Journalism’s return to oppositional roots

A group of journalists, writers and academics gathered last Wednesday in Kathmandu to bid farewell to the only Southasian magazine, Himal South Asian , even as the news of Donald Trump’s victory was trickling in. Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal , wrote a thoughtful piece, “Chronicle of a death not foretold”, about the sophistication in censorship processes and the refined methods that are being used now to undermine freedom of expression. “The means used to silence Himal are not straightforward but nor are they unique. Throughout the region one sees increasing use of regulatory means to clamp down on freedom of expression, whether it relates to civil-society activists, media houses, journalists or human-rights campaigners. Direct attacks or outright censorship are becoming rarer as governments have begun to fear the backlash of public protests. Strangulation, through the use of bureaucracy, is gaining ground and has several obvious advantages,” she observed.

The external pressures on the media are now well documented, and Ms. Mojumdar’s article is a testimony to the difficult environment in which journalists and media organisations operate. This is one part of the story. The other part is the internal crisis in the way the media reports, investigates and provides context. For nearly two centuries, this profession was guided by cardinal principles that stood in good stead. However, the digital disruption has brought in its wake a new sense of uncertainty. The last two of my columns looked at some of the shortcomings in business reporting. But the limitations are not restricted to business reporting alone.

An unfortunate trend

In the last three-four years, the media seems to be missing ground realities more often than it did in the past. Internationally, it was not just Mr. Trump’s victory that missed the media radar. Brexit, the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and the failure to predict a conclusive victory for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in Canada are some major examples. In India, in 2014, every reporter suggested that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance would form the government, but no one anticipated the majority by which the BJP would win. The failure to read the ground situation continued with the Aam Aadmi Party’s victory in Delhi and the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal combine’s brilliant show in Bihar. For a section of journalists, this internal scrutiny is seen as self-flagellation at a time when the media is haemorrhaging due to digital disruption.

I am convinced that an open discussion, which includes readers and journalists in equal measure, may throw up some possibilities to address the present crisis. My wish is for a robust media. The present set of mediations are aimed at finding means and methods to make media vital in disseminating credible information. One can take some comfort from the fact that Mr. Trump’s victory or the Brexit referendum were based on factors that were beyond facts. We may even legitimately ask, what can journalism do when facts are no longer sacrosanct? I broadly agree with The Guardian ’s Katharine Murphy’s article, “Don’t blame the media: Trumpland is a place where truth doesn’t matter”. She wrote: “There have been mass mea culpas from various columnists apologising for various deficiencies, including a failure to understand the undercurrents of Trump’s success. There are two problems with this rush to hate and self-hate… The failure we have to confront, the reality we can’t avoid, is that we are doing the work, journalism is pulling out all the stops, we are doing everything in our power to rise to the occasion in times when our collective commercial reality makes it hard to rise to the occasion — but our work isn’t cutting through.”

Two separate universes

But the problem with this argument is that it fails to recognise the two distinct universes that are at play. If we accept that mainstream media is the public sphere which reflects the multiple realities of our world, then we do not have a credible answer to this nagging question: how can we explain the existence of parallel universes which hardly intersect and interact in our day-to-day coverage?

Joshua Benton, director, Nieman Journalism Lab, argues that the forces that drove this election’s media failure are likely to get worse. He wrote: “One way to think of the job journalism does is telling a community about itself, and on those terms the American media failed spectacularly this election cycle. That Donald Trump’s victory came as such a surprise — a systemic shock, really — to both journalists and so many who read or watch them is a marker of just how bad a job we did. American political discourse in 2016 seemed to be running on two self-contained, never-overlapping sets of information.”

Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review , was more unsparing. He conceded the problems posed by social media and the echo chambers, the limitations that flow from brutal economics of the news business, and reporters’ decision to laugh off a candidate whose views and personality seemed so outside the norm of a serious contender for the White House. “While all those things are true, journalism’s fundamental failure in this election, its original sin, is much more basic to who we are and what we are supposed to be,” he wrote. He calls for journalism’s return to oppositional roots. His idea of saving the profession: “We need to embrace, even relish, our legacy as malcontents and troublemakers, people who are willing to say the thing that makes everyone else uncomfortable.” The issue in front of us is multifaceted and needs a sustained dialogue. I hope this column can be the site for the regeneration of ideas.


In the last three-four years, the media seems to be missing ground realities more often than it did in the past

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