Media’s credibility rests on journalists, not the owners

While it took the collapse of the Sharadha group to bring the plight of journalism under focus, tainted money and dubious motive have been running scores of news organisations. Such owners and investors make unethical demands of journalists and find enough takers among the greedy, the gullible and the desperate in the profession. While this flourishing trend is the latest blow to media’s credibility, her-master’s-voice brand of journalism existed long before Ponzi scheme operators started eyeing the industry.

Remember the New Yorker article on the business methods of The Times of India group that hit the stands last October? In an industry where everyone claims to be holier than the rest, it inspired snorts and whispers of vindication: Didn’t we know!

 Media’s credibility rests on journalists, not the owners

The truth, however, is that more than paid news, what fuels this pyre is the paid silence. PTI

Though the so-called Times methods have already been tried by many other groups with varying success, many love to believe that a single media management desecrated the sanctity of the editorial by making it subservient to the marketing and circulation before unabashedly redefining newspaper publishing as an advertisement business. Of course, the group’s business philosophy was unorthodox. But then the choices made by so many in its acceptance were no less so.

When we criticise doctors for prescribing needless and expensive drugs and tests, do we give them the benefit of doubt that they might be under pressure from the private hospitals they work for or are attached to? Do we exonerate lawyers when they take clients for a ride, and target their firms instead? Is a corrupt or disgraced politician forgiven because he could not step outside the party line?

If not, why should we sympathise with journalists as victims of big money that makes corporate or political advertorial of news? Every journalist, from an inconsequential trainee to a mighty editor, has the option to say NO when asked to run marketing errands or to go soft on big advertisers or to toe a political line. Some stay silent to hang on to their jobs. Others join the game to chase ambitions that are not really journalistic.

In most news organisations, extra-editorial control over content is commonplace. Elsewhere, editors became de facto owners and their new identity subsumed much of the old. While TOI, Hindustan Times or Zee are examples of the first scenario, The Indian Express, The Hindu or NDTV represent the second lot. Understandably, the wall between the editorial and the management is mostly of archaeological interest today.

The owners of the Times group is also blamed for introducing the concept of paid news in India. But glitzy city supplements were up for sale long before Medianet came into being. Each slot had fixed prices and everyone – from department heads to page-makers – was entitled to his or her designated share in the spoils. All the Times group has done is to deny its staff these illegal perks and organise the trade to generate more revenue than the most money-minded journalists could ever make.

Besides, almost every bit of paid news that appears on the Times group’s film-fashion-lifestyle sections is also carried by other newspapers on similar pages. Unlike the Times group, others seldom, if ever, mark these pages as advertorial. So is the Times group pulling off a marketing coup by charging clients for items that others carry for bona fide news (or entertainment) value? Or do other organisations or their staff also levy a fee, quietly, for creating space for such items while cribbing about the Times group’s brazenness?

The truth, however, is that more than paid news, what fuels this pyre is the paid silence. There is no worse misinformation than absence of information. It breaks the fundamental promise of journalism. Yet, deeply entrenched corporate interests and a desperate dependence on ad revenue frequently and easily gags our media.

For example, there is very little in the mainstream media on people’s protests against land acquisition. Vedanta, for example, makes more headlines for winning corporate awards than for breaking the laws of the land. No mainstream media risks scrutinising the infrastructure giants such as the DLF or the JP group.

Even far lesser companies, who together form a formidable advertising base, remain untouchable. And yet we flog the now-fallen Sharadha group for pandering to the Trinamool Congress.

Much of these compromises are perhaps inevitable. But does it make sense for, say, the cream of our English press to be bullied into silence by, say, high-end builders who must anyway advertise in those publications and channels to reach potential buyers? With all its command over the grassroots that decide elections, should the vernacular press be wary of political intimidation? The megalith of business and politics cannot survive without an outreach system but can it create a credible substitute overnight if the media puts its foot down?

No, and yes. No, if the majority of media houses together defend a few core positions. But since most of them have voluntarily conceded those grounds, a huge media platform that does not fuss about meeting journalistic standards is already in place. That makes the stands of less-compromising media outfits important but almost inconsequential.

An industry can make such broad shifts only when the majority of professionals undergo a similar transformation individually. No media house could have slid to a conveniently compromised position had the majority of its journalists refused to play ball. Since most of them did not, the rest were easily done away with. The result is an advertisement-driven media run by corporate and political PROs posing as journalists.

No doubt a lot of good journalism still happens in India -- both in the mainstream media and in its margins. As the socio-economic churnings intensify across the country, the tradition will only flourish. There is talent and it is easier than ever to become a journalist (get a media job) in India.

Unfortunately, it is also getting easier by the day to cease to be a journalist while being on the job. The real danger facing journalism is our readiness to appear more loyal than the (pay)master.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2013 17:42:23 IST