims that I’m known for advocating “fairer and more balanced” blogs that imitate mainstream media. Here, Chan takes us into bizzaro world. My PhD research, resulting in my previous book, Contentious Journalism and the Internet, made exactly the opposite point. It was nothing if not an argument for broadening the definition of journalism to include alternative forms that do not resemble mainstream, professional journalism. Everything substantial about alternative media that I have written in the past 10 years – including drafts that are currently on my computer – is associated with the view that we need media diversity, and not convergence around a false consensus that has been maintained by hegemonic domination of the press. My chapter on citizen media in Freedom From The Press says the opposite of what Chan suggests.

Perhaps he has not actually read either my past writing or even the whole book that he claims to be reviewing. Or perhaps my academic writing is not as digestible as he suggests or as I would like to believe. There is yet another possible explanation, though. It could just be that Chan is intent on proving that he has a more radical, critical take on Singapore media and politics than I do. I have absolutely no doubt that he does. But I would have learnt more from his review if he had worked harder to show it.

* Communication students should note that Chan probably means “framing analysis” or “media framing analysis”, and not “social framing analysis”; the term “social framing” isn’t usually used in media studies, and I can’t seem to find any results for “social framing analysis” in any social science database or Google Scholar.

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