“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”…Thomas Jefferson (to Edward Carring in 1787). Such is the power of news and the constructive role it can play in a nation’s destiny! Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America and the architect of her Declaration of Independence, clearly saw the indispensability of a free press in the evolution of a nation. In his lexicon, democratic functioning was dovetailed with the performance of press, the crucial medium between the government and the governed. He spoke at a time when morning newspapers used to be the sole reliable way of getting information about the nation, locality and the world, to some extent. There was no radio, television, internet, satellite telecommunication then, and not even commercial electricity. What they had was a printing press and still they managed to lay the foundations of a healthy journalistic tradition and a vibrant democratic nation. The character of press and the principle of free speech were envisioned to be the arbiter of the character of nation.
Now, taking a cue from Robert Zemeckis’ 1989 science-fiction ‘Back to the Future, Part 2’ let us catapult ourselves, with a little bit of latitudinal shift, straight way to 2011 India where we have almost every means of communication and information at our disposal. Science has given us so much that we are facing a problem due to plenty. What to read, what to see, what to believe! We have multitude of news channels which have littered our daily information landscape with news every second, every minute, every hour, or to cut short, news every moment. Broadcast media has surpassed the extent newspapers and radio enjoyed once. Each passing day, channels are mushrooming faster than any bacterial growth could ever happen and so are the news reporters and news readers who somehow prefer to be recognised as journalists. Little do they realize what they, in actuality, are and what ‘real’ journalism means! Gone are the traditions of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of checking, cross-checking facts before bringing out stories, their places have been usurped by the Stephen Glasses of today where imagination, fiction and fantasies have more roles to play than sheer facts. The famous Watergate scandal that finally led to the nemesis of Nixon is a great reminder of how journalism should be conducted, how raw facts need to be processed and refined with substantiation before coming out with ‘breaking news.’
We, in India, are very fortunate to have a media that has less to do with such hard work and journalistic ethics by keeping real issues under cover and showing what they want to show. Our news channels are more interested in Rani Mukherjee’s marriage and Aishwarya Rai’s pregnancy than what goes on in the North east. Salman Khan’s singlehood has almost become a national priority with our news channels deliberating and devoting considerable time on this issue. It is debatable what gains will the news channels have when Salman finally takes the nuptial vows! ‘Begaani shaadi mei Abdulla diwaana’. Or, when M. S. Dhoni turns thirty, why should any of our news channels miss this historic moment? Full length stories were aired on MS on July 7. God knows what will happen to the same MS when he returns from a glorious tour of England where all the Nawabs, little masters, turbonators of Indian cricket, failed to harness their collective potential and protect modicum of dignity. The same media is not going to spare any chances in vilifying them while they are back from overseas to the cozy land of IPL. There will be full one-hour shows with some of the so called experts of cricketing world, who never excelled during their own lifetimes, carrying out the surgical operation of every individual member of the Indian cricket team. And, then ‘joote chappal ki bauchhar’! Former England captain Michael Vaughan was not wrong when he commented that the biggest challenge of the new coach, Duncan Fletcher, would be to handle the Indian media.
Now, if we set aside the issue of what is shown for a moment and divert our attention to how that is presented, we will find our news channels into a situation where they seem to be putting up stiff competition to all the comedy circuses and laughter shows on air. Our news-readers don’t read, they shout and some of them even try to imitate Bade Bachchan’s baritone voice. English news channels are still tolerable, what happens on Hindi news channels is beyond imagination. Much like our revered Bollywood, our news readers and reporters have to be actors, comedians, etc, at the same time. Poor souls! Guys who seem to come directly from ‘charwaha vidyalaya’, and have problems even in wearing a tie properly are presented as news readers/presenters. You can give them even Gucci or Armani brands; they will still preserve their originality and cling to their debased base. But, the same person becomes watchable whenever a disaster or a terror attack strikes our country which we ironically have in plenty. Interviewing family members of deceased is their pet habit with such queries, “aap bataye abhi aap kaisa mahsoos kar rahe hai; in massomo ko insaaf kaun dialyega; etc”?
This utter lack of sensitivity is not confined to those belonging to the ‘charwaha vidyalaya’ ilk, even such a celebrity news reporter like Barkha Dutt lost her mind during Mumbai terror attacks when she asked: “As you wait here, outside the Taj, even as you hear the sound of gunfire and explosions from inside the hotel, tell us what thoughts are going through your head?” Another learned gentleman from the media fraternity had to ask this: ““Are you angry with the terrorists for killing your children?” They were not reporting news; they were spreading panic in the entire country and so working in collusion with perpetrators of the attack. Where does this irresponsibility come from? May be, bulk of the media ‘industry’ suffers from some severe deficiency of cranial capacity. But, the real reason is lack of empathy with those suffering. Just give them any information regarding a sex racket being busted; they will parachute to the venue with all their crew and equipments. The entire treatment of Uma Khurana case where she was accused of pushing her students into prostitution was dealt with such recklessness that finally the lady was lynched by a mob of furious mob on the Aruna Asaf Road in New Delhi. Have we forgotten the stories on Aarushi murder case? Even Dada Kondke or Tinto Brass would have sulked and turned into cavemen.
As we, Indians, are fond of spices, how could our news channels be far behind? Every news item has to be made sensational, ‘jhakaas’ and ‘masaaledaar’, as though the viewers have specially ordered for their butter and kadhai chicken. We don’t need memory pills to remember how the media consistently pursued the Nithari murder or the way Maria Susairaj case was handled. The Kannada starlet, all of a sudden, got transformed into a celebrity with news pouring in about her candidacy for the Big Boss season 4. If this wasn’t enough Ram Gopal Varma made a movie on her. I wish there was a movie on Mother Teresa or the plight of poor and hapless women in the Sonagachhi area of Kolkata. Our media and Bollywood seem to be going hands in glove when it comes to the portrayal of something that is sensational. Who cares for responsibility and accountability in today’s India where everyone from doodhwaala to dookanwaala, daftarwaala, policewaala, laal-baati waala and newswaala have become quislings to market driven economy. Even a little bit of sincerity, grace and self-regulation has to be imported from Mars or Venus. A difficult proposition!
The purpose of news is to provide us with a real understanding and perception of what goes around us. They are representations of reality, not reality per se. Television news especially has the twin responsibility of delivering an account of the experience on one hand and the experience in itself, on the other. If carried out with sincerity, it can serve to keep us educated and enlightened at the same time. But, with the disappearance of the concept of appointment news and the ensconcement of real-time news, a viewer gets to see what is meant to arouse emotions, evoke opinions and keep them glued. Thomas Carlyle’s fourth estate has become commoditized and customized, meant to suit several purposes at the same time. News has no longer remained ‘news,’ it has become pure entertainment and voyeurism. And with this, the principle of freedom of speech has come to mean everything except speech in its strictest literal sense. Freedom of speech and expression has been replaced by freedom of slander, sensation and expediency. With the shadow world becoming more real than the real world, public good and social welfare have been castrated from the avowed goals of journalism and media. Journalism which was once described as a ‘craft’ has become a ‘trade’ in an age where economics has become the new gravitational force dictating terms to what should be shown; and the new Coriolis Effect where the Indian media lies prostrate and keeps veering away and away. These must have been quite late realizations for Thomas Jefferson who had to revise his conviction of 1787 in 1807 when he said to John Nowell, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” Mr. Jefferson was quite lucky in some senses, he received this enlightenment without a Bodhi tree in just twenty years and let us not forget, he had to experience only newspapers and press during his lifetime. News channels hadn’t emerged then.