ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Cosmetic Journalism

The recent general elections have exposed the facade of objectivity in the Indian media which is awash with a culture of consumerism that engenders bias and oversimplification.

It was the day Arvind Kejriwal staged his stunning roadshow in Goduliya Chowk, Varanasi’s swarming nerve centre where crowds jostled shoulder-to-shoulder every evening. Prior to that spectacular event, I had spent time with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) activists campaigning in the maze of lanes and by-lanes of Onkaaleshwar. As we urged the residents to join the public rally, one of them walked up to me. “Can I ask you a question?” he asked. I smiled and nodded. “Media hamare programmes kuchch nahin dikha rahi hain. Aisa kyon hain?” (The media has not been covering all our programmes. Why is that so?) Just hours before, I had been chatting with AAP’s campaign team from Gujarat and Maharashtra. Bewildered and resentful, they too pitched the same question to me.

On the other side of the barricade, leaders of the Sangh Parivar could not compliment the media enough for its “stellar” role in the 2014 election campaign. At Ayodhya’s Karsevak Sangh, I met Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders who heaped lavish praise on the media for doing such an excellent job of projecting Modi in the high-voltage elections.

Why was the media – particularly visual/electronic outlets (with print not far behind) – so one-sided in the 2014 elections? Why was the AAP campaign ignored even as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s every speech was reported ad nauseam, his visage dominating every camera frame? Full front-page advertisements heralding Modi’s imminent arrival at 7, Race Course Road ran for weeks in every important daily during the prolonged nine-phased elections. Flush with money – sourced from industrialists and the stock market alike – parties like the BJP successfully bought up news time and space. For parties with thin pockets it was a hard political summer. Consider the visibility of regional parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Trinamool Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United), each one a stalwart in its own right. Their campaigns received scant attention in the media. The Congress too was given short shrift from time to time. The treatment meted out in TV interviews to the two top contending faces of the elections – Rahul Gandhi and Modi – was discriminatory, if not outright biased.

The 2014 election campaign has raised disturbing questions about the direction the media is taking, about its complicity in making and unmaking leaders, and about the patterns of ownership of media organisations. Can journalists function autonomously in organisations whose major stakeholders are corporate giants or feudal families? If the primary objective of media houses is maximising profits or if the media is just one of several businesses run by industrialists who could well be simultaneously selling cement or tyres, how can journalism differentiate itself from the cosmetics or lingerie industry? Regional political parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) and Trinamool Congress own media houses too, which propagate their politics and leaders. In such a situation, the very idea of objectivity in the media seems to be a myth. Perhaps we should begin by acknowledging that truism.

Contemporary media in India is awash with a culture of consumerism. In their pursuit of consumers who will devour their print and visual products, media organisations are desperate to undercut each other. It’s the job of editors and reporters to simplify and homogenise the product, to even out rough edges (read: complexities), and to make information easily “consumable”. It is thus simpler to construct myths like the “unblemished Modi development model” rather than decode it historically, economically or socially.

At the heart of the present controversy over the role of the media is the issue of ethics and fairness in representing a broad spectrum of political views and personalities. In this context, it is interesting to consider the Fairness Doctrine introduced by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was active in the country for most of the 20th century till it was scrapped in 2011. The doctrine required that media organisations holding FCC licences give fair time to opposing views on political subjects under discussion. Although not foolproof, the existence of such doctrines can ensure that at least a real attempt is made to represent every player in the fray. And it is undoubtedly preferable to the facade of objectivity that pervades our current media culture.

 

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