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Updated: March 24, 2014 01:28 IST

Know thy media

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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

One of the privileges of being a Readers’ Editor is the vantage point the office provides from which one can see how the fine balancing act is performed on a daily basis by those in the business of news. A newspaper is not a mere product. It represents the readers’ desire to be a part of a public sphere. It blends the cardinal aspects of good journalism with best business practices. It tries to be as broad based as possible without losing its focus. I have developed a set of yardsticks over the last 30 years to look at this profession to assess its acts of omission and commission from a range of sources — media literature, learning on the job and learning from my seniors and peers. One of the biggest lacunae is that most of the media scholarship flowed mainly from the western universities and from the media of the developed world. In this context, Sashi Kumar’s anthology of essays on media, culture and cinema, Unmediated (Tulika Books, New Delhi), becomes compelling reading.

Sashi Kumar is a journalist, broadcaster, documentary and feature filmmaker, media entrepreneur and a media educator and these multiple roles have given a gravitas to his reflections on what is right and what is wrong in the Indian media. My personal association with Sashi Kumar dates back to 1981, when we started the Chennai Film Society with him as its president. There have been many instances where one differed with Sashi Kumar but always respected his views and erudition. In 2006, I invited Sashi Kumar and Syed Talat Hussain of Pakistan to help me in producing a manual for television journalism. The result was a three-hour long DVD that captured the best practices in the world of television news. This manual is now widely used by journalism schools and training programmes across South Asia.

Depth of programming

Why did I invite Sashi Kumar? It was the standards he had set for himself as broadcaster at PTI-TV and Asianet that made him the obvious choice. The defining element of his programming was the depth. It did not skim the surface. Sashi Kumar neatly delineates the difference between public interest broadcasting of his PTI-TV days and the current programmes on various national channels. He wrote: “The rigorous ground work, extensive location shooting, sleepless nights of editing and post-production, and the thought and care given through it all to ensure that perspectives were never distorted, seem a far cry from the nightly, boisterous brawl goaded on by the anchor that passes for studio news debate and discussion these days. News bulletins no longer have packaged stories — that is, self-contained capsules of field footage edited and voiced-over to give the viewer a succinct, rounded and accurate account of the given news item. They resort, instead, to facile impressionistic opinions by the reporters, or guests in the studio or outside. Comment pips fact every inch of the way. The information that is conveyed lacks credibility, is speculative or half-baked. This, in fact, is peculiar to television in India. Reputed international news channels, including public service broadcasters like the BBC, continue to rely on prepackaged, autonomous capsules to tell the story. Packages, though, entail crew and travel and shoot and post-production costs, all of which can be saved if they are substituted by studio prattle.”

Media and intellectuals

Another area where Sashi Kumar raises a very important question is the role of media in creating media savvy intellectuals at the cost of knowledge itself. It is difficult even for Fox News Channel to disagree with him when he wrote: “When academics seek or accept the imprimatur of intellectualism outside of their community or peer assessment and from the mass media, especially television which can quickfix fast-thinking and glib-mouthed thinkers and subject experts in the course of a single chat show, not only is the domain of original thought and serious study compromised (already, in India, the honorific of a doctorate has been devalued with politicians routinely having the title affixed to their names by one obliging university or the other), but their moral stature and power to move against the current or oppose the herd mentality is also rendered vulnerable.”

The essays in the book written over a span of three decades have one common quest: democratic media space as an inalienable right of every man, woman and child. He brilliantly exposes the structural disparity in the media sector and seeks a reform and a working regulatory framework that would “enable a multi-tiered milieu that caters to different segments of the people.” He wants the nature and the mandate of the Press Council to become contemporaneous so that it reflects technological convergence. I do agree with him both as a journalist and as a Readers’ Editor when he says: “the media, and media freedom, have become indivisible, and must be dealt with as such and media organisations, on their part, must re-establish their credibility and link with the people, to continue to assume the freedoms that define the democratic press.” I thank him for giving me additional tools to widen my conceptual framework in addressing the concerns of the readers of The Hindu.

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