Making sense of sensationalist TV journalism
American pop art icon Andy Warhol was probably right: everyone is looking for their 15 minutes of fame; only the time has now been compressed to a 15-second soundbite. In 1998, Jai Bhagwan Goel, the rotund, fire-spewing, self-appointed leader of the North India unit of the Shiv Sena, called us with an 'invitation' to send a camera crew to cover his proposed attack on the cinema house screening the film 'Fire'. We did ring up the police but as in cinema, so also in real life, the men in khakhi landed a wee bit late. The theatre was attacked, the show was stopped and Goel was arrested but made it to the front pages and prime time news. A few days later, out on bail, Goel landed up in office with a box of sweets. "You covered the event very well, thank you so much," he smiled through his wide moustache.
I haven't met him since, have heard little about him. But for a few hours, he was a newsmaker. Goel may be history but there are enough others to take forward his legacy. In the last few weeks, we've had Muslim activists in Tamil Nadu, Dalit groups in Rajasthan, Kashmiri clerics in the valley, VHP middle-level functionaries in the national capital, each relishing their moment in the media sun. A majority of these are unelected, so-called fringe elements with limited news value but a disproportionate noise and nuisance value.
The slope of cultural intolerance is now a slippery one. An intellectual debate at a literary festival can quickly descend into a demand for the arrest of one of the country's most eminent social scientists; a group of raucous protestors in Tamil Nadu can be used by a chief minister to ban a film; a fatwa of a cleric can silence the voice of a music band in the Valley and the rantings of a few can stop a painting exhibition.
Yes, an absentee state in the midst of chaos has been guilty of abandoning its primary role of law enforcement. But what of us in the media? In 1998, there was only one 24x7 news network. Today, there are more than 300 round the clock news channels, carnivorously devouring every morsel of news, the noisier the better. Where once the aim was to shed light on a news story, now the dominant agenda is to 'manufacture' heat in the studio. News has been replaced by noise, sense by sensationalism, history by histrionics; the medium is the same but the message has drastically changed.
The result is a qualitative change in the way news is now disseminated and perceived by viewers, and more worryingly, in the way in which it can shape the national agenda. Take the recent Indo-Pak fracas at the Line of Control. The dastardly beheading of an Indian soldier and Pakistan's reflexive denial rightly led to indignation in the country. But when justifiable anger threatens to turn into uncontrolled jingoism in TV studios, to the point where the Indian government is forced to send back Pakistani hockey players, stop trade relations and almost rupture diplomatic ties, then we must ask ourselves whether war-mongering hysteria is what must define the media's collective responsibility.
It's a sense of responsibility which must again determine our coverage of the lumpen fringe. Yes, there is rising cultural intolerance, and there are caste and religious 'mobs' determined to have their voices heard. But by providing them constant exposure, have we almost ended up 'legitimising' them in prime time? In the unfortunate incident in Kashmir involving an all-women band, did we make enough of an effort to seek out the voices of reason and moderation or does it suit us to paint every Kashmiri with the brush of religious extremism? A fulminating Asiya Andrabi-like anti-India figure fits a stereotype we wish to create of the average Kashmiri; the voices of young Kashmiris who express solidarity with the girls get blanked out.
Yes, 24 hours news TV is, at one level, an 'amoral' medium which can't always be expected to conform to a traditional news value system; there is a 'democratisation' of space in television that allows for a range of voices to be heard. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether we have abandoned the search for a diversity of opinion in our desire to reduce complex debates to black and white polarisations. Do we have the skill and capacity to explore the grey crevices of major issues or have we got carried away by the surround sound that turns every news event now into a controversy, often contrived?
It would be easy for critics to blame the television rating point system as the 'evil' responsible for the declining standards. Yes, weekly TRPs do reduce journalism at times to tabloid-like box office, but would a more sophisticated measurement of content really change the manner in which we choose to do news? The truth is, we have lost the moral compass that should define journalism's priorities. Maybe we have got carried away with our celebrity status, maybe just being on camera is a drug that prevents us from separating right from wrong and rediscovering our inner conscience.
Journalism can still be an agent of change for a better India, the camera can still unmask the corrupt, humble the powerful and celebrate the good. But for that, we need to be ready to take the road less travelled, not of instant soundbites and repetitive drama, but of informed opinion and real stories. And maybe, make a genuine attempt to isolate the voices of extremism instead of amplifying their shrillness.
Post-script: Maybe Jai Bhagwan Goel was born in the wrong era. I fear that if he were around today, he'd be a fixture on prime time TV. The power of wisdom has now been sadly replaced by a circus-like cacophony.
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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