If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How do you gather news?

On a mysteriously named blog Pareltank, I just read a brilliant article by PJ Kochuthresiamma about the way our electronic media function. She recalls:
In 2006 January when Arjun Singh tried to raise the reservation quota in the IITs and other premier educational institutions, the coverage of the issue by Rajdeep Sardesai and his channel was dangerous and objectionable. The visual of the burning Goswami (the self immolation in protest against Mandal) was played over and over again as though to invite some misguided youth to take cue …. Sardesai was literally jumping around with excitement – like a predator which had a taste of blood and was waiting … for some prey to take the bait.

She goes on to say:
Looking back, I feel that if the media was totally banned from the precincts of Taj – nay, if there was a total ban on reporting the updates on the terror attacks in Mumbai, the NSG would have done a much more efficient job without the media taking away the surprise element from the rescue operation. Remember, Arnab Goswami got vicious and nasty at the government’s move to block the media from reporting? And the government buckled in to the ire of Times Now!

Expectedly, the article recommends that our electronic media be reined in.

TV news channels thrive on disaster news and gruesome visuals to increase their audience. To this end, they display a streak of single-minded ruthlessness that is matched perhaps only by the finest gangsters. They have cast away things like dignity, restraint, sensitivity, etc. One must hasten to add that the news channels have done wonderful things too. Let’s not forget the brilliant NDTV coverage during Gujarat riots. They presented the true picture, helped create public opinion across the country, and stopped the saffron killers before they could destroy many more families. And the same Sardesai played an important role in the campaign.

That was the age of innocence. Compare 2002 with the electronic media’s campaign against Maoist violence now. At the core of the conflict is the survival of a pitilessly exploited indigenous people against the tyranny of intruders like you and me. Should anyone brand this adversary as criminals? I heard a more loyal Barkha Dutt pleading with the king, that is, P Chidambaram, to deploy the army and air force against them. The near fanatical Times Now brands anyone who sympathises with the Adivasis as Maoist. I also heard Sagarika Ghosh (of IBN Something) tell Arundhati Roy that she was “sleeping with the enemies of the country”. Arundhati gave her back royally, but that’s beside the point.

Even in times of peace, our news channels (both English and vernacular) scavenge disaster sites until the last bit of flesh and blood are wiped clean. Let me offer a few examples. In a train accident, an unfortunate young man was squashed between two berths. He was seen through the window, gasping and screaming for help. TV journalists documented his painful journey to death for posterity. Dear Reader, Think of his old mother, wife, or little children who would most probably have seen the visual in real time. In another case, after a plane crash, a gentleman was waiting at Calcutta airport for his brother’s body. A plane carrying it had just arrived. A journalist asks him, ‘Now that the body has arrived, what do you plan to do?’

In April 2008, a fire raged in a multi-storeyed building in Kolkata, Nandaram Market for about a week. During the period, TV channels kept on predicting “The building is going to collapse any moment now.” The underlying message was: don’t switch off your TV, don’t miss the opportunity to watch live another 9/11. (And let our Target Rating Point increase!) When the building didn’t oblige and the supremely inefficient West Bengal Fire Brigade put out the fire, some reporters nearly broke down.

You might argue that the fault lies with our people, not the system. After all, many American channels and the BBC are more balanced, less strident. One feels it is so only because the Western market economies are older, more mature, and a touch complacent. They have arrived. They have even produced men like Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who now look for something more meaningful than profit maximisation. Comparatively, Indian capitalism is young, arrogant, abrasive, and dying to bag their trophies. Also, the Western media too show their fangs if required. Let’s not forget the “embedded presstitutes” of Iraq war.

Coming back to the article I began with: can the electronic media ever be “reined in”?

After declining for centuries and stagnating since independence, the Indian economy has “taken off” during the last two decades. The development model followed by our rulers has created many billionaires, and made the middleclass enormously richer. They had to be, their newfound disposable income keeps this consumerist economy going. The totally unexpected and huge increase in the government employees’ pay scales under the Sixth Pay Commission was possibly not by accident, but by design. And it had a cascading effect on other sectors too.

That’s fine, but the problem is that the new economy has made the poor poorer. We have reached a state where Pepsi is available where drinking water isn’t. There are possibly more cellphones than sanitary toilets in the country. This development has turned India into a stupendously poor country with countless rich people, an aspiring superpower with an army of underfed.

Our electronic media are an important cog in the wheel that has brought us here and they in turn are driven by advertisers, who naturally try to maximise their reach.

For this simple reason, I don’t see a ghost of a chance that the electronic media will be reined in in India. But let’s not give up. Let’s fight the battle the way we can. Let’s stop watching Indian English news channels and read newspapers instead. Let’s also look for gems like Kochuthresiamma’s article on the WWW.

Saturday, 02 October 2010