A message of deepest gratitude to a great media veteran

opinion January 17, 2018 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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I have stage fright. To people who know me or who have ever seen me speak in public, that’s probably one of my worst-kept secrets. Not that Suthichai Yoon cared, though. Among the many achievements of one of Thailand’s best-known and most respected veteran journalists was forcing me in front of a TV camera.

Suthichai announced his retirement a few days ago, which came as a  shock to people who know him. The man is afflicted with an incurable “disease”. The “slow life” may have gained a place in the dictionary over the past few years, but Suthichai gives fresh meaning to an older term – “workaholic”. He dismissed the trendy “slow life” concept with a contempt that both scared and impressed his subordinates. 

More than just a multi-tasker, The Nation co-founder functioned in multi-dimensions, too. Suthichai would fly to the United States to interview George W Bush one day and be checking an inside-page graphic the next. Then he would whip every member of the newsroom into tweeting, blogging and using their smartphones to snap news photos for instant upload. When Facebook Live launched and opened new opportunities for journalism, he was among the first to broadcast. 

I thought he would have to drag me kicking and screaming in front of the TV camera to do news analyses. I still remember the first day. Suthichai gave me no time to be frightened, appearing suddenly at my desk before whisking me to our improvised “studio”. “Help me out on this issue here,” he said. “I need you to talk for just five minutes. I ask, you answer.”

The rest is history. I had no choice but endure the stage fright through countless such analyses, which culminated in a live election-day broadcast. 

If you have stage fright, you know what it means. If you don’t, google it. I can confirm the part that says some sufferers would rather die than give a speech at a wedding.

I hated his New Year speeches. They punctured our lazy, festive mood without fail, as they sought to remind everyone what big news was coming in the new calendar. A senatorial election is underway – and that’s the ball you must keep your eyes on, he would say. Then there would be a Bangkok gubernatorial poll, or a major Cabinet reshuffle. Something was always on the way.

He predicted the Internet era at a time when the most powerful desktop computer on the market couldn’t even play videos and cost around Bt100,000, the iPod wasn’t even created, and the majority of news outlets had little or no online presence. Before that, he led a successful campaign to prevent state control of the media, writing commentaries, speaking at seminars and submitting petitions.

Suthichai never confirmed it out loud, but he seemed to adore the late Steve Jobs. I don’t know any guy who worked harder, although there’s a saying that if you leave The Nation and work half as much elsewhere, you will most likely be a star employee. That owes a lot to Suthichai’s example and his extremely demanding attitude. 

Like the music teacher in the film “Whiplash”, he stopped at nothing in enforcing discipline and demanding that his band (of journalists) played the way he thought it should. Filmgoers didn’t necessarily like the ruthless teacher, but they had to agree that the boy’s breakthrough was all but impossible without him.

The teacher provides the film’s most memorable quote: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” On several occasions, Suthichai intimated that leaders well loved by their subordinates are not necessarily good leaders.

The “retirement” announcement has everything to do with business complexities, caused largely by the whirlwind technological advancement. To Suthichai, age doesn’t matter. He’s fading out from The Nation because the new business environment will not allow him to work the way he wants to, not because he has reached 70.

Just a few hours after the “retirement” party, he was tweeting about something Indonesia’s central bank had said on cryptocurrencies. Well, he has until late next month or so before he officially retires, but old habits die hard, and no Nation reporter would ever bet against him popping up somewhere to do more analysis on current affairs.

The most valuable lesson he taught younger journalists is, “Credibility is everything.” Be trustworthy and everything will follow, he always said. Suthichai still holds firm to that maxim now, even as technology enabling fast-paced sharing of “credible reports” is rocking the finances of news outlets worldwide. 

For the record, Suthichai Yoon didn’t cure my stage fright, which is an ailment as enduring as workaholism. However, that means nothing in the grand scheme of things, and I have to thank him from the bottom of my heart anyhow. In no small measure, his actions helped shape the course of the Thai media in a very good way, professionally and ethically, whether critics including his whipped-up subordinates liked it or not.