Bitter divorce: Why the media is so upset with Kejriwal

Some time shortly after day-break on 20 January, an English news channel reporter, huffing and puffing, caught up with a bleary-eyed, muffler-swaddled Arvind Kejriwal and asked him what he has to say about allegations of anarchy against him. The Delhi Chief Minister, who had spent the night sleeping on Rajpath, first declared he didn't mind being called an anarchist since everything he had done had been in the best interests of Delhi.

Then slowly as more reporters swarmed around him, Kejriwal cried out indignantly, "Kya ho kya gaya hai media ko?" After a few seconds of shocked silence, which the CM seemed to share with the reporters, he cried out the exact same words, only in a higher pitch. Amid the chaotic scenes unfolding on Delhi streets and TV anchors spouting a new catchphrase every second, this one fleeting moment of strained silence embodied what lies in the core of AAP's increasingly souring relationship with the mainstream media. Some would call it Kejriwal's naivete about the mechanisms of media, but the mainstream media's metaphor-heavy response to Kejriwal's last dharna points at a baggage of misplaced expectations placed between the two.

Like Shailaja Bajpai pointed out in her editorial on The Indian Express, the fact that mainstream media's response to Kejriwal's protest seemed premeditated right to the words they would use to describe the chaotic nature of the dharna, was evident from the completely antithetical tone of their reportage when it was called off and when the day's events were being discussed during prime time debates. Bajpai writes in her column titled 'Prime Time Sleep-in':

"TV news, caught off guard by the sudden termination of the “police” protest where the AAP and Delhi Police ironically shared common ground outside Rail Bhavan, initially were with the AAP:  “Kejriwal has his way”’ (CNN-IBN, Headlines Today) as “Centre gives in to AAP” (NDTV 24×7)... By the time the news channels rolled out their big guns at 9 pm, the mood had turned cynical: “Total climbdown by AAP” (Times Now) was the most extreme judgement."

 Bitter divorce: Why the media is so upset with Kejriwal

Kejriwal during his dharna. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost.

The question that Bajpai raises in the column is somewhat echoed by media critic Sevanti Ninan in her column Not a worm's eye view, in Mint today. Bajpai points out how by changing stances radically, television news media subjected the viewer to a slightly dubious news viewing experience. While the initial tone suggested that Arvind Kejriwal had indeed wrung out a decision in his party's favour, the tone of news debates later suggested that it was Congress which came out looking better and had willingly let the AAP end the protest with somewhat of a face-saver.

Given that it's rather difficult for television news channels to churn out different arguments simultaneously, unless of course it hosts a raucous debate with invited guests, how does the viewer glean the real proportions of an issue? Chances are he knows he can't and hence his faith in the medium diminishes a little with it.

Like Ninan points out in her article, though television reporters, in tones that best represent hypertension, pointed out that several metro stations had been closed down and Delhi was infuriated, the city's residents when questioned on camera didn't seem to betray such high levels of anger. In fact, Delhi was not as angry as TV journalists in Delhi were.

Ninan also questions in her editorial that though the media was quick to brand Bharti, and Rakhi Birla, vigilantes, they didn't bother to look up the legal provisions available in India, many of which seem to be in favour of Bharti's actions.  Ninan observes in her article:

"As for media indignation over the midnight raids which led to the sit-in, how many of the journalists going on about vigilante ministers forcing the police to raid without warrants have looked at the minutiae of the laws involved? Sections of the Delhi Police Act, the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, and the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act all have provisions to this effect."

It is probably slightly difficult to not get swayed by a high tension situation unfolding within inches of you while reporting. And unlike print, or other mediums of news, the immediacy of television doesn't give the reporters at site to process a chunk of information and a multitude of incidents to produce a completely unaffected version for the viewers.

But the extraneous rhetoric that is steeped on the reportage, in way of tickers, banners, etc are manufactured in the confines of an edit room where precision is not a luxury, but a necessity. How then does one explain a ticker #AAPDrama running on one news channel and 'Dharna or Drama' being flashed on another one? Like Ninan asks, "Why does this “anarchic” form of governance bother the press more than it does the people?"

Kejriwal, at one point, during his several interviews, said, "AAP didn't succeed because of the media, it succeeded despite it." While one might call it an overestimation of sorts, there is some grain of truth in it. The vehement reaction of the media seemed more like a hurried cover-up tactic than genuine anger at the events unfolding in Delhi. Interestingly, when Kejriwal won, the same houses had showered the party with plaudits after plaudits, something that even AAP seems to have gotten used to.

The mutual disenchantment, therefore, started when Kejriwal was faced with the idea of governance in its real gigantic proportions. Almost at the same time that he realised that this would be a rough road, he has also realised that his position now doesn't make him answerable to the media anymore. Nor does he need the media to sustain a government which has the mandate of the people, and not only of the media.

While close to his win, AAP never tired of thanking the media for its support, the party, CM included, now repeatedly refers to the times when the mainstream media has indeed written it off as a gimmicky outfit of activists looking for prime time recognition.

The crux of the problem is, both AAP and sections of the media have come to expect that the other will be nice to them, unconditionally. Both seem to have a misplaced sense of right on the other's success.

At one point in the media coverage of the protest, the reporter of a popular English news channel asked AAP supporters blithely, "Kejriwal bol raha hai ki Republic Day ko maaro goli, protest chalega (Kejriwal said that to hell with Republic Day, the protest will be on). What do you have to say to that?" The AAP leader being questioned answered coldly, "You are lying. He never said Republic Day ko maaro goli." Realizing she has indeed made that one up, she jumped on to some other question. The AAP leader answered, "What's the point of asking me. You will anyway make up lies like you did just now."

The gloves are off. But the media needs to ponder, is it really their battle to fight?

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2014 15:17:00 IST