This is going to be a long post.
For the past couple of years I have been observing the English news channels in television and also online portals such as rediff.com and IndiaTimes.com. A pattern emerges, but I wonder about the causal factors for news reporting in India.
Two Recent Campaigns
The IPL move to South Africa and Tata Nano's launch are two cases in point. To any dispassionate observer watching the news reporting, it must be obvious that the media went nuts with both. They hysterically covered Tata Nano's launch so much that it seemed Tata needed no additional marketing. One reporter, self-reighteously asked Tata what he would say to Mamata Bannerjee, as if Mamata's campaign was somehow against the Nano (it was not). Tata, of course, is a businessman; even though the media tried to project him as a warrior against politics in this country, he knew his place. So he just said "Good afternoon". But that statement was enough for the media to interpret as some kind of witty come back to the evil Mamata.
On the two days following the Nano's launch, rediff had a total of 39 stories on the launch. Many of these did not read like news - it was as if Tata had paid rediff, Indiatimes and all those English television channels.
At around the same time, the IPL controversy was gathering momentum. On the day IPL decided to move out of India, rediff publishes the following lead-up to a discussion forum: http://cricket.rediff.com/report/2009/mar/22/ipl-message-board.htm
That particular article has to be read to be believed. A basic journalistic standard is to clearly show the difference between editorializing (expressing opinion) and news reporting. This helps readers understand that what you are talking about may not be facts, but your own opinion.
The above article blurs that distinction and presents the IPL organizer point of view as if it is objective fact. It does it through some standard tricks - such as omitting quotation marks from quotes.
While the government did not want to take chances with the security after the attack by gunmen on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore [Images], it also lost a lot of revenue and a chance to show that the country is a safe place to host sports events, keeping in mind next year's Commonwealth Games [Images].
The BCCI also apologised to fans, saying the government had left them with no other option. It made it clear that a lot of money was at stake and the Board along with the franchises and broadcasters could not afford to lose so much.
Who do you blame for depriving Indian fans of the high-octane action in the IPL, which was a mega success in its first year?
At first glance it seems as if rediff is doing this violation of ethical journalism so that they can support the BJP.
In both these news stories, the media went overboard, with the English TV channel's 24 hour coverage of the Nano. Watching the pathetic emptyheads on television cheerleading for a car, we can easily blame them for being without substance. It is clear that in both these cases, the media is forcing a certain narrative down the throats of viewers. The question is why they do that.
What is at Stake
In India media criticism is rare, but before I make a case I have to explain what is at stake here. After watching decades of doctored news from outlets like the Tamil Sun Television or Jaya Television, it is natural for us to assume that the media, like any other institution can report whatever they deem as news. At least that is what they say.
The Corporatised media needs to earn money, true. But we should not forget that a honest press is one of the pillars of democracy. They have responsibilities to the public beyond earning money. They have strict ethical guidelines for news reporting.
More than anything, the press enjoys a host of benefits from the government. A member of the press enjoys access to high officials and is definitely more powerful than an ordinary citizen.
Without a free press that is not acting as a tool for the rich and powerful, we may as well call off our democracy experiment. People curse politicians all the time and celebrate corporations as repositories of all that is good and benevolent. But we ought to be cursing our corporate media too, for letting down the majority people's interests.
Having said that let us analyze two views for the corruption of media.
Ezra Klein and the Media Narrative- A Charitable View
There is a charitable view we can take about the media behavior. That is explained in this classic post by Ezra Klein, a leading liberal blogger in the USA. Klein was talking about the nature of the American media, but it applies here too (emphasis mine):
I think one aspect of the modern press that doesn't get enough attention -- either among folks in the media or folks critiquing it -- is the transition from the fundamental scarcity being information to information being in abundance and the fundamental scarcity being mediation.
If everyone got a newspaper once a day, and there were eight political stories, and all of them were different each day, and one of them had pointed out that Palin actually did support the Bridge to Nowhere, then the press would indeed have done its job. The job was to report the story, and they reported it.
