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Saturday, January 7, 2012

When news used to be news

Amartya Sen in an op-ed in The Hindu newspaper while praising the Indian press for its vigor and vibrancy, pointed out its shortcomings that he attributed to what he called ‘lack of internal discipline’ and ‘relation between media and society’. The real problem, if it still qualifies to be problem, stems from transition of news media organizations from honest reporters of news to self-anointed news creators and opinion makers.

Editorials, in the days of scrupulous propriety journalism, would remain cornered in opinion pages and news columns would contain stories in real-time with honest reporting based on witnessed accounts.  Even electronic media, television and radio (much before computers were in vogue and internet would be confined in some nihilistic format to science fiction), prior to internal emergency that Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared in 1975, remained source of news in its most unadulterated form with opinions confined to separate commentaries that followed news-bulletins. Nevertheless, Radio and TV in those days used to be under virtual government control that became almost comic during infamous internal emergency. During emergency, the news prior to broadcast would be vetted by prime minister’s office.
The plight of so called electronic media of that era is summed in a passage in Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Shalimar the clown’ that reads “All-India Radio sent a radio reporter to stand uncertainty outside the sage-green apartment building at Type-I Number-22 Southeast Hira Bagh, holding out his microphone as if it were a begging bowl. Doordarshan, in those days the only television channel, sent a cameraman and a sound recordist. The text of what they were permitted to say in commentary would no doubt be handed down later from Prime Minister’s office, so there was no need to send a journalist”.

But then newspapers were at a completely different and elevated pedestal; most of those national newspapers zealously withstood assault on their independence with total dignity and uprightness. Rather than to succumb to the diktats of information and broadcasting ministry the editors of the time chose to go to print with empty column spaces. Those tactics rather than serving the uncanny emergency regime embarrassed it no uncertain manner. That was the high noon of Indian print journalism, very different from whatever one is forced to observe, in the high-tech age, in the name of mainstream journalism that has been overtaken and overpowered by jingoist zeal of turning every single news story into a sensation tinged with rabid ultra-nationalism.

The disappearance of boundaries between print and electronic media that followed liberalization and parallel technological marathon also saw blurring of boundaries between reporting and creation of news. News reporters instead of being reporters also assumed the mantle makers of public opinions. And for that purpose slanting of news without any compunctions, became a norm and adherence to truth peripheral.

The government control gave way to vice like grasp by partisan and vested interests with very different and at times dangerous agenda. Expansion from limited outlets to an unending number of channels extending beyond horizons resulted in mediocrity filling the places and consequent decline of understanding of the issues. The latter served those vested interests to the point of perfection.

The entire phenomenon far from being indigenous is rather imported from places where it had been put to use to the point that military operations were timed to start wars, and drop bombs to char innocents, to coincide with prime-time live telecasts. The entire issue is much more than lack of discipline; one misses the days when news used to just news.

But entire this diatribe does not at any time mean that there are not any more honest and upright individuals in the profession. I know individuals who with their impeccable work have kept issues not only alive but done much more to alleviate suffering in the places long shunned and condemned by mainstream media. At the very root of the entire issue is the overtake of the system by narrow partisan and vested interests, who survive through the times to fleece truth for their petty ends.
-Rajiv Kumar  

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