The Race to the Bottom

Posted: October 6, 2010 by Anindya Dutta in Media
Tags: , ,

21st May, 2006 – CNN IBN aired an interview of the then Human Resources and Development Minister, Arjun Singh conducted by Karan Thapar on “The Devil’s Advocate”. This interview was being broadcast in the backdrop of the central government’s decision to implement caste-based quotas for OBCs in seats of higher education. Having been incensed by what I thought was a regressive anti-meritocratic decision; I watched the program with wide-eyed curiosity. Much to my pleasure, Karan Thapar ripped the minister’s defense apart and though the 30 minute program had little consequence in terms of influencing any policy review, the interview was rich in terms of bringing forth to the audiences the hollowness of governmental policy-making which was purely playing to the tune of the vote banks.

That was journalism at its best – aggressive yet subtle, neutral yet opinionated, getting a message across both to the audiences as well as policymakers.

Ever since then, the persistent waves of competitive business motives driven by the quest for higher TRPs and bulging bottom-lines have slowly yet steadily eroded away at the fortress of high quality Indian journalistic competence, which for long had been hailed as one of the best in the world. Just in case you got this wrong, I am not referring to the IndiaTVs and the Aajtaks of the journalistic world today. Contrarily, I am taking aim at the NDTVs, the CNNIBNs, and the TOIs – the so-called liberal “English” media of today.

Before I take my arguments further, let me reiterate my commitment to the free press and to the fact that journalistic freedom is, without doubt, an important cornerstone of any civilized society. However, as one of my professors in class once said – “A free market never works. A well-regulated free market does.” That is the essence of what I write here today. Events in the last two years which I will elucidate further have necessitated in my opinion the need for a regulated, yet not oppressed media. The logic is as follows…

I was at home in the first week of September, and one night I happened to watch “We The People” – one of Barkha Dutt’s flagship shows on NDTV. The bone of contention for the episode was the legitimacy of the use of the linguistic phrase “Saffron Terrorism”. For 60 minutes, representatives of the Hindu and the Muslim community, academia, policymakers, politicians, historians and journalists scrutinized and dissected the phrase and its legal and moral validity. However, at the end of the discussion, I knew no more or less about “Saffron Terrorism” than I did before the discussion (I don’t think even Barkha knew any more), nor did the discussion provoke any thoughts or crystallize any opinions. Yes, but Barkha’s congenial and friendly nature did get people from the different communities to trade allegations and squabble on national television which I am pretty sure did rake in some TRPs in the process.

Around a week later, news of the impending Ayodhya verdict had gripped the entire country in a vice-like grip of uncertainty. A rarity at IIMA, I happened to switch on the television during this buildup one day and quickly navigated my way through to the news channels. As I browsed back and forth from CNN-IBN to TIMES NOW to NDTV, I was shocked and amazed at the audaciously indifferent and irresponsible behavior of the three “so-called” faces of responsible and intellectual journalism – Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami. All three of them had dedicated one hour of prime time television to covering the Ayodhya episode, and all that they did in those 60 minutes was to conduct emotionally charged, provocative discussions on inconsequential but sensational issues such as tracing back the origins of the dispute and the history of communal tensions in India. To make matters worse, they occasionally peppered the discussion with controversial images from the 6th of December, 1992. While all the three media stars spoke for long about the potential of the verdict to polarize the country, little did they realize that they in their own subtle way were stoking embers which could have created communal tensions. However, I must credit all three of them for ending their high-octane discussions pleading with everyone to exercise restraint over the next few days. As if it mattered after 59 minutes of provoking ill-will, whether they signed off on a conciliatory note or not.

To make matters worse on the 1st of October, 2010, after the verdict had been delivered, the TOI carried a front page article on the verdict titled “2 Parts to Hindus, 1 Part To Muslims”. Factually correct, but trivialized to make it appear like the final score-line of a closely contested India-Pakistan hockey match, with one side as the eventual winner! Was this the best way of representing facts available to a newspaper which has 150 years of journalistic experience behind it? Is this what one can rightly call journalistic maturity? One of my friends smartly commented – “It’s all about the money, honey!!!” So it seems to be the case.