But cable news and blogs and radio sort of changed all that and now there's too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role -- they didn't create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as "political entertainment."
They fill this new role through the methods storytellers have always used to tell stories: the repetition of certain key themes and characters, which creates continuity between one day's events and the next and helps the audience understand which parts to pay attention to. It's sort of like a TV show:
In the case of the Nano, it was obvious from the first that there was a narrative here - a businessman is let down by powerful, evil politicians such as Mamta Bannerjee. He takes his show and leaves for the arms of another, more business-savvy leader (Narendra Modi). And he finally releases his car thereby satisfying the dreams of millions.
The press chose this narrative and ran with it, even though there were big holes in the story - for example, Tata had an private agreement with the Communist government in West Bengal for land transfer in Singur. If he was so noble, he would never have tried to go for such a deal. Secondly, during the entire controversy, Tata himself never expressed any antipathy to a deal with the politicians - he knew that he needed them as they need him.
Thirdly, Tata's cars in Gujarat are now heavily subsidized by the tax payer. There are estimates that Rs.50,000 to 60,000 of each Nano is borne by the tax payer. If Tata was a people's hero, he would never have tried to wrestle such concessions from elected governments. Gujarat has literally bribed a single businessman enormously to base his plant in their state.
This is transparently not capitalism, but the media thought the narrative was powerful. The same narrative idea holds for the IPL, where Lalit Modi was the new brave warrior against government.
So, it is entirely possible that the Indian corporate media is simply building these narratives and presenting well-packaged stories to the Indian public (even though they are violating news standards) - because that has become their job in this age of "too much information".
But then there is another possibility.
The Indian Media and Elitism
We should note that every narrative the media builds somehow enables and enriches private business elite. I suspect that the IPL controversy made the private business elite go crazy because government seemed to be saying that business was not the most important thing in the world. They screamed about lost revenue for the government - if government's purpose is only revenue making we should probably rent out Parliament House in the summer.
But over the past few years there is a strong streak of class warfare in our media. It is clear that the media tries to suggest the following:
1. Government should be run like a business
2. Any government "inteference" to regulate the private business world is a travesty of capitalism.
3. The interests of everyone in India is closely allied with the interests of business people
4. Businessmen are noble
During the IPL auction, which they feverishly covered, the media stars declared "What Recession?" because the amounts in the auction were astronomical. Meanwhile ordinary construction workers were facing the recession alright. In fact everyone was feeling the recession probably except for the narrow band that the media glorifies. P.Sainath wrote an excellent article on this elitist coverage here.
I am not sure how much the media has succeeded in this myth creation - reality, like the Satyam fiasco, kind of tends to expose their stars for what they are.
But it seems to me that the media is performing this dance around private business because their own corporate masters see what we all see - that in India the business class has an excellent opportunity to suppress a class struggle. It never fully worked in the developed countries, but they see an opportunity here.
This is why I reject the view that the media is directly paid by Tata or Lalit Modi to do their marketing. It is more subtle than that. They get access and power and form an alliance that blurs the real issues at stake in modern India.
They think they have formed a heady concoction using Cricket stars, Bollywood's talentless tarts and "lifestyle" issues.
I got a glimpse into their inner workings in an article by Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, 3 weeks after the Mumbai attacks. In that article, Mr.Tejpal talks about a media consultant who lost his life at the Taj. But he also talks about what these consultants advise - they apparently guide media corporations towards such "lifestyle" issues and meaningless trivia in news. They think this is what the public is asking for. This is why your local newspaper publishes a lifestyle section with unrelated stuff about Paris Hilton and Brad Pitt.
As a more interesting note, corporatization seems to have directly caused this abuse of power and a complete corruption of journalistic ideals. So much for the glory of private business and businessmen...
As much as we hate politicians, we have as much to fear from the corruption of this new monster in the block.