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Choko unleashed: Did Chookolingo’s tabloid journalism help or hurt T&T?

Published: 
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Former T&T Guardian editor-in chief Lennox Grant, who has been researching Chookolingo’s work for several years. PHOTO: CLYDE LEWIS

What do a teacher, a car parts dealer and a wildly successful tabloid journalist have in common? Patrick Chookolingo (1922-1986) performed all three jobs at different times, the public learned last Wednesday, when veteran journalist Lennox Grant gave a talk on Chookolingo (affectionately called Choko) at the National Library. It was part of a series of events organised by the Friends of Mr Biswas to focus on the role of T&T journalists. Irreverent, dynamic and unrepentant, Chookolingo pioneered the weekly tabloid newspaper business in T&T. When he released his Bomb paper on the streets in 1972, he also unleashed an explosive, investigative, sensational style of story-telling that thrilled readers accustomed to tamer fare, and threw fear into the hearts of anyone targeted in his exposés, the audience heard. A possible typographical error in the opening title slide accompanying Grant’s talk: A Good Story is a Good Story: Patrick (sic) Chookolingo, A Man Unleashed—was explained by chair Raymond Ramcharitar, in deadpan tones, as being quite deliberate: “The Bomb didn’t always get it right; but it got it good.” 

A good story...or bacchanal? 
A debonair Grant (a former editor-in-chief of the T&T Guardian) explained that the title of his talk referred to instances when Choko would defend the publication of certain (possibly outrageous) stories, Choko would simply maintain: “A good story is a good story.” And if it happened to be wrong, why, he would just print another story the next day, with quotes on the new viewpoint. Grant said Choko followed many conventions of what makes good news—such as timeliness, prominence, awareness of likely consequence, and human interest—while adding his own “indigenous” news values, described by Grant as: “Bacchanal, with or without socially redeeming value.” The approach made The Bomb a runaway commercial success: Grant said that in 1975, the paper claimed a circulation of 50,000. 

Influences from MacGowan 
Grant traced Choko’s approach to influences from Galt MacGowan, the Guardian news editor in the early 1930s who, for a short time, shaped the freewheeling style of another reporter—Seepersad Naipaul, father of famous novelist VS Naipaul. Encouraged and edited by MacGowan, Seepersad developed a colourful, vivid human interest style with distinct elements of sensation, humour, poetic licence and the macabre. Perhaps Seepersad’s example set a precedent for people like Patrick Chookolingo—this idea was floated, but not explored in depth. There is a difference between vivid writing (“...a daily celebration of the vivid life of the island”) and dishonest sensationalism; no one addressed this at the presentation. 

Abdul Malik connection 
Tracing one way in which Choko’s path crossed VS Naipaul’s, Grant recalled that both VS Naipaul and Patrick Chookolingo were fascinated by the many stories and amazing characters thrown up in the era of the 1970s Black Power unrest in Trinidad. One such story was the case of Trinidad-born Michael de Freitas, who renamed himself Michael Abdul Malik or Michael X. A pimp and drug-pusher who reinvented himself as a self-appointed Black Power activist in London, he was hanged for murder in 1975 in Port-of-Spain’s Royal Jail after the bodies of two of his group’s members, British Gale Ann Benson and local barber Joseph Skerritt, were found in shallow graves on the burned Arima site of Malik’s commune (Choko once met de Freitas in London back in 1965, Grant reported, and was fascinated by him). 

Chookolingo, ever the enterprising newshound, went to the burned commune house in Arima where he found—and took—boxes of material left there, said Grant. Later, he explained, Choko shared this discovery with VS Naipaul, providing Naipaul with some invaluable material. Naipaul went on to write a factual documentary piece on the matter called The Killings in Trinidad, first published in the London Sunday Times Magazine in 1974. Naipaul developed this into fiction with his 1975 novel Guerrillas, which has been described as “a novel of colonialism and revolution, death, sexual violence and political and spiritual impotence.” He revisited these themes again in his expanded essay Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad, contained in his 1980 collection of essays The Return of Eva Peron. Like Chookolingo, Naipaul knew a good story when he saw one. 

