Talk show king Wimar not all talked out yet

The Jakarta Post
13 February 2000

By Gedsiri Suhartono

JAKARTA (JP): Well-rounded and always seeking to devour new information is perhaps the quality that makes and distinguishes Wimar Witoelar, 55, as one of the country's leading talk show hosts. His wit and humor exudes an air of lightheartedness and comfort to most guests appearing on his shows, both on television or radio.

Assuming a role of a communicator, he takes pride in looking at matters from a different point of view. Hence the title Perspektif for his talk show aired on SCTV beginning in May 1994 (it was taken off the air amid controversy in September 1996). Now he is the host of Indosiar's Selayang Pandang.

Wimar's relationship with television programming goes way back to his university days when he produced 20-minute reports on America for TVRI. A student leader and activist at the Bandung Institute of Technology during the New Order regime, Wimar could not detach himself from social and development issues.

A fan of television, the president of PT Intermatrix Bina Indonesia knows exactly how to frame his sound bites when interviewed as a talking head for television programs.

Question: Has television become society's primary source of information?

Answer: Yes. In the past three years, domestic television very quickly replaced international television coverage on Indonesia. Maria Ressa of CNN is here basically to inform the public outside of Indonesia about Indonesia. For Indonesian audiences, CNN news does not contribute to our understanding.

Before Soeharto fell, everybody who had the opportunity would watch CNN or the BBC or even CNBC for news. But when we want to understand what happens in Thailand, of course, we would turn to international television. Now we only watch them for comparative purposes. The real news is gathered from domestic television, even knowing that it's not always 100 percent reliable.

How would you assess local television news packaging or delivery methods?

We still have a long way to go. We are only three months out of a very distortive, repressive society. Let us not forget that the transition started in October 1999, not in 1998 (when Soeharto resigned). The time 1998-1999 was the climax of the destruction. We are still very new, and we are still living in the wreckage, in a house which has no roof, no walls, so if a little rain falls on your head, you'd have to accept that in its proper perspective.

Otherwise, to compare local television news program with international news program is like measuring Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) by the criteria of an American president, where Bradley was almost ruled out as candidate because of a heart problem.

In Indonesia, we do not have the luxury of formal measurement. We cannot just look at something and ask if it is effective, is it the best we've got.

And right now local private television news is effective. Packaging is very urgent when we don't care too much about the content. OK, if we are sure we want the content, we do not care how it is packaged. When you are half and half about consuming something, then you are concerned about the packaging.

Eventually, Indonesian private television would have think hard about improving the delivery of its news programs. But that time will not come until the intense interest in current news subsides. We are still living in an abnormal period. A lot of homework has to be done. Right now we can survive with "A" says this, and "B" says that. It does demand a lot of patience, and skills from the viewers. Remember, we are still in the struggle stage, we are still in a wartime stage, that's why I'm not fussy about those things yet. We will be soon.

Is responding to societal needs more important than good editorial policy?

I think they sort of work interactively. You have to have programs that satisfy the viewers, and you have to be cost effective. You cannot spend your time and money making nicely packaged programs while you neglect to send your reporters out to see interesting people. As time normalizes, you would have to sacrifice some of the content for a better way of presenting. The audience would have to learn from the nature of the program and the programs would have to cater to a changing audience.

In other words, Indonesians in this abnormal period are expected to be able to sort out good information from bad information on their own judgment?

We need abnormal news. We need news which is brought to us on an emergency basis. If you're dying from hunger, you just want your piece of bread brought to you, not wrapped in a nice box with pretty ribbon. We are still in an embattled position. We have a crocks who are still Cabinet ministers, violators of human rights as Cabinet ministers. We have corruptors running around. We have snipers lurking around every corner. We have people inciting wars in Maluku. So the media will have to deal with the urgent matters first. Preserve their integrity. That would be the most important quality as they start to work on the technical policy.

How effective has television been in terms of creating public opinion?

The advent of private television is less than 10 years, while private television stations have only been free to exercise their creativity since 1997. So we've only had two, three years of experience of the modern, open media.

It has been effective in dealing with short-term social phenomena, reacting positively to the cries for reform in supporting the growth of the civil society. But we don't know yet how it will perform in the long term as a beacon of public morality or public rationality.

