Saturday, December 20, 2008

The chauffeurs on our one-way ride to perdition

***WARNING: Devoid of humour; might contain traces of romanticism; definitely contains dollops of cynicism and disillusionment***

I only vaguely recall the days of Doordarshan. In spite of having got a cable TV connection only ten years back, my recollections of the small screen prior to that, and of the news in particular, are very hazy. But what I do remember is that back then, we had to wait for a fixed hour to be informed by newscasters who never seemed to slip up or stumble, and appeared to be so emotionally detached, that at times they seemed to be almost inhuman. Cut to now, and we have at least a couple dozen 24-hour nation-wide news channels in each of the two national languages, in addition to several other localized as well as regional-language channels. And it doesn't take a keen sense of observation for one to notice that other than the time being devoted to the reporting, the quality (when you take into account not just the reporting per-se but also the analysis and the nature), and at times, even the quantity (in terms of distinct but significant pieces of information) of it all has been steadily rolling off downhill in an inverse logarithmic fashion.

The saddest part is that it's not just the dime-a-dozen newscasters (who, given their constant wriggling, don't seem to be anymore comfortable in Western attire than they were in a saree), over-enthusiastic reporters (who are able to avoid stuttering on only that one, oft-rehearsed line: 'with cameraperson , this is , , ') and the ever-increasing number of behind-the-scenes staff (which takes care of the tickers and comes up with such howlers such as "CONG COMABACK IN RAJ") who are to blame (that's not to say that they're not. Whereas earlier on DD, a gaffe would mean being out of a job and fading into oblivion, the current lot have a huge margin for error, and given the sheer numbers, they're bound to get an alternate even they do manage to get themselves fired after a series of slips.) - these greenhorns are merely following the instructions given to them by their seniors; those award-winning journalists who are the best known names and were, till as recently as about five years back, professionals I looked up to.

One of these seniors, a personal favourite since 20 years back (and the fact that I can remember so far back is much more of a testimony to him and his programme, other than its highly infectious jingle, than it is to my memory), claimed it was a national shame that the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition didn't travel together to Bombay during the terrorist attacks, in spite of announcing that they would. Well sirji, I wouldn't go so far as to call it a national shame, but the fact that even you, in spite of being one of the, if not the most experienced of the lot currently present, have started making an occassional error; more alarmingly still, the psephologist in you has been, of late, getting election analyses mostly wrong, and for reasons that are hardly surprising.

Granted that you do take into account the factors which come into play when it comes to the majority of the electorate and in particular the voting sections of the populace, and these are the people who actually interact with their area representatives. But you are increasingly doing so in very vague and generic terms, while your brainstorming and predictions are limited to the upper-middle class urban points of view. Which no doubt is your target audience (and I'm part of it) but, since they (rather, we) form an insignificant little percentage of the total turnouts, is a gross misrepresentation of the ground reality. To readers (if any), I ask this: can you name the legislator or MP of your home constituency? Can you at least name your home Vidhan Sabha/LS constituency?

On to someone who is probably the most celebrated journalist of our times. On one of the special debates after the recent attacks, she suggested that the people are getting caught up in a lot of passionate, romantic, unrealistic rhetoric. That was probably the only thing she said in those 4 days or so which made sense. Ironically, she was acknowledging the nature of the opinions stirred up, force-fed and reported by none other than her. She started off her coverage by insisting on drawing parallels with 9/11 by referring to people, trapped inside the high-rises symbolic of the economy, signalling for help. (Ironic again, then, that this was dubbed 26/11 and not 11/26. Why shy away from complete Cocacolonization, ma'am?)

As she shuttled from one location to the other and then to a third, she just became increasingly insensitive while interviewing directly affected people (some argue that she might even have given away the positions and hence lives of some people trapped inside; her critics have had similar complaints about her in the past, most notably the Kargil conflict). And while she tried her best to show that she shared their grief, she failed miserably in her efforts, all of which seemed nothing but contrived. It is difficult to believe a Metallica or any other band when they sing anti-establishment songs after they've been minting money for more than two decades; in the same vein, it is impossible not to see through the array of fake emotions of someone who has been there, done that and won accolades for the same.

