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

13 comments:

  1. btw, pareltank is the name of the street in in mumbai where i lived at the time i discovered blogging:-)

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  2. I agree. However it is not merely neo-rich syndrome that makes electronics media so insensitive. It is also a cultural thing. We, as Indians, have been brought up to believe that suffering is the result of one's karma. Therefore the sufferer is paying for his sins - past and present. Hence he does not deserve any pity. On the other hand the western culture is more humane because it values human life - an offshoot of Christian values, perhaps. Whatever. The point is, we have yet to learn the true meaning of such terms as human dignity, compassion etc.

    Our media's single-minded pursuit of TRPs can be tempered if a strong public opinion can be built. And, this is a long-term process. We will have to focus on two vital organs of our society: 1) The Family; and 2) The educational institutions.

    Regards,

    Randeep Wadehra

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  3. Thanks, Randeep, you've offered a new perspective and I'm sure you have a valid point.

    And thanks, Kochuthresiamma, for the information. I did Google for Pareltank and I was taken to the Parel Tank Road, Mumbai. But couldn't relate it with your blog. Anyway, let's salute the Internet just once more!

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  4. apparently, you didnt get my response to your blog. my explanation for pareltank was a PS.

    to begin with, thank you for citing my post. truly flattered. the last line - do i really deserve such praise? thanks once again.

    'You might argue that the fault lies with our people, not the system.'. it's a which-came- first-chicken-or-egg type of question. i am with those who believe that media is not catering to taste but creating taste. marx gave capitalism just 100 years - he didnt bargain for the media which sustained/sustains it.

    western media is smart at veiling its agenda, but indian media, excited by the new power it weilds, cannot go about its business in a more subtle way.i think that's the only difference. like you said, maybe it'll grow up sooner than later and show more sensitivity and responsibility.

    beware of engaging with the maoist issue in the blogsphere :-). The 'king'has armed his govt. with powers to crack down on maoisits supporters. am seriously contemplating withdrawing my blogs on this issue:-)even tho my position is not pro maoist or pro violence.

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  5. This is for both KPJ and SSC:

    How brilliantly have you both written about the issue! Thanks for echoing the sentiments of readers like me.

    KPJ, you are right. Media creates taste. Noam Chomsky calls it ‘manufacturing consent’. The ‘consent’ they manufacture is, however, a dangerous one. It caters to the ‘tastes’ of the irresponsible and insensitive Indian middle class (IMC). The same class who would love to see IAF to do carpet bombing in the tribal areas of unrest. Their favorite pastime is – politician bashing. IMC would welcome a ‘military rule’ in our country, imagine! Remember the IMC talk of not so olden days of eulogizing a megalomaniac- his efficiency as an officer notwithstanding- like T N Seshan, and wailing why we don’t have rulers like him! The consent they are manufacturing is to make India ready for a Hitler. I am really scared. We all should thank the heavens that we still have politicians around.

    ‘Now that the body has arrived, what do you plan to do?’ This question, SSC, explains the whole thing. Thick-skinned morons! I,nonetheless, have this feeling that their insensitivity is highly selective. I watched B. Dutt interviewing Narayana Moorthy of Infosys, some time back. How respectful she appeared to be! The eternal cynic in me asks; was it a paid interview? Who knows!

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  6. It is nice to watch the clash of fine minds! On whether the media - any media - needs to be tempered / controlled I feel different. Maybe I have a more romantic if as yet substantiated faith in humanity.

    There may be a lot of unpaletable images out there. There may be people with agenda, there may be truly evil people but when it comes to "reining in" them, the Juvenal question pops out : Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Some of us have had the fortune to be taught by mentors - parents or others - the capacity to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant, the "Right" and the "Wrong" and the courage to stand up for the right choices or recant if they turn out wrong later. These values and skills tend to get passed on, I would like to believe. That is our only hope. Even if someone documents all the 1,070,000 results for Media Excesses which a Google Search just now threw up in 0.28 seconds I would not like to endorse controls.

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  7. Thanks very much, Kochutheresiamma and Ashok Menath.

    What inspires our journalists and the great IMC, and what kind of consent do they want to manufacture? The answer is becoming clearer every day. “More comfort and more cash for me and I couldn’t care less about what happens to the rest of the world” seems to be the dominating attitude today. The prognosis is scary indeed. The only comfort that I have is that I am almost sixty and won’t be around to see the culmination of the process.

    Thanks, Joe. When I read your response, I did see a finer mind than mine at work; a more cerebral, less emotional one. Finding out a million instances of media excesses was interesting. And I couldn’t agree and disagree with you more.

