Dumbed down but powerful

BY Seema Kamdar| IN Media Practice | 10/04/2010
It is about the scary burden of apportioning fame, shame and blame that the media seems to have appropriated for itself. It determines public opinion to an uncomfortable extent.
SEEMA KAMDAR’s response to Shekhar Gupta’s Noose Media.

Dumbing down of journalism is a genuine, happening phenomenon and it’s indeed sad that politicians are delighting over the people’s lack of faith in the media. But the unfortunate part is that while the people are certainly far more sceptical of the media’s version of the truth, they are equally influenced by it consciously or unconsciously.


Take the case of the Ayesha-Shoaib controversy. An otherwise prevaricating Shoaib came around to giving her a divorce entirely because of the media’s merciless drubbing on the issue. I think nobody would argue with the fact that had there been no media, Shoaib and Sania Mirza would hardly have succumbed to Ayesha’s pressure.


Whether this was a good thing or not is not the point. The episode loudly demonstrates the power wielded by the media even today so much so that regardless of the criticism mounted on it for overdoing the controversy, the people at large were hugely impacted by the developments televised "live" on a hourly basis by most channels.


One can scorn and scoff at the trivialisation of news, sensationalisation of news and the insensitivity of news reporting but there is no getting away from the fact that it determines public opinion to an uncomfortable extent. We may not respect or own up for the coverage but it does end up moulding our views by virtue of being our only source of information.


Take Amitabh Bachchan’s case. All he did was to agree to market Gujarat’s ‘tourism’ and the media, even more than the Congress, came down on him like a ton of bricks. He tried, keeping his dignity intact as the man is often wont to, to explain that marketing a state for its tourism is not the same as condoning the crimes of a few in its past history. By that token, he should have to answer for the demolition of Somnath temple by the Mughals and other worse crimes in Gujarat.


He could have argued that if he was believed to be representing the people of Gujarat, it would then stand to reason that he was also representing not just the Hindus of the state but also the Muslims. The superstar decided in his wisdom to take on the allegation (of backing Modi’s role in the riots) on camera - a medium he is most comfortable with and knowledgeable about. He gave extensive, hour-long interviews on every channel and thought he had beaten the media at its job.    


What he had not reckoned with was the fact that his cold logic, debonair demeanour and polished diction would barely stand a chance in the din raked up so purposefully by the media for days on end. And suddenly, so many people who otherwise had no take on the matter, were indignant at the legend’s endorsement of the state. They decided that  he couldn’t possibly back Modi, implying thereby that the entire population of Gujarat (including the 10-12 per cent Muslims) were untouchable by secular Indians.


Yet another example of media bulldozing occurred during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai- a truly touchy subject for most of us but important to make a point. When the attacks were happening, one of the only video shots repeatedly replayed by all channels was that of Hemant Karkare donning the supposedly bullet-proof vest and helmet. The scene struck a chord in every heart, as that was the last living shot available of one of the most scrupulously clean and diligent officers of the Mumbai police.


Following the shootout at Cama hospital in which he lost his life along with fellow officers, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salaskar, all channels fittingly mourned the three heroes and kept them in the public eye for days on end. All three were exceptionally good officers and their loss is felt by the police force even to this day. As a journalist, I have amazing memories of these men of valour and feel a tug each time I think of them.


It takes tremendous courage to pile into a vehicle and take terrorists head-on without having any intelligence about their number, armoury or direction as they did. More importantly, none of them needed to do this, being senior enough in their careers to opt to operate from their homes or offices if they wanted and as some indeed did. But they chose to fight it out on the field and endangered their lives.


Yet another exceptional officer, assistant sub-inspector Tukaram Ombale, showed unbelievable grit, courage and sacrifice by charging at Mohammed Kasab at Girgaum with a mere lathi, knowing fully well that Kasab had an AK-47. Ombale lunged at Kasab, held him fiercely with both arms and took his bullets into himself  to enable his colleagues to capture him.


After his unparalleled sacrifice, Ombale was mourned on all channels for a day or two but soon after, was missing even a mention in the coverage of the attacks. Practically all channels repeatedly played up the names of visuals of the three officers who got gunned down together in the vehicle while giving the short shrift to Ombale, who was responsible for India capturing a terrorist alive.


Thanks to the relentless broadcasts, one began identifying the attacks with the sacrifice of Karkare, Kamte and Salaskar. Ombale’s contribution surfaced slowly after some discerning viewers and readers took it upon themselves to air their grief at the discrimination. But it never claimed the same spot as the other three.


No doubt, the three officers deserve the highest appreciation and public gratitude but many in the police feel it would be a little unfair to equate them with Ombale, given the fact that they never really got a chance to prove their mettle to that extent.


But, with the media having brought them into everyone’s homes every day, the government put them all on the same pedestal, recognising all four officers with the highest peace-time award, the Ashok Chakra. The Ashok Chakra is given for the "most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent valour or self-sacrifice". 


The point here is that had the media not been so overpoweringly potent --  one, the government would have taken note of Ombale’s extraordinary contribution as being in a class by itself, and two, probably decorated the other officers with another award. Again, it’s not so much about the rightness or wrongness of it and certainly not to grudge a martyr his due but about the scary burden of apportioning fame, shame and blame that the media seems to have appropriated for itself.


Another officer, Sadanand Date, a fine and extremely unassuming officer, battled the terrorist alone for almost an hour inside Cama hospital but his valour, which he bears by way of a shrapnel still lodged inside an eye, remained unfeted for months. As the media did not take much note of him, most people got to know little about him and he was given a President’s Police Medal, that almost as an afterthought.


The media was not a proxy participant in deciding the awards; it played the judge.



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