The build-up to the Commonwealth Games is another case to the point of what I call irresponsible media coverage. Now I am no friend of the Organizing Committee, nor is Suresh Kalmadi my long-lost uncle! But with 10-15 days to go for the start of the Commonwealth Games, does it do any good to anyone when the media channels dedicate 120 minutes of prime-time coverage to tell us how Suresh Kalmadi and Co. fucked up? Yes, it is the media’s responsibility to uncover all cases of corruption in the OC. Yes, it is their responsibility to uncover cases of gross mismanagement. But once the point has been made, is there any logic in sensationalizing the whole episode apart from the greed of additional TRPs? Guess what – These scraped TRPs come at the expense of poor ticket sales, participant withdrawals and diplomatic wrangles which further hurt the Games in specific and the country in general.

What’s worse, I remember watching an entire 15 minute section on one of these English news channels about Michael Fennel, the Commonwealth Games Federation chief, which portrayed him as a hedonist, a womanizer and a miscreant. Now tell me how would Michael Fennel’s hormonal urges have any bearing on the success of the Commonwealth Games? The Butterfly Effect, maybe!!!

My last example supporting my point goes back a couple of years when Mumbai was taken hostage on the 26th of November, 2008 by a group of nine terrorists. At that point of time, all sections of the liberal, sophisticated “English” media parked themselves outside the Taj covering live the entire terrorist drama. I remember watching the entire drama unfold live on television and one incident stands out. Barkha Dutt was interviewing an authority figure from the armed forces who (cleverly) suggested that all hostages had been evacuated from the Oberoi and Taj, without directly saying so. But, true to her unbridled quest for the truth and nothing but the truth, Barkha Dutt went a step further and reached out to a member of the Oberoi management who unaware of the implications of his statements confirmed to our media crusader that there were several people trapped in the hotel. Guess what our own modern-day Superwoman with a heart of gold actually did? She announced it to the world live on television – “My gun-toting friends, there are few more in there…Go get them!!!”.

My criticism of this specific section of the journalistic world is intentional, because they have come to represent a growing malaise afflicting the media of today – that of hypocrisy and two-facedness. The Aajtaks and IndiaTVs are no saints in this aspect, but they are unassuming and unapologetic about their positioning. They intend to sensationalize and they have no qualms about accepting it right in your face. There is no moral or ethical duplicity in the way they project themselves. But when Barkha Dutta, Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami and their ilk project themselves as representatives of responsible sections of the media with focus on nation-building and progressive healthy discussion, it would not be wrong to say that we as consumers of news and views are being quite smartly conned…

As Anurag Kashyap succinctly put it – “When I see Barkha Dutt on We The People, trying to talk with a common man who lost six members of his family, almost cajoling something out him, that makes me angry. It seemed so false, so overdramatic.”

Going back to the issue of regulation, I fail to understand why regulation is seen as such a taboo in the land which is a supreme example of regulatory success. Be it the shepherding of the telecom industry by TRAI through the last decade or the robust resilience of the banking system courtesy the RBI, time and again India has borne the benefits of regulatory oversight. The glaring indiscipline shown by the Indian media over the last couple of years, hence, makes a strong case for a healthily-regulated media.

Maybe the time has come to finally act, or else journalistic standards in India will continue its race for TRPs and surging bottomlines – a race which leads it right to the bottom…

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Comments
  1. Selva a.k.a. SMK says:

    The Headline ” Two parts to Hindus, one part to Muslims” shook me up a lot.
    Good to know that I am not the only one who felt something was out of place.
    I often wonder how the US agencies managed to cordon off the entire area from the public including the press soon after the 9/11 attacks whereas even the basic information about the counter insurgency force troops movement in certain areas appears in the media.
    There were times when “The Hindu” was of such a fine quality that some daily editions were considered better than a reference book in written communication, by a few English Professors.
    Today every headline and article have to be read with a pinch of salt and of course, with some basic training in grammatical errors!