It wasn't a pretty sight when she, a senior member of the editorial team of one of the most respected news channels, was being pushed around while mobbing a foreign hotel guest who had just been rescued; it was somewhat humorous when, while she wandered too close to the site after operations were wrapped up, she was being shooed away on live camera by security personnel unaware of her celebrity status; it was annoying, as it increasingly has been, when one saw that the panel of "experts" consisted of 5 from showbiz vis-a-vis 2 from fields of genuine expertise; it was outrageous when on the same show, she forced an apology out of an audience member for his rightful outrage against an irresponsible statement made by one of the five "celebs"; it was distasteful when she, on air, said about the anchor - "I can't hear what she's saying. Tell her to shut up"; it is amazing that most of the rhetoric she was referring to ('systemic failure', 'need for accountability', 'we, the people, are / want change') has been, over the years if not right now, been manufactured by her.

Kudos, then, to her ability of planting her creations in the pop urban lexicon. It's all too easy to take the opinions of the rich and the famous on behalf of being "average citizens of the city and the country" (which they are not - refer below). Or allow the people, and in particular the youth, to come and shout out ridiculous stuff like 'politicians leave the people alone', 'the entire system is to blame', 'let's form our own party', etc. and in the process, grant them their fifteen seconds of fame. But it would be great if even one feasible suggestion is thrown up - not necessarily implemented, just thrown up. Again, a question for the readers (if any): Of all the talk that went on during the crisis and after, did any of the suggestions seem remotely feasible? Do you have any ideas of your own?

And then we have the other celebrity journo with a legacy to live up to; the rebel who is responsible for the contents of a group of channels, known especially for exaggerating its facts and figures. (Remember the '03 Bombay blasts? Initially reported by his channel to be seven, the number was gradually, almost reluctantly brought down to four, by which time no one really cared.) Now he's a guy who keeps harping on about this being the age of the information media. Well, yes this is the information age, where practically anything is available at the click of a button, and yes, the growth of media on the whole is a part and parcel of this age. Then again, there is information media and then there's entertainment media, and our friend here is confused. While the sections of the media meant to entertain are of course allowed to inform and provoke thought (and we don't necessarily have to turn to European cinema for that, when we have equally good home-grown material), I personally think that it's best if the information media knows its limits and steers clear of being a source of entertainment.

Along the same lines, he also washed his hands off being insensitive and immature in the coverage of the siege, claiming that it was the sole responsibility of the administration to cordon off the affected areas, and not in the least bit of the editorial policy of the broadcasters. Never mind the fact that the events were telecast as live proceedings not unlike a cricket match, to the point of being a possible operational hazard and causing increased grief, and not only to those who were directly affected. Does he really imply that there is no such thing as moral responsibility? Yes, if he doesn't go ahead and show the footage, some rival will, but for someone who and whose channels are all for standing up for change, can't he exercise some restraint and with that, display some much-needed maturity? And you, the reader, won't you like to see (or for that matter, read) news without being told that this was first reported by ABC or is an XYZ exclusive, or without being misled by that now-eternally flashing 'breaking news' banner on your screens?

I can go on and on about lots of things, and I will post them soon in my upcoming posts, but let me just restrict this already humongous post to the 3 TV news stars, and try to wrap this up as soon as possible, for now. So, just a few generic pointers to act as an overview as well as reminders for full-length posts to follow. So just in case anyone didn't notice or refuses to acknowledge:
* the coverage of the attacks, for me, merely highlighted the elitist nature of these channels in particular and urban Indian society in general,
* in spite of all the focus on the people and the youth, it is clear that different segments of the society are totally disconnected from each other, and the voices that are being heard either lack conviction or brains. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing indeed,
* there might be a huge global financial crisis going on and mergers, acquisitions and take-overs might have become the norm of the recent past, but the capitalist nature of our country's media should be a cause for concern for one and all, and,
* politician-bashing is all well and good, but truth be told, it's sort of difficult to further divide a people who are already as divided as we are. Having said that, we should all thank our lucky stars for being part of the kind of system that we have here, because in any alternate scenario, even if these dissenting voices are heard, they are silenced ruthlessly.

It's not just the politicians who seek our votes - the media does too, albeit in a different form. Even though they have much more of a power to bring about change for the better, they are more bothered about approvals in the form of ratings and viewership, and are more than happy to pass the baton of action to us. And while we're comfortably seated in the wagon holding this baton, unless they, our drivers who are the media-persons, change the course of this ride they're taking us on, we are all headed straight to hell. And that hell is our own future.

[Originally written, but not completed, on 7/12/08]

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