Whose media? Which people?


The coverage of the terror attacks showed that when the media becomes a purely business enterprise, news becomes a commodity, serving the interests of the few. It ceases to be the guardian of democracy or the protector of public interest.

Walter Cronkite of the CBS takes off his glasses while announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He puts them back on slowly, and takes about seven seconds to read the next sentence in a voice struggling to regain its composure.

Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.

On November 22, 1963, some 38 minutes past two p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Walter Cronkite of the CBS takes off his glasses while announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He puts them back on slowly, and takes about seven seconds to read the next sentence in a voice struggling to regain its composure. Those few seconds of time, which are an eternity for live television, surely would rank among the most poignant moments of television journalism. Reams of pages could not have evoked the same pathos as those moments of silence. Contrast these with the plasticity and obscenity that characterised the 60 hours of visual media coverage of the terror in Mumbai, especially in English. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, the obscenity of media events “is no longer the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible-than-visible”. What the terror exposed was not just the underbelly of the Indian State but also the innards of the institution of media in India.

Role of commercial media

But the few critical responses to the terror coverage do not go beyond the superficial and technical aspects of this phenomenon to understand the deeper question, which is the role of a commercial media in a democratic society. The real issue, therefore, is the systematic erosion of the concept of the press as the fourth estate: the belief exemplified by people like the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle that “invent Writing” and “Democracy is inevitable”; the belief that the press is the guardian of democracy and the protector of the public interest. And this erosion is the inevitable culmination of the long process of the appropriation of the concept of public press for the private interests of a few, in short, the turning of the press into a business enterprise. The news here becomes like any other commodity in the market. Of course, the media in India has hardly assumed the scale and the depth of corporatisation in countries like the United States. But the signs are ominous and these are hardly encouraging for the miniscule number of media outlets that seek to be a real “public press”.

The most problematic aspect of the recent coverage is the media’s posturing as an “objective” and “neutral” entity — above all kinds of power interests — which merely seeks to bring the “truth” to the public. This posturing is seen in the shrill rhetoric of the blaming of the State and the political class for the tragedy. In this simplistic formulation of the “good” press versus the “evil” politicians, the media panders to something called the “public opinion” instead of acting as a critical catalyst of the latter. Public opinion must be the most abused term in a democracy. But what we forget in the aura of Obama is that it is public opinion that sanctioned the U.S. war in Iraq and it is public opinion that elected George Bush back to power. So a public opinion uncoupled from higher universal principles of justice and ethics is merely a mob stoning an alleged adulteress to death. Walter Cronkite went on to become the “most trusted man in America” for often going against the public opinion, even from within the confines of a commercial media. When he, against the logic of television ratings, delivered the verdict against the American war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously remarked: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” With hundreds of debates on television in the last few days, it was reprehensible that not even one proposed a political solution, rather than a technical or military solution, to the problem of terrorism.

A modern myth

The moral superiority of the media in relation to the political class and the State is the biggest myth in any capitalist democracy. The recent politician-bashing undertaken by the media hides the deep need of both for one another. Such a synergy could not be better illustrated than by the media celebrity status attained by politicians like the late Pramod Mahajan. The same goes for the media’s harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship with capitalist interests which include the entertainment industry. It is almost laughable that the media, after 60 hours of shameless voyeurism, chose to call Ramgopal Varma’s visit to the Taj as “disaster tourism”. The media’s defence that the lack of coverage of the victims at the CST railway station as compared to those at the five-star hotels was not “because of some deliberate socio-economic prejudice” but an aberration and imbalance that crept into the chaos of covering live tragedy ignores the deeper systemic problems hinted above. Even after the tragedy was over, the sanity of the studios could still not restore the imbalance. For instance, NDTV’s “We the People”, telecast on November 30, had among its expert panellists, Simi Grewal, Kunal Kohli, Ratna Pathak, Ness Wadia and Luke Kenny! These people are supposed to represent us, citizens, against the inept and carnivorous State. Through the magic wand of the media, the rich and the famous transmogrify into “we the people”. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek had noted that the “close door” button in the elevator is actually inoperable: it does nothing to hasten the closing of the door, but gives the impression that it does. The presumed power of the media as the representative of the people is something similar: it merely gives the illusion that we are all participating in it. And it has always been this way. That is why the suffering and tragedies of the few elites who lost their lives in the terror attack become more important than that of the other victims. That is why the media spectacle of terror has the habit of ignoring the systematic horrors and tragedies undergone by millions of Indians on a day-to-day basis. And that is why the Taj and the Oberoi will enter our wounded collective consciousness, unlike Kambalapalli and Khairlanji.

It is shocking that a slogan like “enough is enough” is bandied about in the media now after a terror attack. The moral angst of the media could not be roused all these years even when 1.5 lakh farmers committed suicide in a period of mere eight years from 1997 to 2005. How many channels did exclusive “breaking news” stories when India, the second fastest growing economy in the world, secured the 94th position, behind even Nepal, in the Global Hunger Index Report? Where were the Shobha Des and Ness Wadias then, who are now out on the streets mouthing revolutionary slogans like “boycott taxes”? Where were the candle light vigils and demonstrations when policemen rode on a motorbike with a human being tied to it? Or when a father and a child were crushed under a bus after being thrown off it for not being able to pay two rupees for the ticket? For the 40 crore Indians who live like worms, the prospect of being shot dead by terrorists would seem like a dream come true. At least it is more glorious and patriotic than swallowing pesticide!

The clamour for the accountability of the State and political class that has been occasioned by the terror was long overdue. And the media has played a role in giving a stage to vent this anger. But ultimately, it hides the fact that commercial media is just another partner in the State-corporate alliance. Otherwise, how can you explain the lopsided coverage in the English media about poverty, hunger, health, nutrition and violation of human rights (which would not exceed 10 per cent of the total number of stories and reports)? While a lot of questions have been raised about democracy after the terror attack, there is none about the need for a real independent media which is free not only from the clutches of the State but also from profit and commercial considerations. Enforcing some security guidelines for the media for wartime and emergency coverage does not address the larger question of the freedom of the press and its accountability to the public which can happen only if the latter are treated as citizens and not as consumers.

Blaming the media alone for our problems or not acknowledging some of the benefits of even a commercial media is naïve and one-sided. Nevertheless, the “public debates” that were staged on television in the last few days operated on a thoroughly emasculated notion of democracy and security. What the urban middle classes and the elite want is not democracy but Adam Smith’s night watchman State which does nothing more than the strong and efficient protection of the life, limbs and property of the people (read the classes). Once that is accomplished, whether the masses sell their blood, kidneys or their bodies to make a living is none of their problem. Despite the clamour for democracy, even the media is aware that if real democracy is established, it will not be able to sell many of the things that it is selling now, including terror as a packaged product. Until then, it will continue to be the vulture in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of photojournalist Kevin Carter: the Sudanese toddler, all skin and bones, lies slumped on the ground in her attempt to crawl to the feeding centre, while it waits in the background, for her to die. At least, Kevin Carter had the conscience to end his life.

The author is Assistant Professor with Dalhousie University, Canada.