    First, the agreement: Freedom of speech is fundamental to civilized living and anything that even remotely suggests otherwise sounds obscene like, say, incest. Look at China and Tibet, or any communist regime for that matter, and all thoughts to the contrary perish. I am with you up to this point.

    Now, please allow me to disagree. “Who controls the controllers?” is a question that is valid for all segments. There is post-facto control over almost all professional activities. Teachers, truck drivers, investment bankers, surgeons, architects, bootleggers, you name them, lose their livelihood because of professional incompetence or deliberate mischief. The more unfortunate ones go to jail. Even the most harmless of them all, writers, are hauled over the coals for writing trash or lifting a few lines from here and there! We don’t question such control because just as freedom of speech is fundamental to democracy, accountability is essential in social organisations. (For the sake of completeness, one does recognise the difference between legitimate control and illegitimate interference like in 1975-77 or the fatwas pronounced by Muslim (or less often, Hindu) goons from time to time.)

    There are only two exceptions: judges and journalists. Judges are beyond reproach, notwithstanding exceptions like Soumitra Sen and P D Dinakaran. And journalists get away with murder every day.

    Every religion is built around some myths (birthplace of Ram Lala, a virgin mother, and so on), although myths are not their main line of business. Unquestioned acceptance of the myths is a prerequisite for sustenance of religions at least on the level of the hoi polloi.

    Haven’t we built a similar aura around freedom of expression in general and the fourth estate in particular?

    I think it should be possible to codify norms for the judge and the journo and enforce them. Let one journalist be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for inciting riots. We will be blessed with a more responsible press.

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  8. please read and criticise:
    http://thinkingbeanslivesherlife.blogspot.com/

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  9. please read and criticise:
    http://thinkingbeanslivesherlife.blogspot.com/

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  10. Freedom of expression? What a beautiful thought. Let's not shackle the media - say the idealists. But when was media not shackled? The press owner does not publish newspapers, journals etc to inform the society - dissemination of info is incidental to the main motive - profit. Even those journalists/writers/poets/philosophers or the so-called do-gooders who profess altruism are impelled by ideological reasons or even egotism. Therefore, while reading a piece of information (or, watching it on TV) we have to make choices. We can reject/accept it outright or conditionally.

    By the way I have just finished reading a wonderful book "Left politics in Bengal" by the Kolkata based journalist Monobina Gupta. It tells us about us more than a Chomsky would ever be able to. Personally, I am disappointed with Chomsky - his is a relentless tirade against capitalism and the USA while he overlooks gross drawbacks in the (former)Soviet Union and the Chinese political and economic precepts and practices.

    As I said - we have to make choices. I would any day prefer capitalism (tempered with liberal, humane and egalitarian ethos) to communism/maoism that takes the gullible masses up the garden path for the aggrandizement of a few self-serving oligarchs.

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  11. @sawant sallies

    the situation is so complex that we cannot make choices. the citizen of the present order has to think beyond the two major isms - or evolve an ism which is inclusive of the best in both.after all we've had more than a century had half of experimentation with both. we have seen the best and worst of both. it's a vast oversimplification to think that either one holds the solution.

    nehru's socialist democracy and mixed economy, customised to 21st century holds the answer.

    chomsky's contribution is his clinical analysis of the anatomy of capitalism and the accompanying power struggle which, it must be admitted, decided the fate of the world in the 20th century. we have much to learn from him.

    20th century with it gigantic class divide needs to evolve a
    mutually inclusive ism.

    @ joe maninury

    right and wrong, relevant and irrelevant - our notion of these is subjective, informed by our ideology.they are not easily definable, dont you think? people functioning within different discourses define them differently.

    i wonder what happened to the germans' sense of right and wrong when Hitler used the media to convince the public hate is a laudable, patriotic and mandatory sentiment!

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  12. Thanks, Randeep and KPJ, for your wonderful observations.

    As far as I am concerned, I'm only learning. I am not sure if I would ever find out the "truth" about anything, but that perhaps doesn't matter. It's important, rather, essential, that we keep searching.

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  13. But the truth keeps changing Dada...it is so subjective to such factors as individual perception, the time factor and much. Kochu Thressiamma is right about Chomsky and Nehruvian mixed economy. In fact, it has been happening all along. The ideals of French Revolution humanized the rather oppressive feudal system and subsequently nudged capitalism towards more egalitarian systems of governance. The Chinese too have adopted several features of free market economy even as UK and France have been building their economic and governance models on quasi socialistic patterns. This will continue as new ideas crop up and get assimilated in the defunct, and even extant, ideologies and structures.

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I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.