lost Long post]
In my series of blogposts on the Mumbai massacres of November, I have so far avoided dealing explicitly with one issue that has otherwise got a lot of attention, mostly negative, in the blogosphere and in discussion boards and online communities——the coverage of the tragic incidents provided by the Indian television media.
The most common criticisms of the Indian television media coverage of 26/11 may be summarized as follows:
1. By showing live footage of commandos going in and in focusing attention on that hotel guest one can see on the ninth floor, they compromised the security of hostages and of the entire operation.
2. The channels fell over themselves trying to get exclusives, stooping to the level of harrying already distraught victims for their “reactions”.
3. The spotlight was entirely on the Taj and the Oberoi and not on Victoria Terminus because the victims at VT were, to put it bluntly, “low class” in contrast to the glitterati and foreigners at the 5-star hotels.
4. Other important events like the death of VP Singh were ignored in the midst of the 24/7 media brouhaha.
Barkha Dutt, the primary target of public criticism, struck back with an article defending herself and her profession. This in turn led to another series of silly counter-criticisms and impassioned Barkha-baiting postings on “Can you please take Barkha off air” type Facebook communities.
Now most regular readers here at RTDM would know, that like most people, I am not really a big fan of the Indian television media. Far from it. I detest the ceaseless melodrama that NDTV, CNN-IBN and the others garnish every news item with. This includes their staple ominous background music, the hyper-emotional tremulous anchors (think Sagarika Ghosh), their obsession with “celebrities” (a discussion of 26/11 included such intellectual giants as Kunal Kohli, director of “Hum Tum” and “Fanaa” [which did handle terrorism] and Simi Garewal, a female Gandalf the White and Luke Kenny, a cast member of “Rock On”. In passing did you know that Ranbir Kapoor says that noone should live in fear?) and the overall presentation which seems to be less about reporting the news and more about selling it (This is an exclusive ! You will see this footage only on this channel !) with the hard-sell often so in-your-face that the only word I can think of in this context is “sleazy”.
Of course the only honorable exception are the vernacular news channels which with its delicious headlines like “Team India ne Kangarayoon par liya baadla, Dhoni ne dikhaya kamaal aur Veeru ne kar diya dhamaal” and “Antarjateek survey main Asia ke sabse sexy ladki hain Katrina Kaif. Peechle saal ke winner Bipasa Basu is saal doosre sthaan pe” have officially crossed the line from even quasi-serious reporting to comic surrealism and thus provides a different kind of exhilaration, a feeling akin to watching Shakti Kapoor as “Genda Singh” in Kanti Shah’s debut film “Aag ka Toofan”.
What however makes Indian media channels frequently insufferable are the personalities and the attitudes of the superstar anchors. While not cutting off people in mid-sentence or bullying guests or imposing their own opinions on others or getting in the way or repeating how these scenes are being brought live only by so-and-so-channel, these media superstars are usually found at the scene of every high-visibility news event, thrusting themselves into the center stage rather than just reporting the god-damned thing. Lest this sound like a criticism of only Indian anchors this ego-centrism has been a standard criticism of most world super-star anchors—-from legends like Dan Rather to unalloyed gasbags like Bill O’Reilly—each of these media figures have been accused of getting so caught up in their own mystique that the focus of their stories end up becoming just one thing—- themselves.
Even in this article we have some trademark Dutt touches—-like how she refers to communities critical of the media’s handling of 26/11 as “hate communities” (she seems to have little idea of what real “hate” on the Net is) and how, even while carrying the standard of the Indian media, she cannot resist getting in a word about people personally victimizing her (Im told that “hate” groups are trying to compete with “fan” communities on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut. The Internet apparently is buzzing with vitriol and we, in the media in general, and sometimes, me in particular, are being targeted with a venom that is startling).
But once I can get beyond the “Oh here she goes again”, I do accept that she does have some basis for her argument. Not perhaps in the way she lays it out but otherwise.
Let me explain.
