The CD controversy surrounding ex-Congress spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi has given rise to numerous debates in prime-time discussions in mainstream media. Most of these have pointed to the "lack of control" in online media platforms.
In one way, these debates were an ideal opportunity for some sections of the mainstream media to vent their disapproval of online commentators taking the liberty to criticize them. Amid these fiery debates, however, an attempt is unfortunately being made to tame the medium.
The crux of the criticism of social media by the mainstream media is not dissimilar to that dealt with by Gandhiji when he explained the importance of satyagraha (soul-force) in Hind Swaraj.
In responding to a point made on how numerous instances in history show that war and violence have been more effective than soul-force in enabling nations to rise from oppressive regimes, Gandhiji said that history was the record of aberrational events which interrupted the regular course of nature rather than an accurate representation of the natural course. Because wars and violence were unnatural and soul-force was the natural course, he explained, history recorded the former.
In conveniently painting social media into labels of various kinds, the mainstream media is missing the wood for the trees. Just as history reported primarily on the blood and gore of wars and the ensuing conquests and victories, the mainstream media has ended up focusing almost entirely on the unnatural obnoxiousness and aggression of the social media and the ensuing ‘victories’ when, for example, Singhvi resigned from key posts.
It is now well-known that since many years, much of the mainstream media has been controlled by a few select groups. The “right to tell the truth”, as R Jagannathan points out has been mortgaged because of an over dependence of television and print media on revenues from sources having an interest in controlling or shaping the dissemination of truth.
Additionally, the constraints imposed by many sections of the mainstream media upon itself in practicing ‘access journalism’ in this competitive era are fairly visible in the manner in which facts and views are presented. The race to get exclusive scoops on political developments has compromised the ability to critically evaluate significant governmental programs or serious political wrongdoings.
Viewed in this context, the Internet has been the best thing to happen to liberate journalism from such shackles. Internet has led to a real democratization of facts, thoughts and ideas and has challenged the orthodox notions that the power to have a say is the exclusive right of the mighty and the influential. The only accusation that can be validly sustained against online commentators writing without financial obligations is that of ideological rigidity.
Furthermore, this low cost model has plugged the gap created by television and print media in its coverage on critical issues facing the nation. For example, many recent debates on the Right to Education Act or previous debates on NREGA completely overlooked serious perils which were covered at length by bloggers on social media. Time and again, several nuances and the visible impact of major governmental programs neglected by mainstream media have ultimately cropped up either during the implementation of such programs or in legal challenges in courts.
More often than not, it has been found that online commentators had written on these very nuances at length on their blogs.
In situations where the mainstream media is found to have overlooked serious indiscretions by our politicians, the online commentariat is bound to exhibit its outrage and ask questions. At times, sadly, the outrage and the questioning is replaced by spitefulness and voyeurism. Equally, however, this excuse is conveniently used by many senior journalists when confronted with genuine challenges to their views or their reporting.
By engaging in sweeping criticism of social media or categorizing it into a politically motivated or ideologically homogenous unit is an act of dishonesty apart from being an act of convenience. Castigating the social media by inviting like-minded public figures can only help confine oneself further into the bubble which the New Delhi gentry is infamously known for.
Moreover, when senior figures in mainstream media attempt to rubbish online commentary because the latter’s right to tell the truth ends up offending it, the unequivocal impression sent out is that the former resents the democratization of opinions and voices brought about by the internet. It, therefore, risks being perceived as a mere extension of the intolerant State acting to strengthen its access journalism department. Conducting periodical shows on Swami Vivekananda to inspire the youth to participate in the process of nation-building has little meaning.
Just like several online commentators and observers filter out half-truths and blatantly prejudiced coverage in the mainstream media and absorb insightful and constructive discourse, it is time mainstream media did the same with social media. It is important to realize that in the age of technology, truth and opinions are no longer the monopoly of the powerful sections of the media.
There is huge potential of nurturing a symbiotic relationship between social media and mainstream media to elevate the overall standards of journalism and reporting. In a way, the symbiosis has already begun with various shows and news reports basing their discussions on the views of the online commentariat. This synergy must be strengthened further in a manner that the two mediums supplement, rather than isolate, each other.
Cut beneath the clutter and the abuses, and one can find a wealth of intellect out in the World Wide Web. And that too, free of cost.