Are you referring to the cliched conundrum of people's ability to make judgments, how free is free and how free is responsible?

A lot are concerned that the media sometimes seem to be irresponsible, that it is sensationalist, that it now produces gossip, rumors, and what they call political issues unfounded in fact, and some of them support this faction and that faction. Some of the newspaper tabloids, even television shows, tend to be decreasing in quality, looking at crime or, you know, news which caters to the baser instincts of people. Some have cried out for control.

I am concerned, but I am not crying for control. I think we have to right this, to live with it, learn to control it while it applies to ourselves. In other words, exercise self-control. We cannot yet control the other guy. I am not one who would like to protest a newspaper for bad reporting. But we have to let society decide that on the basis of the market mechanism and on the basis of the citizen's awareness.

There are reasons to be concerned. But I wouldn't be alarmed, because one has to start somewhere. Besides, is better to have an active media and then design it to conform to the challenges rather than face a media which is dead, like we face are facing a dead civil service, facing lots of dead entities in society. But the media is alive and kicking, and that is a very strong starting capital.

What kind of control mechanism would be effective?

Committees, although this is not a new idea. In a mature democracy, you have peer groups, you have school boards, press boards, boards of ethics, pressure groups, whatever control has arrived as long as it replies, as long as it answers to the constituency itself rather than answering to an external power. If you have a press board that consists of journalists, that's fine. But if you have a press board that consists of government officials, that is not so good.

In the past,TVRI was known as 'stupefying television'.

We shall not discuss the past; it was not just TVRI which was stupefying TV -- you had stupefying ministers, a stupefying president, stupefying teachers. Everything in the past was geared to keeping people stupid, or making people pretend they were stupid. Turned out it didn't work, right? The Indonesian public became more intelligent and has been able to produce very bright, intelligent people like Budiman Sudjatmiko (chairman of the Democratic People's Party). The public will always have this resource to grow. If there is any stupefying going on, it is the people in power fooling themselves, thinking that they can control the public. If Soeharto tried to do it, its repercussions have a very short lifespan. Even 30 years is a very short term compared to a nation's passage of history.

How do rate the young television newscasters?

As a rule, the younger generation is more skeptical, more critical, they challenge things, it's much better. They are smarter than the old generation.

The old generation has been severely curtailed in a decades-long conformity to a certain oppression. So that in all fields -- that is, government, teaching, everything -- creativity is a lost cause for many members of the older generation. Of course, there are many exceptions.

Any tips on becoming a good newscaster?

We have a long way to go. But already we can see the beginning of good broadcasters. We can also distinguish the bad broadcasters. Without mentioning any names, we can agree that, between TVRI newscasters and SCTV newscasters, there is a definite difference in quality. Not necessarily because the newscasters are incapable, or no intelligent, but because they have been trained by the system to behave that way. When I was invited to TVRI, 10, 20 years ago, I remember I didn't like it so much, because you are handed your questions and sometimes asked your answers, and asked not to deviate from that. The newscasters is ineffective if he/she just reads the news; what do we want to see a face for? Basically, we want to see some emotion.

I think one important development we have seen on several stations are newscasters who can interview. Though some of them unfortunately are not as good as the others, it is a learning process.

What do you think of television programming in general?

The bulk of erratum is still dominated by entertainment which does not enlighten the public. Now, I would be very careful to control that. The public should get what it wants, but maybe the public does not know what is available. So in very concrete terms, television should be supplied with public channel, not funded by the government but by public corporations to give the audience alternatives.

On what basis do you invite your guests?

The first measure is, do they have any interest for the audience? And secondly, unfortunately, shows like ours have become references for people to adjust their values and public reaction. In other words, every guest on our shows seems to be endorsed by us. We cannot always do what I would like to do, which is to invite all kinds of people, even the bad guys.

Because with the audience that we have, people find it very difficult to tell the bad guys from the good guys. So if we invite somebody to have a healthy debate, or to criticize, they will think that we are supporting that somebody. We are still at a stage in our society where we cannot be neutral.

