On mannerisms of the media
Different newspapers covered the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai in more or less the same vein. However, one newspaper disappointed many because it resisted the popular temptation to go out of the ordinary way during the most extraordinary times of the city warfare. The Hindu in its tone and appearance remained regular and restrained than other major English language dailies here.
The Economic Times and Hindustan Times surely deserve praise for their ingenious graphics and elaborate coverage. (The Times of India’s coverage was also satisfactory.) While the HT coverage stood out as it tried to listen to what the people had to say, the ET’s concise but clear stories satisfied the intellect. I received just a copy of the Indian Express after the terror attacks (I haven’t subscribed as many newspapers as I had earlier), and was amused by their coverage. The Indian Express with its hallmark reporting revealed that the authorities had received warnings of a possible terror attack via the sea route but had failed to act – the paper broke the details ahead of its ‘rivals’ (to my knowledge).
For The Hindu, it’s usual business?
Dec 16, 2009 issues of The Hindu, Hindustan Times and The Economist
While other newspapers recognized the significance of the victory of the Indian test cricket team against England in the aftermath of the terror attack, it was downplayed by the Hindu. The editors weren’t convinced that the victory had anything to do with the mood of the people or it could heal the scars left by the deadly attack. I couldn’t stop wondering if it chose to lag behind while other newspapers showed much flexibility in their coverage. The answer appeared over the following weeks as serious questions regarding the overall media coverage during the terror attack in India were widely raised. Here’s what readers felt about the Hindu coverage:
S.R. Vijay (Sharjah), who regularly comments on the coverage in The Hindu, felt the paper lagged behind others in describing the happenings. That was on the first day when the paper was found wanting. The early editions did not carry the news at all because of the time factor. But the paper pulled up its socks and did full justice to the developments from then on, including some outstanding work by Praveen Swami.Television at the height of obscenity
Reader T.S. (he prefers to be known by his initials) from Edayaranmula, Kerala, thanked the editor and staff of The Hindu for “the restrained, dignified and informative coverage — the absence of gory and sensational pictures and the focus on information rather than shock value was especially appreciated — setting a calm and courageous tone — at a time when highlighting fear-mongering and corpses might have sold more issues.”
— Readers’ Editor
Nissim Mannathukkaren’s thought-provoking criticism of the media mannerisms appeared in the last week’s Magazine. Although overall electronic media came under fire because of its irresponsible and obscene coverage, needless to say the same principles that bind people in the broadcast media also apply for those in the print. We cannot feed opinions when the facts are scarce. The commercialization of the media surely has its pitfalls but it is our duty to maintain restrain even when provoked incessantly as there is always this danger, as exposed during the 26/11 attack, of the medium being misused to promote propaganda and terror. At a time when the mindless mass is preaching war, it is our foremost duty to restore the sense of normalcy and perseverance.
Jingoism and war vultures
The reelection of Dog Bush to the Oval Office was engineered by the propaganda machine of the Grand Ol' Party that ‘used’ the media to convince the people that their nation was in a great danger and they needed a dog like Bush to guard their country. The media disseminated wrong information regarding the existence of WMD in Iraq and became an effective tool of ‘thought control’ prior and after the war. The political vultures exploited everything possible to convince the mass that their concerns were genuine and the war was just. People in media got wars to cover and run their business against odds facing the newspaper industry there as news and views were fed in abundance to the public. Who profited from the wars? The list includes politicians, businessmen, bankers and not surprisingly media tycoons as well.
Mass Media and Control
I watched a few films and interviews recently that showed how/when the media becomes the enemy of the people and the very ideals it claims to protect. The works fresh in my mind are Zeitgeist, Noam Chomsky's works and speeches (Mass Media and Control) and Hearts and Minds — a 1974 Oscar-winning documentary exposing the lies behind the Vietnam War.
Here’s Mannathukkaren’s article:
The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says "Notice to Editors: Tomorrow’s New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page." The point of that is, if you’re an editor of a newspaper in
and you don’t have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don’t want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience. These are the stories that you put there because that’s what the New York Times tells us is what you’re supposed to care about tomorrow. If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio , you would sort of have to do that, because you don’t have much else in the way of resources. If you get off line, if you’re producing stories that the big press doesn’t like, you’ll hear about it pretty soon. In fact, what just happened at San Jose Mercury News is a dramatic example of this. So there are a lot of ways in which power plays can drive you right back into line if you move out. If you try to break the mold, you’re not going to last long. That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures. Dayton, Ohio
The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don’t bother us (us being the people who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports, for example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn’t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. "We" take care of that.
What are the elite media, the agenda-setting ones? The New York Times and CBS, for example. Well, first of all, they are major, very profitable, corporations. Furthermore, most of them are either linked to, or outright owned by, much bigger corporations, like General Electric, Westinghouse, and so on. They are way up at the top of the power structure of the private economy which is a very tyrannical structure. Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controled from above. If you don’t like what they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of that system.— Noam Chomsky, What makes mainstream media mainstream
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.
Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Walter Cronkite announcing John F. Kennedy's Assassination.
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.
Commercialisation of media
This has reference to “Whose media? Which people?” by Nissim Mannathukkaren (December 21). The electronic media failed to react in a responsible way during the Mumbai attacks. It sums up the limited agendas of present age media that seems to prefer commercial interests over humane interests. I fail to understand why the media is so interested in treating everything as saleable?
Arvind K. Pandey, Allahabad
The article truly portrayed the increasing commercialisation of the media. It is true that the media only highlights news that evoke considerable interest among the viewers and is not bothered about the ideals of democracy or the death of ‘insignificant’ persons. But we shouldn’t forget that part of the blame is with us. It is we the people who have commercialised the media. If only the news and other channels highlight issues like poverty, hunger and such other things prevalent in each and every corner of the world, will anyone watch the reports and appreciate them? There’s a need for us to change too..
