Jun 28, 2008

The problem that is the media

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan / New Delhi June 28, 2008, 0:36 IST
The media needs to introspect about the steep increase in the dissatisfaction with it.

Between 1980 and 1997, I was a full-time journalist. Since then I have been a columnist for this newspaper. This takes up, on average, about three hours a day. In the remaining time, I do a bit of this and a bit of that and it is great fun.
But since my primary identity has been of a journalist, it is not surprising that people should complain to me about the media as if I can do something about it. Initially, I would defend my professional colleagues as being more sinned against than sinning. But not any longer because I think the journalists have a lot to answer for.
So I have decided to devote this article to the media, for two reasons. The first is that 11 years is a long enough time for me to be able to stop defending my former professional colleagues. Second, in the last few months, there has been a steep increase in the number of times people have voiced very deep dis-satisfaction with the media.
Thus, when people complain, it turns out very quickly that they are complaining about television. Print is usually less complained against.
Second, if you ask enough questions, it turns out that most of the complaints are occasioned by irritation rather than a factual mistake in reporting. That perhaps explains why there are fewer complaints against print, which irritates no one except those about whom it has got the facts wrong. They, of course, are incensed but it is only by chance that one gets to meet them when they are really angry. Some, of course, phone to protest.
Third, in the financial press — about which I can claim to know something — it is not mala fide (as is often assumed) but plain old fashioned ignorance that lies at the heart of the problem. This is not to say there are no bent journalists. But they are far fewer now than a decade ago.
Ignorance manifests in some strange ways. For example, a day before the RBI increased the interest rates, the largest circulated newspaper in the country reported that no such thing was even being contemplated. And when the increase was actually announced, the reporter on the largest-viewed business channel just lost it, saying the RBI had misled the markets because it had said that it "soothing" things just the previous day. Recently, a well-reputed newspaper carried a report on page one that every dollar that India accumulated between April and June cost it Rs 169 per dollar. The actual figure was less than Rs 43.
Fourth, there has been a staggering increase in the number of publications, and with it, a corresponding increase in the number of columnists, that is writers who have a fixed space reserved for them in the publication. The result is that persons with very little understanding, leave alone comprehension, have become pundits, writing pretty much what they please. (Many people believe I am one of them but a pox on them).
Fifth, with only a few exceptions, there has been a general devaluation of the editorial. Few papers ever took them seriously but now in most newspapers it has become just one more hole in the page to be filled. And, what is worse, many important newspapers, it has become a vehicle for airing the personal opinion of the editor, rather than that of some group or class interest, which is what the editorial used to do in the past. Two striking examples of this are worth citing. One is the manner in which the nuclear deal has been written about by a leading newspaper from the south — India will become a US pawn in that country's battle against China. The other was the view, expressed repeatedly, in a BJP paper from Delhi that the exit of Nepal's monarch was a blow against Hindus, quite disregarding the fact that those who voted the monarch out were themselves Hindus. There has also been a steep decline in the intellectual quality of the persons charged with writing editorials because it costs so much to hire a clever, well-read and sensible writers.
Sixth, the proliferation of TV channels and its hit-and-run nature has meant the deployment of a vast army of the untutored persons who not only report the news but also, as they babble along, give opinions, usually in response to some inane question from the anchor. But, as I said, these persons are merely irritating. It is the print media that hurts more.
I can go on but the short point is clear: those who complain against the media have a much stronger case today than they did in the past. It is the media, particularly television, which has to take corrective steps. The policy only maximising viewership matters has resulted in people not watching the news as much as they used to — they read the ticker underneath instead.
In the old days they used to shoot the messenger who brought bad news. Now the messengers are shooting themselves.

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