With respect to the accusation that the media compromised operational details, Ms. Dutt says that the press respected the security cordon and did nothing that was illegal (i.e. did not try to sneak past security). Now some people would not buy that excuse and insist that as responsible news outlets, it was contingent on NDTV, IBN and the others to voluntarily stay back, not divulge details of where hostages were hiding or when the commandos were entering the building. This is where I am prepared to cut Barkha and her ilk some slack. These people work in the competitive cable market and considering the high financial stakes involved, no channel can realistically be expected to voluntarily back off from reporting explosive events when there is no assurance that their competitors will exercise similar good judgment. And if they decide to hold back and their competitors don’t, then people are going to change channels and the channel has to answer to its advertisers and financial backers.
This is not to say that the fact that critical operational details and hostage locations were telecast is not alarming. However the responsibility for this lies at the doorstep of those dealing with the 26/11 emergency. It should have been their policy to remove all cameras and all bystanders to a range from which they would not be able observe an ongoing commando operation. Forget the press. There is a high chance that terrorists had “eyes” in the assembled crowd who were relaying to those inside what they could see from outside —these people did not need to watch an NDTV feed; they were standing just a few meters away from where the action was taking place and could themselves observe commando movements or prospective hostages/victims appearing in the windows.
All this was symptomatic of a much larger malaise for which the press should not be blamed. That being the totally unprofessional attitude of law-enforcement authorities with regard to protecting the sanctity of crime scenes. In one of the bomb blast incidents in 2008, I saw a picture of the site where a bomb had been exploded marked by a jacket that had been thrown there. That’s right. The crime scene had not been cordoned off, there was no police official. Just a jacket marking the spot, assuming no reporter or by-stander had not already shifted the jacket in their eagerness. Here too at the Taj and the Oberoi, politicians and their guests were allowed VIP access to crime scenes and after all this we still wonder why we are never able to get terrorists convicted in a court of law and why clever lawyers can always create reasonable doubt.
In response to criticism number 2 about news channels thrusting mikes in people’s faces and taking advantage of distraught people to boost their viewership, the press is on less firm ground. I am sure all of us have seen many times how intrusive and aggressive reporters can be in order to get a “reaction”. However there do exist victims who on their own accord want to come on camera and share the most intimate details of their grief. I blogged about this a long time ago:
What totally confounded me was an item a TV channel ran after 9/11. One of the unfortunate people who had been trapped inside the Twin Towers sent a voice message (which his family later got) on their answering machine in which he basically says goodbye to them.
I was intensely moved by the story——–but I also wondered why did the family give the TV channel these tapes? Werent the last words of a father and a husband something private meant for his wife and daughter ONLY? Why were his wife and daughter on TV allowing themselves to be subject to the questions of an intrusive reporter who kept on asking them “How they felt knowing that Mr so-and-so would never come back?” I understand the reporter was looking to increase the channel’s TRPs by playing on the grief of this bereavement but why was the family letting their genuine grief be made a public spectacle of ?
Sharing relieves grief. Accepted. But does it really help to do it in this very public, voyeuristic fashion?
Perhaps this is something I am unable to understand. However it is true that this very public sharing of grief is something that some people do voluntarily. Whether it is as prevalent as Ms. Dutt says it is however I am less willing to believe.
Dutt accepts the third allegation as to VT being given less attention in comparison to the five-star hotels. However I suspect that the only way to defend this would have been to say what I believe the true reason was, a reason that Ms. Dutt would not be caught dead saying— a hostage situation that is happening live is much more dramatic, much more terrifying and by extension much more eyeball-catching than an act of urban violence that had already happened, an act that resembles in its effect the bomb blasts that take place every alternate month in India which through their regularity (and inevitability) have become such a part of our national life that people don’t really care about them anymore (an apathy that is euphemistically referred to as “resilience”).
The fourth allegation regarding not giving attention to other news items is not addressed by Barkha but the logic for that is same as that above. Not enough eyeballs. Though of course in a world where social justice had been implemented, VP Singh’s death would have had 49.5% of air time.
