A sign of how deeply entrenched is the reach of competitive melodrama in Indian television journalism can be seen in how, even to counter it, you have to offer your own self-righteous melodrama. This was evident in the blackenedscreen that Ravish Kumar, Executive Editor of NDTV India, used to raise a sense of sanctimonious alarm about what he projected as the darkness that has set in the debates conducted and news coverage done by TRP-chasing news channels (his rival channels, of course).
The visual metaphor of darkened space, a cliché borrowed from the ‘blank space’ editorials carried by some dailies during the Emergency to protest against press censorship was used to produce a melodramatic effect which appeals to his channel’s core viewership: people who like to be seen as the saviours of educated civility, liberal values (which implies agreeable values, for all practical purposes), ‘progressive’ fiefdoms, and refined literary tastes.
There are clear dangers in assuming and arrogating to yourself the divine right to superior or ‘real’ journalism. However, what is even more insidious is how media critics have been using different yardsticks for different forms of melodrama – preferring one over the other and, in the process, exposing certain blind spots of their own.
There are obvious reasons why the Ravish Kumar school of media critique will not subject his own channel to the same process of critical scrutiny. As a practising professional (read interested party) in a competitive media universe, it’s expected that he will develop selective amnesia about the inconvenient past that haunts the media group he works for, be it the Radia tapes, compromising the safety of security personnel in the reporting of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and his own partisan line of questioning and coverage, especially in the recent assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar.
He should consider himself lucky that nobody has started asking him, as fashionable media conspiracy theorists often do these days, who funds NDTV India and whether the ‘R’ word would surface as a major lender. It’s a detail that Kumar himself would have pounced on if the beneficiary had been a rival media house. His selective case for media vigilantism rests there, but what explains the blinkers of people who are judging from a distance as uninvolved entities of media theatre? If not objectivity, which anyway is an inhuman expectation, can fairness be expected in how they judge prime time histrionics?
That takes us back to the question: what shapes the different benchmarks which media critics have for different forms of melodramatic journalism? It seems that it has more to do with ingrained assumptions, or you may call it inherited ‘common sense’, about civility, public reasoning (an euphemism for convenient ‘liberal’ posturings) and educated ‘refinement’ which defined the terms on which news and views were expected to be delivered.
When an assortment of melodramatic performances in television news is collectively dubbed as ‘meet the mob in our TV studios’ or a particularly loud anchor (I too have cringed at his histrionics) is charged with ‘manufacturing nationalist outrage’ or constructing ‘moral panic’ (last year Outlook had a coverstory with a headline which even accused him of ‘killing TV news’), the running thread is as much about the aesthetics of prime time performances as about who is at the receiving end.
After all, we didn’t see any critical dissection of the manufacturing of intolerance outrage which facilitated the sideshow of award wapsi by people who are good at getting awards and better at returning them. Why is one type of theatrical journalism so agreeable and another type so alienating for the intellectual custodians of the media space?
One way to look at it would be through the cultural prism of embedded Nehruvian aesthetics which serves as the default critical yardstick by which to gauge the ‘civility’ of media debates. As an echo chamber of their aspirational and perceived civility, a certain kind of television performance gains traction for such sections of media consumers.
Kumar and his ilk, for instance, can get away with their stuff with generous doses of literary flourish to please this section. Sometimes they do this with red herrings when the immediate question is deflected in order to impose a hierarchy of questions – the kind of questions that they supposedly address and which have some intrinsic status as superior or ‘real’ journalism.
When Kumar takes potshots at a type of prime time show by giving a laundry list of what it does not cover (deciding effectively what the ‘real’ news list should be) or when Rajdeep Sardesai indulges himself with a polemical tirade or when Barkha Dutt resorts to the old-fashioned theatrics of ‘Letter to the Prime Minister’, they are sure that they will not be subjected to the same critical scrutiny that is reserved for the ‘rabid, uncouth and dim-witted rabble rousers’ who perform in the alternative theatre, located slightly to their right.
In fact, far from any scrutiny, such tirades may win them critical acclaim, as is evident from media commentators who are in a hurry to adopt Kumar as the new left-liberal icon of the newsroom. It seems that these anchors are beneficiaries of an oligarchic hold on intellectual heft and the idea of political correctness.
In one of his recent columns, political commentator Swapan Dasgupta argues that lampooning of the right and the loneliness of the right in intellectual and artistic circles have a global pattern of prejudice. Identifying how this pattern monopolised discourse in India but has been challenged by the inroads made by the right in popular imagination, Dasgupta observes:
“The projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India’… That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant.”
Along with media discourse, the fact that alternative narratives on Indian history are discouraged and no space is given to political conservatism as an ideological tradition in the social science curriculum of Indian universities (it’s taught as a well developed theory in some of the most well known universities across the world) further swing the terms of cerebral respectability, and obviously civility, in this country towards left-of-centre leanings.
One of the contributors to a general perception about selective outrage or selective indifference is how the nature of media reporting and commentary is seen as dependent on the religious identity of the perpetrators in a communal flare up. Consumers of mainstream media in India now almost take it as an axiom of media reporting. The approach to covering the Malda violence in West Bengal, as Jyoti Punwani correctly identifies in a piece on this website or the arrest of Kamlesh Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh, are some recent examples of how such a perception gets reinforced.
It’s no coincidence that amid the din of the JNU controversy, the brutal murderof an RSS worker in Kerala went largely unnoticed. It neither ignited television debates nor provoked angry editorials. In fact, this discriminatory sensitivity to communal issues has, in a significant way, alienated the mainstream media from people carrying a particular religious identity because they have perceived that media professionals are more keen to prove their liberal credentials than to establish the facts.
In 2011, when I was hired to write for a start up media watchdog, I was told that their editorial outlook was ‘left liberal’. I knew that the start up had restricted its chances of critiquing the media to the same inherited and unexamined ‘common sense’ which permeates the mainstream media.
For all practical purposes, it meant that certain noises would be seen as lunatic rants and certain noises would attract a higher benchmark of tolerance and might even be amplified as exemplary journalism. The same blinkers were applied to melodrama too, Kumar being its latest beneficiary.
In fact, the responses of some people to any critique of his liberal and ‘realistic’ sainthood are no less dramatic. Well known writer Amitav Kumar, who somehow found in Kumar some tangential material for his slim book “Patna – A Matter of Rats” (2013), blocked me with a sarcastic barb on social media when I questioned the authenticity of Kumar as a cultural gateway to knowing Patna, and for that matter, Bihar.
It’s interesting to find that this quote from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, who passed away the same week in which Kumar converted prime time into a slot for sanctimonious melodrama, explains why the media commentary had a different response to it: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for”.