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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Let’s call out pantomime artists masquerading as TV reporters

Viewers should take a cue from advertisers in rejecting divisive channels that promote falsehoods

In what is being described as a pursuit of truth that the nation wants to know but what is in reality a cynical chase of ratings and eyeballs, the pantomime artists who masquerade as news reporters in India’s broadcast industry have surpassed themselves in recent weeks. The phenomenon of a news reporter prancing around over a non-story is hilarious, as is the television reporter in an adrenaline-fuelled chase pursuing a motorcade in which a movie star is purportedly headed for the airport. That reporter’s miserable pursuit, peppered with breathless commentary, was a poor imitation of US networks filming O.J. Simpson’s car chase by the police, which happened what seems like a century ago. That was history, this is history being repeated as a farce, skipping the tragedy in between. Both incidents show the netherworld that India’s broadcast media now occupies, with journalism pushed into an abyss.

Seeing that reporter jump around like an uncontrollable yo-yo, as if he needed to use facilities that were locked with their key missing, made me wonder if he was auditioning for a circus. But even circuses have standards. The speed with which that effervescent bundle of energy moved was impressive, and he may even have a bright future as a pizza delivery guy, it seems, ever-ready to avoid traffic lights to meet his target. Our man was after a scoop that neither existed, nor would anyone have cared about had the media focused on stories that really matter—the appalling rape and murder of a Dalit woman (and its cover-up attempt), the country’s collapsing economy, the astonishing spread of the covid pandemic, the continued detention of human rights activists and intellectuals, with many implicated in an incredible conspiracy. But he, his network and its immediate rivals are after ratings—that’s assuming these are calculated in a fair manner. And since Nero was once invoked by the Indian Supreme Court, it is useful to think of another Roman metaphor: The rulers may not provide bread, but their cheerleaders will provide the circus.

I have some good news for India’s leading television networks. Their anchors would be pleased to note that at three journalism schools I know, in London and New York, their clips and talk shows are used as a teaching tool, so that future journalists know what they should not do. There was a time when the shouting doofuses of Fox News were held up as examples, but some in India probably see it as a matter of pride that India’s shrill and loud networks have replaced those Americans. To paraphrase what Vladimir tells Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, they help pass the time. Estragon responds that it would have passed in any case, and Vladimir wisely admits it would, but not so rapidly.

Beyond that literary allusion, there is a more serious point: The feisty trapeze artists who turned up in the fine city of Mumbai armed with cameras and microphones so that they’re mistaken for journalists dismissed my former colleagues as “chai-biskoot" (tea-and-biscuit) journalists. They showed the kind of arrogance for which some representatives of the so-called “national media" have been notorious. Since they know the map of South Delhi, they believe they know “India". That’s hubristic, and their ignorance is palpable when they travel in the two-thirds of the country where Hindi is the second if not third language. That is the bane of being a reporter in places other than Delhi—the imperial correspondents from the capital who think nothing of parachuting into places they know little about, and interpreting those places for viewers as though they are foreign correspondents in their own country. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

There is a solution, and it lies in the hands of the viewer. Switch channels. Widen your sources of information. Smart advertisers are beginning to figure this out. First Bajaj Auto, and now Parle are doing what multinationals have done in the US and elsewhere. Shun hate-mongers, purveyors of falsehoods, and dividers of the nation—these networks are the real tukde-tukde gang, tearing apart the nation’s fabric. In the US, large companies have ruled out advertising on social media that amplifies hate speech during these divisive, troubled times. Now Indian brands have begun to take a similar decision, saying they won’t advertise with broadcast services that divide people.

But not so fast; there are corporations in India that succumb to troll attacks. Witness the speed with which Titan’s jewellery brand Tanishq withdrew a heartwarming advertisement that celebrates love and mutual respect because a bunch of internet warriors, who probably are not in the niche of the market that Tanishq is after, said they would boycott its products because its ad reinforced unity in diversity, an idea that seems anathema to those wielding power and their foot-soldiers.

A company like Bajaj Auto wants to sell its two-wheelers to everyone, not only to people of a particular faith; Parle wants to sell its biscuits to everyone, not only to those of one religion. Some broadcast networks appear to think there’s a big market in dividing Indians. But marketers and businesses know better. They are doing their part in fighting narrowness. It is time viewers did the same.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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