G. Ranjith Kumar Reddy, Hyderabad
The Myth of the Liberal Media: The Propaganda Model of News
Television news is for reel
Chitra Padmanabhan, Jan 02, The Hindu
Time will tell whether the television camera corrects its retreat from journalistic conventions or tilts completely towards the hyper mould of the reality show.
Fatal attractions, one is told, are precisely that — fatal. More so when two ‘frame fatales’ like film and television are seized by a violent desire to be like the other in their hot pursuit of ‘reality’.
When that frame of reality happens to be the footfalls of issues like terrorism and the war on nerves, it is time to sit up and take note.
The switch has been happening over a period of time. Filmmakers want to ‘go real’; they hanker for the authenticity and immediacy of a television news frame, especially in the new crop of multiplex political thrillers, be it an ‘Aamir’ or ‘A Wednesday’.
They choose plots which echo real junctures that have come to pass in the life of the nation. Then they create a patina of naturalistic acting and dialogues, locations, ambient sound as well as impromptu and over-the-shoulder camera shots as on television news.
But television news seems to be going the other way. It is very often packaged as histrionic performance, dressed up in hyperbole and melodramatic mien, serenaded by lethal sound effects and evocative background scores, invariably from films.
And yet it is completely secure in the conviction that unlike cinema there is no confusion about it not being ‘real’, whatever it may do. It is the ultimate reality show.
This is especially true of occasions when an incident of immense proportions rips through the humdrum pace of normality, developing tragic dimensions over time and providing a captive audience hitherto undreamt of.
In the week that Mumbai lurched in pain, caught unawares by the terrorist’s calculated rage, the switch became glaringly apparent. Granted, the challenges of reporting 60 hours and not 60 minutes, live, unscripted, must have been a huge challenge at a time of immense responsibility, when television was the fastest and to all practical purposes the only source of information.
However, the references of news presentation seemed to lie outside the journalistic profession, exhibiting streaks that have been perfected over time by the networks. Each time India wins a cricket match anchors/reporters crow that “we” — not India — have won a match; every time there is a calamity one is struck by the rather unprepossessing manner in which anchors superimpose themselves dramatically in the coverage of an event.
‘S/he who controls the image is the righteous one’ is the adage by which news networks largely live in our times. However, the magnitude of those 60 hours was so great that the reality of a medium of news sans anchor in the conventions of the profession became glaringly apparent.
Rarely has any coverage been deconstructed in such detail — be it tragedy kings and queens wanting us to plumb the depths of their scarred hearts instead of trying to make sense of every leaden minute of visuals coming our way; or apoplectic anchors hectoring at the invisible terrorists, “We shall never let you succeed in your evil designs”. In that instant they became the voice of the nation and were no longer journalists who track news.
If BBC journalists seemed remiss in calling the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack gunmen and not terrorists as they termed the attackers of 7/7 in their own land, our own TV journos showed an evangelical zeal in repeatedly terming the attacks and attackers ‘evil’, forgetting what they were on camera for. We witnessed journalists lying supine and clutching their microphones to report on camera in a way we had not seen journalists reporting from conflict zones like Iraq or elsewhere.
Rumours about resumed firing in a part of the city were spilt spontaneously and later retracted. It was the scariest feeling – it seemed as if there were no gatekeepers of news to filter in all the information that was coming in. The viewer was caught in a paradox: able to see images but without much clue as to what was happening.
With the ebb and flow of outraged voices and matching background scores; with looping replays and hyped up commentaries to create a flurry in times of lull as far as the actual incident was concerned, in effect a new reality was being constructed in the studios – and offered authoritatively as ‘the’ 24/7 reality.
This was a bigger film than any filmmaker could ever hope to make, without the normal time constraints of 90 or 120 minutes. For instance, the number of times the video grabs of the two terrorists advancing in tandem was replayed created a distortedly fast pace and larger than life presence no movie on the mechanics of terror would be able to match.
Ironically, as public rage against the political class swelled to unheard of proportions, watching lives turn into detritus – a rage the television networks beamed again and again, adding to it their pained expressions, the print and net world was buzzing with outrage against the television news networks for making news almost invisible by playing out the tragedy in sensational tones, by becoming actors in it.
The pained faces of rescued hostages receded from the mind even as uncomfortable memories of reporters virtually forcing them to emote the horror they had experienced, lingered distastefully. That, unfortunately, is the numbing aftertaste of the television news coverage one was left with. Not to mention the competitive streak of various channels insisting that the visuals they were showing were exclusive.
Clearly, this was all about consumption of images 24/7 playing NOW — not even in the nearest cinema, but in your home theatre. No extra strong speakers needed; television news comes with a lethal decibel level and at a hammering pace guaranteed to quicken your pulse. There is no bigger entertainer than news milked as reality TV.
The boundaries are well and truly blurred. There was a time when we knew that a film, however, realistic, was not for real; that the aura of a frame which reflects the physical reality of an incident is television’s alone. Both come together in the phenomenon of news as reality show.
In our times we are almost tempted to say that the planet is not spherical but rectangular, for that is how most of us encounter it these days — through moving images, through the camera frame.
That is why it is somewhat unnerving to think that what we earmark as news and information and ‘reality’ could be television’s flight of fantasy, extracting the seed of emotion from a human dilemma and converting it into a spectacle to be viewed vicariously, not experienced with concern.
The debate generated around the television coverage of the Mumbai attacks is a watershed in a sense, for it has prompted reflection in some quarters. Time will tell whether the television camera corrects its retreat from journalistic conventions or tilts completely towards the hyper mould of the reality show, adding to it aspects of film at will for untold entertainment.
The frame of reality was never so tenuous.