When Messengers Shoot Each Other, It's the Message that Becomes the First Casualty
When newspersons become newsmakers, they are writing the obituary of news. When newspapers run down their competitors, it amounts to self-assassination. When TV channels froth at the mouth against one another, it indicates the total commercialisation of the news industry. The media is considered to be the messenger who carries good, bad and ugly news to its readers and viewers. Never before has it been under such intensive scrutiny as now. In the melee of high-octave philippic and incendiary wars of words, the arena of dialogue is turning out to be a show of Media vs Media. Every word written by journalists and every statement made by TV anchors is being perceived as an attempt to either favour someone or run down another. The social media is flooded with the choicest of abuses against a large number of journalists, media owners and panelists who hide their real selves and peddle their support for a party, their mentors and benefactors with liberal licence.
For the past few weeks, two leading newspapers—Times of India and Hindustan Times—are locked in an advertisement battle over reach and readership. Both are releasing sarcastic statements to disprove their respective claims. Together they control over 50 per cent of the total English readership in important cities. But their open jeremiad is confusing their readers about their objectives. Are they in the media industry to disseminate correct, fair and fresh news or just to improve their bottom lines?
TV channels do not lag behind in this game of thrones. Three of them—Times Now, India Today and NDTV 24X7—are running commercials dissing their competitors. Their acrimony has less to do with the quality and quantity of content than the manner and style with which it is served to their viewers. If one channel calls another a noisemaker, the other retorts by terming its rival as one beholden to the establishment. They don’t realise that in the end, they are destroying the credibility of a medium, which is meant to protect the freedom of expression, and not just monetary interests.
The Indian media is perhaps the most fearless and independent institution among its peers worldwide. Its anchors and reporters can say and write anything about political leaders, corporate honchos, spiritual gurus and others in the high and mighty list and get away with it. By and large, the print media is still able to provide a relatively more objective and widespread coverage of events, but the so-called 24X7 channels have just become single-news-a-day broadcasters. They pick up a story in the morning and run it for the next 24 hours, with other news items thrown in as fillers. But what is worrisome for the future of the Indian media is its predictability about the coverage of a personality or an event. Readers and viewers now can draw instant conclusions after merely looking at a byline, or a face on a TV debate. Just about 50-odd personalities dominate the public discourse on all political issues. This opinionated cabal rushes from one channel to another in the yadda yadda game. The same ones cook the same gruel in their newspaper columns. The media, instead of expending its space for inclusive views, is now gladly willing to bend over backwards for those who are either perceived to be or claim to be close to the established power structure in industry, politics and entertainment.
But the media has crossed the line by assuming the role of a messiah. With TV providing journalists with a larger-than-life status, most of them are one-man judge and jury—framing charges, leading the prosecution, and delivering the verdict at one go.
The media is now involved in competitive cacophony. The person who can beat down the other with his decibel level, and not by logical argument, is declared the winner. The ability to scream adjective-laden rhetoric rather than offering a cohesive point of view makes a journalist or a has-been one more acceptable to media platforms. Anchors and participants in TV debates or editorial writers are chosen on the basis of a predetermined agenda. The Indian media is expected to provide space to all shades of opinions. But one can now predict the outcome of a debate by just glancing at the faces on the screen. If one analyses the flood of cyberviews, it is clear that media behemoths are now keeping contrarians out of the system. Each one of these organisations—print and electronic—has its own set of favourite haranguers, who are expected to take forward the line dictated by them. Even in the past, newspaper owners and editors would take the final call on the organisation’s policy on various issues. For example, The Express group decided to fight the dictatorial tendencies of the Indira Gandhi government before and during the Emergency. But the views were confined to the edit pages only. Reporters were advised to dig out the dirt and report the facts. Arun Shourie, the formidable crusader against corruption, wrote a series of exposés against leading corporate houses and political leaders and brought to light scams, but never did he scream or demand even once the sacking of any of his targets. His informatively written words had the lethal impact to shake the system.
From the early 70s till 2000, the media confined itself to exposing scandals. If Madhavsinh Solanki, I K Gujral and later Natwar Singh were forced to resign, it was not thanks to a shouting match in the media but because of the credibility and quality of the news content. Written words had the power to pierce the armour of power more than the sharpest of weapons.
There is nothing wrong in expressing one’s opinion and ideology. What is unethical is the current tendency on the part of opinion writers, experts and columnists to hide their commercial interests and connections. All of us have our favourites and bread and butter suppliers. But it should be mandatory for all participants in public discourse to declare their covert linkages with the establishment. With over 800 news channels and 4,000 newspapers and magazines in circulation in India, it is becoming increasingly difficult for gullible readers to tell the difference between news and biased views. For the sake of the media’s own credibility, each talking head and writer should be made to disclose his or her relationship with ministers, government-sponsored directorships in various bluechip companies and commercial relations with foreign and corporate-funded think-tanks.
During the past few years, the disconnect between what the media thinks and believes and what ordinary people feel is growing. This gap concerns the electronic media more than print. Since the total viewership of English and Hindi channels is not growing as much as the readership of the regional print media, the battle for eyeballs and a better share of the moolah is taking an ugly turn.
Earlier, the threat to the independence of the press came from politics. Now it comes from within. The media and mediapersons have pushed the industry to the precipice of credibility. Unless it is reversed, India would soon lose an instrument that has the power to stall any threat to the freedom of expression and liberty of the people.
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