At the heart of each justification provided by the popular media is that old chestnut. The media provides us what the market demands. The fact that the wedding of Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai is bigger news than farmer’s suicides is a reflection of public taste and that the channels merely service a demand. After all, they point out that once upon a time there was the baap of all channels, Doordarshan that provides news free of all commercial considerations in a sedate, non-dramatic way and viewers ran away from it at the first choice offered to them.
While there is more than a grain of truth in this argument, what is required is balance. The principal problem with Doordarshan was not that that their news did not have background music but that it itself lacked balance being in essence a government propaganda outlet, with the channel being reduced at one point of time to a kind of visual Twitter for Rajiv Gandhi, with the evening news running down the daily engagements and speeches of the great Prime Minister. Private channels came with the promise of independent reporting and more professional presentation. This was why people moved away from DD.
But then again, somewhere down the line, and in the middle of the millions of investment dollars, the private news media themselves became unbalanced, sacrificing plain and simple common sense, basic journalistic ethics and media responsibility at the altar of the TRP devi. And its not as if the channels are extremely independent either, almost all of them have their political biases and agendas.
The sobering truth is that with increased competition, the commercialization of news (which includes sensationalism and the obscene rush for “exclusives”) is only going to get worse. If one wants to look at what the Indian media landscape will be a few years hence, then the state of the US television media as it is today serves as a fairly accurate crystal ball. The cable news revolution began in the US during the Gulf war of 1991 where CNN brought to American viewers the first “war on prime time” where an entire generation sat down to steak and potatoes and watched with rapt attention Patriots and Tomhawks raining down on the enemy. The line between news and entertainment was blurred forever and viewership of the classical news anchors like Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppell, Dan Rather were eaten into by the louder, more opinionated, shallower hosts on cable news. (One of these, a certain Geraldo Riviera, a cable media celebrity of questionable grey matter once did a Barkha during the 2nd Iraq war by drawing on the sand troop positions, in the process divulging operational plans of the US Army).
Over the years, a new paradigm of market-driven audience-targeting became the driving factor for cable news in the US, a trend that will, in all probability, be replicated in India in the coming years. For example, CNN executives have identified a niche market in Americans bitter about immigration and outsourcing and for that they have one dedicated host, a certain Lou Dobbs, whose single point agenda is to pour vitriol on India, China and Mexico onto the airwaves, every week night. Fox News is well known for being a Republican mouthpiece. But even here, different anchors target different parts of the American right political spectrum—-while Bill O’Reilly panders those right wing Americans who think of themselves as independent (which is why Bill O wears a mask of impartiality and occasionally and very mildly chides the Republicans), hosts like Sean Hannitty play upto a more rabid crowd, throwing all pretense of objectivity to the wind. A similar trend is shown by MSNBC except that they go for the liberal end of the spectrum with obnoxiously full-of-himself host Keith Olbermann (he does have a good sense of humor) pulling in the extreme liberals while gentler, kinder and far hotter Rachel Maddow brings in the more balanced.
The only saving grace for US cable news— they do not play “Maa” as background music while reporting on the murder of a child and their reporters do not address a politician who has committed bigamy in the following manner:
“Kya aap maante hain ki aap ka jo amar prem hain …yeh to aitihaseek kadam aap ne liye hain…..”
[Mercifully, there was no background music of “Is duniya main prem granth jab likha jaayega tera mere naam sabse upar aayega” or “ik taraf hain gharwali, ik taraf baharwali” during the bigamy story. But then again I did not catch this on Zee News.]
In conclusion, the sensationalism and intrusiveness that we saw on 26/11 is, to a large extent, an inevitable outcome of the “war for news” and the amount of money that rides on every minute of telecast time. Harking back to simpler days when Prannoy Ray would quietly summarize world events after an ad for Vicco Vajradanti is a futile exercise in park-bench reminiscence as those times are not coming back.
And while some outrage at the coverage dished out is inevitable and desirable, if we were indeed to compile a list of all the agencies of independent India who dropped the ball on 26/11, the television media should not be very high on that list.