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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Media: The Synergy that keeps Us Going

Friday 17 October 2008, by Uttam Sen


Pertinent questions have been raised on journalistic proficiency and an environment that makes light of the gravity of human worth and freedom. It could be a stern reality check for print journalists if they are rendered redundant save for the fact that the time has not come in India. The issue is what the reader thinks. Does the quality of coverage interest and impress him? The answer can come as a bolt from the blue for some, particularly those who have not had first-hand experience of newspaper production. Newspaper managements have long acquired the savvy to tell exactly how and from where to draw their readership and employ their assets in the most optimal manner possible. Senior positions are manned by professionals with natural administrative flair. The rank-and-file is ever mindful that technology has reduced the need for the number of hands that were required in an earlier hot metal era and could help dispense with a few more if and when necessary. Very often the same person vets and edits copy and makes up the page. The secondary lines of verification among sub-editors and proof-readers have disappeared.

Quality is being redefined as a result. Supervisors focus on the finished page rather than the “typo”, the eye-catching headline or nerve-tingling picture rather than syntax or the virtues of content. Not that the latter go entirely unattended, it’s just that the preferences are glibness and suavity. The play around the text far surpasses involvement with the substance. The reader prefers glitter, in content and get-up, and can live with the odd solecism, or occasional misinformation, as long as they do not disturb his feel-good factor. In news gathering, the sanctity of human interest and political stories has by and large been replaced by an immediate, worldly pre-occupation. In some big metropolitan cities, journalists, like most people, ask who and what special interest is affected rather than what difference it makes to the human condition or whether it is worthwhile political news.

Truth or authenticity, as they were known in the past, is not on the consumer’s wish list today. It might even be argued that these two relativist terms are open to interpretation. The majority are looking for information about the market and its concomitants, namely, jobs and lifestyles. The “truth”, they know, can be secured best by their ability to take care of themselves rather than by ruminating over what appears in print. The seller and the consumer share the same points of reference.

Dedicated readers might turn to the opinion columns and political and economic news. They constitute a limited portion of the readership even if at times the influence and credibility of the more discerning, interactive ones (the opinion-makers) exceed their numbers. However, there can be no gainsaying that the political reader, except perhaps in committed pockets of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, is an endangered species.

This is not to belittle the hard times the young have in life and the workplace. They constitute the dominant demographic profile in India today and have arrived on the scene at a moment when most of the erstwhile security nets, right from the family to the State, are being challenged. His condition mirrors that of his field of operation.

The media’s sins of commission and omission have collectively bared a situation that is both a curse and a blessing. The way a hapless father was incriminated by a senior official at a press conference before investigations into his daughter’s defilement and murder had begun, the total invasion of the benighted family’s privacy and the verdicts passed by the media, mostly erroneous, must have given by-standers the shivers. There are unexplained, as yet unconnected, threads here of current existence that a venerable writer and thinker has highlighted in a journal article. Did it not show how remote the State machinery could turn without lawful accountability to the individual until the court pronounced him not guilty (in a country where one is innocent till held culpable)? Even those at fault do not deserve such treatment under the due process of law. Do people have no hedge against the prying external world when they are alone and confronted with adversity, when the State and society around them are either not with them, or are indifferent to their plight? Hitherto, compassion and good neighbourliness were quintessentially Indian values, and for the major part continue to be so.

FOR those nostalgic about the Hobbesian Leviathan, the State giant made up of individuals, the difference today is that the deal is between a soulless currency and the forces associated with and empathetic to it. The residuum is left to providence, which is the curse. The fact that the media grossly overplayed the episode would have set people thinking. Like the luckless NOIDA family they could themselves be similarly abandoned some day given the maverick apathy to the vulnerable individual or group that is threatening to develop into the norm. Journalism is merely reflecting this predicament, but as opposed to the rest of the problem, could one day be part of the remedy, which will be the blessing.

If one were to delve into the substance of what transpires through the public sphere and subsequently influences the meaning of communications in its more visible manifestations, interesting conclusions emerge. The day of the older stereotypes might have passed. The medium itself is now the message and the totality of making the news, collecting, processing, publishing, packaging and then consuming it are more closely incorporated than is sometimes imagined. The interaction produces a combined result greater than the entirety of the separate effects. The sum of these parts is synergy.

The very existence of the media projects the human aspiration to know and interact. News makers have to either be a part of or relate to the demographic majority, which does not minimise the importance of those who are numerically smaller but incomparably superior in resources. Newspaper owners, whether proprietors or editors, lay down their imprimatur. Those who collect and process the news have their own predilections. The advertiser has his say. These varied people do not always see eye to eye. They are also part of a hierarchy in which one set of voices are more dominant than others, some expected to stay quiescent altogether. But together they might find themselves part of an arrangement that they had not envisaged. The theme of affluence amidst poverty is powerfully analogous to a global equation which is being questioned by an increasingly incisive and articulate public sphere, across not only the developing world but the richer countries as well. Barack Obama is a US presidential hopeful but got his elevation through the common man’s funding. He is strongly inclined towards public welfare. It is almost inconceivable that the unprecedented flow of information and debate across the globe will not some day create an impact that is not proportionately exceptional.

Today’s upmarket journalist is not out there in a vacuum, nor is he always to blame. He/she is significant on current form. Performance under pressure is the hallmark of his professionalism. Even a word here or a reflection there intermittently underscores his/her awareness of the larger perspective. He holds out the promise of changing with the times. Social and political responsibility could return to the general media’s formal agenda with the acceptance that globalisation must provide for those living outside the cities (more than 70 per cent in both India and China) and the categorically underprivileged. This, as luck would have it, is the feedback from the public sphere in which the media is the most detectable happening. Two world wars were fought after an unparalleled run of capitalist growth. Nobody would cavil at human ingenuity paving the way for a serene resolution of human conflict. Unhappily, violence and terrorism are on balance conveying negative pointers.

The alternative is oblivion (in the professional sense, because in other ways journalists are sufficiently worldly-wise). In the context of the Indian press, however, the real or the actual could be somewhat contrary to what one may be led to believe. Deference to the circumstances on the ground is the only means of staying relevant. Form cannot indefinitely forestall the imperatives of substance.

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