Fact or fiction?
Literary scholars have discussed the tension between fact and fiction in Naipaul’s novel Guerrillas, which was inspired by real Trinidadian brutalities. Perhaps such factual-fictional tension was also a feature of some Chookolingo stories. Choko became an expert in understanding libel, his son Pedro Chookolingo said on Wednesday. His philosophy was, publish and be damned. At home, Pedro said, his father never talked to his family about his work. He looked after the family, and could be strict, sometimes lining up all 15 children in the house to punish them, one by one, for infractions. That Choko was “fierce but fair” was an opinion echoed by other audience members, including a former reporter, Mervyn Crichlow, who recalled that Choko twice fired reporters the very next day after they failed to get breaking news stories printed by the competition. And if there was no news—like on a sleepy Sunday—he’d order reporters to go out and find (or make) some. 
Grant said Choko’s journalism was “a spontaneous anarchic outburst” characterised by in-your-face directness, naming and shaming, breaking sensational stories, and inventing new angles to stories never dreamed of by the competition. Grant praised Choko’s productivity, in the face of very scarce resources in the early years of the Bomb, a tough-willed Choko defied all constraints to produce, almost single-handedly, an invariably compelling product. 

Impacts 
The costs of this approach, however, included lots of lawsuits. Perhaps there was another result: the start of a trend towards sensation at the expense of truth, debasing local media products as trusted sources of public information. Though this possible negative legacy was not extensively discussed on Wednesday, one questioner did ask about the damage to the society caused by Chookolingo’s approach to journalism. Grant answered that he did not think Choko’s approach did any more damage to society than what a calypsonian does. Calypsonians, however, arguably never had the wide public reach of tabloid newspapers to influence and affect T&T audiences every week in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s—a time when T&T’s media diet was very restricted indeed, and when the Bomb had way less competition, and therefore more impact. 

Emerging from the talk and subsequent comments, it seems Chookolingo had undeniable energy and drive, a nose for a good story, and an uncanny knack for knowing what would please his audience—and sell well. Chookolingo introduced readers to bolder, more probing stories, and helped to expand media content and style. But the excesses of what some may view as a callous, overly sensationalist approach may have opened the floodgates to the dark side of media: an explosion, in some local media, of sometimes vitriolic online news, opinion and social media sites, many lacking in balance and honesty; and a style of journalism which overhypes unimportant issues to boost readership, while introducing bias, controversy, omission of key facts, and attention-seeking exaggeration to boost readership and ad profits in a cavalier disregard for real public interest. 

Who is Lennox Grant? 
Lennox Grant is a veteran journalist with 46-plus years of experience, including work as a reporter, feature writer, copy editor, editor-in-chief, broadcaster and columnist. He was editor-in-chief of the T&T Guardian and editor of Tapia and the Trinidad Express. He received the Hummingbird Gold award for journalism in 2012. His career highlights include: 
• Leader of Independent Media Monitoring and Refereeing team for 2006 Guyana elections 
• Composer and presenter of 2004 citation for Patrick Chookolingo Lifetime Achievement Award by Commonwealth Journalism Association 
• Compiler of election coverage handbook for Caribbean journalists, 2009 
• Journalism trainer for media in T&T, Guyana, Antigua, Barbados, St Kitts, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and for UK-based Commonwealth agencies. 

Who was Patrick Chookolingo?
Patrick Chookolingo was the enterprising pioneer of weekly tabloid journalism in T&T. An innovative newspaper editor, he pushed the boundaries of press freedom to produce a best-selling product focused on political reporting, satire, corruption-busting, community and human interest stories. His journalism style was populist, sometimes humorous, and often scandalous. He began his career as a schoolteacher, then at the age of 28, switched to newspaper work in the 1940s, working as a reporter, sub-editor and editor. He worked with the Chronicle and the Gazette before moving to the Daily Mirror. After the Mirror closed in September 1966, he helped found the Trinidad Express in 1967, becoming its first general manager. He founded the Bomb in July 1970, the Sunday Punch in 1972, and the TnT Mirror in 1982.

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