This is something I would like to emphasize because some people complain that I have lost my neutrality. I was never neutral -- not to Soeharto, not to Habibie, not to violators of human rights, not to corruption. We were never neutral. We still have to forsake our neutrality to promote quicker change.

So it is a biased show, biased in the direction of reform. That restricts our guests somewhat, because we cannot invite somebody who is involved in the Bank Bali scandal or Texmaco, or we cannot invite people who still have problems with the law.

Where would the resistance come from?

Before we talk about resistance, I would talk about our responsibility to the people who look to us as a reference. By presenting someone on our show, we are in fact saying that this person is worth listening to. I cannot run the risk of inviting somebody who would mislead the public. Secondly, resistance does not come from the guests. It can be reaction to things one says on the show; it can be the guests, it can be myself. Resistance has become very strong as our society become more fragmented, and social discrepancies become more pronounced. As people are incited to be racist, to be xenophobic, to lose religious tolerance, as people are more splintered and divided, they react more to words that they feel are critical of their groups. That is the main source of resistance. We have to be sure we are not misunderstood. We are not against any particular group, but we are against prejudice, bias and extremism. Of course, these sentiments come from certain groups. We have to be careful without losing the clarity of our message.

The public still needs guidance?

It is not a matter of how we regard the people. It is more a matter of how we regard the permanence or the transience of the situation. If we are in that transition period, a time we know will change, then we change our style somewhat. If we talk by a road and a truck passes by, we stop talking and wait until the truck passes by. If the truck remains there forever, we find another way to somehow raise our voice. Now, in Indonesia we are facing a grim tragedy and a deeply sad story of old animosity being aroused in provinces like Maluku and Aceh, and many other places. I believe that this is not a permanent situation, so I believe that we have to act accordingly.

It means we have to sacrifice some of the qualities which we know should be in a television show, for the sake of doing our bit to improve the situation. As the situation improves, then we have to be more aggressive and assertive in our style. So it is not a matter of being scared, but not wanting to stir up more trouble than there is.

If people, because of lack of information, lack of maturity, have antireligious sentiment, you don't go to Merdeka Square and arouse the sentiment even more, you cool it, and put things in their proper context.

What are some of the values you sacrificed?

The desire to be sharp-witted, regardless of subject or regardless of potential target of our wits. If we want American shows, it is really nice that you can insult anyone, make fun of anyone, and basically becomes part of the communication culture. Here we have to sacrifice that. If I want to insult people I have to get a TV show in the United States, not here.

Because we are still people with active parts in the development of our society. I am not just a TV host, I am part of the building of a civil society.

What's your advice for making a good talk show?

The host should remember that he/she is presenting a show and not him/herself. Don't attract attention to him/herself. If the attention comes in a roundabout way, then, so be it. Make the show highlight the guests. Highlighting can be done in two forms: bringing out the positive and pressuring the person so that he/she comes out of his/her shell, showing the self-image. Give that guest a unique experience on the show. The show is not merely to present Mr./Ms. such and such, but such and such discussing certain things in the show.

Avoid the danger of extra exposure. I always bring out something new. One of the cardinal rules in entertainment is having something which provides the unexpected. If you sit in front of your screen for half an hour and you know you are going to view the same style, same content, than you might as well turn off the TV and feed your fish or something.

Every time Gus Dur is on TV, I watch. Because there is always something unexpected. Talk shows should be entertainment rather than information. I don't really use a lot of facts or demonstrate lots of knowledge. We just try to provide some fun. Respect the audience, don't talk down to them, don't think they're stupid and don't think that they're not interested in serious subjects.

How would you assess the overall performance of the news business, or the information business as locals tend to call it?

Domestic TV news is excellent, it's immeasurably better than one would have thought, even in the final days of Soeharto. From the viewpoint of attracting the public, it has shown some commercial success. Unfortunately, much of its carries the weight of investment rooted in the old twisted investments.

Why would programming and editorial judgment become more accountable then?

I believe strongly that the biggest watchdog is the public. Likewise, the most effective neutralizer in creating a level playing field is also public scrutiny and public opinion. To the extent that companies can be made as public as possible, as transparent as possible, there would be a built-in mechanism to extract responsibility from the media without resorting to political power to create these responsibilities.

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