Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We, the People; and They, the Media

The aftermath of a blast is a goldmine for the media- "PM condemns blast", "UPA soft on Terror: BJP", "We will not spare the culprits: Patil", are near givens each time an attack of this nature is perpetrated. Add to that the channels' websites' gems: "Were you there? Write in.", "Today's poll: Should we bring POTA back?" and a host of other features and applications that cash in on the junta's interest (including the interest of people like me who live abroad and rely on NDTV and CNN-IBN's websites for news).

There is no denying that the media plays a big role in times like these. They get the license to grill politicians, expose the government, criticize Intelligence, and in general make a lot of noise on behalf of the angry public. All of us want to express our anger and you-bastards but it's the scribes with mikes, cameras, and IDs that get to do it. To inform is their right & duty; to influence is their privilege, and a sacrosanct one at that. While providing incorrect information is wrong; misguiding the public, shifting their focus from the core to the periphery, and seasoning stories with TRP tadka is an abuse of the privilege society hands them.

There are innumerable examples from English and vernaucalar media to support this. The most recent - and the second most nauseating - case was the media talking about Shivraj Patil changing his clothes thrice in the evening after the Delhi serial blasts. All of them - NDTV, CNN-IBN, TOI, and tragically, even The Hindu mentioned this in their reports just hours after the blast. It was okay to report this to the extent of expressing the general public mood. But none of these reports took that extra step of disowning these sentiments (some of them actually endorsed the view); because I can't believe any serious media house with a brain of the size of a hydrogen atom really considers Patil's attire to be an issue. That the man has been frighteningly incompetent is a substantiable allegation, that he doesn't have the balls to talk tough and with conviction is a proven fact, that he hasn't an ounce of self esteem has been demonstrated by this- when we have these very valid reasons to be mad at the man, why divert our attention and dissipate our anger by appealing to the idiot in us? Would we be less angry with him if had appeared thrice in the same clothes? Is his habit of wearing fresh clothes before each public appearance antagonistic to his duties as Home Minister? We, as a society, have the habit of thrashing a guilty public figure for everything that's out of public jurisdiction (I am guilty of this too); for example, criticizing Yuvraj Singh for partying too much and Sarah Palin for her pregnant daughter. The comments on Patil's frequent dress change can be a topic four friends joke about over a cup of tea, but to wax eloquent on it in prime time takes the sucker punch out of the real issue and shows how puerile the media can get. Thankfully, politicians of all hues wasted no time in rubbishing the issue.

The most nauseating case of journalistic perjury in recent times has been the coverage, I heard, Hindi news channels gave to the LHC experiment by CERN. It is a momentous experiment in more ways than one- it will answer not only scientific conundrums, but might also be that push fence-sitting agnosts like me need towards atheism. It is an experiment that has been on the drawing board for years now, and scientists the world over swear by its safety. Yet, some harebrianed teams at Aaj Tak, Star News, and the like have been fuelling already quelled rumours about the experiment imperiling the existence of the earth. And given the exclusive viewership Hindi news channels command, millions of Indians are misled into believing a scientific impossibility. For many people sitting in villages, watching Aaj Tak on a 14" TV set while milking their cows, a headline like "SEPTEMBER 10 KO DUNIYA KHATAM" can be a real shock- especially when they have no resources but other crappy Hindi channels to verify this. Star News claimed "Star News ne kiya tha vaada ki duniya nahi hogi khatam, aur aisa hi hua." I felt like firing that reporter along with the proton in the LHC. Hindi news channels, per se, are not synonymous with stupidity, but their assumption that anything that must appeal to rural junta must be gossipable, feather-rufflable and font 30, is what makes all of them cheap without exception. When India TV talks about the love triangle of tigers, we accuse them of wasting airtime, but excuse them because they're not trivializing anything- they're just passing off bullshit as bullshit. But irresponsible and untruthful reporting, intentional or unintentional, like in the CERN case, should be punishable by law.

I don't deny the media's right and need to generate revenues. I also understand the pressure on TRPs as more and more channels share viewership and hence advertising revenues. Even to maintain, if not improve, their ad revenues, news channels must constantly ensure that they not only provide news but also entertain viewers enough to keep them from the remote. This can be done either by enlightening viewers with diverse programmes like Auto shows, debates, travelogues, interviews, and programmes like Jai Jawaan (on NDTV),or by pandering to their non-serious interests like Saif's tattoo or Dhoni's bike. Since the battle for ad revenues is not just among news channels, you find Aaj Tak & NDTV pitted against Sony and Zoom. But entertainment can make sense, and their belief in the opposite lumps many news channels with the David Dhawans and Anees Bazmees of the world. I am also against the notion (which I too held one time) that journalists must present facts and leave their interpretation to the public. Journalists must have the right to interpret the facts they gather as long as they don't create propaganda or perpetrate falsehood. The media played a laudatory role in cracking the Jessica Lall case and the BMW 1 case, made all the right noises about the murders of Manjunath Shanmugam and Satyendra Dubey, and brought to light the horrific Nithari killings. But that does not act as an antidote for their excesses in the Aarushi case (which, by the way, should rank above CERN in nauseating reporting) and the other liberties they take under the banner of Free Press. They might have the legal right to present anything they desire, but do they have the moral right to treat us as just stepping stones up the TRP hill?