Comfort food is food that makes us feel good while killing the very fabric of what we are. They make us feel good by generating “happy hormones” and that generation is enabled not just by the chemical composition of comfort food, but by its associations, with childhood and family and friends, triggering memories of happier times, of people, and of flavors, fooling your brain into jumping from “This tastes like yesterday” to “This is yesterday”. It’s a beautiful trick, happiness through familiarity. It’s also why familiar tropes consistently work in movies and in books, and we loop-enjoy old movies and old songs because even though we may say we crave originality because it sounds an intellectually attractive idea, it is precisely the opposite that makes us happy.
Now, with the “Hindu fascism of Modi and the dictatorship of BJP”, (Hassan Minhaj in his latest comedy special puts Modi on the list of dictators of the world he has gone up against equating him to the Saudi king, encapsulating the fundamental hypocrisy of the progressive argument: Trump is an election-denying cry-baby but we are not), Indian “liberals” (note the pervasive air-quotes in the sentence) are in desperate need of comfort. Wherever there is demand, the free market will create a supply. The business model here is simple. Confirm your audience’s biases, in the way comfort food or “Elaan-e-Jung” does. This makes them happy, they renew their subscription, rinse and repeat. And since opinions are a dime-a-dozen and usually available for free on social media, elevate yourself to journalism by providing the truth. As to whether the truth is truly true, let’s just say that they become so. If enough people like what they hear and tend to associate it with a happy place in their lives, the force of their happiness makes it true.
This is the point of the article where those “liberals” still reading it take umbrage to the “Indian liberals are in desperate need of comfort” part. Why call us out when there is Republic TV or Times Now, or as they are called “the propaganda arm of the fascist Hindu state” or more succinctly “Godi media”?
So yes, what about them?
They work on the same principle too—pandering to the biases of their audience. They hammer at fault lines to confirm the most retrograde of biases against people we feel inimical towards, be it “people who don’t believe in the same God we do” or “celebrities whose lives we wish we had”, all in pursuit of TRPs and higher advertiser rates for key-market-segments.
But at least, and this is important, we know who they serve. Namely their advertisers. They are entertainers and the state of the world is their canvas, and they paint truth creatively, with advertisers and owners choosing their brush, their reality as synthetic as a reality show, and to anyone with half-a-brain this is obvious. They are believed in, not because they are seen to be good or trust-worthy but because they validate the worst biases in us, that’s why people watch, and that is to the benefit of their advertisers. It’s a pretty simple business model actually.
The bigger problem is the others, the good guys or so they claim, the supposed-independent media. They are a problem, because part of their appeal, nay perhaps the central thesis of their appeal, is the moral high ground they claim for themselves. They aren’t here for profit nor for viewership or for their own fame or to leverage their popularity later for something else. No, they are here because they represent the highest ideals of truth, journalism and protecting democracy, they don’t work for advertisers they work for you. So they are like Sekhar Suman in Tridev, bravely exposing the fascist machinations of the saffron Bhujang even if it may lead to his demise, by running an independent newspaper. They have sources within the sinister organizations like Khabarilal of Tiraanga, supplying them with the truth “they” don’t want you to find out, like how fascist Hindus are allying with Big Tech and where Pralaynath Gundaswamy (and not Gendaswamy as many people think), the villain of Tirangaa, stores his waiter white gloves, his kabab skewer and his fuse conductor. This moral high-ground is why what they say is not only the truth (Pultizer-worthy journalism), but what gives them the moral authority to even validate the truth (fact checkers who are apparently “nominated for the Nobel Prize”) of others.
And that is why the whole thing isn’t a “they are all the same”—the Republic TV and the Wire.
Just like if a certain kind of French fries advertised themselves as helping you lose weight and improving your heart health, thus basing their commercial appeal on a moral authority denied to “French fries’ from Big Food, then, yes, it is worth focusing our attention solely on them.
I am not going into a detailed deconstruction of The Wire vs Meta, because there are other overviews of the whole controversy, including this one from The Verge where my objections to the cybersecurity portion of the Wire’s reporting is cited. Given the newsworthiness of the whole episode, I am going to presume that you have a good enough idea of what happened, or at least the facts and the timeline. It is increasingly clear, based on the evidence, that what the Wire did can easily be explained with a word that rhymes with Daud, but the interesting thing isn’t that.
