Does Indian media want to incite riots and lynchings for TRPs?
Watching Arnab Goswami bully Umar Khalid may improve the viewer’s English but corrode his/her judgment.
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"If one of them is lynched tomorrow, who will be accountable for it?"
Thus wrote Vishwa Deepak, a disillusioned journalist, formerly with Zee News, in a resignation letter in which he shared his thoughts on the channel’s coverage of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) row in which students were accused of "anti-national" sloganeering and sympathising with hanged terror convict Afzal Guru.
It is a valid concern, voiced too late, and raises other urgent questions: Is the media reducing us to our worst? Is there a deliberate intent behind the number of factual inaccuracies and unchecked passions as witnessed on some news channels for a long time now? Undoubtedly, there is a design. This is an attempt to deconstruct that design.
Unaccountability and its realistic effects
Of course, it is not just Zee News. Both Hindi and English TV channels have been complicit. With the JNU coverage, the core of the problem has been showcased in an easily identifiable form. Every depressing tendency of contemporary media has been on display: deranged shouting by anchors and panelists, aphorisms passed off as facts, bullying participants, character assassinations, ganging up, selectivism and doctored tapes. A ruling party spokesperson was even allowed to air a video, whose authenticity is doubtful, from his iPad, on national television, on the spot and obviously without verification, by an anchor who then inexplicably vouched for its authenticity.
Still, the problem was more than the sum of its parts. Apart from the hard details of the shows, the air was thick with something not really related to news. There was a feverish, almost violent outline to the products. There was a lot of contempt. It was threatening to climb out of the television and wring your neck. It was terrifying you with the many frights that await you that you didn’t even know about before tuning in.
All this has had very real consequences. The irresponsibility is not merely an intellectually disturbing proposition. In the wake of such reporting, students and journalists were beaten up, ministers have threatened to shoot people dead and many lawyers have turned into goons. There is talk of petrol bombs, and rape threats are being issued to female relatives of the shows’ participants. Mobs of "nationalistic" vigilantes are roaming the streets even as professional careers are being jeopardised. All due to media trials and while the matter in question is in court.
The mechanism of blitzkrieg news
In a 2011 article called "Fourteen propaganda techniques Fox 'News' uses to brainwash Americans", Dr Cynthia Boaz had talked about very specific presentation strategies employed by Fox News. They have chilling parallels to sections of the Indian media, particularly the heavily-viewed Times Now. Among them was panic-mongering.
"With panic-mongering, there is never a break from fear... From Muslims to swine flu to recession to homosexuals to immigrants to the rapture itself, the belief over at Fox seems to be that if your fight-or-flight reflexes aren’t activated, you aren’t alive. This, of course, raises the question: why terrorise your own audience? Because it is the fastest way to bypass the rational brain. In other words, when people are afraid, they don’t think rationally. And when they can’t think rationally, they’ll believe anything," wrote Dr Boaz.
Has this not been applied to the Indian context? The audience is being made to mortally fear everything from students to teachers to beef-eaters to anti-nationals to Naxalites to alleged eve-teasers to Pakistanis; all in a dreadful burst of hyperactivity.
"You are worse than Maoist terrorists," Times Now’s Arnab Goswami told JNU students Umar Khalid and Lenin on his programme after the sloganeering incident. For a casual viewer, who could expect news shown on TV to be thorough and verified, this statement is enough to characterise these university students as worst than militants.
That episode was over a week ago, and till now no "anti-national" activity on either of their parts has been proven. Lenin wasn’t even an accused! This did not hinder Mr Goswami, who proceeded to use another identifiable technique shared by Fox News and Times Now:
Repetition is essential to penetrating the viewer’s mind. "You are not leftists!" the anchor roared at the students ad nauseam like he just had a sudden epiphany which clears the matter up. It is a smart weapon, albeit should not be a journalistic one. It takes the viewer by storm, simplifies the discourse and charges baser instincts. What is repeated with frothing passion attempts forcible entry into the complex recesses of the collective mind of the audience to confuse it, disorient it and ultimately convert it.
Another way to skew the debate and at the same time bully and embarrass people is to create random ideological juxtapositions. For instance, as Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad was battling for his life after being rescued from under 25-feet of snow in Siachen, it was immediately linked to the JNU issue somehow.
Chanting pupils were being connected by force to a brave soldier’s impending demise. "We are proud of him and we are ashamed of you!" raged Mr Goswami at Khalid. When three Army personnel were slain during the terrorist attack in Pampore, again, oddly enough, the tragedy was conflated with JNU. "Support forces, not pro-Afzal groups" and "professional India-haters" were some of the messages flashed on Times Now.
How does every misfortune that befalls the Army deepen the perceived offences caused by slogans? Is this not an infantile understanding of patriotism? A patriotism defined more by what it is not than what it is. It stems from the need of certain channels to reduce the entire discourse to an either/or question; either you are the show’s definition of a patriot, or you are an anti-national.
