Shrinking Space of Mainstream Media

SOROOR AHMED discusses the new dimensions of modern tools of information available to ever expanding circle of creative readers and viewers and offers a word or two of advice for mainstream media to know its limitations and take corrective steps to conform to the highest standards of honest, sincere and truthful journalism.

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SOROOR AHMED discusses the new dimensions of modern tools of information available to ever expanding circle of creative readers and viewers and offers a word or two of advice for mainstream media to know its limitations and take corrective steps to conform to the highest standards of honest, sincere and truthful journalism.

Journalists are supposed to write for readers, but very often many of them, one way or the other, end up becoming the pleaders of political and business leaders. Yet they would pose themselves as independent champions of democracy. This phenomenon is not only confined to India, but is found elsewhere too.

Journalism has undergone a sea change in the last couple of decades. Now it does not just mean 8, 12 or 16-pages poorly printed newspapers. Dailies are there but they have gone too thick, too glossy and full of advertisements as well as ‘advertorials’. They are no more just morningers; in metros eveningers have hewed out their own market so have the magazines and tabloids.

The revolutionary change in the print-media went along with the advent of the television channels, which too have their impact on the society. They do shape––or mar––the public opinion. They have played a big role in changing the life-style of the common man. So far political seriousness is concerned the Indian TV channels are still considered as spicy or masala journalism, which has little or sometimes even nothing to do with the truth. It is just the camera, which plays wonders.

Web journalism is the latest form. It came in a big way at the turn of the century. But within a decade it has gradually made its mark. Internet journalism has one great advantage over other forms. It has helped the growth of a large number of citizen journalists. One just does not need huge investment to spread one’s own view all over the globe. In India websites, blogs, portals etc are often ignored and their importance underplayed though the truth is that, of late, they are making a big impact, especially on the educated sections of the society.

One example will help understand the impact of the internet revolution. When General Musharraf decided to have a crackdown on the mainstream media in 2007 it was the citizen journalists who took the challenge with the help of internet to spread the views all over the world. It played no less role than the mainstream journalism in moulding the public-opinion. It is a bit difficult to censor the transmission of information, news and views through e-mails. This is not an isolated case confined to Pakistan.

Two or three decades back journalists were few and far between. They were more a revered lot, but today this tribe of pen-pushers has multiplied manifold. Besides, the society has much larger number of citizen journalists and free lancers having no background of traditional journalism. Even normal readers and TV viewers can read, write and understand not only vernacular but even the English Papers. A huge group of alternative public opinion-makers has emerged in the last few years and sometimes their views are rotated through net to much larger readers than old and reputed columnists and writers like Vir Sanghvi, Dileep Padgoankar, Prabhu Chawla, Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra, M J Akbar, Vinod Mehta, Pravin Swamy, Shekhar Gupta or much younger lot of Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh etc.

But most people have perhaps not understood the real impact of the internet media. They refuse to accept that what is being written and circulated through internet by these citizen journalists or free lancers is, to much extent, neutralizing the impact created by the mainstream journalists. Now even many average readers have access to the international newspapers, magazines, websites, TV channels etc and are more influenced by them than the home-grown scribes.

Yes the mainstream media persons are making the public opinion but not among the intellectuals, who now suspect them more than ever before. One can say they are succeeding in befooling the fools. Anyone with slightest intellectual sense is now increasingly relying on the alternative media, which was not possible some two or three decades back.

In late 1970s and 1980s M J Akbar used to be respected as a great Muslim journalist. Those were the days when the number of Muslim in this field was very limited. Thus notwithstanding serious differences with him many members of the community––not to speak of others––used to admire him. And to increase his readership among the secular and Muslim society he would write more on communal riots, Shah Bano case, Ram Janambhoomi movement etc. He is still writing, now in largely circulated the Times of India, yet most of his writings are rebuffed and snubbed by the new generation Muslim as well as the general readers.

The more he writes the more he gets exposed. Similarly ladies and gentlemen like Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh and her husband Rajdeep Sardesai have developed ‘knack’ for writing edit page articles.  Compare most of their pieces with many freelance blog writers or internet journalists, you will come to know how shallow and less knowledgeable these big names are. Very often they try to thrust their fantastic views on the edit page thinking that they are writing script for their respective television channels. Dreaming in English is not a sign of intellectualism. A fool living in Britain or US will dream in that language, because it is his/her mother tongue. But the mainstream mediamen and women are not yet realizing it.

