SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Resorting to hype

SEVANTI NINAN

September 11 ... an event that changed the world.

September 11 ... an event that changed the world.  

IN an extraordinary year for the news media it has become evident that while an excess of breaking news is good for the media business, it is bad for national progress in general. News becomes a feeding frenzy in the course of which the media loses its perspective and goes berserk. Worse, entire segments of the population not visible in our media at the best of times, become further invisible. Certainly, the news events of the year lend themselves to hype. Just look at the line up, both domestic and international. You had Tehelka, whose reverberations continue to surface every week in some way or the other. At the time of writing, the owners of First Global, the company which invested in Tehelka, have just been arrested after months of harassment. Nobody still knows what concrete evidence there is of their using Tehelka to manipulate the stock market. The latest defence scam on the other hand partly vindicates the need for Tehelkas. You had the massacre in Nepal, again an unprecedentedly dramatic story, you had the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit which saw the media lose its perspective, and from the South you had all that whipped up drama over the Karunanidhi arrest.

Then in the last quarter of the year, Mr. Bin Laden decided to step in and take over. Five pages a day in India's leading newspapers were made over to the mayhem he generated, and countless hours of TV news time. A war began, in inaccessible terrain, and continues into its third month. Vast contingents of international media give the appearance of having shifted residence to our part of the world. Given the circumstances, one more news channel, Aaj Tak, found no difficulty at all in establishing itself without needing a gestation period.

Terrorism has now become a market friendly word. It sells magazine covers, TV advertising time, and gives the appearance of having hijacked half the World Wide Web. It consumes all our attention because as soon as one event begins to lose its newsy edge along comes another. When live footage from Parliament begins to resemble a cowboy western, it's difficult to tell a fraternity that lives by the news, don't get hysterical, in 99.9 per cent of the country life is going on as normal.

Hype begets more hype. One, times are bad, two, there is competition. In a discussion organised following the Agra summit when there was questioning of the rightness of New Delhi Television's breakfast coup, and of the excessive hyping up of an event which then was declared a flop, Rajdeep Sardesai shrugged and said, "Competition." Competition has lead to some ludicrous excesses.

A journalist from Bihar filed a story for a media watch portal on the coverage of Laloo Yadav's jail yatra last month, when he was going to jail yet again in connection with the fodder scam.

You'd have thought this was Mahatma's Gandhi's Dandi March he wrote about, the blow by blow coverage given by all the news channels, the excited scramble for soundbites from the former chief minister, and the general absence of perspective on what this particular yatra was all about — the result of a brazen scam. Earlier in the year the same journalist, Ajay Kumar, who runs Bihar Times on the Internet, filed a perceptive piece how the eager-beaver media, descending on Bihar to cover the panchayat elections, missed the real story. The real story was not the violence, it was the participation in the elections, for the first time, of large numbers of women and lower caste candidates, with some of the upper castes even voting for the latter.

It's been a year when the profession has lived, been shot at, and died by the news. Some have died at the hands of the Taliban, some died in India in a plane crash going to a rally with Madhav Rao Scindia, one was shot at in Parliament.But the quieter story on the media, which didn't surface is actually as grim: here in India, growing numbers of journalists and production people lost jobs as dotcoms and small TV production houses retrenched. Others held their breath and hoped the outfits they worked for would not close down. The majority began to examine their own vulnerability as times turn more dangerous, but insurance for media personnel is still very much the exception, nowhere near the rule.

In the country as a whole the big under-reported story was growing white collar unemployment. As times become uncertain, once comfortably-off families are learning to live without a steady monthly pay packet. It is a story that does not get continuing in coverage in the newspapers, it finds place only in business magazines and on CNBC.

And of course, the invisible class became more invisible. In the last few weeks journalist P. Sainath's photo exhibition "Visible Work, Invisible Women", has been travelling across the country after being inaugurated in Vishakapatnam by four of the landless working women who feature in it. It is a stark, striking testament, to how vast numbers of women in this country live their lives: in coal mines, in forests collecting forest produce, on construction sites, and bending, all year around, in the fields they do not own.

As college students and ordinary visitors filled the visitor's book with long, comments recording how moved they were, it served as a reminder that the media, the custodian of visibility, keeps its gaze so well averted from the working class and their travails, that the rest of the country forgets that they are there. And when terrorism invades the news, the invisibility becomes near permanent.

E-mail the writer at sevantininan@vsnl.com