Their virus, not mine

BY SHYAM G. MENON| IN Media Practice | 06/08/2010
The Indian media has piled on so many layers of posturing that if you want to restore ethics and craft, then you have to roll back at least two decades into the past.
Paid news is the natural legacy of manufactured success and was waiting to happen, says SHYAM G MENON

Last Sunday I watched portions of a TV programme on the Ramnath Goenka Memorial Debate. Paid news was a major point for discussion. Expectedly, everyone flayed it. Few, probably none, acknowledged an implicit weakness for manipulation. 


Any media is an invitation to distort. The journalist is present to check the drift to distortion. Advertising seeks particular distortion. The difference is a matter of navigation; the tools are near similar, the mission is dissimilar. However, we see the rot in journalism as distinct from journalists. A decadent politics tarnishing its immaculate commentators - that’s the tenor I sensed in the televised debate. Their own distortions were still going on or only minutes old. Don’t news readers manipulate with modulated voice, ingratiating behaviour and such clichéd responses? Don’t they have promotional write-ups and fan websites to cement their place on the tube? Don’t those great interviewers leave you in awe of their camaraderie with political and industrial contacts even though the interview may have been ordinary? There’s a texture to the media today that stamps home an image of winner. Unfortunately the lack of underpinning to that image is also equally visible. What endures as media aftertaste is success, an item we have come to recognize as product of manufacture.  


If so, what’s wrong in believing that you can buy a piece of that glory when it’s clearly resources and luck that has made media larger than life? I think paid news was waiting to happen. It is the natural legacy of manufactured success. We cringe because it is a blotch on democracy. On the other hand, it was already a blotch on the economy with stock market related allegations involving media being investigated.


The moment you say media, it isn’t the world anymore. It is the world prioritised on a page or the world prioritised in an electronic box. It may be the truth but it is modified perception; world reproduced as information that matters. In contemporary Indian media it is even a cosy club run on first names. Like computer networks, the club is both intra and inter. TV personalities writing in print and print editors hosting shows on TV is nothing but quasi advertisement, a deliberate pursuit of a certain distortion beneficial to person and media product. The advertisers get their share in special supplements on achievers on such days as Union Budget and Credit Policy. Sometimes they all sit together in a studio and have a televised reunion. That cosiness was amazingly there in the televised debate flaying paid news too, underscoring the jinx in journalism. When much of media likes flaunting the glamour and power on the other side of a viewfinder or published story, what is the point in debating the manipulation within manipulation? Pardon me but the alarm bells around paid news is like waking up in the third subset of a dream and questioning the ethics of Inception. The only way to avoid being caught unawares is to know that you dream; that the media is distortion incarnate. But in a roomful of careers made from dreaming who is fit to speak of a world before manipulation?


The Indian media has piled on so many layers of posturing that if you want to restore ethics and craft, then you have to roll back HR policies at least two decades into the past. That’s the time when Delhi’s economic liberalization gained momentum and Mumbai’s equity issue-culture started peaking. It was the age of market and capital. New papers and magazines started, a plethora of TV channels launched, websites multiplied. Journalism became media and media, brands.


Around then, journalism made some sharp changes to the sort of HR it sought. First, `market’ replaced readership and viewership. It eliminated the idea of serious readers and viewers, trivializing the purpose of craft. Then, instead of maintaining the tried and tested journalistic gaze on new subjects as well, it recruited talent trained for employment in the subject and embedded them in the media to conquer specific markets. One of the direct casualties of that market striation was the perception of our world as shared inheritance.


There were economically powerful worlds within worlds. The transformation of journalism began. In the years since then, the craft has been steadily assaulted. Writing decayed in the name of less reading and usable information; TV spawned media stars, the profession lost anchor. There isn’t a portion of newspaper left which hasn’t sold out to advertising. As one editor is known to have said, "Journalists fill the space between advertisements.’’ The urban model then seeped into the interiors; at the very least it would have motivated subversion like paid news now fashionably considered a disease afflicting semi urban and rural media. It is like AIDS, stigmatised as affecting a category. The reference to small papers was there in the debate too.


For the craft this has been disruptive growth; an explosion of scale. Between the ethics of old and the ethics of now lay an overnight abyss in journalism. But emerging as it did from economic trend, the culture of paid news has organic link. It is not different from the cheques and gifts distributed to journalists during the heydays of the equity cult or later influences from advertising. That time it was companies; now the deal is with politicians.


We cannot change the economic paradigm and revert it to the earlier circumstances in which classical journalism lived. Everyone -" me included -" want the GDP to grow. But when I see editors and media bosses struggling to reply on paid news, I can’t help suspecting that behind it is a profession seeking an organic link with severed roots, especially its ethics.  Those people at the debate giving wishy-washy answers on paid news were too invested in the media and well off. They won’t articulate the problems of disruptive growth. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, can you? Paid news is unethical. So is journalism in service of the media’s own brands and names, which is the primary incentive for onlookers to wonder why they shouldn’t enjoy the same privilege. One has to be a veteran third tier inhabitant of Inception to see fourth estate still in any of the cosy clubs showcased on television. For most of us awake in the real world, it is boundaries fudged. But that’s a worry only for journalists (if they want), certainly not advertisers, industrialists and politicians. Club seen, those with capital start their own paper or channel. Those falling short, strike deals with club employees. Every rot in society survives in the media. No virus infects if there isn’t a host.



The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

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