Here we are at the end of a decade, when the Net and new technology have transformed the face of the communication business completely. And what with political unrest in Asia and Africa growing, the wobbly markets in the West remaining wobbly, and worldwide effects of global warming, there is a lot more news being generated out there.
But some quadrillions of bytes deep into the 21st century, we find that genuine information has never been more devalued. It seems that only those in need of an ideological fix or preparing for what is popularly known in the hinterlands as “competitions”, will take an interest in old-style news and editorial analysis. The rest accept the incessant chasing of “newsies” by the mainstream media, followed by SMS-based reactions from fellow consumers, as news.
Could we have imagined five years ago that together with paid news, personality journalism will ensure such a full and final dumbing down of the masses?
That the bytes and tweets of worthies from Narendra Modi to N.D. Tiwari, Shashi Tharoor to Salman Khan will create “breaking news” flashes, and that worrisome hard news about inflation, shortage of water and increasing terrorist threats will be discussed only in passing or not at all? That wacky items such as Narendra Modi’s latest wardrobe or Tharoor’s latest twittering or the Bigg Boss winner’s family portraits should lead the day’s news is, to put it mildly, rather disquieting.
Since a vigorous public debate and exchange of information is critical to the democratic process, and the striking power of emerging technologies has made unlimited amounts of information available to its consumers, it is often argued that the media is the biggest tonic democracies such as ours have. But in an age with a huge increase in media players, while the overall news gathering costs are rising, the available revenue pie is getting divided and subdivided like never before.
So a good part of the media establishment has begun to sift news and make the final news packages more advertiser-friendly. No harm in this, except that this also means at the same time that as it fills its media stockings with lots of popcorn news, the media establishment may also be keeping out lots of less congenial news as avoidable.
The second step in this ad-friendly trajectory decrees that the size of readership/viewership commanded by the medium will be crucial for determining the products’ ad worthiness. And so like the political parties, in the last year the media, too, has created many new coalitions between news channels and dailies and mobile platforms. This may have created vast captive constituencies of media consumers, but it has also whipped up hysterically protectionist attitudes and melodrama in the media.
The balkanization of the entire field of news also means that instead of consolidating public opinion over vital national issues (such as tackling armed insurgents or electoral malpractices), and softening extreme ideological divides by bringing every shade of national opinion on one platform, the media will foster mutually exclusive ideological groupings in its newly created constituencies.
The acquisition and dissemination of news has traditionally been shaped by custom, language and certain accepted standards of professional expertise. But of late, within a sizeable part of our media, there has been a quiet bifurcation of editorial decision-making. Yes, the editor is technically still responsible for all that goes into his paper or bulletin, but the fact is the ultimate power to decide what is fit to be printed as news no longer rests entirely with him. He must share it with those in charge of marketing the “product”. This results in the “product” occasionally skipping or filtering out news less congenial to certain friendly groups.
It also means that from time to time, “paid for” news packages may be quietly inserted in editorial space. Grey-haired editors of days gone by may appear more pugnacious and protective of their turf, but the fact is that the imperious editor has now been deliberately replaced with eminently reasonable guys on short-term contracts who are often more comfortable with the managerial cadres than their own editorial teams.
Progress, alas, George Bernard Shaw said, ultimately depends on the “unreasonable” ones. And the media is no exception. Given certain unchanging tendencies of the human mind, the print media, if it is to survive the onslaught of the Net and the blogosphere, will need flamboyant and pugnacious visionaries at the helm. It is not the computers that bring out exciting and interesting newspapers day after day; exciting and interesting human beings do.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at email@example.com