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'Many of us peddle half truths and cheap sensationalism'

Rajdeep Sardesai, March 21, 2014, DHNS 22:58 IST
This is open season against the Indian media. Arvind Kejriwal says that he will throw journalists in jail if he comes to power (he later qualified that he was referring to ‘some’ journalists). Manohar Parikkar, the BJP’s aam aadmi chief minister, has said that journalists are unqualified and take money to write.

The Congress has already boycotted opinion polls and accused the media of being biased against it. On social media – the ultimate space for the ‘outrage industry’ – journalists are routinely accused of being ‘paid media.’ For Modi bhakts, Congress chamchas and AAP cheerleaders, media bashing has become this election season’s favourite sport.

The charge of being ‘biased’ reflects a rising intolerance among the political faithful. So long as the media was hailing Arvind Kejriwal as the ultimate anti-corruption prophet, we were, in the eyes of aam admi supporters, allies in their war.

Now, when we raise hard questions on alleged doublespeak, we are accused of being lackeys of corporate India. When we questioned Narendra Modi's handling of the 2002 riots, we were accused of being a pseudo-secular, anti-national force. Now, when the same media carries Modi’s rallies unedited with the assistance of the BJP’s own cameras, we are accused by the Congress of ‘selling out’ to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

On the flip side, no government has been subject to the kind of media scrutiny that UPA 2 has, yet that has also not stopped the media from being targeted as agents of 10 Janpath.The response of media associations to this constant barrage of abuse and intimidation has been to either resort to self-righteous rage by invoking democratic principles and freedom of speech, or we have chosen to stay silent in the belief that there is little point in adding to the escalating noise levels.

Frankly, neither can the media occupy the high moral ground nor is it in our interest to hold our peace. The time has come to call a spade an axe and tell it like it is: the fact is, that while the political class has lost its nerve, a number of us in the media have also lost our moral compass and worryingly, our credibility.

Sharp polarisationNever before in 25 plus years in journalism has one witnessed the kind of sharp polarisation within the media, alongwith an equally troubling drop in professional standards. The polarisation is a direct result of the high stakes involved. With almost 400 news channels and thousands of newspapers, politicians are looking to co-opt the media to amplify their message.

Well choreographed events like Modi's chai pe charcha, Rahul's ‘interactive’ sessions or a Kejriwal roadshow are designed to manipulate the media image. Rather than interrogate the dominant narrative, the media has, in many instances, become a willing accomplice. The dangers of such collusive, crony journalism at election time are obvious.

Worse, there is the regressive trend of projecting blatantly partisan agendas as ‘independent’ news and views. Many of us are no longer true to our calling: we peddle half truths, and, at times, cheap sensationalism in the belief that it is no longer enough to ‘tell’ a story, but that the story must be ‘sold’ in a manner that will attract maximum eyeballs. In this age of hype, when news becomes box office for some and ratings matter more than respect, then you know you are on a slippery slope to tabloidization.

At the core of the credibility crisis lies a business model which is driven by a vicious cycle of TRPs, advertising revenues and hefty carriage fees to cable operators. When a single national news channel still has to pay upwards of Rs 50 crore to cable operators for telecasting a channel, when subscription revenues are still kicking in all too slowly, when the advertising pie is being sliced between dozens of channels, then the space for investing in quality news gathering and investigations or training and mentoring young journalists is shrinking all the time. We find it so much cheaper to get eight people to scream at each other in a studio.

Changing patternsThe second issue concerns changing ownership patterns. Many of the mushrooming television channels are now owned by fly by night operators and politicians whose interests are primarily in using a media platform for settling personal scores, pushing political agendas or in seeking status to match monetary clout. Many of these owners have little interest in the classical idea of journalism as being the relentless pursuit of the truth: instead, we now have a mix of supari journalism that seeks to fix someone or one that promotes mindless infotainment.

But it would be easy, and even misconceived, to blame the fall in journalistic standards on some evil owner out there who is insisting that we place sensation above sense. The buck must ultimately stop at the editor’s table. Sadly, the professional editor as a gatekeeper of news is being replaced by editor as fixer, editor as proprietor, or editor as larger than life egoistical ‘star,’ all of which can diminish from the intrinsic values of journalism in the absence of adequate checks and balances.

Whichever kind of editor one chooses to be, the inescapable reality is that the editor must be more accountable to readers and viewers. A few years ago, as president of the Editors Guild, I had proposed that all editors declare their assets. The move failed to take off. I had also suggested that all editors make a written commitment that they would not allow any ‘paid news’ or advertorials without full and transparent disclosure. The proposal met with only partial success. While we demand the highest standards of accountability from other public figures, it is time we turned the gaze inwards. Or become a species that wields power, evokes fear, but loses respect.
(The writer is editor in chief, CNN IBN)

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