When Media bites the dust

Jayanta Ghoshal – the Delhi Editor of Ananda Bazar Patrika – a respected name in today’s world of journalists (not just among Regional Bengali press but national media at large) has written an op-ed in his own paper, roughly titled: “Media is totalatarian, but media is also accountable to the people”. Essentially – he has tried to puncture the illusions of omnipotence that periodically devour the media honchos. Some may consider it to be a part expiatory exercise – since The ABP Group (including its English Daily – The Telegraph and News Channel ABP Ananda) took an unabashedly blatant stand against the ruling party in the recently concluded West Bengal Assembly Elections. Suffice is to say – they went horribly wrong with a total loss of face for the papers and the channel. (Click here to read original article in Bengali)

In many ways Indian Media is going through its second surge of puberty. It is natural of adolescents to be precocious as the erratic hormonal flushes give them an exaggerated sense of sexual prowess. For one – Indian Media, especially print, is still growing when in the rest of the world it is on a terminal decline. As television penetration increases – the faceless journalist is suddenly converted to living room celebrities. With single TV homes – both Entertainment and News Channels have to vie for the same prime time audience. An interesting fall-out of this is – traditional news has been pushed out of the frame and an unique format of TV debates has been invented – converting news-programmes to Infotainment. These debates are more like fixed professional wrestling fixtures. In doing so – what the star anchors and producers missed is while it may be good for intellectual stimulation and political voyeurism – viewers have stopped taking them seriously. In fact, it was very pertinently asked – if all that you play are “views” and debates, what is the point or basis of making claims of truth, honesty, credibility etc with hardly any original reportage happening. Sometimes – channels play “exclusive” footages sourced from professional “sting” operators and run tickers to disclaim their authenticity. What can be more ridiculous ?

To compete with the electronic media – print resorts to sensationalism wilfully forsaking the fundamental tenet of not mixing news and views. the traditional opeds have eschewed analysis for opinion pieces laden with partisan agenda.

Having said that, it is often not the journalists but the owners who are afflicted with the menacing malady of megalomania. The journalists and editors merely carry out the owner’s line or at best get to obliquely put across there agenda through headlines, selection of stories or op-eds – which have limited impact unless the publication or channel change its editorial line whole-hog. The rare occasions – whenever editors have shown signs of becoming bigger than the brand – they have been promptly cut to size by the proprietors. There is that famous case of a celebrity editor of a leading English Daily who had jokingly remarked – his is the second most important job in the country after the PM, only to find himself locked out of office the next morning. In India, even where there is high literacy or TV reach – still much of public perception is shaped at Nukkad-sabhas and Baithaks (neighbourhood gatherings) by local opinion leaders of the same community or caste. It is only in cities media does probably have a greater impact – but even there what is heard, seen or read goes through rigorous screening in club and pada addas.

Hopefully – this phase of juvenile exuberance will come to pass as Indian media tentatively step into adulthood. Sometimes, circumstances make kids grow up faster. Similarly, external stimuli like Digital Media – can hasten print and electronic media’s journey back to its pristine mature adulthood.

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