Either you condemn sloganeering or concede your disdain for the troops. It goes without saying that Khalid, guilty of anything or not, had no relation to Hanumanthappa’s death; just like the beating and parading of Muslim cop Yunus Shaikh in Lutur, while horrible, is only the responsibility of the perpetrators and neither does it occur due to, nor absolve, or make graver, the actions of say, the agitating Jats or Subramanian Swamy’s controversial take on the JNU. This constant identifying of the "other" should be noted.
The Hindi news channel India News, right after the JNU controversy, invited JNU Students' Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar (currently in custody over the row) as a panelist on their show hosted by Deepak Chaurasia. In a sentence, the anchor exhibited all that has gone awry with TV news.
"Kya Kashmir ghulam hai!," Mr Chaurasia screeched at Kanhaiya at the outset. Apart from the fact that there was not (and still isn’t) any proof of Kanhaiya’s involvement in slogans demanding Kashmiri independence, this handling of the show is a prime example of the either/or line of questioning. For Mr Chaurasia, either Kanhaiya thinks "Kashmir is a slave" or he thinks all is well with Kashmir. There is no middle ground.
Any answer given to such a question would immediately incur the ire of one section of the Indian public or another. Needless disrespect on national TV aside, it unfairly pushes the one being quizzed into a tight corner from which there is little recovery. It is a deliberate disavowal of nuance that creates instant villains. In this situation, Kanhaiya gave the only answer which rung true: "Mujhe lagta hai main ghulam hoon."
Part news, part reality TV
Sharp, bright colours and screaming tickers seem to tear through that compartment of the mind which is defined by critical thinking, and attempt to hammer the subconscious into submission. Superficial, but always confident, opinions are being cemented in a whirlwind of half-truths and propaganda, often accompanied by alarming, agenda-driven flash messages such as ‘The only thing that must matter". TV news is fast resembling reality TV. Both are driven by TRPs and an increasing desire for notoriety.
These channels understand well that fair and measured views take time and effort to form whereas humans react to blunt negativity in an almost instantaneous fashion. It is not meant as an educative tool, but an unlearning of the rational.
It loathes patience and holds snap judgment as an indicator of cognitive prowess. For example, a viewer is encouraged to keep pace with Mr Goswami’s ranting. It may be true for the casual viewer that Mr Goswami’s compelling, articulate style is quite enough to keep pace with.
In this attempt, the viewer may hold any or all of the anchor’s opinions as true because with all the elements of the show combined - the flashing tickers, the yelling, the slander, the anchor’s facial expressions of righteous vigilantism – there is only room for a passing acknowledgement of what the host is actually saying.
In an effort to keep up with this bulletin train and not judge him/herself slow, he/she might adopt to the tee the content of the broadcast by the time it ends. Watching Mr Goswami bully Khalid, for instance, may improve the viewer’s English but corrode his/her judgment.
The phenomenon of the hashtag has not spared news. Everything is accompanied by a hashtag. It provides yet another tool to presenters already trying to encapsulate issues into the smallest possible digestible pill through its ability to endow whatever suffix follows with an aphoristic, campaign-style flavour. Messages such as #IndiavsAfzalLeague, seen repeatedly on the English channel NewsX, create a dangerous polarisation without clarity on whether there exists such a "league" or who constitutes it.
Many, including me, were initially floored by Ravish Kumar’s "blackout" performance on NDTV Hindi’s prime time. Darkening the screen, apart from the symbolism, led to a refreshing alteration of the senses as a news consumer. The auditory experience, without visuals of a spontaneously combusting anchor, allowed one to focus on what is actually being said. It was like the radio.
It was powerful, even exhilarating. All of it — the anchor’s engaging rationality, his voice devoid of dangerous inflection, his sobering message, his insistence on putting himself in the same boat as those he criticised — felt just right. One wanted to applaud him and agree with him some more, congratulate him.
It set in soon, though, that this was a shortcoming on the part of the audience; already the appreciation for a balanced show was seeking basis in the anchor’s demeanour. Adulation for the anchor, surely, was not the intention of the broadcast but that is what ended up happening. Even a non-inflammatory rendering of news runs the danger of being superseded by a need to relate to heroes. Credible information is shortchanged for a compulsive lionising of the agreeable – on both sides of the ideological coin. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem.
TRP-hungry TV, however objectionable, is partly agenda and partly a reflection of those who watch it. It is a highly intelligent and morally ambivalent gauge of what people want to see and will not change without a maturing viewership.
Of course, this is not applicable to all channels or all media but complicit channels do command a sizeable amount of public opinion. This needs to be recognised to foster audience education. Let news be news and not a playground for anchors who need to be felt, nor a vicarious outlet for those who need to simply feel.