News production and dissemination have taken on the frenetic pace of a T20 match but none of the issues debated fiercely a year ago has any resonance now. Isn't it time to take another look at the concept of news 24x7?
Cinema, radio, television, magazines are a school of inattention: people look without seeing, listen in without hearing.
One of the supposed psychiatric maladies afflicting children in affluent Western societies like that of North America is the one relating to the problems of inattention and hyperactivity. Thus increasing number of children is found to have difficulties in paying attention and having focus, and is often bored easily. These are complemented with hyperactive and impulsive behaviour. This has been controversially theorised in medical science literature as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Controversial because in an age when pharmaceutical MNCs and corporate medicine rule the roost, any benign abnormality can be classified, diagnosed and treated with often harmful consequences. But as the medical community debates the veracity of physiological phenomenon like ADHD it appears that this is a malady that increasingly affects our social health; it is a creature of the socio-economic and technological context in which the unbridled pace of change forces us to have no long term attention to, or focus on anything.
The media, especially television has played a huge role in the perpetration of ADHD. We live in the era of information overkill. One of the fundamental features of our condition is the enormous amount of data and information that we have to digest on a day-to-day basis. Recently the Library of Congress decided to acquire the entire archive of Twitter messages from 2006. Imagine, 500 years from now, researchers trying to study the social life of the 21st century will have to plough through the hourly ramblings of a Preity Zinta and a Lalit Modi. The inevitable outcome of such a dispensation is the material condition of reduced attention.
This has been more than evident if we, for example, look at the media coverage recently and in the past one year. It is difficult to believe that the Shashi Tharoor fiasco happened a few weeks ago. Similarly, all the recent controversies like the Shahrukh Khan-Shiv Sena spat, Bachchan-Narendra Modi issue, Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik marriage and, of course, Lait Modi and the IPL all seem to have happened eons ago. Besides these there were other important happenings which created a stir in the media like caste census, honour killings and khap panchayat, the sentencing of Kasab, the Liberhan Commission Report, police officer Rathore sex offence case, GM and Bt Brinjal debate and the Telengana stir. And the biggest of them all, the Maoist attacks. None of the troubling conditions that gave rise to most of these issues have been positively eliminated. Still we live from one sensational news item to another. We have to rub our eyes in disbelief at the pace at which news agenda are set up and cast aside. It is not surprising that in the age of T20 cricket, news production and dissemination also resemble the frenetic pace of run-gathering. Just as we cannot remember the scores of a cricket match played a few days ago, we have no recollection of the debates that happened last week. We have been forced to become the protagonist of the film “Memento” (indigenised as “Ghajini”) and write all the pieces of our news on our body to remember them.
So what about events from a year ago when UPA -II assumed office? If we were to cast our glance back to the debates that happened then, we would be struck by the fact that none of them have any resonance now (that is if we remember them) precisely because they were artificially-created ones. Just take for example, the raging debate on television at the time of the elections last year. This was about whether India needed an Obama. Of course, the historic event of an African-American in the White House generated the mass hysteria all over the world.
But it was curious to see the media in the oldest Third World democracy uncritically climbing onto the bandwagon of Obamania. Channel after channel seemed to argue that all the problems that India faced were because of the lack of a personality like Obama. He seemed to be the magic wand that we never had. It was comical to see that the nation that produced Gandhi was ruing the fact that it did not have an Obama. No questions were asked about the ingenuity of reducing the complexity of the most diverse nation in the world to the monochromatic politics of the United States. More importantly, the need to go beyond the superficial focus on personalities and understand the complex socio-economic issues that drive societies was completely ignored. The entire focus was on a few figures like the Gandhis and even when less 'glamorous' personalities like Mayawati were the focus, it was in the form of a vitriolic dismissal of the individual than a nuanced understanding of Dalit politics. Rather than see the elections as an occasion for a debate on substantive issues, it was reduced to the triviality of who will form the government and who will go with whom.
And a year since the clamour for an Indian Obama, there is not a singular mention of Obama in the media. As if the situation that gave rise to the need for Obama has dissipated. How can it be expected of a media that preposterously and shockingly termed the last general elections as a ‘no-issue' election? Such a callous disregard for the real problems facing the millions of people in a nation that is still part of the ‘Third World' is unpardonable. Save for lone voices like P. Sainath, there was hardly a counter view to the elections.
The violent explosion of the Maoist attacks in the last one year seems to be cocking a snook at the media's ivory tower existence. The Maoist ‘problem' is just one example of the utter unwillingness and failure of the media to read the pulse of the country, especially when it comes to the poor and the vulnerable which constitute the vast majority of it. Just after a non-issue election, there has been a veritable churning of the social fabric. Only an attention-erasing media (ironically, while seeking attention) can feed us the myth that these issues are produced out of thin air and without a history. Day in and day out, we see the spectacle of an issue being fantastically flashed as ‘breaking news' and then after a two-day brainstorming with experts and some members of the public, we never get to hear of it again. The eagerness seen in bringing up an issue is strangely missing when it comes to systematically following it up.
Where's the follow-up?
Just consider the media storm that the Lalit Modi fiasco raised and the calmness that pervades now. All the issues that came up like the accountability of BCCI, conflict of interests, insider trading, nepotism and so on have vanished beyond a trace. Of course, the need to follow up does not arise in cases where the news itself is manufactured by the media like the nonsensical wastage of sound bytes and reams of paper on Shoaib Malik's marital status. The Bhopal gas disaster is a classic case of the media and lost opportunities. When in the United States, smokers are awarded damages to the tune of $ 300 million (as in the case of Cindy Naugle) against tobacco companies, our media's utter failure in raising public consciousness and exposing the state-MNC nexus ensured that Union Carbide doled out only alms of $300 each for the victims of Bhopal.
Despite these media effects the common criticism of media sensationalism misses the point that media is not an entity that exists in a vacuum. The growth of inattention and hyperactivity occurs in a material context in which there is a proliferation of a host of mass media technologies and social networking venues like the internet, mobile phones, p2p video streaming, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and so on. This is further made possible by their burgeoning commercial possibilities. As the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre argued, our everyday life has degenerated because of the relentless incursion of technology into the every pore of its being. The growth of technologies does not necessarily translate into more leisure time, but for him, leisure itself begins to take on the form of monotonous labour. We constantly fritter ourselves in one digital technology or the other. It is in this context of intense competition for our attention that the media has to ‘produce' news ‘24/7' leading to news that has the shelf life of ice cream in room temperature.
It is time to stop going with the flow. At least some media establishment has to summon the courage to go against the grain to stop time and reflect on the news of at least the last few months. It is literally time to stop press. But not to broadcast another sensational piece of news, but to give it a break until we pursued and brought to a closure some of the pressing issues facing the nation.
Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is Director of Graduate Program, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University. Currently he is an Erasmus Mundus Visiting Scholar at the Universities of Wroclaw (Poland) and Leipzig (Germany).