Treading the line between fair and balanced

Treading the line between fair and balanced

As I see it

A few months ago, when Sarah Palin, the postergirl of right wing Republicans was contracted by Fox News to be a guest anchor, she remarked, “I am thrilled to be joining the great journalistic talent at Fox News. It’s wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news.”

Ah! “Fair” and “balanced”, those wonderful words that Fox News has made its tagline, words that every aspiring journalist is reminded are critical to professional credibility. Unfortunately, since I didn’t go to journalism school, I am still not sure what those words mean. After all, if the channel that has often been accused of being ‘the propaganda arm of  the Republican party’ can proudly claim to be ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’, then I guess we need to redefine the meaning of  the words.

We still don’t have a Fox News equivalent in India — although a few channels have slipped dangerously in that direction — but the dilemma of what constitutes ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ television is universal. On Indian news television, the escape route has been to ensure that any discussion programme represents strikingly contrary viewpoints. So, if you have a right wing voice which believes that Hindutva is the core of Indian nationalism, you must have a left-liberal view that is convinced that Hindutva is a communal platform. If you have someone who condemns human right violations in Kashmir, you must have someone who believes that human rights activists are apologists for militants.

If there is one thing that contemporary news television has done, it has accentuated the polarities in public debate. The limited discussion time on television does place a premium on short, snappy soundbites. On television, the moderate viewpoint that might qualify its responses with a considered ‘on the other hand’ is quickly discarded. By contrast, the more direct, extreme view is celebrated because it leads to, let’s be honest, a ‘big fight’. As someone who has ‘moderated’ many such ‘fights’, let me say that the experience has been mostly enjoyable. To have two articulate speakers slug it out - lets say an Arun Jaitley from the BJP and a Kapil Sibal from the Congress - does make for terrific television: it can be edgy, dramatic and exciting. But also, at times, dare I say, a little predictable.

The recent debate over Naxalism typifies the problems associated with converting a highly complex subject into a binary black and white conflict. Much like a boxing match, the participating pugilists are placed in their respective corners. On one side, you have the votaries of the strong state: for them, the Naxals are terrorists who must be eliminated. On the other, you have the so-called Naxal ‘sympathisers’ who believe that the Indian state is brutal and repressive. Bring them to a television studio, and the debate follows a familiar pattern: loud, accusatory and, in many instances, highly personalised.

Lost in the cacophony, there seems little space or time to discuss how a just and acceptable solution can be found to what is both a socio-economic and a security challenge. Why should every reference to alleged ‘atrocities’ committed by a local militia like the Salva Judum in Chattisgarh be seen as an exhibition of ‘anti-national’ behaviour? On the other hand, why should unbridled criticism of Naxal violence be seen as state propaganda? What if, one were to suggest, that both sides are in danger of being victims of their own propaganda machines, that maybe the Salwa Judum and the Naxals are two sides of  the same violent coin? Maybe, the polarities on television mirror the divisions in society itself.

Perhaps, we have pigeonholed the world around us into neat little boxes. The space for exploring the grey areas of  an issue, to be more accepting of  a counter-argument to our entrenched belief system is shrinking. Or atleast we don’t seem to wish to enter the hidden crevices of  a vexed question that might force us to re-examine our convictions. 

And yet, the question I ask is this: why can one not be equally critical of Udhav Thackeray and Digvijay Singh’s brand of politics without having to constantly ‘prove’ ones credentials to be a ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ journalist? Or is that the price one must pay for being a journalist in the age of  extremes?

Post-script: If  Fox News has chosen Sarah Palin as its brand ambassador for ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ reporting, maybe we should also look for similar home-grown figures? Maybe, our tough-talking home minister is an option? Better still, why can’t we have both Chidambaram and author-activist Arundhati Roy on the same programme on Naxalism? Would certainly make for fascinating television.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
GET IT
Comments (+)