  2. Aniket says:

    I agree with you that the standards of the media are really appalling. I guess any form of entertainment (and let’s face it, thats what news channels are) is always aimed at the lowest common denominator of the audience so as to ensure maximum viewership. Something akin to keeping your price low enough so as to keep everyone interested.

    A comparison can be made with the Hindi Film industry. In the initial few years, there were some great classics. However, the 1980s and the 1990s were probably the worst years of the industry in terms of good ‘content’, because of the industry pandering to the public. However, beginning from 2000 or so, there has been a major improvement in the industry in terms of content, with a new wave of directors committed to improving the standards.

    Similarly, initially when the English news channels started off, the content was pretty decent. This was back in the day when NDTV used to have a 2 hr slot on Star TV. I remember some of the coverage of the Kargil War was especially good. However, now we have entered the stage where the channels have started pandering to the basest of public desires. I think this phase shall pass and hopefully a few years down the line we will have some reporters who will raise the bar. So there is no great need really to panic, let the process run its course is what I say.

    Also, when you mention regulation, it is all right when you compare it to the economy. However, how would you go about actually implementing these regulations, and what form will these regulations take? Remember that the media depends mostly on the creativity of the mind through the flow of ideas, something which is far more difficult to regulate than the flow of money.

  3. Anandh says:

    Regulation of media content may bring back unpleasant memories of the censorship during Emergency time. While we can(and of late are) regulating cross ownership, paid news, advertising ethics and all, real time content regulation(to avoid issues like Barkha Dutt’s live “expose” of hostages in the Oberoi) may not be viable.

    It is for the viewers and advertisers to protest against such sensational reporting. Regulation may not be the best tool in this case.

  4. Rahul Maddy says:

    The hypocrisy and falsehood of “opinions” that we have seen taking the guise of the truth is shameful. People, including news channels, are allowed to say what they like – its a freedom of expression, but they shouldn’t be pulling wool over the eyes of innocenti under the guise of being the fourth estate. as flagbearers of justice. As you said all the media houses today are unabashedly after the money. For example, Eco Times will not carry news stories against its main sponsors.

    Completely agree, where self regulation doesnt work, there is a need for an external code of conduct.
    The problem comes as to where to draw the line of regulation. What might be construed as a fair line to draw today may not be so for another time and place.
    This is what needs to be discussed, maybe on another Barkha Dutt show.

  5. Vishal says:

    A very well written piece. I wish these journalists can read this and do some soul searching to define a proper role for themselves.

  6. How very true! I used to believe that the NDTV’s and CNN-IBN’s were still flag-bearers for responsible journalism, but it has been a long time since they disproved that myth. Just last week, it was extremely disheartening to watch Barkha Dutt continue her attempt to antagonize people even after the Ayodhya verdict had been received peacefully.

    This begs the question really: if the measures/regulations you have propounded do not take roots, will news reporting as we knew it cease to exist? I, for one, have already begun to keep my distance from all ‘news’ channels and see many more doing the same.

  7. Nithya says:

    While I agree with your assessment of the declining standards of the Indianand world media, I don’t agree with your timeline. The decline existed during Karan Thapar’s interview too. He was coaxing controversy out of Arjun Singh; you and I celebrated because Karan seemed to agree with our point of view, and he made the minister squirm, that’s all. That was certainly not (in my opinion) journalism at its best. The best journalism presents both sides of a matter and trusts that the audience is intelligent to make up its own mind.

  8. Avinash says:

    Really liked what you wrote, was thought provoking. I somehow feel we are stuck in this battle to bring in right amount of control in many aspects of todays world, leave alone journalism.

  9. gtoosphere says:

    It is not just the quest for TRPs that is wrong with the media. You could also have pointed out that the mainstream English media is heavily biased towards the congress.

  10. Great Work on this article. Our media intends to hold everyone responsible for their actions..High time we held them accountable for their indisciplined reporting. They need to act more responsibly in more ways than one. Greatly Appreciate the work you guys are doing.

    Rakesh

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