From Jack Reacher to Arnab Goswami, the 2010s belong to men of action who eschew the grey of nuanced positions for the black and white of certitude that can only come from, er, certitude.
They know because they just know—not just the truth, but the popular muscular truth, majority opinions packaged as facts and strengthened by purpose, nationalism and righteousness.
The allure of Reacher, a creation of Lee Child’s—a new book, the 21st, is out next week and I can’t wait for it – was cleverly explained by Malcom Gladwell (yes, he reads the books too) in an essay in The New Yorker last year. “Our contemporary fantasy is about lawlessness: about what would happen if the institutions of civility melted away and all we were left with was a hard-muscled, rangy guy who could do all the necessary calculations in his head to insure that the bad guy got what he had coming,” he wrote.
Reacher makes sure the bad guy gets what he has coming. Goswami is neither hard-muscled nor rangy, but he does the same. Like Reacher, he is judge, jury and sometimes executioner, all rolled into one.
Reacher is the archetypal outsider—he lives off the grid, with no baggage other than what he has in his pockets. So is Goswami. His peers and rivals are all New Delhi-based journalists who rub shoulders with the men and women in power (and the men and women out of power). He is based in Mumbai. Many of his rivals are reporter-anchors with editor designations. Goswami is a true editor-anchor. What he lacks in knowledge, he makes up with stamina. What his team lacks in terms of depth or width of reportage, he makes up with choice of stories.
Many people and most journalists hate him. The middle-class, tax-paying, English-channel-watching Indian Everyman adores him. It is an audience that believes in simple truths. It is an audience that feels hard done by, despite the relative privilege it enjoys in a country with hundreds of millions of poor. And it is an audience that would like someone to ask questions, the simple, obvious questions, loudly and repeatedly.
Why are our roads bad? Why do criminals deserve a fair trial? Why are ministers going on useless overseas study tours at our expense? How can you not like our prime minister? Why do you eat beef? Why didn’t you stand up while the national anthem was playing? Whose side are you on, anyway? What do you mean, Sachin Tendulkar is selfish? How can you say Aamir Khan is not intelligent? Why shouldn’t Sidin Vadukut’s books be considered for the Booker?
Goswami is that someone, the angry man who channels the anger every member of this audience feels. They’d like to shout and scream and rant and rave at politicians. They can’t, but Goswami can, and does. He isn’t as suave and smooth as some other anchors on other English channels and that works to his advantage—this audience may admire an anchor for his suaveness, but it isn’t going to trust him on that very count.
I do not know whether this approach to TV journalism was Goswami’s idea or that of the Jains who own and run the Times Group and have made a name for themselves by giving readers and advertisers what they want. It was unique. It was brilliant. It was Indian. And it worked.
Ahead of the 2014 general elections, Goswami was the only one to interview both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Frost-Nixon it wasn’t. Goswami ran circles around Gandhi, who didn’t do himself any favours by being vague when he could have been forceful. Modi, man of action that he is, held his own. The interviews burnished Goswami’s image as India’s most powerful journalist.
Meanwhile, his style of journalism made him a pop icon. He has appeared in Amul’s riffing-the-news ads. His takedown of President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit Mukherjee, a Congress parliamentarian, who referred to women activists as “dented and painted” went viral and even inspired mash-ups such as this one. And even when the rare guest on his show out-Arnabed him, as the BJP’s Subramanian Swamy did, there was enough in the proceedings to inspire another mash-up. No other Indian anchor has inspired such spin-offs.
Goswami’s popularity ensured that he got anyone he wanted on his show, The Newshour, including journalists who didn’t particularly have a very high opinion of either the man or his style of journalism, but just couldn’t ignore his show’s popularity.
It isn’t clear whether his coming exit is a function of push or pull—it is usually a mix of the two—but it is surprising that the people who run the Times group have agreed to let him go. Circa 2016, Goswami is Times Now and Times Now is Goswami. Maybe this will give the group the opportunity to build a news channel similar to its newspapers—around a core of excellent reporters and competent, but invisible, editors.
As for Goswami, whom I do not know at all, I hope the public persona he portrayed on TV is what he really is—for it will be very difficult for him to be anything else now.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
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Changes have been made to this column to reflect the accurate view of the author.