The less said about Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra and Prabhu Chawla the better. Even their handful of admirers know what and for whom are they writing––leaders of a particular party, not readers of India.

It is not that these ladies and gentlemen always write shits or speak nonsense on TV channels. Sometimes they do make sense, but then that is no big deal. Readers expect far more depth and sincerity from them.

The greatest problem with these established journalists is that they are both blind to reality as well as purblind. Though many of them are armed with degrees from White-skinned countries they do not understand that today they can not contradict their own view as they used to do in the past. Now readers will go to search engine and take out their own old article to write back: “Look a certain gentleman wrote such a balanced piece during the Gujarat riots days, but is now writing or propagating through television channels just the opposite as Narendra Modi has won over him by giving huge advertisement to his TV channel.”

Twenty years back these gentlemen might have gone unchecked. But today if they take a different stand on A R Antulay they are questioned as to why they supported Arif Mohammad Khan in mid-1980s, when he pilloried the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and went against his cabinet decision.

Many of the mainstream journalists suffer from amnesia. They are still living in fool’s paradise thinking that they are the real public opinion-makers. But the truth is that more than making the public opinions they are confusing a large number of citizens of the country. In the recent assembly elections most of them have written off the Congress. After the results they have eggs all over their face as the Congress managed to win in three out of five seats. This is not the first instance of misjudgment by the mainstream media.

Take the example of a young woman free lancer, who was asked by India Today to write a piece after the killing of two youths in Batla House last September. When the piece finally appeared in that magazine she was shocked to see that her write up was so badly edited that it had lost its real essence. The lady was smarter than those running India Today. She circulated the original unedited piece to thousands, may be lakhs of readers and wrote that this original article would certainly be read by more people than what had appeared in India Today.

Most of those who are emerging in the alternative media are those who did not get space in the mainstream journalism because of their views or because they are intellectually too sound to fit themselves in the run-of-the-mill newspaper or television jobs. They might not have got a break because they can not bow before the media barons and political bosses at the drop of a hat––for jobs or advertisements. Many of those who have emerged in the alternative media are professionally engaged elsewhere yet were forced by the mainstream journalism to take up this occupation. For example a gentleman doing research in some science subject in the United States is running a very successful news portal. It has a much larger hit in India than many newspapers.

As the mainstream media, especially in India, have not even been allowing ‘letters to editor’ written on different lines published, the growth of alternative media was quite natural. Now that a large number of committed readers are not accepting the views presented by the mainstream media-persons, the latter are saying that these people are living in the state of denial. The truth is that it is these journalists who are living in Ivory Tower and are not knowing that the ground reality is changing fast.

It is not on any one or two issues that the mainstream media is repeatedly getting caught off guard. The alternative views are available much more easily now. Of late many newspapers, most of them regional vernacular dailies, have started giving space to the alternative views, which first appear on certain websites.

Transmitting information through internet is much easier and cheaper. One can spread truth with much less or no money in the pocket. This is the marvel of the technological advancement and it depends on how you utilize it.

One of the Orientalists while writing in 1920s wrote something unique which can be cited here just to understand the subject under discussion. He wrote that European imperialists in Africa laid down roads and railway lines and set up post offices to expand their colonial interest. But, according to him, more  than colonists these facilities helped the growth of Islam in that continent. Through these roads and railway networks this faith spread much faster in Africa in 19th century than never before.

The issue here is not the spread of Islam. It is just an example to explain as to how sometimes things do not go according to the plan. Time has come for the established journalists to understand that they have their own limitations. Now average readers and television viewers are more well informed and have much larger access.  Unlike in the past when they were forced to read a particular newspaper today there is a wide range of papers before them. They have much larger exposure to foreign channels and newspapers through internet. If you go on writing or showing something unacceptable the socially and politically aware readers or viewers are not going to get convinced.

Apparently the mainstream media, with huge money and machine power, may be influencing a large section of people. But the truth is that unlike in the past a sizeable section of enlightened readers and viewers have started suspecting them and their intention.

You can fool some people some time, but not all the people all the time.