No, the thing is how despite the shoddiness of their journalism, the Wire was able to convince so many otherwise educated people that they were providing them with the truth. Wait, not just convincing them, but making them attack those skeptical of the Wire’s claim, in essence, displaying the exact kind of brain-dead groupthink “progressive intellectuals” lampoon in their political opponents—the “fascist Hindu ditto-head”.
So, when people pointed out the Indian-English allegedly used by a native English speaker in Meta, or some of the information technology things that were “off” (I was one who did both), they were attacked as speaking for “big tech” or being politically right-wing, or not knowing the subjects that they specialize in. And to think these people laugh at QAnon and conspiracy theories.
There was a begrudging stand-down once the experts who the Wire claimed had validated the technological underpinning of their reporting denied being involved, and the supposed internal screenshots were shown to be done on an external facing interface, done after the story was broken.
And even then, once the straw had come out of the evidence presented, the consensus among “liberals” (yes the air quote once again) was that this was all a gigantic mistake, that the proprietors of the Wire were good people with the noblest of intentions, that they had been duped or maybe trusted too much, that this was not an attempt to pander to their audience by building on the widely-believed narrative that Modi and BJP are illegitimate rulers of India, foisted upon by a cabal of big business and big tech, and that the real problem, believe it or not, was that the Wire was subject to the scrutiny of the kind no one else is (“why cant we lie in peace?”) and finally the coup d’grace: “Meta is evil, so they definitely could have done it, so who cares really about the evidence?”
Makes sense, if one can be a fascist to a fascist, one can lie about a liar.
Ultimately though, we accept things as truth, because we trust the person saying the words. Trust is established primarily by the fact that I agree with the person’s opinions and that we share the same values. But trust is also established through authority, the chain of trust from a root-of-trust (how digital certificates work), and there is no greater example than the Time article about the founders of Alt News being nominated for a Nobel prize. Given that the nominations are secret, and not announced for 50 years after the award, and that the Time article quoted no sources, this should have been greeted with skepticism at least by people who scoff at the blind belief of other people in certain religions. But of course not. Not to speak of the supreme irony, that people who were going to win a Nobel prize for fact-checking should have fact-checked the rumor about themselves.
But there it now became, part of the mythos, to be forever known as “Nobel peace prize nominated”. Whatever facts they check, their version of the facts is now presumed to be true since they are “authority”. They are the authority because they got nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and I know that because a Time article said so. Now for me to use the exact same chain of claims to prove I am a celebrity, because the legendary Harper’s Bazaar put me on a list of celebrities, and I hope the booking agents of Times Now and Republic are listening, so that instead of Rahul Roy they call me, next time they want a celebrity perspective.
The Wire story is merely an extension of that. Where The Wire failed its believers was that it failed to provide even the bare minimum of believability and that happened, not when people expressed skepticism of the language or the cybersecurity behind it all, but only when the independent experts who they claimed had validated their findings, the authority they tried to chain-of-trust into their claim denied being involved, in the process cutting off that chain.
Otherwise, this would now have become the “truth” to be built, couched in impenetrable technical language and even a demo-video, to be then expanded on and built on top with multiple Washington Post op-eds, to pass through the filters of other “fact-checkers” (no fact-checker checks the facts of the other fact-checker), cited and linked as proof positive of the fascist nature of the current Indian state, get the attention of international media, some journalism awards, and a further increase in authority, in turn enabling the next round of story-telling and narrative-pushing.
Oh what a lovely game. Oh how filling the food.
3 thoughts on “Comfort Food and the Media”
I have read very few “essays” of this calibre. Take a bow, GreatArnabroy.
Having grown up in the 90s, I always enjoy the references to movies from the 90s. “like Sekhar Suman in Tridev, bravely exposing the fascist machinations of the saffron Bhujang even if it may lead to his demise” and “the villain of Tirangaa, stores his waiter white gloves, his kabab skewer and his fuse conductor” is a classic. Cool
The media is now hopelessly enslaved by its advertisers. It’s no longer news. It’s a soap opera. And you watch those for entertainment not education.