Of the many guilty pleasures in a journalist's life, the insider account of a big-brand newsroom or media celebrity is perhaps the sweetest. And the latest issue of Caravan delivers its gifts in spades. Most delicious — even for the layperson — is Rahul Bhatia's long and exhaustively-reported profile of the one news anchor to rule them all: Arnab Goswami. The most important is Vinod K Jose's thoughful discussion of ethics, or lack thereof, among top-level news editors. (Read Bhatia here and Jose here)
Taken together, they paint a dismal picture of the current media landscape, offering plenty fodder for cynics and conspiracy theorists alike.
The phrase "paid news" is now a cliche, a knee-jerk accusation hurled at journalists and news outlets when they dare to displease. And even without prejudging the Zee-Jindal sting case, these scandals focus our attention on the problem of journalism-for-a-price. But lapses in media ethics driven by marketing are easy to spot and understand (though not condone), and they also divert attention from other sins that are no less venal. As Vinod Mehta recently asked, "Forget the business side. We all know about that. Why don't we talk about corruption on the editorial side?" — which he insisted was far more serious than the dubious compromises made in the name of marketing.
While Mehta didn't spell out the nature of this other version of media corruption, Vinod Jose is less coy in his opinion piece, where he delineates three different types of top-level journalists. There are the "top editors who have leveraged their high offices, and the legitimacy and influence they carry, to advance their careers outside of journalism," often ending up as cabinet ministers or members of parliament. Then there are those who advance their professional careers by "happily deploy(ing) their editorial influence to help their proprietors obtain benefits from the government — from land to machinery to Padma awards." And the third variety sells out for the "frivolous" perks of political influence, say, a posh Lutyens venue for their kid's wedding.
Jose rightly argues that the rise of celebrity journalists — who have redefined 'success' as "the influence one wields" —have become an incentive and model for unethical behaviour. But what about those who have turned these men and women into celebrities? Does the fault lie entirely with the producer of news and not the consumer?
The Arnab Goswami profile is troubling not because of its portrait of the anchor as an African despot (Idi Amin, to be specific). What dismays the reader more is that his dizzying career arc parallels the triumph of one kind of TV journalism — handsomely rewarded by a growing band of avid viewers. Goswami is and was a good journalist, put in charge of a new channel that was established with the best of journalistic intentions. Intentions that, however, did not bear TRP fruit. If indeed, as Bhatia reports, the channel and its most famous face "sold out" — embracing the template, motifs, and gimmicks of TV soap operas at the expense of actual reporting — they were driven to do so by the very real prospect of failure.
“Arnab had all the right ideas,” the former bureau chief tells Bhatia. “But the market didn’t allow it.”
What the market did allow — and embrace with enthusiasm — is a shrill, self-indulgent indignation which treats facts as incidental. A style of "reporting" where the meaning of a news event — be it Obama's speech at Taj Mumbai or a racist attack in Australia or a new report on NGOs in Gujarat — is predetermined to confirm a particular world view, in this case of a certain kind of urban middle class viewer:
A typical episode finds him demanding answers, making accusations, riling up participants and passing judgment, venting the angst of a man upset by how far his country has fallen. His pronouncements are rooted in everyday frustrations: Why is Pakistan dithering? Why can’t Australians admit that they’re racist? Why is the government indifferent to the middle class? Who is responsible for all this?
The problem was not the brief — pick a demographic and deliver what they need — but its execution. They became a "channel of expression" for a certain kind of middle class moral hysteria — and won. And continue to do so. Bhatia quotes this telling anecdote from Shashi Tharoor's new book Pax Indica:
Tharoor did not name the anchor, but the subject was “a crisis in Indian-Australian relations” that he blamed on “channels whipping up mass hysteria” over alleged racist attacks on Indians, a campaign Goswami had pounded for weeks on end. “The cameras stopped to change their tapes,” Tharoor wrote, “and in the ensuing break I asked him whether he was really serious about the kinds of things he was alleging on air. ‘How does it matter?’ he asked perfectly reasonably. ‘I’m playing the story this way, and I’m getting 45 percent in the TRPs. My two principal rivals are trying to be calm and moderate, and they’re at 13 percent and 11 percent.’”
Elsewhere on Firstpost, R Jagannathan argues that media corruption is the symptom of a far more serious problem: "Most media business models are plain and simple unviable. Genuine, honest journalism is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out without compromising on ethics somewhere."
But aren't such models unviable precisely because the average person isn't willing to pay for genuine, honest journalism? The kind of journalism that is expensive to produce and doesn't always deliver a big entertainment bang for each buck. It is fashionable for us as news consumers to wring our hands at the media, and yet take no responsibility for its dismal state. To expect to be entertained by our news channels, and then decry the rise of infotainment. If this style of journalism is a media monster, who then are its creators, the real Frankensteins?
Disclosure: Firstpost is published by Network18, which also owns several news channels that compete with Times Now.