Tumultous Times: Changing Concerns in the Media

This has been a week we will not forget. On November 8, even as America woke to vote, Indians heard their prime minister announce that within four hours, all 1000 and 500 rupee notes would be nothing more than pieces of paper. By the time November 9 dawned in India, Americans had defied all predictions of polls and the media and voted in Donald Trump. And Indians woke up to face a day without any cash.

Since the elections in the US, there has been some introspection on why the media went so wrong in predicting the election outcome. For instance, till the morning of November 8, the New York Times was giving Hillary Clinton an 85 percent probability of winning. By that evening, the pendulum had swung dramatically and Donald Trump was being given 95 percent chances of winning and he did.

The discussion about what the media missed in the US has considerable relevance for us in India. It shows us how easily we as journalists can get out of touch with reality if we rely on technology and punditry instead of the traditional ways of reporting.

On the morning after the greatest upset in recent American elections, Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times: “It was clear that something was fundamentally broken in journalism, which has been unable to keep up with the anti-establishment mood that is turning the world upside down.”

And Kyle Pope reflected in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt. In terms of bellwether moments, this is our anti-Watergate.

‘Reporters’ personal views got in the way of their ability to hear what was happening around them.”

What both are saying is that journalists failed to understand the mood of the electorate. This is something that has become familiar to us in India with successive elections. Yet, there has been insufficient introspection and questioning here to understand why we continue to get so much so wrong.

Analysis of the media in the US and the way the mainstream missed the anger against the establishment that fed into Trump’s astounding victory, suggests that journalists have become too dependent on pundits and polls instead of the old fashioned “shoe leather” reporting. Elections require reporters to go out, speak to people and report what they say without editing what they hear through their own biases. That is the only way we can assess what people are thinking. It appears that the US media by and large did not do this. Only now are we seeing some reports from the so-called “Rust Belt” where those left without jobs or hope are speaking out about why they supported Trump.

In India, the lack of ground reporting is also, to some extent, due to the cost-cutting measures undertaken by many media organisations. News-gathering budgets have been drastically reduced. Reporters are expected to get second hand information through sources rather than travel to places and see for themselves. But there is also a lack of curiosity in reporters. Journalism has become another job.

This has been particularly evident in the broadcast media where news reporting has virtually been replaced by studio-based discussions. The result is opinion has replaced reporting and the voices of a few select “experts” have substituted for the real voices of people speaking to reporters.

But in India, apart from this obvious decline in the standards of the broadcast media, we are now facing another challenge — that of an intolerant state that denies the media the right to question and criticise.

It is ironic that a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the Ramnath Goenka Awards function about the emergency and how it should never be repeated in India, his government took an action that was reminiscent of the emergency. The government imposed a one-day ban on NDTV India for its coverage of the Pathankot attack in January.

This, of course, was not the first “emergency-like” attack on the media or journalists. The one-day ban on NDTV India is only one example of that. The big stick has been used against the media in Kashmir with the ban on the daily Kashmir Reader that continues, and by the intimidation of journalists in Chhattisgarh. But the action against NDTV India scales a new high. The message that the government seeks to send out is that we will get you one way or another if you don’t fall in line. The channel they have picked has consistently refused to do that, especially that exceptional journalist Ravish Kumar.

It is important to recognise that emergency-like situations can happen suddenly, as in 1975. But then can also creep up on you, as now. When the freedoms we take for granted are slowly and steadily whittled, we don’t realise that we are operating under another kind of censorship, one that is more insidious than the direct censorship we experienced during the emergency.

Take for instance, Section 6(1)(p) of the Cable Television Networks Act that was used to ban NDTV India. The Modi government introduced this section in the rules of the Act in 2015. It prohibits live coverage of anti-terror action and was a result of a series of discussions between the government and television networks following the criticism of the broadcast media’s coverage of the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. The earlier government had not decided about any specific rule, expecting news organisations to self-regulate. This government brought in a specific section in the rules. The punishment for violating this section is a ban on a channel extending from one day to 30 days. No one in the media said anything or raised alarm bells. Until it was misused. Now we are awake to it dangers. What will we do about it? Although the ban has been deferred, the threat of the ban, and its imposition at a later date still remains.

Another aspect we need to look at is changing technology and the exponential growth and reach of the Indian media, electronic and now digital. However, this does not necessarily add up to a better media. Size does not automatically mean plurality. On the contrary, the trend we see is sameness, the dominance of a few voices across all media, and the closing of spaces for alternative voices to be heard.

Apart from changes in technology, the space for dissent and plurality is also being directly affected by the increasing hold of corporates on the media, and the consolidation of different forms of media under a single business house. Selling news and “content” has now become the principal preoccupation. Thus, we see for instance, that in broadcast media, aggression has become the norm because it “sells”. It is celebrated and imitated and called the new journalism. But it also silences, censures, excludes.

To sum up this brief presentation on the situation of the media in India, the bad news is that we are going to witness more direct and indirect pressure from the government if journalists dare to expose the ruling party and government. Media economics will increasingly make independent media vulnerable while there will be greater consolidation and concentration of corporate media. And we will continue to see a closing of spaces that allow alternative voices to be heard and for journalists to speak truth to power, the ideal that all of us as journalists were trained to follow.

The good news is that despite this, there are new and younger journalists willing to take on and buck the system, some of them in this audience; that there are digital platforms providing space for these stories. The reach of digital and the alternative platforms on it will grow in the years to come. Ultimately, as happened in 1977 after the emergency, people will seek credible news. Perhaps I am being optimistic. But giving up now, I believe is a cop out. We as journalists simply cannot throw up our hands and say it is impossible to do anything.

November 11, 2016